Mary Magdalene: History's Holy Harlot

Christian tradition and art depict Mary Magdalene as a prostitute who repented of her evil ways and followed Jesus. That's why Christian outreach services for unwed mothers and prostitutes are often named after her. But this tradition has no basis in the canonical gospels. These works tell us almost nothing about Mary, except that she isn't affiliated with any man (the name "Magdalene" isn't a family name; it was given to her because of the town from which she hails).

So why was she transformed into a prostitute? There could be several reasons, including these:

  • Luke introduces her immediately after the story of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus's feet (Luke 7:36–8:2), and because so few women are mentioned in the gospels people assumed that it was the same woman.
  • In John's gospel, a woman named Mary anoints Jesus's feet just before his arrest; she isn't a sinner, and she isn't Mary Magdalene, but people tend to confuse the few women named Mary, especially because they all seem to anoint Jesus's feet (John 12:1–8). Even more confusing is the fact that Mary Magdalene is the one who goes to anoint Jesus's body after his death — you can see why people may have become confused (Mark 16:1–8).
  • The gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke report the apparently common slur that Jesus hung out with "tax collectors and sinners," and "sinners" could include prostitutes and adulterers. Add to that the story of Jesus's encounter with the adulteress that was later tacked on to John's gospel (John 7:53–8:11), and you can see why any woman who hung out with Jesus might be lumped into the "loose women" category.
  • Mary Magdalene was a prominent figure in the early Gnostic Christian communities. In their Gospel of Philip and Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she's portrayed as the disciple Jesus loved most, the one he privileged with special revelation (the metaphor of a divine and definitely asexual kiss is used for that special knowledge). The Gnostics were targeted as heretics by other Christian communities starting in the second century CE. These "mainstream" Christians may have turned Mary into a sinful, sexualized woman in order to strip the heretical Gnostic heroine of her power in people's eyes.
  • A few centuries after Jesus, virginity had become so celebrated that stories of penitent sinners were all the rage — and Mary Magdalene became one.
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