stigma of Mary Magdalene

The Age-Old Stigma of Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene is one of the most famous, mysterious, and perhaps controversial women in the Bible. She’s been called a friend to Jesus, his wife, one of his most devout followers, and a sex worker. Who is Mary Magdalene and how did her story become aligned with sex workers around the world?

The stigma of Mary Magdalene has endured throughout biblical times into the current era.

Mary (Miriam in Hebrew) was a Jewish woman born in the town of Magdala, about one hundred miles north of Jerusalem. She’s first mentioned in the Book of Luke as a follower of Jesus, after he healed her by removing seven demons. These “demons” could’ve been a physical ailment, mental health concern, or any number of vices including greed and lust, which could have put sex work on that list. After the demons had been cast aside, Mary Magdalene became an ardent follower of Jesus. She accompanied him to Galilee, was witness to his crucifixion (according to all four canonical gospels) and was the first person to see the resurrected Jesus.

Despite living a life devoted to her faith, Mary Magdalene was derided by the Catholic Church. In 591, Pope Gregory I labeled her a “sinful woman,” thus solidifying her reputation of being a sex worker. But Pope Gregory I didn’t stop there. He conflated Mary Magdalene with two other biblical women named Mary, the first was Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus’s feet, and the second was Mary whom Jesus pardoned. Although Gregory argued these women were one in the same, contemporary scholars argue they were three distinct individuals. The label of “sinful woman” or prostitute was removed from Mary Magdalene 1,377 years later in 1969 by the Second Vatican Council, but the belief of her sex worker past still remains.

So, what happened to Mary Magdalene? That is an actual mystery and several theories have existed. Medieval theologians argued that she married John the Apostles. Western Catholics believe that Mary Magdalene moved to France and lived for 30 years in a cave, while eastern Catholics believed she moved to Ephesus, modern-day Turkey, with Mary the mother of Jesus.

Popular culture has kept conversation about the stigma of Mary Magdalene and her mysterious story alive. Author Dan Brown’s book, The DaVinci Code, and other works go so far as to say that Mary Magdalene was the wife of and pregnant by Jesus.

What we do know is that Mary Magdalene was canonized as a saint and said to be redeemed by her faith. Her feast day is July 22 and she is the patron saint of hairdressers, converts, sexual temptation, and women. For old pros, that means that Mary Magdalene looks after sex workers, too!

Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…

Web-Based & Encyclopedic Sources

Bourgeault, Cynthia, and Gabra Zackman. The Meaning of Mary Magdalene. (Grand Haven, MI: Audible Studios on Brilliance, 2014). Link to audiobook.

Carr, Flora. “The Real Reason Why Mary Magdalene is Such a Controversial Figure,” in Time Magazine, March 20, 2018. Link to article.

Carr’s article is a critique of the film, Mary Magadlene, and gives a short, feminist analysis of Mary’s life, her faith, and how her story challenges the church as an institution. The article includes commentary by biblical and feminist scholars, as well as links to additional sources. 

Carroll, James. “Who Was Mary Magdalene?” in Smithsonian Magazine June 2006. Link to article.

Carroll’s article provides an overview of Mary Magdalene’s life with biblical analysis. He also addresses contemporary theories about her life, including the legends advanced by books and films such as The DaVinci Code. 

Swenson, Kristin. “Mary Magdalene”, BibleOdyssey.com, n.p. Link to article.

 

Monographs

Brock, Ann Graham. Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. 

Harvard University professor, Ann Brock examines the power dynamics between the story of Mary and Peter post-resurrection. She uses a variety of Christian writings to present her arguments, including the New Testament and the Gnostic Gospels. 

Ehrman, Bart D. Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Ehrman’s book summarizes and debunks many of the myths in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code using primary sources and various Christian writings. 

Swenson, Kristin. Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (New York: Harper, 2010).