By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Say the name ‘Mary Magdalene’ to most people and they will say that she was present at the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament narrative. The other thing people might say is, ‘Wasn’t she a prostitute?’ The first of these is true while the second is more complicated. Who was Mary Magdalene? And did she really wash the feet of Jesus in her tears?
Let’s take a closer look at her story, as it is told in the New Testament.
Mary Magdalene: summary
Despite her prominence in the popular memory – after her namesake, the Virgin Mary, she surely is the most famous woman in the whole of the New Testament – Mary Magdalene only features in a small amount of the narrative. However, her presence at both the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus means that she has attained a significance beyond her relatively small ‘walk-on’ part in proceedings.
Indeed, Mary Magdalene only makes one small appearance prior to the Crucifixion. In the Gospel of Mark, which is the earliest of the four Gospels to be written, we are told that ‘when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils’ (Mark 16:9). Luke relates the same story, speaking of ‘certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils’ (Luke 8:2).
Mary is ‘called Magdalene’ because she hailed from Magdala, a town on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. Mary Magdalene is often considered to have been a prostitute, whose ‘seven devils’ (of lust) Jesus banished from her, leading her to give up a life of prostitution. Consequently, the term ‘magdalen’ was applied to a reformed prostitute, in honour (if that is quite the word) of Mary. Meanwhile, because of her significance to the Passion of Jesus Christ, Mary gave her name to two colleges in England: Magdalen (at Oxford) and Magdalene (at Cambridge).
Neither of these is pronounced ‘Magdalene’, but as ‘maudlin’, for some unspecified reason. And because Mary Magdalene was often depicted in religious art as a weeping and repentant sinner, the term ‘maudlin’ came to mean mawkishly sentimental (especially when drunk). (One of Sylvia Plath’s earlier poems, ‘Maudlin’, explores the ways in which women are forced to ‘prostitute’ themselves in their relationships with men, taking on more of the suffering and less of the pleasure.)
But there is very little evidence for the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or fallen woman. The confusion seems to have arisen because of the passage in Luke where Mary appears. Or rather, the passage before Mary even appears.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned in Luke 8:2, but in chapter 7, Luke tells us how Jesus sat down and ate in the house of a Pharisee. A woman who was a ‘sinner’ (7:37) comes to the house with ointment, and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears.
Simon the Pharisee scoffs at the idea that Jesus is a prophet, because a prophet would have recognised that the woman was a sinner and not allowed her anywhere near his feet. But Jesus puts his host in his place. He asks him: if a creditor has two debtors, one of whom owes his five hundred pence, and the other who owes him fifty, and the creditor cancels both debts, which will love the creditor the most? Simon answers, the man to whom he forgave most.
And Jesus tells him he is correct. This fallen woman who has sinned showed Jesus more love through watering his feet with her tears, than his host did, who gave him no water to wash his feet. It was she, not Simon, who anointed Jesus’ head.
At no point does Luke name this woman. The only reason people have assumed it’s Mary Magdalene is that, in the chapter which ensues, Mary is mentioned as having ‘seven devils’ cast out of her, and having accompanied Jesus and his disciples when they left the town.
But there are two problems with assuming that this means the woman in the previous story was Mary. First of all, Mary isn’t the only woman from the town whom Jesus helped: along with Mary Magdalene, we are told that ‘Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance’ (8:3) accompanied Jesus as a follower. Mary appears to have been singled out because of those seven devils mentioned in relation to her.
Which brings us to the second objection to the notion that this fallen woman who anointed Jesus and washed his feet was Mary Magdalene. Isaac Asimov points out in his informative analysis of the Mary Magdalene story in Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament: 002 that being possessed by demons or devils is more likely to be a sign of mental illness than sexual promiscuity. As Asimov puts it, ‘We might much more reasonably consider Mary Magdalene a cured madwoman rather than a reformed prostitute.’
At the Crucifixion, Matthew tells us that ‘many women were there’ observing from some distance away, including Mary Magdalene (27:55-56). And then, on the Sunday morning at ‘the end of the sabbath’ (i.e., Saturday), she went ‘to see the sepulchre’ (28:1). She became the first person to see Jesus after the Resurrection, as Matthew 16:9 tells us.
In chapter 28, Matthew narrates how Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary went to see Jesus’ tomb, only for there to be a great earthquake and for the angel of the Lord to descend from heaven and rolled the stone away from the door of the tomb. He then announces to the two Marys, ‘He is not here: for he is risen’ (28:6).
John tells us that Mary Magdalene, upon turning away from the empty tomb, turned around to find Jesus standing behind her. He famously enjoined her, ‘Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father’ (20:17). He told her to go to the disciples and tell them that he will ‘ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.’ Initially, the disciples didn’t believe Mary (Magdalene) when she told them Jesus was risen. But they slowly began to, partly, perhaps, because they wanted to believe it was true.
Mary Magdalene: analysis of significance
As Asimov remarks, it is significant that Mary Magdalene should be the first person to see the risen Christ. Because of her reputation (as either former madwoman or former prostitute), and perhaps because of her lower status as a woman in Palestine at this time, her account may well have been dismissed or at least treated with a pinch of salt.
But the disciples would gradually accept her at her word. Convincing the wider world – even the wider Jewish world – may well have been harder. But this explains why there would be no mass uprising against Roman rule in the region.
If Jewish did return from the dead (as Christians believe) then it would surely have been taken as proof that he was the Messiah; and there were plenty of people in that part of Palestine who wanted the Messiah to lead a revolt against the Romans (such as the Zealots). But if the news only spread gradually through word of mouth, this would have reduced the potential for revolt.
Indeed, if – as we may reasonably suspect – Mary Magdalene’s ‘devils’ were a sign of mental disturbance rather than promiscuity, then that would only increase the chance that her testimony would be treated with scepticism. If she had was known as a madwoman, albeit a ‘healed’ one, many would have doubtless rolled their eyes at her ‘delusion’ that she had seen Jesus come back from the dead.