Who Framed Mary Magdalene? Part One

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Twenty-one years ago, even without the question mark, a former editor of U.S. Catholic (vol 65 #4), Heidi Schlumpf, put it bluntly. Mary Magdalene has been framed.

Mary Magdalene, a 1616-1618 painting by Artemisia Gentileschi

That’s quite a charge, given the ubiquity and even much-loved image of a penitent sinner. Her luxuriant tresses are in disarray, her full breasts illuminated by a celestial glow to which she has tilted her head and rolled back her eyes. She seems transfixed on a vision that she (not we) beholds. In similar iterations from medieval western European art and sculpture to 20th century rock operas, she has been offered for our consideration and contemplation: the example par excellence of the woman fallen into sin (almost always insinuated as sexual), likely a prostitute, who repented and was healed of her (sex) demons. She becomes part of the company of women who follow Jesus in his ministry, from town to village to Temple in Jerusalem, and on to Golgotha. Across Christianity she is considered a Saint, and extravagant legends tell of her travels across the Mediterranean after the Crucifixion to Rome or to Provence, of her retreat to a cave, of her relics housed in magnificent Abbeys. Even after the Reformation she was extolled in sacred Motets, Cantatas, Oratorios.

So what is the problem here? To quote Prof. Heidi Schlumpf, the question arises nevertheless: “How the first witness to Christ’s Resurrection was made into a prostitute, and how women today are restoring her reputation.”

Wait, wait! First witness to Christ’s Resurrection, a prostitute?

It’s a long story.

For a harlot is a deep pit; an adventuress is a narrow well. She lies in wait like a robber and increases the faithless among men. .Proverbs 23:27-28

Pope Gregory I by Jose de Ribera on Wiki

We can usefully begin in 591 CE when Pope Gregory I delivered an Easter Homily the jist of which for the next 1400 years in the Christian west provided the substance of the biography of Mary Magdalene.

It is Easter, and Gregory is recalling scenes from the Gospels in which we see Jesus in the Easter story. He begins with the Gospel of Luke [7:37] and the appearance of the nameless woman “of the city, who was a sinner,” who brings a jar of expensive ointment with which to bathe Jesus’s feet and dry them with her hair. Gregory then moves on to John [12:1-3], who names the woman with “the pound of precious perfume” as “Mary.” Gregory next evokes Mark [16:9] at the Resurrection when “[Jesus] appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he [had] cast seven demons.”

I pause to let this sink in: a woman, now cured of an affliction, is the first to see the resurrected Christ and she has a name, Mary Magdalene. But this is not the Good News of Easter that Gregory wants to tell us. No: “The woman, whom Luke calls a sinner, and John calls Mary, I think is the Mary from whom Mark reports that seven demons were driven out.” Nowhere in fact in the New Testament is possession by “demons” synonymous with sinfulness, let alone prostitution. [McGrath 230] But Pope Gregory presses on: “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.”

And we’re off.

In What Jesus Learned From Women, New Testament scholar James F. McGrath cites Margaret Hebblethwaite from her Six New Gospels: “The tradition that Mary was a prostitute is among the most extraordinary and implausible inventions ever woven out of Gospel texts.” [McGrath 229]

Mary Magdalene at the Cross Eugene Delacroix


But it has had a long and vivid life, including among those sinning but penitent Christians who heard in this version of Mary’s story that they still had a place in the community. Gregory had ended his Homily reassuringly: “She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.” By the eleventh century she was also often painted as a figure at the foot of the Cross, dishevelled and in tears; her veneration had spread across western Europe, churches claimed her relics, Basilicas her patronage. Legends told of how the Magdalene along with several other persecuted followers of Jesus took to the sea and tossed up on the southern coast of France. Her cave, overlooking the Massif de la Sainte-Baume, became a pilgrimage site, never mind that the entire legend was a medieval invention.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned twelve times in the New Testament (second only to mentions of the Mary Mother of God). It comes as a shock to cradle Catholics – and to the nonreligious steeped in the “sexy saint” of The Da Vinci Code or Jesus Christ Superstar – that most of those NT references place her in the Crucifixion and/or at the Empty Tomb narratives, a loyal and fearless disciple and witness. Johann Sebastian Bach gives her an aria in his Easter Oratorio, an “agitated solo for the oboe d’amore” and alto voice, a lamentation of loss and spiritual longing.Saget, saget mir geschwinde “Tell me, tell me quickly, Tell me where I can find Jesus, Whom my soul loves?” And for an Easter Mass in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice Andrea Gabrieli (1533-1585) gives her a Motet set to words from John 20:11-13, Maria Stabet ad monumentum: “But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping….”

Christ and Mary Magdalene Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This is the “real” Biblical image of Mary Magdalene, a woman in a group of women who never left the appalling scene of the Crucifixion (the male disciples had fled in terror), who hasten to his tomb after burial (the men still in hiding) with oil and  aromatic herbs such as olive, laurel, palm and cypress with which to anoint Jesus’s body in its shroud, who find the Tomb empty. They walk away, disconcerted and fearful. The Gospel of Mark ends there but John’s Gospel continues. Mary, alone this time, weeps in consternation and bewilderment. Where have “they” taken the body of her Lord? She looks around and sees a gardener. “Whom do you seek?” he asks her. Perhaps, she thinks, he knows where the body is. “If you have borne Him away, tell me where you have laid Him and I will take him away.” Then come the two short lines of Scripture that never fail to take my breath away as I picture the little scene. The gardener is Jesus, Risen. He is the Good Shepherd who calls His own sheep by name. “Mary.” Mary Magdalene knows that voice and falls to her knees. “Rabboni! Teacher.” And then, as she is bid, she returns to the rest of the disciples. “I have seen the Lord.”

You could say that the story of Christianity begins there, with Mary Magdalene’s apostleship [Gk. apostolos sent forth] but that is not how it turned out in the western Church. As far back as the third century in Dura Europos, Syria, a normal domestic house that had been converted for Christian worship bore frescoes, prominently installed near the sanctuary, that showed women approaching the sepulchre, carrying their jars of ointment. Had the narrative already slipped from the telling by the time of Pope Gregory?

Dura Europos fresco https://at.bc.edu//secretsrevealed3.jpg

Mary T. Malone writes in Women and Christianity Vol. II, “One cannot cease to be amazed at the power of [the] fictional composite of [Magdalen’s] supposed biblical and Christian virtue, when the real biblical image of Magdalen as the leader of the women disciples and the ‘apostle to the apostles’ had never stirred any similar enthusiasm, even among most women.” [Malone 265] Malone suggests why the “fictional composite” held such sway: “She was a favourite of Jesus, a model of conversion and repentance and, above all, a redeemed whore.” [Malone 269] Above all? Yes, if you agree with Thomas Arentzen’s notion of a Mary Magdalene complex, “the pull to stretch Christian women’s lives out on a rack between promiscuity and chastity, between sexual decency and debauchery.” Between those eternal verities of Woman: The Madonna and the Whore.

However, scholars and theologians mainly women have pushed back. The sexualization of Mary Magdalene has effectively “silenced her” as a spiritual Mother, “cut her off at the knees,” “suppressed” her and the potential of women’s leadership in the church. Until her demons were identified as “the forbidden acts of the flesh,” victims of such demonic affliction were not generally held to be blameworthy [McGrath 231]. All the women listed in Luke 8:1 as Jesus’s followers had been cured of their demons and, moreover, helped sustain the group from their own private means. (Might they have been independent of male authority as unmarried women of means, or as widows, or merchants?)

Some writers in search of the authentic Magdalene cite uncanonical (read: heretical by the end of the fourth century) Gnostic texts. The Gospel of Philip says that Jesus loved Mary more than he did the other apostles, but at the crucial development where it was written that “he used to kiss her often on -” the manuscript is damaged and the curious or prurient among us will never know where and when Jesus kissed Mary.  The Gospel of Mary [Magdalene] was discovered in an antiquities market in Cairo in 1896 and dated to perhaps the first half of the second century. (“The ‘Christian Gnostic’ movement and its writings date from the middle of the 2nd century AD or later. By then, most, if not all, of the writings that became our New Testament were 80 to 100 years old.”) Nevertheless it carries powerful messages from a Mary Magdalene, authorized by Jesus himself, who is a teacher.

The Gospel According to Mary VenerabilisOpus.org

Then Mary stood up, spoke, and turned their [the apostles’] hearts to the good. ‘Do not weep and do not grieve nor be afraid, for his grace will be with you completely, and will protect.” [Pagels 103] Clearly, according to such a “heretical” text, Jesus himself has found Mary capable of learning, perhaps then gifted for teaching – for discipleship is a form of apprenticeship – which is an excellent argument right there for her authority among the male apostles. I thus join James McGrath in asking why so many (women) readers of the Gnostic Gospels “prefer” to discern in their mystical and enigmatic disclosures a “romantic connection” between Mary and Jesus rather than her noteworthiness in the New Testament as a teacher and apostle to the apostles ? [McGrath 241-2]

Why exactly do we need to go there in order to reclaim Magdalene from the patriarchy? But some feminist theology, notably Cynthia Bourgeault’s presentation through Gnostic texts of the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, the subtitle of her classic The Meaning of Mary Magdalene (2010) – does go there. Not to a “romantic connection” but to a “love relationship.” Bourgeault acknowledges that it is an “emotionally-charged” question but sees that a love relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene “most likely did exist and is in fact at the heart of the Christian transformational path.”  It is a love that creates a “healing and generative energy,” a “refined and luminous” spiritual love, one might even say Christianity’s “long-missing key.” [Bourgeault x]

Whatever the message of later teachings may have been, from Homilies and Bulls, cults and legends and Holy Traditions, the evidence from the sacred texts themselves, of a “healing and generative energy,” has been there all along.

A kind of return-to-the-sources for the truth of Mary Magdalene’s life of apostleship, the reclamation for current generations, has been ongoing among some Christians of the western Churches for awhile. In her ground-breaking work of 1985, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, the New Testament scholar Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza revisits, for example, the event of the seven demons cast out of Magdalene: this does not characterize her Biblically as a “sinner” but as “someone who has experienced the unlimited power of the Kingdom of God in her own life.” [p 124] The Kingdom is already here, not as a sign of the special holiness of the elect but as a “wholeness of all,” the central vision of Jesus according to Schüssler Fiorenza. [p 121] After all, he preached that in the Kingdom many who are first will be last and those last will be first. [Mark 10:31] And what woman in first century Palestine, on hearing that promise would not have, in the quiet of her own heart, heard herself included?

Mary Magdalen announcing the resurrection to the apostles magdalenepublishing.org/
The inclusivity of the community that had been summoned “to follow” is a persistent theme in the reclamation of Christian origins, particularly for women. In What Jesus Learned From Women, James F. McGrath describes it as a “listening, empathizing” community that communicated with respect towards women. [p 213] It is notably a healing community, which in the story of Mary Magdalene, say, did not “heal” her by returning her, submissive, to the status quo of a familial and social patriarchy. Its structures, McGrath suggests, were among the “underlying causes” of her demonic possession in the first place.
Citing the “poverty of spirit” that the Roman Catholic Church “suffers” because of the exclusion of women from full participation in its life, the Upper Room Inclusive Catholic Community – “we feminists, women and men” – in Albany, N.Y. celebrated its inclusivity with a Mary of Magdala Liturgy in July 2020. The Theme is invoked – a gathering modeled on the inclusive practices of Jesus – passages are read from the Gnostic Gospel of Mary Magdalene – in which the “Good News of the Kin-dom” is announced – and a Final Blessing is bestowed upon the faithful. “May Mary of Magdala be our model of courage and faithful service.  By her example may we delight in the presence of Jesus and shout with joy:  ‘I have seen my Rabboni!’ Amen.”
Better late than never to the Feast.
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Nancy Mattson
Nancy Mattson
3 years ago

Thank you Myrna for the references and the counter arguments. Just this past Sunday, our new vicar, James Hughesdon, mentioned a bold statement by John Sentamu (retired Archbishop of York & formerly our bishop of Stepney). As reported in Acts, when Matthias was chosen to fill the vacancy among the 12 disciples, they chose the wrong disciple, says Sentamu! The bold choice — and the obvious one — would have been Mary Magdalene.

Alice Major
2 years ago

How very interesting, Myrna — I knew vaguely that Mary Magdalene was a conflation of figures from different parts of the Gospels. But I hadn’t thought of how the narrative of ‘romance’ undermines her status as a healer and apostolic figure.

Diana Stevan
2 years ago

Myrna, what an interesting article.

Years back, I saw a program about the missing Gospel of Mary, how her leadership among the apostles had been discounted over time. As long as men alone lead in certain faiths, women will always take a back seat.

I grew up with the double standard, which still persists in too many places and in too many faiths.

It was heartening to read that the Catholic church now celebrates Mary Magdalene. Whether her relationship with Jesus was romantic or not will continue to be discussed.

But what seems to matter more is how she is viewed and discussed by the Christian faithful. This has a bearing on how women in these congregations and in the general society are viewed, accepted, and understood.

George Melnyk
George Melnyk
2 years ago

Intensely written and intensely questioning. Looking forward to part two.

myrna kostash
myrna kostash
2 years ago
Reply to  George Melnyk

Thank you, George. MM has turned out to be a woman of intense interest even in our own time.