Mary Magdalene: A Woman for All Seasons

This post is part 2 in a series, Misunderstood Women of the Bible. Read part 1 here.


In honor of the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles!


First, some identity corrections, then some identity comments. Mary Magdalene was most likely NOT A PROSTITUTE, as many people, including Christians, erroneously identify her as. The teaching of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute comes from Pope Gregory I’s sermon series in the 6th century and possibly Ephraim the Syrian in the 4th century. Many commentators including the Oxford Bible Commentary argue that there is no reason to assume and there is not enough evidence to argue that the “sinful” woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7 and Mary Magdalene are the same woman. Centuries of art depict Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. She is even technically a patron saint for “reformed prostitutes”. The current position of the Catholic Church on Mary Magdalene is that she was not a prostitute. Pope Paul VI in 1969 rejected Mary Magdalene’s identity as a prostitute. [This is apparently still hot off the press with the word still getting out!]


One reason that Mary Magdalene has been identified as a prostitute may come from fear of identifying her as a disciple. If Mary Magdalene was a close disciple of Jesus, then her example may give authority to women called to Christian leadership- a role for women originally accepted, then eventually rejected by the Church, but then later revived among Protestants. Bible interpretation must be based on more than art, overzealous attempts to put together a biography, or personal agendas.


Another possible reason why Mary Magdalene has been identified as a prostitute may be because of weak belief in Jesus’ healing power. If Mary Magdalene is a former prostitute, then there seems to be an assumption or underlying belief that her character is permanently flawed as if Jesus did not fully heal her. If her character is significantly flawed, then she can more easily be written off as not a true disciple. A follower of Jesus, but not really… Luke 8 says that she was healed of 7 demons. This could means 1 illness [mental, physical, or otherwise] recurring 7 times, or 7 different ailments, or 7 actual evil spirits or demons. Whatever was, no longer is- just like anyone else who has been healed.


Another possible reason why Mary Magdalene has been identified as a prostitute may be because she was probably unmarried, yet had some amount of wealth. Magdala, her home, was a wealthy fishing village near the Sea of Galilee on a trade route to Tiberias. After she was healed, Mary Magdalene followed Jesus. In order to have the freedom to do so, she was most likely single- widowed or otherwise. Unmarried women of adult age were an anomaly at this time.


The theorized prostitute background can be a distraction from more certain realities. Mary Magdalene is an example of holiness for many reasons including that she was a close disciple & was a part of the group of women who were the first apostles to the apostles, as Augustine called them. [see Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, & John 20]


Mary Magdalene is mentioned specifically by name in the Gospels [14 times!] more than most of the 12 Disciples. Rarely does Jesus address people directly by name, but in the garden in John 20:16, the resurrected Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name, seeing her, acknowledging all of her identity by calling her directly, then chooses her to carry His message, “Go find my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God”.


Jesus could have just as easily appeared to another disciple and given the message to someone else, such as Peter who went to the tomb in John 20:3, but He chose Mary Magdalene. I like to think He chose her for the privilege of the first Resurrection appearance because she was His favorite disciple. She was not 1 of the 12, but she was certainly in the in-group beloved by Jesus. She is specifically mentioned at key moments such as at the Crucifixion, Jesus’ body being put in the tomb, and finding the empty tomb. When times were especially risky to be associated with Jesus, she was there. There is no question that her loyalty ran deep.


As Augustine called her an apostle, I call Mary Magdalene a model pastor. This could be anyone’s story of calling- Jesus saved me, and I am called to tend to His business. We can’t know all of the psychology of Mary Magdalene, but she lived her life with a certain amount of gratitude in action. She knew she was blessed. 8 of the 14 times she is specifically named, her name is first in the list. This pride of place suggests a level of leadership. In the garden, Jesus gives her a message to proclaim. “No woman ever ran to deliver a more triumphant message.” [All the Women of the Bible by Edith Deen, p.204] Mary Magdalene gave of herself and resources to tend to others who were called, The Disciples, as well as connecting with Jesus directly. Very pastoral.


Just as Mary Magdalene has had to overcome many occasions of being misunderstood, was in need of healing, lived graciously, was faithful without hesitation to do what Jesus asked of her, rolled up her sleeves ready to work, and gave what she had, let us all respond faithfully and lovingly to Jesus’ healing work and calls to action in our own lives.

Mary Magdalene*note in this & other icons the red egg symbolizing resurrection*


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