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Published Date: October 31, 2004

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Images of Mary Magdalene in Christian Tradition: A Case of Prostituted Identity

Christian tradition is sometimes remarkable for the liberties it takes with the reputations of its saints, and in this regard no example springs so readily to mind as that of Mary Magdalene. Tradition has had its field day with the reputation of this once deeply troubled woman; the recent blaze of controversy set by Dan Brown’s incendiary novel, The Da Vinci Code,1 is only the latest in a series of firestorms stretching back almost two thousand years.2

Mary Magdalene has been confused with Mary the mother of Jesus, with Mary of Egypt, with Mary of Bethany the sister of Lazarus, with the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7, with the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, and with the woman taken in adultery in certain manuscripts of John 7:53-8:11. She has been called Jesus’ consort, his wife, and his lover; in one ancient document, she is identified as “she who Jesus used to kiss many times on the mouth.”3

The Western tradition conjectured some sort of deeply seated rivalry with Peter, though this stands in sharp contrast with a very favorable portrait in the East. She has been called the apostola apostolorum, the “apostle to the apostles.” She is demeaned in the Talmud as a hairdresser and a harlot. Christian legend finds her with John the Beloved in Ephesus, with Martha and Lazarus in France, a thirty-year penitent in a cave near Arles, and alone in Rome, accusing Pilate before Caesar for his unrighteous judgment against her Lord.

In contrast, the New Testament shows remarkable restraint in its dealings with the Magdalene. Her name occurs a total of only twelve times. These are confined to the gospels and—except for Luke 8:2f—to parallels of three scenes. All three take place within a period of fewer than 36 hours:

  1. the scene at the crucifixion,4
  2. the scene at the burial,5
  3. the scene at the empty tomb.6

A survey of the biblical material leads to the following general observations about the character and background of Mary Magdalene:

  • She is always referred to with the designation Magdalene;
  • she has been delivered from severe demonic oppression;
  • she appears to have been a woman of some means;
  • she maintained a devotion to Jesus remarkable even among the women;
  • three of the four gospels hint that she is to be remembered as a member of the followers of Jesus who merited the title “disciple.”

Mary: A Disciple of Jesus

Mark’s story of the rich ruler refers to the act of abandoning one’s former life to accompany Christ on his itinerant missions (10:21, 28; cf. 3:14, 5:18); in 8:34, a necessary condition of discipleship is “following” even to the point of death.

It is important that this calling to discipleship is not restricted to the twelve only. In 8:34 the call to radical discipleship is extended explicitly to the multitude, in 10:21 to the rich young ruler.

If these, then, are the criteria of discipleship more broadly defined, surely in Mark’s view Mary Magdalene qualifies:

  • She has left her home in order to accompany Jesus on his itinerate mission (15:41; cf. 10:21, 29f);
  • she has committed her resources to the good of the kingdom (15:41b; cf. 3:14; [5:18], 10:21);
  • she has followed at great personal risk, even to the cross itself (15:40; cf. 8:34-38, and in contrast, 14:27, 66-72).

Also implicit in John’s reports concerning her are hints that she has been with Jesus for some time (NB. Mark notes Mary “used to follow him in the Galilee and minister to him,” 15:41). In 1975, Raymond Brown published a short study of “Women in the Fourth Gospel,” in which he surfaced the suggestion that “John has no hesitation in placing a woman (specifically Mary Magdalene) in the same category of relationship to Jesus as the Twelve.”7 Brown’s comments regarding Mary deserve to be quoted at length:

In the allegorical parable of the Good Shepherd John compares the disciples of Jesus to the sheep who know their shepherd’s voice when he calls them by name (10:3-5). This description is fulfilled in the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene as she recognizes him when he calls her by her name “Mary” (20:16). The point that Mary Magdalene can belong to Jesus’ sheep is all the more important since in 10:3-5 the sheep are twice identified as “his own,” the almost identical expression used at the beginning of the Last Supper: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1).8

The Designation Magdalene

All four evangelists refer to Mary as “Magdalene,” but nowhere is there a clear explanation of what that might mean. Within the tradition, three possibilities emerge.

1. Magdalene means “Hairdresser.” Perhaps the least likely suggestion is that of the Talmudists: She is Miriam Megdella, and is described in Shabbat 104b, in which the migdala derives from piel of gadol; “to twine or plait.” Apparently the Talmudists construed from this that Mary Magdalene was a woman’s hairdresser—a disreputable occupation.9 Lightfoot accepted this designation, pointing out that the participle kaloumene in Luke 8:2f would be awkward preceding a place of origin.10

The suggestion is curious, but will raise the suspicions of the Christian because it serves an anti-Christian calumny. Against this view, we should note that early Christian preachers never made this connection, even though it would have supported the identification of Mary with Luke’s prostitute (7:36-50).

2. Magdalene means “great” or “tower.” The possibility that the name Magdalene could be made to yield greater meaning in Hebrew was exploited among Christian interpreters. Origen (185-254) found in the Magdalene’s name a reference to her “spiritual greatness,” deriving that meaning from the Hebrew gadol.11 Jerome (342-420) commented on the similarity between her single most important recorded act and the basic meaning of migdol as “watchtower”: She is a steadfast watch-tower at the crucifixion and the resurrection. But perhaps this is only an astute paronomasia rather than an allegorical liberty taken with her name.

Such liberties were not unheard of. The twelfth century biographer Jacobus formulated a purely homiletical approach to the meaning of Magdalen: According to Jacobus, the name means, “remaining in bondage.” In this way it describes her life before her conversion, bound in the dissolute lifestyle of the demoniac and the prostitute.12 Marjorie Malvern responds to Jacobus with this dry remark:

As is his custom, he prefaces the story with an etymological explanation of the saint’s name, for to the medieval Jacobus the meanings of a person’s name reveal the individual’s character. If the name does not reveal the expected character, etymology is distorted to bring out the traits Jacobus wishes to emphasize.13

3. Magdala was her city of residence. Most likely the term “Magdala” identifies her city of residence, a well-established town at the place where the Plain of Gennesaret meets the Sea of the Galilee, four miles north of Tiberias. The site is generally identified with present-day Khirbet Mejdel, although the New Testament14 and Talmudic sources gave it other names.15 If—as is almost certain—Magdala can be identified with Taricheae (Tarixeae = [place of] salted fish) described in Josephus’ War (II.xxi.8; III.ix. 7–x.5), a good deal more can be known about its character:

  • Magdala was a sizeable city, with a population of perhaps 40,000 (II.xxi.4);16
  • the presence of a hippodrome (II.xxi.3) suggests a significant contingent of gentiles, which might explain the relatively small size of the synagogue, as well as the city’s somewhat unsavory reputation;
  • walled on the land side, it was open to the sea (III.x.3);
  • it was the site of intense fighting during the revolt under Titus (III.x.1).

Recent excavations have uncovered several first century structures, including a small synagogue, 26.8 feet by 23.8 feet, with five stone benches along the North wall, seating comfortably perhaps 55 people.

These points are interesting, but they tell us little about Mary herself. Closer to our own interests is the tradition that Magdala had been destroyed by the Romans because of its “adulteries” (Mid. Lament. 2:2). This note has been central in an elaborate case worked up to demonstrate that Mary of Magdala was the “sinful women” who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50. More on this question follows.

Exorcised Demoniac

Luke records an early tradition in which Mary Magdalene was said to have been exorcised of seven demons (8:2). This tradition was surely part of Luke’s special source, and it is perhaps—but only perhaps—corroborated by the longer ending of Mark (16:9).

Special Devotion to Jesus

We can be clear that Mary Magdalene maintained a devotion to Jesus special even among the women. In a sense, her presence at the tomb demonstrates as much.17 John places her name last in 19:25, but that may be to accommodate an exchange of words between Jesus and Mary his mother. In 20:1-18, John mentions only Mary at the tomb, and there he details considerably the role she plays in the passion and resurrection.

In summary, Mary is identified as a disciple of the Lord, not of the twelve, certainly, but equally clearly as part of the larger band of disciples who also followed in that capacity. This much is indicated implicitly in Mark and John and more forcibly in Luke. It is supported by the following facts:

  • She accompanied Jesus on his mission as an itinerant;
  • she actively employed her material resources for the advancement of the Kingdom;
  • she willingly followed Jesus closely at great personal risk and, in contrast to the men, remained relatively close even to the crucifixion;
  • there is the implication in John’s gospel that she is to be reckoned among the “sheep,” and that the designation “sheep” refers to members of the disciple band;
  • there is the fact that the angel at the tomb expects the women to recall information from the passion predictions, to which only the disciple band had had access.

Of these five things, then, we can be certain, and little more can be said without straining the evidence. We shall see, however, that the Church has felt a need to exploit to the fullest any possible associations between Mary Magdalene and the other women of scripture.

Mary Magdalene in Early Catholicism

Within more orthodox circles, the tradition encouraged the identification of Mary with various unnamed women, all of whom were in one way or another guilty of sexual indiscretion or some other vice. Here we have concrete evidence of an almost universally accepted form critical maxim that increasing detail is a discernable tendency of the evolution of tradition.18 Rudolf Bultmann claims that as

narratives pass from mouth to mouth, or when one writer takes them over from another, their fundamental character remains the same, but the details are subject to the control of fancy and are usually made more explicit and definite.19

Surely something similar has happened to the identity of Mary Magdalene, who in popular Christian thought has come to be identified with a number of unnamed characters in scripture. Often, those habits of identification were created—or exploited—by Christian preachers in the interests of promoting a certain sort of ascetic piety.

Daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman

Nicephorus (H.E. i.33) preserves for us an isolated tradition that Mary was the demoniac daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. This curiosity of history is chronologically impossible. The child is called a paidion in v. 30, while Mary is a fully-grown woman during Jesus’ ministry.

The “Prostitute” in Luke 7:36-50; Mary of Bethany

Perhaps the most influential conjecture of the Church about Mary’s identity is that which traditionally has been known as “The Magdalen Legend”: she is the ‘sinful woman’ (hamartolos) who anointed Jesus’ feet at the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50.

The Magdalen Legend. In conflated form, the “Magdalen Legend” might be reconstructed as follows:

Mary was born in Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Simeon the Leper was her father. Some time early in her adult life, before she encountered Jesus for the first time, she fell into dissolute morals, and—either through association, or through an actual remove—her name became associated with that of Magdala, a city notorious for its harlotry. The seven demons mentioned in Luke 8:2 refer to “demons of unchastity,” and they indicate the pervasive nature of her moral depravity.

In time she heard of the ministry of Jesus, repented, and was forgiven. She was at once accepted into the fellowship of the women who accompanied her Lord and was restored as well to the fellowship of her family. Her attentive listening to Jesus’ teaching at one point embroiled her in a domestic controversy with her sister Martha, in which her Lord’s endorsement confirmed the legitimacy of her vocation as a contemplative.

The death of Lazarus, and his return to life, became the occasion for her renewed gratitude to Jesus, which she demonstrated by anointing Jesus at the banquet her family had given in his honor. She remained with Jesus at the terrifying ordeal of his death, attended his burial, and witnessed his resurrection.

Hereafter the traditions diverge radically:

In one version, she is said to have accompanied Lazarus, Martha and Maximin on a pilot-less boat that landed miraculously at Marseilles, on the shores of southern France. Leaving the others to more active work, she retired to a cave near Arles, where she lived for 30 years in strictest penance. At her death, a church was built on the site of her hermitage, and miracles were wrought at her tomb.

In another version, she is said to have accompanied the Virgin Mary and John the beloved to Ephesus, where she died. The emperor Leo the Philosopher, in the ninth century, was said to have removed her body to Constantinople, where it was laid to rest in the Church of St. Lazarus.

The history of the Magdalen Legend is impossible to reconstruct. J. M. Lagrange, in his study of the patristic references, observes a curious anomaly:

The exegetes either draw no conclusion, or declare that the sinful woman is not Mary of Bethany, at the same time that all preachers, even those who as exegetes think otherwise (Ephrem, and Jerome, the allegorist) consistently identify and rhetorically exploit this identity.20

Suffice it to say that as early as Tatian’s Diatessaron the two anointing stories are identified, and that by the time of Gregory the Great (540-604) all three women had been identified in the popular Christian mind in the West.

To be viable, the Magdalen Legend requires the following:

  • The various accounts of the anointing of Jesus in Luke 7:36-50, Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8 all must refer to a single event, or, if to two events, to the same woman.
  • John identifies that woman as Mary of Bethany (11:2; 12:3).
  • Mary of Bethany must be the same as Mary Magdalene.

Of these, the second is given, and the first is debatable. It is on the third that the innocence of the Magdalene is established: Mary Magdalene cannot be the same as Mary of Bethany.

One single point of identity exists between the two women: Both of the women named Mary brought “spices” or “ointment” in preparation for Jesus’ burial (aromata kai mura: Luke 23:56; cf. to muron, John 12:5 [NB. v. 7]), just as the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50 brought spices (aphʾ muro eleipsen tous podas mou) to anoint Jesus at the house of Simon the leper (v. 46). In the end, though, it is simply impossible to merge these events.

It is noteworthy that, while Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are never found in the same scene, neither are they ever substituted for one another in cross-references and biblical parallels. Mary of Bethany is mentioned a total of ten times, always in association with Martha, Lazarus or both. Mary Magdalene is never in any case associated with Lazarus or Martha. Luke introduces Mary Magdalene into the narrative for the first time in 8:2f, and then in 10:38f he introduces Mary of Bethany for the first time. All four evangelists mention Mary Magdalene, and only Luke and John mention Mary of Bethany, but it seems clear that the designations of their cities of origin are intended specifically to distinguish the two women from one another.

The character of each of the two women is internally consistent, but the two are quite distinct from each other. Mary of Bethany seems to have been something of a homebody. Only in John 11:28-44 is she found outside the house. Mary of Magdala is bold enough to have accompanied Jesus on his itinerant preaching tours, and her presence at the crucifixion and at the tomb suggests a remarkably forthright character.

It is also not possible to identify Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman directly, without reference to Mary of Bethany. The details of the anointing all militate against it. The woman in the story is “a woman of the city” (Luke 7:37 [= Nain? v. 11]), and is known to Simon, but apparently not to Jesus (v. 39). If this were Mary Magdalene, one would expect the erratic behavior of a demoniac, and perhaps an exorcism; here Jesus says nothing about demons. Neither does the Pharisee—who knows the woman—even though the accusation of collusion with satanic powers would well have been a primary visceral reaction (cf. Luke 11:14-23). How much more powerful it would have been to declare: “If this man were a prophet, he would know this woman is a demoniac!” In v. 50, Jesus dismisses her with the blessing, “Go in peace,” which surely would have been inappropriate for a member of his entourage.

Whether or not the seven demons are to be taken literally, it remains an insuperable difficulty that a personality so profoundly disturbed as to warrant the description—or who would be known as a demoniac—would be capable of carrying on such a profession as prostitution in a social and religious setting such as this one.

Finally, it is important that in the immediately following pericope (8:2f), Luke introduces Mary Magdalene as though she is new to the narrative, without a single backward glance to the story of the sinful woman which immediately precedes.

The Woman Taken in Adultery in John 7:53-8:11

Occasionally one reads in popular Christian literature that Mary Magdalene is to be identified with the woman taken in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. Surely this represents the subordination of critical thought to devotional sentiment, but ultimately it depends on the Magdalen Legend, which is not historically credible.

To sum up thus far: the number and character of the women whose identities have been assimilated to that of Mary Magdalene is astonishing. Perhaps it is the very poverty of biblical data concerning her which has given occasion for the voluptuous images her name has evoked in the popular Christian mind. Marjorie Malvern is certainly correct in her observation that the conflated personality of the Magdalen Legend—sinful woman, Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene—has served a positive mythical function in the religiosity of ascetic Christianity: Mary represents the idealized penitent woman. She leaves behind once and for all the dissolute life of sexual license, becomes a chaste female counterpart of Christ himself, and typifies the model female contemplative.

Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles

If the tendency of tradition has been to impute to pre-conversion Mary a sordid past, surely its purpose has been to present a foil with which the magnitude of her conversion and the depth of her piety could be contrasted. Her name is therefore deeply reverenced in Christian history. The respect with which she is held is manifest in other ways as well. One particular accolade warrants special attention: she is apostola apostolorum, the “apostle to the apostles.” Even Gnostic speculation—expressing its enlightenment in ways quite different than those of its more orthodox counterparts—evolved a complex series of affirmations of this woman “teacher” of the apostles. The image of Mary Magdalene preaching to the twelve is a recurring theme in the history of Christian art, her gracefully curved finger raised in a medieval gesture of pedagogy. The liturgical calendar defers to her status: as apostle to the apostles, she is the only woman beside the mother of Christ on whose feast day—July 22—the creed is read aloud in the liturgy of the Western Church.

The history of this designation is difficult to reconstruct. Bernard of Clairveaux described her as apostle to the apostles in the twelfth century, and in the ninth century Rabanus Marus (776?—856) presented a complex defense of her designation as evangelist. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) did the same. So far as I can tell, the earliest and most explicit reference to Mary as apostle is found in the writings of Hippolytus of Rome (170?–235):

Christ Himself sent [Mary Magdalene], so that even women become the apostles of Christ and the deficiency of the first Eve’s disobedience was made evident by this justifying obedience. O wondrous advisor, Eve becomes an apostle! Already recognizing the cunning of the serpent, henceforth the tree of knowledge did not seduce her, but having accepted the tree of promise, she partook of being judged worthy to be part of Christ.…Now Eve is a helpmate through the Gospel! Therefore too the women proclaimed the Gospel.21

One point sometimes overlooked in Hippolytus’ saying is the implicit parallel drawn between Mary Magdalene and Eve, a parallel remarkably like that which Paul draws between Christ and Adam:

  • Just as Adam is the proto-typical man, so now Eve is taken for the proto-typical woman.
  • Just as man through Adam fell into sin, so now woman is singled out for her disobedience.
  • Just as Jesus—the anti-typical Adam—has redeemed mankind through “justifying obedience,” so now Mary Magdalene—the anti-typical Eve—has evidenced “justifying obedience.”

In this way, Mary Magdalene is designated “apostle,” but the implication of that designation is extended to an almost salvific plane: it is because of her obedience that women are now worthy to be part of Christ.


In the end, if we picture Mary Magdalene once again in a garden, it would be one badly overgrown with misconceptions, eloquent testimony to the fertility of the Christian imagination coupled with the lack of a good gardener. More importantly, the extravagant growth of the Magdalen Legend tells a good deal about the Church’s hermeneutic generally. For one thing, it indicates a fascination with the characters of the Bible, a deep desire to know more than the texts allow us to know. Herein lies a cautionary tale: If we take seriously the historical nature of our faith, it is not legitimate to combine and re-combine the facts in the interests of Christian piety, if in doing so we distort both the scripture and the historical truth.


  1. Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003).
  2. NB. the bibliographies of Marjorie Malvern (Venus in Sackcloth: The Magdalene’s Origins and Metamorphoses [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975], 207-212), and Victor Saxer (Le culte de Marie Madeleine en Occident des origins à la fin du moyen âge [Auxerre: Publications de le Societe des Fouilles Archeologiques et des Monuments historiques de l’Yonne, 1959], xv–l; idem. Bibliotheca Sanctorum 8 (Rome, Instituto Giovanni xxiii nolla Pontificia Universita Lateranensa), cols. 1078-1104: s.v. “Maria Maddalena.”
  3. Gospel of Philip 63.
  4. Matt. 27:55 = Mark 15:40f = Luke 23:49 = John 19:25.
  5. Matt. 27:61 = Mark 15:47 = Luke 24:1-11 = John 20:1-18.
  6. Matt. 28:1-10 = Mark 16:1-8 = Luke 24:1-11 = John 20:1-18.
  7. Raymond Brown, “Women of the Fourth Gospel,” Theological Studies 36 (1975): 688-99.
  8. R. Brown, “Women of the Fourth Gospel”: 694f.
  9. Gustav Dalman finds compounded here a confusion between Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Jesus Christ in the Talmud, Midrash, Zohar and the Liturgy of the Synagogue (New York: Arno Press, 1973), 16f. Both women are named Mary; both have tarnished reputations (Mary Magdalene: see discussion below; Mary the mother of Jesus: Sanhedrin 67a, Hagigah 4b); and both are identified as hairdressers (Mary Magdalene: S̆abbat 110b; Mary, the mother of Jesus: Sanhedrin 67a).
  10. J. B. Lightfoot, Hor. Heb. in Matt 25:56; Harm. Ev. on Luke 8:2. Cf. also Peter Ketter, The Magdalene Question (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1935), 30 n 4.
  11. Trac. in Matt. Xxxv.
  12. Jacobus a Varagine, Legende Aurea, ed. Th. Grässe (Osnabruck: Ott Zeller, 1965), 408; qtd. in Malvern, Venus in Sackcloth, 91.
  13. Malvern, Venus in Sackcloth, 90.
  14. Magdala or more likely Magadan at Matt. 15:39; at Mark 8:10 the mss. are divided between eight variations, which need not concern us here.
  15. On the whole question, see the discussion and bibliography in J. F. Strange, “Magdala,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Supplementary Volume; 1975), 561, and the notes in M. Avi-Yonah, Map of Roman Palestine (London: Oxford University Press [Humphrey Milford], 1940), 37.
  16. My colleague, William Williams, who visited the site of Magdala in 1979, informs me that the current dimensions of the city are much too small to support a population of that size.
  17. The Gospel of Peter, 50f, casts her in the role of organizer of the women, a possibility underscored by her pre-eminence on all but one of the gospel lists.
  18. Bruce Metzger, “Names for the Nameless in the New Testament: A Study in the Growth of Christian Tradition,” in Kyriakon (Festschrift Johannes Weiss; Münster, Aschendorff, 1970), 96-98; against this, however, one should note no less an authority than E. P. Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (Cambridge: University Press, 1969), 88-189.
  19. Rudolf Bultmann, “The Study of the Synoptic Gospels,” in Form Criticism, ed. F. C. Grant (New York: Harper, 1962), 32.
  20. J. M. Lagrange, “Jesus a-t-il ete oint plusiers fois et par plusiers femmes?” Revue Biblique n.s. 9 (1912), 504-532; qtd. in Peter Ketter, The Magdalene Question, 67 n 1 (emphasis mine).
  21. For these references see Leonard Swindler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979), 209f, following altogether too closely Brown, “Women in the Fourth Gospel”: 693 n 14.
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