Throughout history, Mary Magdalene has been portrayed as a prostitute, Jesus' wife, and a saint — but what's the truth behind this famous disciple?
In 591 C.E., Pope Gregory I gave a sermon that forever changed the world’s perception of Mary Magdalene. Mary appears in the Bible’s New Testament at crucial moments, including Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection. But she was, Gregory proclaimed, a “sinful woman.”
Over 1,400 years later, this description has stuck. Mary Magdalene is frequently portrayed, in art and literature, as a sex worker, a “fallen woman,” and as the embodiment of forgiveness and redemption.
But who was she? How does Mary Magdalene actually appear in the Bible, and how did Pope Gregory I come to conflate her story with that of a prostitute? And what does the long-lost Gospel of Mary suggest about the role that she may have played in Jesus Christ’s inner circle?
How Mary Magdalene Is Described In The Bible
There’s little we know for sure about Mary Magdalene, as her story was primarily recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which were written decades after Jesus’ death around 30 or 33 C.E. Aside from the fact that she came from the Jewish city of Magdala — located in present-day Israel — information about her life is largely drawn from these accounts.
Luke, for example, describes Mary Magdalene as one of the many women who followed Jesus from place to place alongside the 12 male apostles.
“Now after this [Jesus] made his way through towns and villages preaching, and proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God,” Luke stated. “With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and several others who provided for them out of their own resources.”
Though Pope Gregory I would later find significance in Luke’s description of Mary’s “seven demons,” Luke may have merely been describing physical or psychological ailments of Mary’s that Jesus cured. What’s more, Mary and the other women were “providing for” the apostles, suggesting that they had financial resources to do so, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
In the Bible’s Gospels, Mary Magdalene is also present at crucial moments in Jesus’ story, including his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Jesus’ male followers fled during his final hours; Mary Magdalene and other female followers remained by his side. (Though, as Smithsonian Magazine points out, the men were more at risk for arrest than the women.)
The Gospels also describe Mary as the first person to notice that Jesus’ tomb was empty and, after the men had come and gone, the only person to stay. Thus, Mary Magdalene became the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection.
“Meanwhile Mary stayed outside near the tomb, weeping,” the Gospel of John states. “Then, still weeping, she stooped to look inside, and saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, the other at the feet. They said, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she replied, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ As she said this she turned around and saw Jesus standing there…”
In these passages, Mary Magdalene is described as one of Jesus’ most devoted followers. So how did other ideas about her evolve?
Why Is Mary Magdalene Seen As A Sex Worker?
There’s nothing in the New Testament that explicitly ties Mary Magdalene to sex work. So why did Pope Gregory I describe her as a “sinful woman”?
The pope amplified an emerging consensus among church leaders that Mary Magdalene was the same as other “sinful” women in the Bible. A number of verses in the Gospel refer to a woman with a “bad name” with long, loose hair who anoints Jesus and washes his feet. This woman, the pope declared in 591 C.E., was the same as Mary Magdalene.
“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman… we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark,” the pope said. As the BBC notes, he implied that she was a sex worker, and drew a connection between Mary’s “seven demons” and the seven deadly sins.
This forever marked Mary Magdalene as a “sinful woman” and thus, a sex worker, a reputation that has endured for centuries. But why? It seems that the pope and other church leaders had something of an agenda.
“By turning [Mary Magdalene] into a prostitute, then she is not as important. It diminishes her in some way. She couldn’t have been a leader, because look at what she did for a living,” Robert Cargill, the assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa and the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, explained to HISTORY.
The evolution of gender dynamics likely played into the pope’s decision. During Jesus’ life and during the writing of the Gospels, women appear to play an equal role with men in his circle. But by the time the New Testament was canonized in the fourth century, these dynamics had seemingly changed. And to this day, the Vatican uses Jesus’ all-male 12 apostles as grounds to exclude women from ordination.
So if Mary Magdalene wasn’t a sex worker redeemed by Jesus Christ, then what role did she play in his life?
If certain long-lost Gospels are to be believed, then Mary may have had a more intimate and important relationship with Jesus than the New Testament suggests.
Theories About Mary Magdalene’s Role In Jesus’ Life
Adding to the mystery of Mary Magdalene are the Gospels that do not appear in the New Testament. The so-called Gnostic Gospels were not discovered until 1945, but appear to date from the second century. And they offer a stunning look at the relationship between Mary and Jesus.
The Gospel of Philip, though damaged, appears to claim that Jesus loved Mary Magdalene more than any of his other disciples. It also alleges that “Jesus used to kiss Mary “often on her ____.” Though the last word of that controversial sentence is unreadable, some believe that the word is “mouth.”
And the Gospel of Mary, which also comes from the second century and was discovered in 1896, similarly underlines Mary’s connection to Jesus Christ:
“Peter said to Mary, ‘Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women. Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, the things which you know that we don’t because we haven’t heard them.’ Mary responded, ‘I will teach you about what is hidden from you.'”
Because of texts like these, some have speculated that Mary Magdalene may have been Jesus Christ’s wife or perhaps even the mother of his child. However, it should be noted that neither of the more recently discovered gospels are officially recognized by the Catholic Church. And there is no evidence of Mary Magdalene being Jesus’ wife in the Bible.
So who was Mary Magdalene? A mere follower of Jesus? His romantic companion? Though her exact role in Jesus’ life may forever elude researchers, two things are for sure. She was not canonically a sex worker (in 1969, the Catholic Church admitted that Pope Gregory I had been mistaken in his interpretation). And she certainly played an important role in Jesus Christ’s life — which is why she’s considered a holy saint today.
“Mary Magdalene is among Jesus’ early followers,” Cargill stated. “She was named in the Gospels, so she obviously was important. There were apparently hundreds, if not thousands, of followers of Jesus, but we don’t know most of their names. So the fact that she’s named is a big deal.”