Independent Online prints (almost) fair article on Mary Magdalene’s rehabilitation

Hugues Merle (1832—1881), ‘Mary Magdalene in the Cave’. Oil on canvas, 1868
Hugues Merle (1832—1881), ‘Mary Magdalene in the Cave’. Oil on canvas, 1868

On 30th March the Independent Online printed an almost fair article on the recent rehabilitation of Mary Magdalene from her centuries-old reputation as a prostitute.

According to the article,

Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute but a devoted disciple who supported Jesus financially and spiritually, scholars say

‘Reanalysing that reputation that she had we can see she was probably a woman of greater social status, higher social status, a woman of wealth who accompanied Jesus’

[…]

For centuries, Western Christianity depicted Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute, a narrative that began in the sixth century. Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary Magdalene with an anonymous sinful woman mentioned in the chapter before she’s introduced in the Gospel of Luke.

Only in 1969 did the Catholic Church roll back centuries of labelling Mary Magdalene as such, stating she was distinct from the sinful woman mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Eastern Orthodox Christians never depicted her as a prostitute.

This is all true.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned in all four of the New Testament Gospels and plays a key rôle in the events around Jesus’ death and resurrection: she is consistently named as one of the first witnesses of the empty tomb.

“We are told in two of the Gospels — in Luke, and in the Longer Ending of Mark — that Mary Magdalene had had seven demons driven out from her. Nevertheless the New Testament nowhere identifies her as a prostitute.”

We are also told in two of the Gospels — in Luke, and in the Longer Ending of Mark — that Mary Magdalene had had seven demons driven out from her.

Nevertheless the New Testament nowhere identifies her as a prostitute.

As the Independent Online article mentions, it seems that the influential early mediaeval bishop of Rome, Gregory the Great read Mary Magdalene’s name into the passage immediately preceding Luke’s mention of her. At the close of Luke chapter 7, Jesus is dining at the house of a Pharisee named Simon, when his feet are anointed by an unnamed woman “who was a sinner.”

Gregory’s intention in joining these two women from the Gospels was not to discredit Mary Magdalene, but to set her forth as an example of penitent virtue. This much is clear from the quotation from his sermon here.

Nevertheless the image stuck, and became a recurrent motif in mediaeval and later art.

Such was Gregory’s influence, that the identification of Mary as the “sinful woman” was eventually baked into the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar — her memorial day (now feast day) is 22 July[1] — and the identification only removed in 1969.[2]

Do we need scholars to tell us this?

I can’t help thinking the Independent Online is being a little disingenuous in headlining its article with the phrase “scholars say.”

“To evangelicals it matters very little what a bishop of Rome said near the end of the sixth century. The church is not the authority for what we believe, but the Bible. And to those who do read the Bible regularly, it’s very obvious that Mary Magdalene is nowhere described as a prostitute. We don’t need scholars to tell us this.”

I am not for a moment going to claim that all evangelical Christians read the Bible assiduously, but a great many do.

To evangelicals it matters very little what a bishop of Rome said near the end of the sixth century. The church is not the authority for what we believe, but the Bible.

And to those who do read the Bible regularly, it’s very obvious that Mary Magdalene is nowhere described as a prostitute. We don’t need scholars to tell us this.

To demonstrate this, try the following. I don’t recommend this as a method of doing Bible study generally, but when you want to research what the Bible says on a very particular topic — and you can hang this on a distinctive word, as is the case here — it can be useful to type a search term into Bible Gateway and see the references that come up.

If we do this with the term “Magdalene”, then we can see that the New Testament has thirteen occurrences of the word, all of them in the Gospels. By clicking on the ‘In Context’ links, you can very easily and quickly see everything that the Bible tells us about her. No prostitution in sight.

The above exercise is so easy that one wonders what is the point of the Independent Online’s assertion that “scholars say.”

“What they are doing in effect, with those two innocuous little words, is taking the Bible out of people’s hands. The truth is, there is no conspiracy here.”

I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion this is a money-making trick. Shroud an obvious Bible truth in an air of mystery — “scholars tell us…” — and people are more likely to click on it. Yet another conspiracy story. What else is ‘the Church’ not telling us? And so, up goes the ad revenue.

What they are doing in effect, with those two innocuous little words, is taking the Bible out of people’s hands.

The truth is, there is no conspiracy here. Yes, a bishop of Rome in the sixth century identified Mary Magdalene as the “sinful woman” of Luke 7:36-50. Even that was to make a particular theological point — not to tarnish Mary’s reputation as is often incorrectly claimed.

But this has never been the position of evangelical Christians anyway — we know the Bible nowhere says that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute; facts which you, the reader, can easily check for yourself.

Why not find out what the New Testament does say about Mary Magdalene — and, much more importantly, about Jesus himself? The New Testament writings claim that the way to know God is to know Jesus. “Whoever has seen me,” Jesus said, “has seen the Father.” Now isn’t that something truly worth investigating?

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Her memorial day was promoted to a feast day in the Roman Catholic calendar by Pope Francis in 2016. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/06/10/st-mary-magdalenes-memorial-is-promoted-to-a-feast-day/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Magdalene

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