Mary Magdalene is definitely one of the most well-known female characters of the New Testament; popularized in dozens of films, stories and even once in popular rock opera – Jesus Christ Superstar. In almost all popular presentations she is portrayed as a former prostitute who comes to Jesus in the spirit of true repentance. While the gospels are known for its graciousness towards persons (both men and women) with moral failings; in our interpretation of the Bible, I believe we have misrepresented the person we call Mary Magdalene.
There are several Marys – not least, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus. But there are also Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus; Mary the mother of James and Joseph and Mary the wife of Cleopas. Equally important, there are two unnamed women who are expressly identified as sexual sinners – the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, and an adulteress whom Pharisees bring before Jesus to see if he will condemn her (this incident is not found in most ancient manuscripts).
Do the Gospels actually support the notion that Mary Magdalene was once a prostitute? The answer is, surprisingly – “no.” Quite the opposite. In the gospels Mary Magdalene is afforded a very high status indeed, one might even argue higher than that of the twelve.
So who was Mary Magdalene? Well… we don’t know much of her story, but there are some things we do know for sure.
Mary is a traditional Jewish name (Mariam) and Magdalene is a form reflecting the Hebrew original, which means “a tower” (Migdal); referring either to a place with that name or to her character as observed by her community. So, for an experienced reader, her name should already give a hint of her towering personality that is yet to be revealed.
The association of Mary Magdalene with prostitution (albeit repentant) is the result of post-New Testament interpretations; identifying the actual Mary Magdalene with several other women; at least one of whom was indeed a prostitute. Mary was one of the, if not the most, common Hebrew name at that time. So simply because someone named Mary was a prostitute does not mean that Mary Magdalene was in fact one as well. The long and short of it is that there is simply no scriptural basis to link these “sinful women” stories to Mary Magdalene.
The interpretation hinges on a reference in Luke 8:2 that speaks of Jesus casting demons from Mary Magdalene, sometime prior to her becoming his committed follower. However, when demons left people (men included) in no case was there a demon of sexual addiction or of sexual immorality cast out. Why then, in the case of this woman, do we need to immediately think that the spirits Jesus cast out were of a sexual nature?! Have we made the same interpretive mistake here as we did with the Samaritan woman of John’s Gospel labelling her too – a woman of ill repute? Have we also allowed the chauvinistic hermeneutics of the past to influence our modern interpretation? The answer is – yes, probably, so.
But is there more to the story? Did this Mary have a particular status in the early believing Jewish Jesus-following community? Think about it! Mary Magdalene heard his teachings, saw his miracles, witnessed his shameful and torturous death. And… are you ready? She was given the honor of being the very first one to witness his resurrection. As if this were not enough, this righteous woman was given the privilege of announcing the news of good to Jesus’ discouraged male disciples. (Jn. 20:18)
Why Jesus, dying on Calvary’s cross to redeem God’s people, had to be a male is an extraordinary theological question; but no less important is the significance of the fact that the very first witness of the resurrection of the Jewish Christ had to be a woman and not a man (contrary to the contemporary conventions of witness acceptability). You see… just as the first woman in the garden of Eden spread the news of the evil to humanity, Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane spread the news of “the good” – the news that the Jewish Christ has risen, and Israel’s God now was reconciling humanity to Himself.
This article originally appeared on Israel Study Center and is reposted with permission.