Who Was Mary Magdalene? Fact, Fiction and Films

Mary-Magdalene-RisenToday (July 22) is the inaugural Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, upgraded from a memorial. But there long has been a confusion about who she was, with many assuming she was a reformed prostitute — even though there’s no direct evidence of that.

From a post at EWTN:

Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute and where in the Bible does it say that?

Answer by Catholic Answers on 9/27/2006:

Martha–

Although it is a popular assumption, the Bible does not say that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. It says only that Jesus cast out seven devils from her (Mark 16:9). 

Mary was also one of the people at the foot of the Cross, with Christ’s mother Mary and John, the “beloved disciple.” And, going to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ after the Crucifixion, she is the first to encounter the Risen Christ, as shown in this painting, “Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene After the Resurrection,” by Alexander Ivanov (posted today, with a quote from today’s Mass readings, at our Facebook page):

Mary-Magdalene

There was a woman who led a “sinful life” who anointed Christ’s feet with oil and her tears, and dried them with her hair. She is not named, and while someone living “a sinful life” might be a prostitute, she might also be an adulteress or a woman living with a man to whom she is not married (or even a fortune teller, etc.).

While tradition in the past leaned toward this woman and Mary Magdalene being one and the same, we lack a direct connection (and there are several different Marys in the New Testament).

From the blog at CatholicFaithStore:

Fact or Fiction: Mary Magdalene washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair

Fiction: It’s often believed that Mary Magdalene repented before Jesus for her “sinful life” by washing his feet with her tears and hair (Luke 7:36-50).

In those times, it was believed that a woman who led a “sinful life” was a prostitute or adulterer. Historians argue that Mary Magdalene’s name is never mentioned as the woman who washed Jesus’ feet. All that the verses say is, “A woman in that town who lived a sinful life” learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.

As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.” Since there is no mention of the woman’s name, scholars say they can’t say with certainty that the woman was Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is also believed to be the adulterous woman who was saved by Jesus from being stoned to death (John 8:3-11). Again, there’s no mention of the adulterous woman’s name.

Why did so many believe Mary Magdalene was a prostitute?

The belief that Mary Magdalene was the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet gained stronghold in the sixth century, when Pope Gregory the Great declared in one of his sermons that he believed the unnamed woman to be Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, Pope Gregory believed that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene was the same person. It was not until centuries later, in 1969, when the Catholic Church declared that Pope Gregory was mistaken and that Mary Magdalene was not the penitent woman in Luke 7:36-50. Furthermore, the Church clarified that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were two different people.

And now, this “Apostle to the Apostles” has her own feast day. From a story today at Catholic News Agency:

The reason (for a feast), according to Archbishop Arthur Roche, is that she “has the honor to be the first witness of the Lord’s resurrection.”

“She is the witness to the risen Christ and announces the message of the Lord’s resurrection just like the rest of the Apostles,” he said, explaining that for this reason “it is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman should have the same rank of Feast as that given to the celebration of the Apostles in the General Roman Calendar.”

Nevertheless, the notion that she was a prostitute persists.

As recently as the movie “Risen,” which hit theaters in January, Mary Magdalene has been identified as a prostitute — which led to one of the biggest jokes in the film. As the Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is seeking Mary, he enters a house of ill repute and asks who knows her, and all the men’s hands go up.

Here’s a scene of her interrogation:

The notion of a repentant sinner, especially a prostitute, becoming the first witness to the Resurrection is a powerful and romantic one. It makes for a great story, but as with many things that sound good, it may not be true.

Regardless of her history, what we know for certain is that Mary Magdalene was the first to proclaim the Good News, and if nothing else, that alone accords her a place of honor in salvation history.

What do do know for sure is she was NOT Jesus’ wife, as portrayed in the silly film “The Da Vinci Code.” In 2012, Harvard historian Karen King claimed that a tiny scrap of papyrus was evidence that of the nuptial relationship — leading the Smithsonian Channel to rush out a breathless documentary — but even King now admits it’s probably a fake.

From a June 16 report in The Atlantic (whose investigation of the papyrus caused King to question her findings — meaning a popular magazine successfully refuted an Ivy League academic):

She reached this conclusion, she said, after reading The Atlantic’s investigation into the papyrus’s origins, which appears in the magazine’s July/August issue and was posted to its website Wednesday night.

“It tips the balance towards forgery,” she said.

King said she would need scientific proof—or a confession—to make a definitive finding of forgery. It’s theoretically possible that the papyrus itself is authentic, she said, even if its provenance story is bogus. But the preponderance of the evidence, she said, now “presses in the direction of forgery.

Now, the saint is going to get her own movie, “Mary Magdalene.” But as this is a Hollywood film, there’s no way to tell whether it will bear any resemblance to the Bible. Also, as in some other recent Bible films, the casting may not match the actual ethnicity of the characters. Here’s what we know so far, from CinemaBlend:

The planned film will follow the life of Mary Magdalene, one of the female followers of Jesus Christ. Rooney Mara will play the title role, while Joaquin Phoenix will portray Jesus. Now, The Wrap is reporting that Chiwetel Ejiofor is in talks to take the role of Peter. In Roman Catholicism, Peter is recognized as the first Pope, making him a major figure in modern western Christianity.

Stay tuned!

As a bonus, here’s a homily on Mary Magdalene from EWTN:

Images: Affirm Films, Wikimedia Commons, Family Theater Productions

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