For centuries, Mary Magdalene has been incorrectly identified in Western Christianity as an adulteress and repentant prostitute, although nowhere does the New Testament identify her as such. Discoveries of new texts and critical insight have now proven that portrait of Mary is entirely inaccurate. According to Harvard theologian Karen King, Mary Magdalene was a prominent disciple and leader of one wing of the early Christian movement that promoted women’s leadership.
King cites references in the Gospel of John that the risen Jesus gives Mary special teaching and commissions her as an “apostle to the apostles.” She is the first to announce the resurrection and to play the role of an apostle, although the term is not specifically used of her (though, in Eastern Christianity she is referred to as “Equal to the Apostles”). Later tradition, however, names her as “the apostle to the apostles.” King writes that the strength of this literary tradition makes it possible to suggest that historically Mary was a prophetic visionary and leader within one sector of the early Christian movement after the death of Jesus.
Asbury Theological Seminary Bible scholar Ben Witherington III confirms the New Testament account of Mary Magdalene as historical: “Mary was an important early disciple and witness for Jesus.” He continues, “There is absolutely no early historical evidence that Miriam’s relationship with Jesus was anything other than that of a disciple to her Master teacher.”
Jeffrey Kripal, a religion scholar, wrote, “Migdal or Magdala (meaning “tower” in Hebrew and Arameic respectively) was a fishing town known, or so the legend goes, for its perhaps punning connection to hairdressers (medgaddlela) and women of questionable reputation. This is as close as we get to any clear evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.” According to Kripal, the identification of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute also goes back to the above-mentioned sermon by Pope Gregory. However, Gregory identified Mary merely as a peccatrix, a sinful woman, using her as a model for the repentant sinner, not a meretrix, a prostitute. However, he also identifies Mary with the adulteress brought before Jesus (as recounted in the Pericope Adulterae John 8), concurring with 3rd and 4th century Church fathers that had already considered the sinful woman’s sin as “being unchaste”. Gregory’s identification and the consideration of the woman’s sin as sexual later probably gave rise to the image of Mary as a prostitute.
“Kreuzigung” by Meister des Marienlebens.
This viewpoint is also espoused by much Western medieval Christian art. In many medieval depictions, Mary Magdalene is shown as having long hair which she wears down over her shoulders, while other women follow contemporary standards of propriety by hiding their hair beneath headdresses or kerchiefs. The Magdalene’s hair may be rendered as red, while the other women of the New Testament in these same depictions ordinarily have dark hair beneath a scarf. This disparity between depictions of women can be seen in works such as the Crucifixion paintings by the Meister des Marienlebens.
This image of Mary as a prostitute was followed by many writers and artists until the 20th century. Even though it is less prevalent nowadays, the identification of Mary Magdalene with the adulteress is still accepted by some Christians. This is reflected in Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, as well as in José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Hal Hartley’s The Book of Life.