In a story distributed for Good Friday, the Associated Press claims Mary Magdalene was a biblical “Me Too” figure who was “long maligned” by the West.
The story, filed from Israel with the headline “Long-maligned Mary Magdalene now seen as stalwart disciple,” asserts that Magdalene was not a reformed prostitute but rather a “strong, independent woman” who supported Jesus.
The article also conflates the virtues of Magdalene’s figure with the “MeToo” movement. This latest iteration of U.S. feminism uses the hashtag #MeToo on Twitter and other social media to publicize the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the wake of the exposure of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct.
“If there’s a feminist figure from the Bible for the #MeToo era, it could very well be Mary Magdalene,” the article reads.
The claim that Western churches have maligned Magdalene is dubious at best, however.
The article’s authors, Alon Bernstein and Isaac Scharf, posit that Pope Francis’ 2016 promotion of the Catholic Church’s June 22 Magdalene memorial to a major feast day was “the biggest step yet to rehabilitate” her image.
The Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican churches, however, revered Magdalene as a saint long before that promotion.
The AP story asserts that the feast day proclamation helped rehabilitate Magdalene’s image from Pope Gregory the Great’s incorrect 6th-century assertion that Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the sinful woman accused of adultery whom Jesus saved from being stoned to death were all the same person.
Arguments to the contrary, though, are hardly new and began with the scriptures themselves.
The gospels of Luke and Mark record that Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene. She subsequently joined a group of women whom Jesus also “cured of evil spirits and diseases.” These women, “out of their own means,” chose to follow Jesus and support him and other disciples.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John all record Magdalene as the first witness to the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection—which Christians celebrate at Easter—and the first to report it to other followers.
The gospel of Luke recounts that Magdalene was among the first group of witnesses to the empty tomb, all of them women.
The gospel of John identifies the woman as Mary, who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume and washed his feet with her tears. She was the sister of Martha and of Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to life.
Pope Gregory conflated the sinful woman mentioned in Luke with the Mary who anointed Jesus with perfume in the gospel of John because the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke identify Jesus’ anointer only as a “sinful woman.”
Gregory then conflated this composite of the sinful woman and Mary of Bethany with Mary of Magdalene, according to his belief that the seven demons Jesus cast out of her represented the seven vices. Apparently, in all of biblical Israel, there could be only one sinful woman mentioned in Scripture.
Gregory’s incorrect teaching on Magdalene persisted in the Catholic Church until 1969, when the church clarified that Magdalene was not actually a reformed prostitute or the same woman as the one accused of adultery in Luke.
Some scholars believe Mary Magdalene to be Luke’s woman accused of adultery. To say, however, that calling her a reformed prostitute maligns her character is to misunderstand Christian beliefs and Christ’s teachings as recorded in Scripture.
Scripture first introduces Mary Magdalene as a woman possessed by seven demons. Which is worse: to have seven entirely evil spiritual entities possess you, or to be a reformed prostitute?
That is a mandatory question to be asked when considering whether conflating Mary Magdalene with the reformed prostitute maligns her character. The Jesus of Scripture never asks that question or considers which person is more broken.
In the case of the alleged adulterous woman, Jesus did not condemn her. Rather, he rebuked the Pharisees who called for her to be subjected to violent judgment for her perceived sin.
In the case of the Mary who anointed Jesus with perfume, Jesus rebuked those who saw her only as a sinner wasting the precious liquid. What she did for him was a beautiful thing, Jesus said.
No woman or man in Scripture who comes into contact with Jesus is shown to be without sin. The point in their recorded stories never is to elevate them as people considered saintly because of their own virtues. In other words, see them as broken men and women made righteous as a result of Christ’s forgiveness.
In that light, it hardly matters whether Mary Magdalene was a reformed prostitute or a healed demoniac or both, so long as the power of Christ’s transformation of her life was made evident.
Were Mary Magdalene an actual prostitute, she would have stood in good company.
Rahab, an Old Testament prostitute from the city of Jericho, not only hid Joshua’s spies from harm and aided the Israelites in the their conquest of the biblical Promised Land, she was also one of only five women to be listed in Jesus’ genealogy. Rahab was held up as an example of righteous faith in the New Testament books of James and Hebrews.
As for Mary Magdalene’s being a figure of fourth-wave feminism—a movement that rejects male authority over a woman’s life and gave rise to “mansplaining”—the idea is ludicrous.
Mary Magdalene spent her life following Jesus, whom Christians believe was fully man and fully God. Magdalene submitted herself to his teachings and authority, and worshiped him as God.
She is, however, a radical example of the equal value the Christian God bestows on women and men — given she was one of the first people to witness and report Jesus’ resurrection, in a time and culture where society valued the word of a woman less than that of a man.
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