After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. - Luke 8:1-3
Like many Catholic girls of affluent or upper-middle-class families from south Louisiana, I attended an all-girl Catholic high school run by nuns. And though my path is quite different from theirs and would undoubtedly horrify most of those good ladies, I have nothing but respect for them as a group and will still greet them politely upon meeting them in public. The education they gave me has served me well, and despite our different philosophies and spiritual beliefs we have in common a decision to pursue a life different from that of most women in modern society.
Nuns, like everyone else, are individuals. Some are strict, others easygoing; some are stupid, others brilliant. They can be friendly or reserved, dogmatic or liberal, pompous or humble; and so it goes without saying that any girl educated by them will have some nuns she remembers fondly and others she would prefer to forget. My favorite was one of my English teachers, a learned and spunky little lady who always said what she thought whether anyone liked it or not, and whose ideas were rather liberal for her generation; it was by her that I was first exposed to the idea that there are many paths to God, and we are called upon to follow the one which our hearts tell us is right despite what others might think. For the year she taught me and whenever she met me in the halls afterward, she often spoke her mind to me in terms the other girls sometimes considered shocking, but always did so with a twinkle in her eye which let me know that it was said with genuine affection and phrased in a way that she knew would get my attention. For example, at my senior prom (which she chaperoned) she said to me “Miss McNeill, you are the only woman I know who can wear an evening gown and still look naked.” I remember especially that I was struck by her use of the word “woman” rather than “girl”, considering that I was 16 at the time. And on a much earlier occasion, when we were discussing patron saints in a literary context, she gestured toward my blouse (which was, as usual, not buttoned as high as it was supposed to be) and asked, “Who’s your patron saint, Miss McNeill? St. Mary Magdalene?”
And that is my rather roundabout introduction to this brief discussion of St. Mary Magdalene, whose feast day is today (July 22nd). For many centuries the tradition has endured that she was a repentant prostitute (which is obviously what Sister was referring to that day), but is there any real evidence of that? And if she wasn’t a whore, what was she?
First of all, she was one of four women named Mary mentioned in the Gospels (the other three being Jesus’ mother, James’ mother and Mary of Bethany); she is distinguished from them by the adjective “Magdalene”, which has generally been interpreted to mean she was from the town of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. However, “Magdala” in Aramaic (the common tongue of the area at the time) means either “tower” or “exalted”. So her name might also mean “Mary of the Tower” or “Mary the Exalted”, both of which have implications we’ll look at a little farther down. With the exception of the reference which forms the epigram above, she is not mentioned at all in the canonical Gospels until the crucifixion, which she is said to have witnessed to the end along with Jesus’ mother and some other women. All four Gospels state that she was the person to whom the resurrected Jesus first appeared, after which she promptly vanishes from the Bible. So how in the world was she ever identified as a prostitute?
The first clue may lie in the events of the 4th century, a time when the Church changed dramatically in several ways. The most important of these is probably the harsh suppression of Gnosticism, a pre-Christian mystical tradition which became interwined with early Christianity until the Church fathers began to see it as divisive; Gnostics were driven from Christian congregations early in the 4th century and their doctrines declared heretical in 388. Before this time there was no official consensus on which texts actually constituted the Bible, and among those used by Gnostic congregations (and subsequently excluded from the canon) were four more Gospels: Thomas, Philip, Mary and Judas, all but the last of which assign a much more prominent role to Mary Magdalene than the four canonical ones; indeed, the Gospel of Mary is actually attributed to her. These Gospels refer to Mary as Jesus’ “companion” and describe him as loving her more than his other disciples and often kissing her on the mouth; indeed, the Gospel of Mary identifies her as the unnamed “disciple Jesus loved” mentioned so often in John. These clear expressions of favoritism appear to have perturbed the male disciples, particularly Peter, who is said to have argued with Jesus about his allowing a woman to be not only equal to the male apostles, but actually preferred to them.
The early Christian church was fairly egalitarian by the standards of its time and Gnosticism was even more so, but the masculine hierarchy descended from Peter (who became the first pope) had by the 4th century changed the Church into a far more traditionally patriarchal institution which frowned upon the idea of Jesus favoring a woman above men. The Pauline view of sex as inherently sinful grew along with the institution, and by this time the doctrine of Jesus’ celibacy was firmly entrenched and priests were generally expected to treat their wives like sisters; it should therefore come as no surprise that Gospels which not only showed Jesus as preferring a woman but clearly displaying sexual interest in her would be suppressed. But just because a text is forbidden to the common people doesn’t mean the leadership is ignorant of its contents, so it is perhaps due to this tradition (and the desire to combat persistent oral tradition of it) that in a sermon in 591 Pope Gregory the Great identified Mary Magdalene as a repentant harlot, possibly by identification with the “adulterous woman” whom Jesus rescues from being stoned in the 8th chapter of John.
The early Church was not remotely as monolithic as it later became; there were wide doctrinal differences from diocese to diocese and even between congregations, but from the 4th century on a long series of councils, purges and declarations of heresy shaped the Church into a form more closely resembling its modern one. The most important of these for our purposes was the Great Schism of 1054, which divided the Church into what we now know as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths. The primary reason for this split was of course a power struggle; the Pope claimed jurisdiction over all other bishops, while the four Eastern Patriarchs considered the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) and that of Constantinople to be equal as the dual emperors of the divided Roman Empire had been. The Pope had long struggled to impose Western dogma over Eastern churches, which in many cases disagreed with it; one of the controversial doctrines was that of the celibacy of priests, which had become mandatory in the West but fallen out of favor in the East. Given these differences, it is unsurprising that the growing Western view of Mary Magdalene as redeemed whore never caught on in the East, where she was instead portrayed as a woman so virtuous that a popular legend claimed Satan thought she would be chosen as the mother of Jesus and therefore sent Luke’s “seven demons” to trouble her. In Greek tradition she is said to have invented the Easter egg when, in an audience with the Emperor Tiberius, she turned eggs blood-red (the traditional color of Easter eggs in Greece) as a sign of the resurrection of Jesus and thereby gained his permission to preach in Rome.
In the West, however, the idea of Mary Magdalene as a reformed harlot quickly took hold; she was generally depicted in art as having long red hair which she left immodestly displayed (rather than covered by a veil as was traditional in the Middle East even then). She became the symbol of penitent sinners, especially prostitutes; because of this her name was applied to the “Magdalene homes,” asylums for the “reclamation” of prostitutes which began to spring up all over Europe early in the 13th century. Conditions in these homes ranged from the tolerable to the terrible depending on their endowment and management; a few cared for ex-whores indefinitely while attempting to find them husbands, but the majority were semi-prisons in which the women were “cleansed” by teaching them the “value of honest work” (i.e. unpaid drudgery) with a harsh regimen of long hours, short rations and strict rules while supervisors read from the Bible or various didactic tracts.
Most of the Magdalene homes died out after the Black Death decimated 14th century Europe, but a few survived the centuries and the movement actually experienced a revival throughout the English-speaking world in the mid-18th century. Their numbers dramatically increased with the rise of the “purity movement” in the late 19th century, but by the early 20th their treatment of ex-whores had become so harsh that only the truly desperate were willing to go there and they largely vanished in all countries but Ireland, where they were called “Magdalene laundries” because the inmates were used as washerwomen. The last of these laundries only closed in 1996 in the wake of a public scandal over physical and sexual abuse in such facilities; the Irish government is still investigating the staggering number of claims against them.
Though the Catholic Church repudiated the doctrine of Mary the Harlot in 1969, the popular image continues in movies such as Jesus Christ Superstar (where I first encountered it at the age of 12), The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ. Other media have suggested the possibility that she may actually have been Jesus’ wife; this idea was popularized in 1982 by the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which suggested that the Catholic Church had suppressed the knowledge of Jesus’ marriage not only to support the doctrine of priestly celibacy, but also to prevent his blood descendants by Mary from challenging the authority of the Pope. Those familiar with The Da Vinci Code will of course recognize this premise, which was borrowed from the earlier nonfiction work. A few Neopagan writers have even proposed that Mary Magdalene may have been a temple prostitute for one of the mystery religions such as the very popular Isis cult; they suggest this could not only be the source of the seemingly contradictory harlot and holy woman traditions, but also explain her name (“exalted tower” could equal “temple”, thus “Mary Magdalene” = “Mary of the Temple”).
We may never know the true story of Mary Magdalene; across such a stretch of time it is difficult enough to verify details of the lives of kings, much less those of low-born women. But no matter what the truth may be, I think it is likely that her name will continue to be associated with our profession, at least in Western popular culture, for a very long time to come.