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Archive for July 22nd, 2013

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, My brother Peter, what do you think?  Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?  Levi answered and said to Peter, Peter you have always been hot tempered.  Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries.  But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?  Surely the Savior knows her very well.  That is why He loved her more than us. –  The Gospel of Mary 9:5-9

Repentant Mary Magdalene by Giampietrino (c 1525)Today is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, long identified in Christian folklore as a prostitute (repentant or otherwise).  Now, there is no Biblical evidence to that effect; Luke describes her as a woman “from whom seven demons had come out”, presumably one of Jesus’ miraculous cures.  In fact, the four canonical Gospels say virtually nothing about her prior to the crucifixion, though all four identify her as the person to whom the resurrected Jesus first appeared.  But as I explained in “Mary Magdalene”, the canonical Gospels are not the only ones:

…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…

This argument is portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar, though changed in two ways:  the critic is Judas rather than Peter, and the criticism is about her being a hooker rather than a gender-hierarchy thing.  The tradition of her being Jesus’ (perhaps sexual) companion seems to have survived the suppression of the books, and “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.”

So even though Mary was never the patron saint of prostitutes (that role fell, interestingly enough, to Saint Nicholas), the legend that she had been a whore was a popular one; hence the application of her name to “Magdalene homes”, the asylums for the “cleansing” of ex-prostitutes which became popular in the 13th century and then again in the 18th.  The most notorious of these were of course Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, the last of which only closed in 1996; the long-awaited report on the atrocities committed therein was released only last February, and the nuns who ran them are still trying to evade responsibility.  The legend also inspired me to have the sacred harlots in last week’s fictional interlude all take the first name “Magdalene”, just as regular nuns all take the first name “Mary”; in our world the Catholic Church officially repudiated that doctrine in 1969, but as you probably noticed a lot of things are different in the world where that story takes place.

But canonical or not, the legend is still a popular one; its only real rival is the theory that she was actually Jesus’ wife, and that one is of comparatively recent vintage (though its proponents claim it existed as a secret doctrine since the people it concerns were still alive).  In movies, books and the popular imagination Mary Magdalene is still the whore (repentant or otherwise) who was closer than any other person to Jesus, and I think it very likely that it will continue thus for a very long time to come.Mary Magdalene in the Cave by Hugues Merle (1868)

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