Personally I blame Pope Gregory the Great.
Don’t get me wrong; Gregory did some remarkable things during his papacy. He was a prolific writer and made important contributions to the Catholic liturgy, including, it is said, inventing the Gregorian chant. He sent St. Augustine (the other one) to Britain as a missionary to the Anglo-Saxons. John Calvin, not an easy man to impress, called him “the last good pope”. On top of that, Gregory was an able punster; a rare quality in pontiffs. But against his notable accomplishments, there is one I have to question. He was the one who decided that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute; an accusation which has hung on her ever since.
Why would Gregory want to malign this woman, whom some have called “the apostle to the Apostles”? What did she ever do to him?
The answer is complicated and has a bit to do with what I call the Conservation of Marys.
There are several Marys mentioned in the Gospels, most of them popping in and out of the Passion and the Resurrection narratives. There’s Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James; I guess the name was popular then; almost as popular as it later became among Catholics. And, as George M. Cohan once observed, It’s A Grand Old Name.
Still, the plethora of Marys can get confusing. I once wrote a puppet play for our church’s Sunday School about the Resurrection story and I found it challenging to deal with all the Marys running around; so I can understand the impulse to combine some of them into a kind of Marian Composite.
But who is Mary Magdalene?
She is mentioned in Luke chapter 8 as one of a number of women who had been healed by Jesus and who helped support his ministry by their own means. Luke says that she is called Magdalene; which most interpreters have assumed means that she came from Magdala, a large town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee; and that she had been afflicted by several demons.
People tend to forget about these women, except when they turn up again in the Resurrection account; but woman had a greater role in the early Christian Church than a lot of us realize. The first Christian convert in Macedonia was an independent businesswoman named Lydia. Priscilla and her husband Aquila were close friends of Paul’s who worked with him in Corinth and then later in Rome. The personal greetings in Paul’s epistles suggest that women were key organizers in the congregations he founded. And Luke’s mention here of Mary Magdalene and these other women show that this was true for Jesus’ ministry as well.
Mary Magdalene was one of the women present at the foot of the cross when Christ was crucified and when his other disciples were in hiding. She was also among those who went to his tomb the following Sunday to finish the funerary preparations they didn't have time to complete before the Sabbath. Mary was the first to see the Risen Lord, and returned to tell the Disciples, which is why she has been called “the apostle to the Apostles.”
The story told in John 20:10-18 of how she encounters the Risen Christ in the garden and at first mistakes him for a gardener is a touching and familiar one; but it also provides storytellers with something the Gospels otherwise lack: a Love Interest.
The sorrow Mary felt upon the death of Jesus, the way he made a special trip to reassure her, and particularly the enthusiastic glomp she gave him when she discovered he was alive, have all led many readers to suspect that Jesus and Mary were particularly close. All right; I’ll come out and say it. They suggest that Mary Magdalene was the Girlfriend of Christ.
A lot of people would find that sort of blasphemous; and I have to admit that the idea of Jesus boinking one of his groupies doesn't really fit with how I envision the Pure and Sinless Son of God. Then again, we are also taught that Christ became incarnate as True Man, meaning that he was subject to the same joys and sorrows, the same temptations and the same experiences as ordinary folks. By that reasoning it’s not that implausible – in fact it’s quite likely – that Jesus might have been in love at some point in his life as well. And either way, I hardly find it heretical to suppose, as many dramatists have, that Mary might have been in love with him.
Some have taken it even farther, speculating that Jesus and Mary were married in Milwaukee, secretly, and ran off to Gaul; but that this fact has been suppressed, first by patriarchal Church Fathers wishing to downplay Mary’s role in Jesus’ ministry, and later by a Bourbon conspiracy in order to deny that her children by Jesus are the Rightful Rulers of France. The former might be somewhat plausible; the latter, not so much.
Personally, I've sometimes entertained the notion that Mary was carrying on a romance on the side, but that she was really fooling around with the Disciple John. But I don’t think even Dan Brown would buy that idea.
The Resurrection account is the last mention we have of Mary Magdalene in the Gospels. But wait, you perhaps are thinking; wasn't there a story about her and her sister Martha? And the Raising of Lazarus? And there was hair involved somewhere, right?
Now we get to the Second Mary in our composite.
In Luke chapter 10 we find the familiar story of Mary and Martha, two sisters living in the town of Bethany, who were friends of Jesus. One time while Jesus is visiting them, Martha becomes annoyed with her sister because Mary is sitting and listening to Jesus teach instead of helping her with the housework. Jesus tells Martha to cut her sister some slack:
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42 NIV)
I suspect that Jesus might have been thinking of the time he got chewed out by his family because he got so caught up in listening to the learned rabbis discussing Scriptures in the Temple that he stayed there for three days.
Mary and Martha appear again in John chapter 11 when they summon Jesus because their brother Lazarus is deathly ill. By the time Jesus gets there, Lazarus has already died; but Jesus raises Lazarus from death.
Shortly after the Lazarus incident, Jesus is again visiting the family. Mary takes a container of nard, an expensive perfume, and uses it to anoint Jesus’ feet, then wiping them off with her hair.
Judas disapproves of this display of devotion, grumbling that the perfume would be better used if it were sold and the proceeds given to the poor. John didn't like Judas and never misses an opportunity to remind the reader what a jerk he was. Jesus replies with one of the more misused quotations from the Gospels: “The poor you have always with you.” (John 12:8 KJV).
This verse is sometimes used to deride secular attempts to fight poverty, but in its context I don’t see Jesus saying that at all. He recognizes that Mary has done this out of devotion to honor him and that her sincere act of love deserves no rebuke.
Mary of Bethany is not mentioned as one of the women at the cross; that is, unless she is also Mary Magdalene. But is she?
Well, both women are named Mary. It’s an obvious point, but I might as well make it. And both women seem to have dearly loved Jesus. And Jesus seems to display a certain amount of affection to them both. So why shouldn't we combine the two? It would make the cast of characters a little less confusing. And Mary Beth is so cute; she’s like the Kitty Pryde of Jesus’ followers. The Mary Beth who anointed Jesus’ feet would fit so well in the story of Mary Mags in the Garden.
I might be willing to buy it, if not for that Luke 8 passage. Luke is the one, remember, who introduces us to Mary Magdalene. Then a couple chapters later he tells about Mary and Martha. If the two Marys were the same woman, wouldn't Luke have told us so?
But let’s waive that point. By his own admission, the author of Luke got his material second-hand; perhaps he got the story of the Mary with the Seven Demons and one of the Mary with the Bossy Sister from two different sources and didn't realize the two women were the same person.
More significantly, as I read it, the Mary Magdalene described in Luke 8 is an independent woman with her own income, or at least a sizeable nest egg, who can afford to help support Jesus’ ministry and who can accompany his other followers. The Mary of Bethany described in Luke 10 is a stay-at-home, the dependent younger sister of an older, more responsible sibling. I don’t see the two portraits matching.
But why would Pope Gregory think that either Mary Beth or Mary Mags was a harlot? Especially since Mary Beth seems like such a nice girl.
If she was such a nice girl, then where did she get the money for that perfume? A pint of nard doesn't come cheap. And nice girls keep their heads covered. And for that matter, where did Mary Magdalene get her money? We tend to get the impression that women didn't own property back in Bible times, they were property; so if Mary Mags had that much disposable income, it must have come from someplace disreputable, right?
Well… maybe not. I don’t think that society in First Century Judea was quite that rigid, even if perhaps some of the more conservative element wished it were. She could have been like Susanna, another woman mentioned in Luke 8, who was a member of an affluent household; or she could have been a single woman, widowed or otherwise, who was able to run her own business, like Lydia of Philippi.
Another more subtle point is that perhaps Gregory found the Marys’ affectionate attitude towards Jesus suspect. The Church has a long tradition of looking with disapproval at anything remotely hinting of sex. I’d like to blame St. Augustine (of Hippo, not of Canterbury) for this, but some of it can be found in Paul’s epistle as well.
My Dad was once pastor in a small town that was equally divided between German Lutherans and Polish Catholics. The previous Lutheran minister, who had served for something like twenty years, had been a life-long bachelor, so a lot of people in town regarded the idea of a Pastor’s Wife as something unusual, and my Mom always got the impression that some of her Catholic neighbors regarded her as a Scarlet Woman somehow for marrying a man of the cloth.
Likewise, I can imagine Gregory feeling uncomfortable with the public displays of affection both Marys show to the Son of God. But perhaps I’m reading too much in here.
More significant is the story of the Anointing. There is a parallel account of a woman anointing the feet of Jesus in the other three Gospels.
The accounts in Mark (Mark 14:3-9) and Matthew (Matt 26:6-14) are pretty similar to the story John tells, except that the woman who anoints Jesus is unnamed and the incident is said to take place at the home of a guy named Simon the Leper. (Was that another name Lazarus went by? Although in one of Jesus’ other parables he gives the name Lazarus to a fictitious leper). Luke, however, tells the story differently.
Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town leaned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and 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. (Luke 7:36-38 NIV)
The Pharisee, whose name is also Simon, looks at this scene with disapproval and mutters to himself that if this Jesus was as hot a prophet as he was made out to be, he’d know what kind of woman was fondling his feet.
Jesus hears his muttering and responds with a mini-parable; and then goes on to add:
“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:44-47)
When we get multiple parallel stories like this in the Bible, there are a couple ways we can treat them. One is to assume that they are separate events that just happened to be similar in some ways to each other; the other is to assume that they are accounts of the same events and chalk any discrepancies to a different writer telling the story from a different point of view and emphasizing different elements.
This latter view is how Gregory chose to interpret the stories of the Sinful Woman and of Mary at Bethany. And so we have the following chain of reasoning:
Mary Magdalene = Mary of Bethany
Mary of Bethany = the Sinful Woman of Luke chapter 7
Mary Magdalene = a Whore
And people say that the Church has no place for Reason.
But as logical as Gregory’s argument looks when lined up in syllogistic form like that, I still don’t buy it. For one thing, it depends on identifying Mary Mags with Mary Beth; and as I said before, I think there’s good reason to doubt it. Neither do I think we have to identify the woman of Luke with the story in John.
Luke places his story near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; and the Anointing at Bethany takes place nearly at the end. Luke sets the story at the home of sanctimonious Pharisee; John has Jesus visiting friends. The one story emphasizes the woman’s sorrow and her sinful past; in the other, Mary is simply performing an act of love.
None of these arguments, I’ll admit, are conclusive; and the other accounts in Matthew and Mark don’t really clarify things. They name the host Simon, which links their version to Luke’s story; but they also place the incident in Bethany and include the criticism about wasting the perfume when it could be donated to the poor, which links it to John’s version. And isn't it too much of a coincidence that the same thing would happen on two separate occasions?
Not necessarily. Remember, this was a time when everyone wore sandals and traveled by foot on dusty roads. It was customary for hosts to have a servant wash the feet of guests as they entered their home, or to at least provide water and a towel for that purpose. Jesus alludes to this in the Luke account; and he uses the custom to make a point later in John chapter 13 when he washes the feet of his disciples.
It’s not surprising that Mary Beth, the youngest member of her household, would have been the one to wash the guests’ feet and might have wanted to do something special for Jesus. It’s even possible that she had heard of the previous incident and used the perfume in imitation of the other woman’s gift.
And even if Mary of Bethany was the Sinning Woman of Luke 7, neither one of them was Mary Magdalene.
Nevertheless, thanks to Gregory, for something like fifteen hundred years Mary has been regarded as a prostitute and the term “Magdalene” synonymous with “whore”. It was only in 1969 that the Vatican officially separated the three women comprising the Composite Mary.
I guess I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I hardly think it fair that Mary Magdalene be tarnished with a reputation she doesn't deserve.
On the other hand, Jesus taught and ministered to and associated with all sorts of outcasts and sinners whom the Gospels never named: the Sinning Woman of Luke 7; the Samaritan Woman at the Well; the Afflicted Woman who touched his garment; the Canaanite Woman with the sick daughter.
With his identification, whether right or wrong, Gregory gave a name to these women, upon whom Jesus shared his love and compassion. I suppose that is worth something.