How the popular picture of Mary Magdalene as a penitent with a notoriously wanton sexual past developed — and what’s wrong with it
A reader of my review of Mary Magdalene offers an impassioned defense for the medieval Western view of St. Mary Magdalene as a penitent with a notoriously wanton sexual past, a profligate adulteress or harlot:
Mary Magdalene is the sole woman saint on the universal Latin Rite calendar notable for repentance for sin. If Mary Magdalene isn’t a repentant sexual sinner we’re left with an absence of role models for repentant women and frightening implication that only virgins and married women can get to heaven or can be honored as holy. I have no use for this type of nonsense about Mary Magdalene.
In defense of this view of Mary Magdalene, the reader argues for the identification, also traditional in the West, of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (often thought to be the unnamed “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7):
Not only is the identification of the woman who wept on Jesus’ feet, Mary of Bethany who also anointed Jesus’ feet, and Mary Magdalene who also is seen with stuff for anointing and found at Jesus’ feet plausible (and on a practical level undeniably very spiritually valuable for female penitents to unite these rich scenes of relationship with Jesus in their own person—for me personally this is vocationally important), our liturgy places the feast of St Martha of Bethany in proximity to St Mary Magdalene’s, and we have no separate/duplicate feast of St Mary of Bethany. This is not evidence about the woman herself, but it is evidence that the reflection of the Latin Church is that it’s not outlandish to imagine that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are the same Mary.
What to say to all this?
There is no question, to begin with, that Mary Magdalene was a repentant sinner. Every single saint that has ever lived, with the exception of the Blessed Virgin, was a repentant sinner.
The one thing we know about Mary Magdalene’s past is that the Lord expelled seven demons from her. This indicates at least that she had a troubled past, likely implicating her in spiritually dangerous behavior of some kind.
A number of early Fathers pick up on this, alluding to Mary’s past life as a sinner. By itself this gives us no indication whether her sins were carnal or spiritual, private or notorious.
Pope St. Gregory the Great, in an influential homily, allegorically interpreted the seven demons expelled from Mary Magdalene as the seven deadly sins. He also identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, whom he identified as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, further suggesting that the ointment or perfume used on this occasion was a token of her previous life of carnal sin.
I appreciate the reasons given for being attached to this basic idea, and certainly I esteem the tradition of hagiography and spirituality associated with it.
On the other hand, I esteem equally the tradition of the Eastern Churches which does not consider Mary a notorious carnal sinner, and which generally distinguishes Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the sinful woman of Luke 7 as three separate women.
I would also suggest that the spiritual and social implications of the idea of Mary Magdalene as a sexual sinner are mixed, and there are also reasons for concern about the great imaginative elaboration in the medieval tradition of Mary Magdalene’s past as a specifically sexual sinner, a sensuous counterpoint to the virginal purity and holiness of the Lord’s blessed mother (a dichotomy that gave the name to Freud’s “Madonna–Whore complex” ).
Be all of that as it may, we aren’t talking about a mythological figure or a character in a story who can be whatever we deem convenient or beneficial.
Mary Magdalene was and is a real woman from a particular village in Galilee who played a notable role in the greatest and most consequential events in human history. She is also a saint in heaven, an elder sister in Christ.
Our first obligation, then, is to try to speak the truth in charity about her life, which entails being as faithful as possible to the evidence, saying only what we have reason to think is really true.
So let’s review the evidence.
What can we say about Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany? Does the evidence point to one woman or two?
- Mary Magdalene clearly appears in five identifiable episodes:
- In Galilee among Jesus’ followers, per Luke 8:2. This is the only clear reference to Mary Magdalene prior to the passion narratives. (From this verse we learn exactly two things about Mary’s past: Jesus cleansed her from seven demons — a fact mentioned also in the long ending of Mark’s Gospel — and, like the other women in the group, she appears to have had money, since the women acted as patrons of Jesus and his followers, paying their way as they traveled about.)
- At the crucifixion. Three Gospels name her here (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25). Luke mentions “the women who had followed him from Galilee,” which, per Luke 8:2, includes Mary Magdalene, but he doesn’t mention her by name until the empty tomb narrative.)
- At the burial. Two accounts name her (Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47); Luke again mentions “the women who had come with him from Galilee.”
- At the empty tomb. All four Gospels name her here (Matthew 28:1ff; Mark 16:1ff; Luke 24:1ff; John 20:1ff).
- Jesus’ special early resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, per John 20:11ff.
- Mary of Bethany clearly appears in three identifiable episodes:
- At her house listening at Jesus’ feet, per Luke 10:38–42.
- At and around her house and her brother’s tomb in the raising of Lazarus, per John 11.
- At her house where she anoints Jesus’ feet, per John 12.
- What about the Synoptic accounts of an unnamed woman anointing Jesus’ feet in the house of a man named Simon (Simon the leper in Matthew 26:1ff and Mark 14:1ff; Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36ff)?
Matthew and Mark place this episode in Bethany, where Mary and Martha lived. Matthew and Mark also record objections that the value of the ointment could have been given to the poor, like John in the episode with Mary of Bethany (John specifies that it was Judas who made the objection).
Luke’s account is different: He doesn’t mention the location, and he records a different objection, that the woman was a “sinner.”
While some commentators argue that Jesus’ feet were anointed more than once by different women, it seems most plausible that these are all the same anointing. (The only clear discrepancy is whether it happened in the house of Simon, per the Synoptics, or in the house of Mary, per John.)
One could speculate that some of the differences resulted from the Evangelists using different strategies to avoid implicating Mary by name in the charge of being a notorious sinner.
Thus, while Luke mentions the objection that the woman was a sinner, he omits the location associated with Mary, while Mark and Matthew do the opposite, giving the location but omitting mention of her being a sinner—and all three omit her name. (One could further speculate that by the time John’s Gospel was written Mary had died and John would have been less concerned about her reputation.)
Be all of this as it may, whether or not Mary of Bethany is the “sinful woman” of Luke 7 doesn’t affect the question of the identification of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany.
- In all episodes that clearly feature Mary Magdalene, she is always identified by her surname, and never identified in any other way. (For example, she is never called anyone’s wife, mother, daughter or sister.)
Thus, all four Evangelists explicitly identify “Mary Magdalene” as present at the empty tomb. Likewise, all the Gospels except Luke identify her at the crucifixion by her surname.
There is no episode of this kind where an evangelist speaks merely of “Mary” where we have reason to believe from the other gospels Mary Magdalene was present. (Matthew has an “other Mary” present at Jesus’ burial and at the empty tomb, but she is “other” in contrast to Mary Magdalene. Only John places the Virgin Mary in any passion-narrative context. Mary was an extremely common name; in first-century Palestine close to half of all Jewish women were named either Mary or Salome!)
John, in particular, calls Mary “Mary Magdalene” three times in fewer than 35 verses: at the cross, at the empty tomb, and in the meeting with the disciples.
Yet in the two episodes of John 10–11, in which Jesus raises Lazarus and then Mary anoints his feet, the surname “Magdalene” is never heard. The same goes for Luke 10, where Jesus teaches at Mary and Martha’s house.
Remarkably, John makes a point of cross-referencing each of these two episodes to the other, making it as clear as possible that they involved the same people:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. (John 11:1–2)
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. (John 12:1)
Needless to say, there is no similar cross-referencing of these stories with the pericopes involving Mary Magdalene. (We don’t read, for instance, at the crucifixion that “It was Mary Magdalene who anointed the Lord with ointment.” Nor does John tell us at the raising of Lazarus that “It was Mary to whom the Lord appeared after his resurrection.”)
Note, too, that Luke in 10:39 writes that “a woman named Martha … had a sister called Mary.” Luke has already introduced us to Mary Magdalene (8:2), yet he tells us here that Martha’s sister was “called Mary,” as if introducing a new figure.
If Mary Magdalene were Mary of Bethany, why would the Gospel writers always identify her by her surname except in these episodes?
Why would Luke introduce Mary as a new figure after already introducing Mary Magdalene?
Why would John cross-reference the two incidents with Mary of Bethany, yet omit any similar cross-referencing with the episodes where he mentions Mary Magdalene?
- Finally, and crucially, Mary Magdalene first appears in Galilee, and always appears in the company of other members of the group of Jesus’ female followers. Mary of Bethany always appears in her village, in or near her home, always in the company of Martha (and usually Lazarus).
There is no indication that the Mary who is the sister of Martha and Lazarus has ever followed Jesus around from place to place, or been found in the company of other women followers of the Lord (besides her sister).
For that matter, there is no indication that Mary of Bethany has ever been to Galilee at all, or very far from her home village. Rather, this Mary sees Jesus when he comes to visit her and her siblings in their home.
Likewise, there is no indication of Mary Magdalene being settled anywhere or having any relations.
Bottom line: The two women appear to have completely different contexts and completely different relationships with Jesus.
The sinful woman in Luke 7 may or may not be Mary of Bethany — I’m inclined to think that she is — but the identification of Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene just is not plausible.
For that matter, there is no reason to think that the sinful woman in Luke 7, whether or not she was Mary of Bethany, was guilty of specifically sexual sins.
We can confidently say that Mary Magdalene was a woman with a troubled past of some kind, from which Jesus delivered her.
The New Testament writers give us no insight into the nature of her sins, or those of any of the other people delivered from evil spirits by the Lord.
What they tell us about is her devotion to the Lord and the special privilege granted to her in being the recipient of the first recorded resurrection appearance, the “apostle to the apostles.” That’s what she should be remembered for.
Read more: Mary Magdalene (movie review)