There are oodles of Marys in the New Testament, and that has led to some confusion. Mary Magdalene is probably the most confused of all—not herself, as far as we can tell, but in popular imagination. The misunderstandings abound. For one thing, Magdalene is not her last name but a reference to her town of origin: Magdala (like Nazareth) was in the region of Galilee. This should immediately distinguish her from Mary of Bethany, since Bethany is in a completely different area (and not far from Jerusalem).
Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?
Many people are most surprised to learn that nowhere in the Bible is Mary Magdalene described as a prostitute. Her reputation as a reformed prostitute has no explicit biblical support, but it does have church support. Pope Gregory I (d. 604) gave legs to this misinterpretation by delivering a sermon that equated both Mary of Bethany and the anonymous hair-washing sinner woman (Luke 7:36-50) with Mary Magdalene. This portrait also absorbed the story of the unnamed woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), the combination making the popular image of Mary Magdalene quite different from the biblical depictions.
Indeed, since then, Mary of Magdala has more often than not been represented as a prostitute who gave up her wicked ways to follow the forgiving Jesus—sometimes to powerfully positive effect. For example, the creative and successful Magdalene community, begun in 1997 by Becca Stevens in Nashville, Tennessee, aims to help women recovering from lives of drugs, prostitution, and abuse. Because Mary Magdalene is also depicted this way in the twentieth-century blockbuster films Jesus Christ Superstar, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Passion of the Christ, it's no wonder that few people know that the Bible doesn't describe her in this way.
Could she have been an apostle?
Although the prostitute riff is titillating, equally intriguing but seldom appreciated are the implications of Mary Magdalene's actual presence in the Gospels. For one thing, ironically, we can be more confident about a real, historical basis for her character than for any of the other gospel women. More than any other, Mary Magdalene appears consistently in every one of the four gospels, and she does so as witness to the most christologically significant moments. The Gospels are in remarkable agreement about her presence at the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Not only that but, according to the longer ending of Mark and to John's gospel, it is to this Mary alone, out of all his followers, that the resurrected Jesus appears first. (Only in Luke's Gospel does Mary Magdalene show up before Jesus' death. In Luke 8:2-3 she is noted as one of Jesus' female disciples who helped provide material support for his ministry, and, following Mark's description in Mark 16:9, she is described as having been exorcised of seven demons.)
Elsewhere, we know that resurrection appearances lent authority to the witnesses and confirmed their legitimacy as leaders in the early Christian community. Some suspect, then, that Mary Magdalene's role may have been more significant than simply that of a devoted follower. She may have been a bona fide leader, an authority even over some of Jesus' male followers. The discovery of the gnostic Gospel of Mary further supports such a conclusion, something that Dan Brown ran with in his wildly popular and controversial book The Da Vinci Code, where Mary of Magdala is imagined to be the disciple to Jesus' right in da Vinci's painting The Last Supper and Jesus' pregnant wife when he was crucified. The Gospel of Mary did not become part of the Bible, in part because it represents a kind of thinking deemed heretical by the early church: in it Mary's claim to have seen the risen Jesus was called into question by Peter (who, some think, represented orthodox Christianity). Hardly a feminist-friendly tract, the Gospel of Mary depicts its namesake as thrilled that Jesus liberated her by making her into a man.
Revised excerpt from Kristin Swenson, Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (New York: Harper, 2010).
Kristin Swenson, "Mary Magdalene", n.p. [cited 27 Nov 2020]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.net/en/people/main-articles/mary-of-magdala
Kristin Swenson is visiting associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Living through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness (Baylor University Press, 2005) and Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (Harper, 2010). She is presently working on a historical novel of ancient Babylon and Persia.