Who was Mary Magdalene? | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Which of the following descriptions of Mary Magdalene is not true?
A faithful disciple who supported Jesus Christ financially
A saint
A prostitute
A sister of Lazarus whom Christ revived from the dead
Anointed the body of Christ with expensive perfume
A woman from whom seven demons were cast out by Jesus Christ
The first witness to Christ’s resurrection
Her feast day is July 22
Loved by Jesus more than any other disciple
The disciple to whom Christ gave secret knowledge after his resurrection

The one description that is definitely not true of Mary Magdalene is that of a prostitute. And yet this is the image that has been associated with her for 1,400 years until rectified by the Vatican in 1969. How then did Mary Magdalene get the reputation of being a reformed prostitute?

After a homily or sermon delivered by Pope Gregory I on Sept. 21, 591 (C.E.) referring to her as a prostitute, the fate of Mary Magdalene was sealed. It was a strongly held belief for 14 centuries by the entire Western Catholic Church, although this was not followed by the Eastern Orthodox churches.

Terrible mistake

Biblical scholars and theologians now agree that Pope Gregory was wrong, and that there is absolutely no evidence from a close reading of the gospels that indicates Mary Magdalene to be a prostitute. Pope Gregory made a terrible mistake in mixing up three female characters in the gospels of Luke, Mark and John to be Mary Magdalene.

The Homily No. 33 of Pope Gregory stated thus: “She, whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary we believe to be Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, brothers, that woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.”

The woman, out of whom seven devils (or demons) were exorcised by Jesus Christ, was none other than Mary Magdalene. But she was not necessarily the unnamed sinful woman referred to by Luke.

The Eastern Churches had from the beginning regarded these women, namely, the sinful woman, Mary of Bethany (sister of Lazarus), and Mary Magdalene, to be three distinct and separate individuals.

In 1969, the Vatican corrected this grievous mistake made by Pope Gregory 1 and declared Mary Magdalene not the same as the sinful woman referred to by Luke. But this correction of a 1,400-year-old error was not properly or widely disseminated. Today, one can still hear some Catholic priests referring to Mary Magdalene as the “repentant” prostitute. These priests should go back to Theology 101 class.

“As recently as the mid-’90s,” wrote Dan Burstein in his book ‘Secrets of Mary Magdalene,’ “I heard a priest deliver a sermon on the meaning of Jesus forgiving the sins of Mary Magdalene, the prostitute. This was almost three decades after the Church had corrected the record.”

Patriarchal bias

We can only speculate why Mary Magdalene was marginalized and denounced very early in the history of Christianity. One theory is that the patriarchal bias of the Church precluded a woman from playing a major role in the priestly class.

Since she obviously played a very important and crucial role in the ministry of Jesus—being with him in all important events in his life (e.g. during healing, crucifixion and burial) and was the first person to whom Jesus Christ appeared after his resurrection (he did not even appear first to his mother)—Mary Magdalene had to be downplayed at all costs. Otherwise, all the other disciples would be regarded as subordinate to her.

To me, the importance of Mary Magdalene lies in the fact that it was she to whom Jesus gave secret knowledge after his resurrection—knowledge that was not even given to his other disciples. This is very clear in the “Gospel of Mary,” one of the Gnostic gospels discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.

And the reason for this, I believe, is that Christ knew that she had inner wisdom or “gnosis” not possessed by the other disciples.

She was instructed to tell the others what Jesus taught her in private. This angered Peter, who was always at odds with her and all women. Peter was a misogynist, or a woman hater. “Do you think that our Lord would entrust such secret knowledge to a woman and not to us?” he asked mockingly.

Mary cried and Levi intervened and told Peter, they should listen to Mary because it was she to whom the risen Christ had given secret knowledge and instructions. “Who are we to question our Lord?” he asked. And that silenced the impetuous Peter. It was Mary Magdalene whom Jesus Christ regarded as above all other disciples and whom he regarded as “the woman who knows all.”

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