Was Mary an ex-prostitute?
- In quite a few paintings, Mary is confused with the woman with the alabaster jar, described in Luke 7:36-50 – see one of these paintings at right. The story of this other woman comes just before Mary Magdalene is first mentioned. The woman with the alabaster jar has the characteristic features that were later transferred onto Mary Magdalene: long flowing hair, tears of repentance, and a ‘past’. She is described in Luke 7:37 as a ‘sinner’, a word which was interpreted by the early Church fathers as ‘prostitute’. But in fact, when Luke describes an actual prostitute in 15:30, he uses a different word altogether.
- Later celibate male interpreters of the gospels linked Mary’s illness, her ‘demons’ (Luke 8:2) with her sexuality.
- Mary is also confused with the woman who has committed adultery, in John 8:1-11. Someone recently argued that people at the time of Jesus knew that Mary Magdalene was his wife because they threw stones at her. It is hard to know how to counter this sort of argument, since the person making the statement has obviously never actually read the gospels. The unnamed adulterous woman lived in Jerusalem in Judea, not Magdala in Galilee, where Mary came from. There would be no reason at all for anyone to stone a wife of Jesus, supposing he had been married. And the woman in the story is about to be stoned to death because she has been discovered in the act of adultery, not because she has married a popular rabbi.
- Showing Mary Magdalene as a beautiful ex-prostitute created a dramatic contrast to the Virgin Mary, the perfect virgin/mother. This contrast mirrored a philosophical idea popular during the period of the early Church: Platonic dualism. Plato had proposed that everything in the universe had an equal and opposite other, for example man/woman, logic/emotion, good/evil, light/darkness, etc, (see the introductory section on Mary Magdalene, link at top of this page). People of the time admired Greek thought and culture, so they emulated this way of thinking to shape their view of the world.
In the centuries following Jesus’ death, Mary Magdalene became everything the Virgin Mary was not: a reformed, flamboyantly beautiful whore who was the perfect foil for the modest virgin/mother Mary. Both images departed from the original, more mundane truth.
What did the people around Jesus think?
Jesus had a considerable following during his life, enough to make him a cause for concern to the Roman and Jewish authorities. The gospels often mention crowds of people who gathered to hear him teach. He was a noted rabbi and teacher during his life.
But Jews expect a high standard of behavior at all times from their rabbis, who must be constant role models to their followers. The Jewish crowds would never have paid any attention to a rabbi who consorted with a woman who was not his wife, or who had a ‘secret’ marriage. This would have instantly destroyed his credibility as a teacher.
If his disciples had doubted his integrity for even a moment, as they surely would have if he had been having any sort of illicit relationship with Mary Magdalene, they would have abandoned him and turned to some other teacher. There were many rabbis and teachers in 1st century Palestine for them to choose from.
If Jesus was married, would they hide it?
No, quite the reverse. At the time that Jesus lived, it would have been seen as a plus. Jesus was Jewish. The first commandment in the Jewish Scriptures is to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Jews take this commandment so seriously that they have always endorsed marriage and sexual love.
A Jewish man did not consider he had properly fulfilled his obligations to God until he was married; the only exception to this was a man who chose to devote himself to the study of the Scriptures, although even then he was encouraged to marry. It is not impossible that Jesus had been married as a young man and was a widower. It is more likely that he had chosen the second way of life, of teaching and studying Scripture, and had not married because his itinerant way of life made this impossible, in that culture at that time.
If Jesus had had a wife at the time of his ministry, he would have been proud of the fact. He would certainly not have tried to keep it hidden. There would have been no ‘secret marriage’. Christianity in a later period endorsed celibacy as a way of life, but as a Jew, Jesus would have been perplexed by the idea of celibacy, seeing it as non-fulfillment of God’s commandment to ‘Go forth and multiply’.
What was the gospel of Mary Magdalene?
This text was written at least a century after the events, and certainly not by Mary Magdalene. It was written for a specific purpose, to promote the role of women in the church hierarchy of the time, by people who believed in the truth of their own dreams/ visions.
Different translations of this ‘gospel’ give different impressions of the vision described. The exact meaning of the words is much debated. The original remnant of manuscript is badly worn, tattered and difficult to decipher. Moreover, the words are open to different interpretations, eg does ‘kiss’ mean the common kiss of greeting, or a sign of unity and compassion, or a sexually passionate act? The manuscript does not make this clear, and describes what seems to be a symbol-laden dream/ vision, not a real act.