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Smearing Mary Magdalene

March is Women’s History Month.  In celebration of that, I wanted to talk about Mary Magdalene.  I really enjoyed a documentary from National Geographic called “The Real Mary Magdalene.”  It’s a fantastic video, part of a 3 DVD set of Science of the Bible (it’s on disk 3),  and gives some really cool insights into this great woman.  I wanted to give a transcript of the video that discusses an ancient smear campaign against her.

Luke 7:37, “And a woman in the city, who was a sinner…brought an alabaster jar of ointment.”

Dr. Karen King, Harvard University, “And of course what kinds of sins do women do? People generally think therefore that she was therefore a prostitute.”

This disreputable woman starts a strange ritual.  She wipes her tears and oil onto Jesus’ feet with her hair.

Professor Lawrence Schiffman, New York University, “Touching another man who is not your husband or your father would be generally considered to be inappropriate, and certainly in Jewish society in that time.  Pouring oil on someone’s feet, dumping their hair on top of it, and wiping his feet would be considered very bizarre.”

The rest of the dinner party looks on in shock.  But Jesus sees a chance to teach.

Professor Stephen Patterson, Eden Theological Seminary, “He turns to the host and he says, ‘Ya know, when I came in here, you didn’t wash my feet, but this woman has not ceased washing my feet with her tears since she arrived.’ So he transforms her lewd behavior really, into kind of a classic show of hospitality.”

But this nameless woman will echo down through history more than Jesus’ lesson.  Because her exit comes just one line before another woman enters: Mary Magdalene.

Can I just say that I always thought this story was strange?  Yet as this story is told in church, it seems almost normal.  We are told that washing feet was a normal practice in Jesus day. I’m glad to see that it was strange in Jesus day, but I didn’t know that it was lewd behavior.

Luke 8:1-2, “The twelve were with him, as well as…Mary, called Magdalene from who seven demons had gone out…”

Early church fathers connected Mary with the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet, not just because they were next to each other in the Bible, they also argued that Mary’s seven demons were in fact the seven deadly sins.  Mary Magdalene was too close to the prostitute for comfort, and the connection stuck.

The confusion over the Marys in the gospel came to a head in 591 AD.  Pope Gregory the Great was delivering his Easter sermon in Rome.

Professor Marvin Meyer, Chapman University, “He read through Luke chapters 7 and 8 and he read about 2 women there, and one woman was a prostitute and washed his feet and wiped his feet with her hair, and the next woman was Mary of Magdala, and he made the step of putting those two together and saying Mary Magdalene is the repentant prostitute.  It’s very powerful, and it makes for great art, but it’s poor history.”

Soon Mary’s identity blurred even more.  In the gospel of John, Jesus saved an unnamed adulteress from stoning with a memorable rebuke.  John 8:7, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

In time, the woman in this scene also became Mary Magdalene. Allegations of prostitution and adultery would tarnish Mary’s name for well over a thousand years.

Luke 8:2-3, “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out…

In the sixth century, Pope Gregory linked Mary’s seven demons to the seven deadly sins.

Professor Carolyn Osiek, Brite Divinity School, “This provided fuel later on for an idea that she was a prostitute, a woman who is possessed of course is immediately associated with sexual irregularity.”

Reed, “I think the speculation about her is very demeaning towards women in the sense that they can only view a woman is a sexual way.  Why can’t she just be a devoted disciple of Jesus who is enlightened and who is spreading Jesus’s message?”

I think this brings up some really interesting theological dilemmas.  On the one hand, I think many Mormons would tend to gravitate toward the interpretation that the Pope Gregory unfairly blamed Mary as being a prostitute.  There is some indication that he did that in order to discredit those that thought that women could be leaders in ancient Christianity.

If Mary did become a preacher, we don’t have any record of it.  But the Bible itself tells us that other women quickly emerged as church leaders.

King, “We see women speaking out as prophets, acting as apostles, as prophetesses, as missionaries, really playing the whole wide range of leadership roles that men would have been playing in the early church.”

The letters of Paul are the oldest surviving Christian documents.  He most likely wrote them between 50 and 60 AD.  His letter to the Romans ends with a roll call of 26 church leaders.  Of the first 7, four are women, and a woman named Phoebe tops the list.

Romans 16:1, “I commend you to our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church…”

Deacon Phoebe takes Paul’s letters to Rome; again a woman is entrusted with delivering a sacred message.

Schiffman, “Women play a much greater role than some people might think.”

Paul even gives a woman called Junia the lofty title of apostle.

Romans 16:7, “Greet Andronicus and Junia…they are prominent among the apostles…”

At a time when Christian worship took place in houses, it made sense to those who ran the household also helped run the church.

King, “In the first century, the fact that churches met in homes would make it even more plausible to think of the presence of women in all of these Christian activities.”

Some remarkable evidence of women’s power in the early church still survives.  About 1400 years ago, just above the ancient city of Ephesus, an artist turned a cave into a Christian shrine.  Archaeologists recently discovered a life size fresco of the apostle Paul flanked by two women: Saint Hecla, and her mother Theoclea.

Reed, “What’s significant about this cave is that Paul is clearly in an authoritative position of teaching, and you can see that by his raised hand with his two fingers high.  Over here, Theoclea, who is actually a little bit higher than Paul was also once in a teaching position with two fingers up.”  [Vandals have damaged her fingers and eyes]

But not everyone embraced women as church leaders.  A battle of the sexes was brewing in early Christianity.  One early church letter shows signs of it.

1 Timothy 2:12, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

King, “When we have a text like 1 Timothy that’s trying to silence women, we have to assume that it’s doing that in the context where women are speaking, so there is an attempt then to exert power in certain kinds of ways to silence women.”

The paintings at Ephesus show that the conflict became bitter.

Reed, “What has happened is that someone has come along and gouged out her eyes as well as gouged out her authoritative teaching position, negating the equality that once existed between men and women in the church.”

The male clergy also used its growing power to write women out of history, even changing the sex of Junia, Paul’s female apostle.

King, “Her name, which has to be in the feminine in Greek has been changed to a man’s name because scholars said Oh well, women couldn’t be apostles.”

When Pope Gregory discredited Mary Magdalene as the penitent whore, it was simply another salvo in a long-running smear campaign.

Reed, “Not only are women’s roles diminished, but the record of their involvement is being eradicated by the church.”

Osiek, “Mary Magdalene had a special place in the early church, and that position changed rather radically once she is identified as prostitute.”

But Mary’s fall from grace was not just a battle of the sexes.  It was also a fight over the future course of Christianity.  In 180 AD, Bishop Ireneaus of Lyon wanted to streamline Christianity, and called for a single Bible.  He published  a list of books he thought as heresy.  The Gnostic gospels of Thomas and Phillip, books that emphasized individual enlightenment were on that list.

Reed, “I think that one of the reasons that Gnosticism was declared a heresy, was because that kind of Christianity gives too much power to the individual.  And in the fourth and fifth century, Christianity becomes much more about control and controlling the masses then it becomes about enlightening them.”

Mary Magdalene became central to both sides of this conflict.  Both sides used her as their poster child.

King, “Were these early texts of Christianity political as well as religious?  The answer is yes.”

For Gnostic Christians, Mary becomes the first among disciples when she receives the Kiss of Knowledge.  For the Catholic Church, she offers proof that Jesus offers salvation even to the sinners and outcasts.  The early church was still struggling to move past the traditional way of atoning for sin.  In Judaism, as with nearly all Mediterranean religions, the typical method was blood sacrifice at a temple.

Schiffman, “Sacrifice was a part of a very complex temple ritual to celebrate the closeness of the human being or the family with God.  There was an identification which went on with this animal.  And through this you understood yourself to be actually eating together with the Divine.”

Early Christianity had no temple, no official buildings in which to share a meal with God. But Christians believe they shared a meal with the Divine when the re-enacted Jesus’s Last Supper: the core ritual of the early church.  The wine they passed from mouth to mouth symbolized Jesus’s sacrifice in which they all shared.  But early converts may have needed reassurance that redemption really worked.  Portraying Mary Magdalene as a sinful woman saved by Jesus was a stroke of Theological genius.  It defeated the Gnostics, and female church leaders in one stroke of the pen.

King, “By turning Mary Magdalene into a prostitute, you could kill two birds with one stone, and condemn both heretical teachings and undermine Mary Magdalene as a model for women’s leadership in the church.”

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3 comments on “Smearing Mary Magdalene

  1. Most interesting read! Thank you for posting it.

  2. […] the story in Luke chapter 7 about a woman wiping Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair.  Such behavior would have been considered lewd by first century Jews.  There are other instances of Jesus interacting with women in ways that […]

  3. […] the story in Luke chapter 7 about a woman wiping Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair.  Such behavior would have been considered lewd by first century Jews.  There are other instances of Jesus interacting with women in ways that […]

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