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 washing feet with tears and hair 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. But I don’t think Mormons would be in favor of the idea that Mary was a leader in ancient Christianity. There is some indication that the Pope 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.”
What are your thought about Mary? Do you think that some of the responses in the poll may overlap?
Interesting thought about “feet.” I learned in a Bible as Lit class at BYU that “feet” was an oblique reference to genitals in the story of Ruth & Boaz. Naomi tells her daughter in law Ruth to wash and anoint herself and go to the floor where Boaz is sleeping among all the rest of the men.
“Ruth 3:4 And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.”
“Ruth 3:7 And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of corn: and she came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid her down.
8 ¶And it came to pass at midnight, that the man was afraid, and turned himself: and, behold, a woman lay at his feet.
9 And he said, Who art thou? And she answered, I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman.
10 And he said, Blessed be thou of the Lord, my daughter: for thou hast shewed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as thou followedst not young men, whether poor or rich.
11 And now, my daughter, fear not; I will do to thee all that thou requirest: for all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman.
12 And now it is true that I am thy near kinsman: howbeit there is a kinsman nearer than I.
13 Tarry this night, and it shall be in the morning, that if he will perform unto thee the part of a kinsman, well; let him do the kinsman’s part: but if he will not do the part of a kinsman to thee, then will I do the part of a kinsman to thee, as the Lord liveth: lie down until the morning.
14 And she lay at his feet until the morning.”
I assume, though, that feet are sometimes just feet. Right?
The poll needs “D” to be all of the above. Is there any reason she can’t be all three?
But that isn’t really why I’m commenting. I’m commenting because I think this post is beautiful.
I just finished reading Ch 7 of Alma and was feeling quite uplifted and ready to cleanse my filthiness through the blood of Christ and then I had to read the last verse of the chapter and my peace was confused “and now may the peace of god rest upon you….and upon all that you posses, your women and children (named of course after the houses, flocks and lands)
In that one verse, the peace I felt was taken from me. It wasn’t me Alma was talking to. Sure I know I need to apply it to current day context (which I’ve done my whole life) but it stings more than I’d like to admit because I must admit the church does not recognize any authority in me.
I feel like the church is including women only because we’ve asked for it. They don’t really want us there and if they did, they would recognize the authority women have to be there. If you are going to include us then include us fully and not as a possession that is only blessed by a priesthood leader.
I voted “Other” — because ditto what Apron Appeal just wrote — I’d consider her in “all of the above”.
Interestingly, I mentioned Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet in the most recent post I did at LDS Anarchy.
“Spicing up your church experience: Women’s edition“.
First, the Turks gouged out the eyes of everyone in the paintings, not just the women. All over the Greek world, as a matter of Moslem religion they gouged eyes out of paintings.
Second, a quote from Talmadge would have fit in well here.
I just realized that the post I linked to is pretty long — here is the portion that relates to Mary:
Hawk, I didn’t know that about Ruth. And they’re talking genitals at BYU? Wow, more liberal than I thought…. 🙂
Apron and Justin, are you saying that you think Pope Gregory’s assessment of Mary was correct? Do you think portraying Mary as a prostitute denigrates her position, or is it simply a fact of life that we need to come to grips with to avoid unrighteous judgment? Do you think the Pope was trying to limit the authority of women?
Apron, I appreciate your comment about Alma. If we think that the Book of Mormon was an ancient document, I think it is reasonable that they would display the same sexism found in the Bible. But I understand your concern. I know there was a campaign a while back called “Agitating Faithfully”, taken from the context that women weren’t agitating for the priesthood.
Emma agitated for changes in relation to tobacco juice, and we received the Word of Wisdom. Maybe we need to agitate more toward women holding the priesthood in order to recieve a similar revelation. What do you think?
Steve, I guess you’re right that they gouged out the eyes of Paul too, but Mary’s eyes are much more damaged! What’s up with that? Is it a “graven image” thing? If so, why didn’t they damage the whole cave? I’m not sure if we can attribute this to Christian, or Muslim vandals.
What Talmage quote are you referring to? I don’t understand your reference.
Justin, what is this ordinance you refer to? When you state that “Long hair on a woman is wildly erotic and luxurious.” Men had long hair too back then. Was it wildly erotic too? Is this why the Taliban wants women to wear a burqa?
Really interesting post. I have been reading a lot lately about the priesthood ban against African-Americans and how it came to be reversed when the paucity of doctrinal and scriptural support for it became evident. There are some simlar ideas knocking about here.
I do think that the “city woman”, who “was a sinner” is some biblical lingo for describing someone who would have been considered a “street walker” by the men present.
Though I think the liberation from the seven spirits mentioned by Luke and Mark sound more like the story of Inanna being echoed than the “seven deadly sins”.
But — in any event — I think that he meant his Papal Pronouncement as an insult, as a way to marginalize/discredit her — therefore:
No. “Whore” is but the name of temple priestess ministering the feminine aspect of deity on the lips of men with power — therefore:
Yeah. Like the Gospel of Mary describes:
And isn’t the Catholic church the lineage of Peter?
When men with power get insecure — they blame the female. The commoditize, abuse, and degrade Her. They toss all their own repression and fears onto Her — so She becomes a “whore” or a “witch” — but really just their own internal demons, scapegoated onto an external figure.
They call her a “whore” because she’s liberated — she’s not controlled by the same ascetic/Puritan repressive drives that control them.
And I think that’s what Mary represents
The anointing of the body before “the burying” — so as to be prepared for the resurrection — presumably by a spouse, given the intimate overtones in the scriptural account we have of this ordinance.
Lol — I’d have to think more about that. Certainly, a man’s full-grown beard is erotic because it is the visual cue of his manhood.
Also — Samson’s “power” being in the locks of his hair comes to mind too.
Also, the Nazarene vow.
Absolutely — but I wouldn’t want to pick on the Muslims. I quoted Paul in comment #5, who was carrying-over a piece of his Jewish culture. So it’s there in the three Abrahamic faiths.
But I know there are similar taboos in India and Africa too — women who don’t cover up their hair, avoid eye-contact with men — or who go out at night, practice medicine or midwifery, etc. Even in the US — many are uncomfortable with breast-feeding in public. It’s all about a culture aversion to an unrestrained female who has her own sense of power.
The long hair [specifically] harkens the human mind back to the primordial archetype of Venus in the night sky as a comet — the root, coma, meaning “hair” — describing the chaotic plasma displays surrounding the planet.
The fear is either that a woman’s loose hair will unleash a melee of natural disasters — or will invite the mischief of lusty demons fueled by her unabashed, fully-exposed beauty.
I’m still liking this — but I only get one vote:
there is neither jew nor greek
there is neither bond nor free
there is neither male nor female
for ye are all one
A woman could live out her life entirely in an atmosphere of control and subjection to male authority: first to her father, then to teachers, then to government and/or work authorities, then to a husband.
Her entrance into the church of Christ through baptism, is designed by the Lord to be her entrance into freedom. No longer is she to be a second-class citizen [standing behind a man], but is to be on equal ground with men: having her own body of revelations, prophecies, and witness of Jesus to share, having her own quorum of priestesses with a jurisdiction and ministry of their own, having equal voting rights as men in all matters pertaining to the church and the priesthood, and having [together with her sisters] the combined capacity to pull-down all abuse and priesthood abusers by their common consent.
No longer need she obey a man by virtue of his office or title [father, husband, police officer, teacher, elder, president, etc.] — but now free to discard a man’s title altogether and obey only the Christ-like ones and vote down the devilish.
Don’t forget, you’re readingthis in English. It wasn’t written in English and you might find translation bias as well as mistranslation.
And, you cannot apply 21st century contruct to a 2000 year old document.
Being known to someone is not the same as being known as someone. Not even in ancient Greek.
I think stretching source material strains scholarly credibility.
Well, Origen’s early Christian apologetics were defending against the charge that Christianity was a religion for women and poor people. We’ve certainly gotten past that in the LDS church! Now we’re defending our sexism and wealth. There’s progress for you.
The Turks felt that just taking the eyes out was enough to comport with the Koran and the graven images prohibition. You can see this sort of thing all over the Greek world as a result of it being overrun by the Turks.
Bottom line is that Talmadge felt that this was a gross slander against Mary Magdalene.
On the other hand, I’m not certain that asserting this sort of sin in her history is any grosser slander than any other sort of sin, for example, of being a publican or a Pharisee. I wonder about that.
There is an interesting case made for Mary being the author of the 4th gospel here:
It rather appeals to the radical in me.
In any case, I definitely believe that she played a far larger role than we know. I think that there is something very meaningful in the fact that the risen Christ appeared to her first, before any of his apostles. Kind of turns the whole hierarchical / patriarchal order on its head, really.
Forgive me, I’ve never commented here before, but I have a fundamental disagreement with the premise that I’d love to have someone clear up for me. I’ve always thought that the Mary discussed in this case (the anointing prior to his crucifixion) was Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus and not associated with the Magdalen. John so identifies her in both chapters 11 and 12 and I wasn’t aware that his testimony had been discredited, though it certainly differs in intent and matter. Certainly, the temptress female persona had its heyday among medieval clerics and is fairly indefensible in the modern era, but so is much of medieval thought and belief. Mary Magdalene hasn’t suffered any more than Eve or Sarah, both maligned quite unfairly. There are worse things than suffering unfairness; ask any female executive. Life goes on.
I think it’s interesting that “Repentant Prostitute” has no votes. Justin, They call her a “whore” because she’s liberated — she’s not controlled by the same ascetic/Puritan repressive drives that control them. So would an apt comparison of Pope Gregory be Rush Limbaugh calling Ms Fluke a slut?
@UtahMormonDemoGuy – I agree, there are a lot of similarities with the black and women priesthood bans.
N, your comment seems to completely misunderstand the context of the scripture. Can you explain the context of the scripture and why the scholars are getting it wrong (because it REALLY sounds like you’re proof-texting to make your argument.)
Prometheus, so the link states that Mary is the true author of the Gospel of John? I guess the radical in me likes that idea too, but I think all of the gospels were written pseudonymously, so I think all of the gospels were written by nobody we know. I think they’re all falsely attributed to famous Christians. But it is an interesting idea.
Bonnie, thanks for commenting, and welcome!!! I left out a quote from the documentary that will leave the identity of all of the Marys completely in doubt, but I hope clarifies your confusion about Mary.
Perhaps some “hysterical” context could explain why Pope Gregory I (Gr: Παππαω Γρηγορξοω Α Μεγαϛ) considered Mary Magdalene to be the same as the prostitute that the Savior forgave. He was born into a wealthy Roman family starting in relatively peaceful times under Theodoric the Great. As he grew up he saw Italy ravaged by its reconquest at the hands of the Eastern Roman Empire, with the Plague of Justinian and what little remained of manpower and wealth in Italy siphoned off to Constantinople. He also served as the apocrisiarius (ambassador) of the Holy See to Constantinople, so he saw how Italy was ruled by the “Romans” but not necessarily for the benefit of the original “Rome”. The dominant “Byzantine” emperor of the time, Justinian, was not even the most hated. His wife, Theodora (Gr: Θεοδώρα), herself being of extremely questionable background for the times and a follower of the Monophysite “heresy”, was considered to be the real power behind the throne. She was a strong advocate for women’s right in Constantinople which likely didn’t set too well with the conservative Latins in Italy. A comparison with the characterization of Mary Magdalene as a hooker is that Theodora herself was an “actress”, reputedly of the burlesque variety. Supposedly she was famed for what was known as “Bear dancing” (I have no idea what it was and can’t find a reliable description) and performing the Greek play “Leda and the Swan” by stripping on the stage to a G-string, having corn piled on her groin area and having swans or geese eat it off her! Little wonder that Justinian waited until his aunt (the empress regent) died before he married Theodora. To cite another example of the woman’s strength and resolve, during the Nika riots in Constantinople, with her husband ready to abdicate and flee, she conveyed her desire to remain, saying, “purple (the color of royalty) makes a fine winding sheet”. It’s not surprising that this remarkable woman was hated and her reputation trashed. It would make sense that experience jaundiced Gregory’s views about a strong woman, especially if she had a questionable past (or at least could be construed same).
To me, it really doesn’t matter whether Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or not. Certainly the principle of repentance was in effect. Having thus been freed from her past sins, her talents could therefore shine forth.
If Matthew, who was a tax collector (tantamount to being a traitor) could be called an apostle and write a Gospel, then certainly redemption and a calling ought to have been in store for a woman who’d simply slept around.
Thanks for the quote and the welcome. There are a lot of Marys! I guess, however, that I don’t feel confused. John makes the most clear statement about this (the anointing) Mary’s identity, and he names her as the sister of Martha and Lazarus. With his gospel likely written last I lean with those critics who see him correcting some misapprehensions from the synoptics (or probably the Q source). The synoptics have a pattern of rather disjointed experience and I think it’s very safe to say that their references to Marys in close context aren’t necessarily the same individual. The intent of John in establishing the divinity of Christ guided his selection, and the inclusion of Mary’s anointing was crucial to his theme: after the raising of Lazarus hers was the first testimony of his needful death, paired as it was with Lazarus’ raising with the knowledge that he *would* be raised – a crucial first testimony, more profoundly demonstrated even than any of the apostles’. That he discusses her anointing twice seems to indicate just how extant the story was in his time – he makes a point of clarifying her identity. There are certainly huge problems with the conflation of Marys into a single character (indeed haven’t all women been rather conflated in scripture?) that we inherited from those later writers who had an agenda. Mary’s profound testimony, however, stands the test of time quite separate from the considerable contributions of Mary Magdalene.
There was a talk by one of the apostles – can’t remember who at this time – about Mary Magdalene that specifically refuted the idea that she was a prostitute. I had a mission compansion who was very upset about that talk because she felt it was saying that nobody who had ever committed sexual sins could be good enough to be close (even married) with the savior.
Hawk, that was exactly what I was getting at by the end of my comment at #15. Thanks.
You’ve got an interesting argument, and I won’t agree or disagree with it, but I think it’s difficult to make any hard and fast identifications here. Could Mary Magdalene be Marth’a sister? Who knows.
As for the Gospel of John, it seems to be the gospel most closely linked to gnosticism. From what I understand, Gnostics were much more liberal concerning women, so it could be that they emphasized and elevated women more than the other gospels precisely because that is what their theological purpose was. Whether John is more correct than Matthew or any other gospel is subject to debate.
I will say that when I wrote about the timing of the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke differ by about a decade. Most people side with Matthew over Luke because the events match up better in Matthew. Herod died in 4 BC, but Cyrenius (also spelled Quirinius) wasn’t governor of Syria until about 6 AD. John doesn’t discuss the birth narrative at all, but it seems certain that some events are going to be hard to corroborate. It seems that scholars generally side with “earlier is better” for accuracy purposes and with John being last, that doesn’t help. But who knows, perhaps John has it right. But then the question is, why did John ignore the birth of Christ? Gnostics didn’t think the birth was important to the story, and may have decided to emphasize other things (like women, for example).
It’s true. I’m quite fond of John’s testimony for the sheer focus of it and the unprepossessing simplicity of the prose, so I do tend to lend greater weight to his historical observations, probably unevenly so. Even with any gnostic appreciation of women in John, I still think it would be hard to surpass Luke for human appreciation of women and willingness to ascribe great spiritual moments in Christ’s mortal life to their companionship. Still, no one can defend the gospels for historical records, unfortunately. It’s a good thing we do at least have them!
Please look at my blog (in french) about Mary Magdalene as female Jesus, thank you and blessings.
I would like to know who the artist is that did the first picture of the woman at Jesus’ feet. Thank-you.
I too would love to know who the artist is of the stunning painting of the woman at Jesus’ feet! So beautiful!
Can you tell me who did the painting at the top of the woman anointing Jesus’feet with oil? I love it and would like to own it or a copy of it. Thanks.
I did a quick search, and I think it is Wayne Forte, painting instructor at Glen West 2013: http://glenworkshop.com/wordpress/?page_id=680.
Can you please please tell me name of artist who painted wonderful first picture on this page of Mary anointing Jesus’s feet?