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Mary Magdalene – The Prostitute? – Part 1

We all know the story of Mary Magdalene. Before she became one of Jesus’ disciples and the first witness of the Resurrection, she was the prostitute who entered the house of Simon the Pharisee and anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive oil poured from an alabaster jar. She is also the woman who was about to be stoned being caught in the act of adultery, but was saved and forgiven by Jesus (John 8:1-11).

Great artists have captured Mary Magdalene in many famous paintings hanging in museums throughout the world. Her wiping of Jesus’ feet with her hair or holding an alabaster jar can be found in many fine art museums. Above is an example, called “Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee,” painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1620. Her story comes to us from Luke 7:36-49.

Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s home for a meal. During the meal, a woman in the city, who was a sinner, went into the house and anointed Jesus with her tears and perfume poured from an alabaster jar. The Pharisee believes that if Jesus were truly a prophet, he would know what kind of woman Mary is: a prostitute. Instead, Jesus points out that this woman was truly repentant and utterly grateful for what he has done for her. Her response is a proper outpouring of her gratitude for his grace and forgiveness.

Mary Magdalene – The Prostitute?

Interestingly, Mary Magdalene is never named as the woman who washes Jesus’ feet or who is threatened with a stoning for her sexual impurity. In both these accounts, the subject is called “a woman,” “this woman” or simply “woman”. There is no reason to connect Mary Magdalene with either of these women, except for one: in 591AD, Pope Gregory the Great linked Mary to the prostitute and held her up as the perfect penitent.

“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 the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” – Pope Gregory the Great, 591AD, Homily 33

Since 591 AD, artists and creative types throughout history have added to Mary’s reputation. The scene from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is engraved upon our minds: we see the arm of MaryAdulterous Woman Magdalene, the woman caught in adultery, inches above the packed-dirt ground, stretching out as she reaches for the feet of Jesus.

Even pastors and teachers who have read their Bibles have fallen prey to the idea of Mary Magdalene the Prostitute. Today, the English word “magdalen” means a reformed prostitute. Yet, there is no Biblical basis for the current-day portrayal of Mary as a woman of loose morals.

In part 2 of this blog, I will show what the Bible does have to say about Mary Magdalene.

Your Turn:

What are your thoughts about Mary Magdalene, the prostitute? Have you learned otherwise? If you always thought Mary of Magdala was a prostitute, where did you get that from? Add your comments below.