QUESTION: Forgive me if this has already been asked several times, but where did the origin of Mary Magdalene as an escort/ sex worker come from?

RESPONSE: Ah, great question. It’s kind of a complicated story, so I’ve decided simply to reprint what I have to say about it in my discussion of Mary Magdalene in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. In that book I devote six chapters to each of these important Christian figures, in each case explaining what we can know about them historically and then what we can know about the later legends that sprang up about them. In my introductory comments to my discussion of Mary Magdalene, I explain why she is widely thought of as a prostitute (in the popular imagination, not by scholars), even though she is not called that in the New Testament. This discussion is too long for a single post, so I will divide it in two, with the second coming tomorrow or the next day.


One feature of our sources makes Mary’s case different from those of Peter and Paul, and in some respects far more interesting. Probably in part because there are such sparse references to her involvement with Jesus, readers of the Gospels have always inserted her into stories where her name does not occur. That is how the various traditional interpretations of Mary have come about, for example that she was a prostitute, that she was nearly stoned for committing adultery, that she had a sister Martha and a brother Lazarus, and so on.


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None of these things is actually said about Mary Magdalene.  One problem is that there are other people named “Mary” in the New Testament, and sometimes these other Marys are confused with Mary Magdalene.  Another problem is that there are several stories in the Gospels about unnamed women, and readers have sometimes plugged Mary into these stories, assuming that she was the woman in question, when it actually appears otherwise.

First I should say something about the name Mary, which was one of the most popular names among Jewish women in the first century.  Just within the New Testament, we know of six women who bore the name, including, for example, Jesus’ own mother.  And this is out of a total of just sixteen women named in the Gospels, so that six out of sixteen are called Mary!  In the first century, nearly one out of four Jewish women from Palestine whose names are known were called Mary.  That is why ancient sources sometimes differentiate among these people by identifying them in other ways: thus one woman is called Mary Magdalene (literally, Mary of Magdala), another one is called Mary of (the town of ) Bethany, another is called Mary the mother of Jesus, etc.  A problem naturally arises when readers assume that an author is talking about one Mary when in fact he is talking about another.  Combined with the problem that some unnamed women are also found in the early stories about Jesus — well it’s easy to see how identities could come to get confused.

Let me show how the confusion has led to some of the well-known but non-historical traditions about Mary Magdalene.  In the Gospel of Mark, an unnamed woman pours ointment over Jesus’ head prior to his arrest and trial.  He praises her for anointing him for his burial (Mark 14:3-9).  There is nothing to tie this woman to Mary Magdalene, who is never mentioned in Mark’s Gospel prior to the passion.  But the Gospel of John, written about thirty years later, also speaks about a woman anointing Jesus, and this time it is someone named Mary.  It is not Mary Magdalene, however, but Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-8).  Moreover, this cannot be the same event mentioned in Mark, because in Mark it takes place in the home of Simon the Pharisee in the land of Galilee and in John it takes place in the house of Mary (of Bethany), Martha, and Lazarus in the land of Judea.  But readers have confused the two stories, making both women “Mary.”  Now, when Luke tells the story it is much like Mark’s, but in this case we are told that the woman is a “sinner,” and Simon the Pharisee is surprised that Jesus allows her to touch him (Luke 7:37-39).  When this third story is taken to refer to the same event as Mark’s and John’s, then what results is a garbled account, not found in Mark, John, or Luke, in which Jesus is anointed by a sinful woman named Mary.  The category “sinner” then somehow gets translated to mean “prostitute” (which it didn’t mean — it simply meant a woman who did not keep the law rigorously), with the result that Jesus is thought to have been anointed by a prostitute named Mary.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel we have a reference to Mary Magdalene, “from whom had gone out seven demons” (8:2).  We aren’t told what these demons were — but suppose you imagine that this Mary is the same as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus (which she couldn’t be, for reasons I’ll point out later).  Then possibly it was her demon possession that drove her to prostitution (even though demons are never said to do that in the New Testament).  And so you have, in conclusion, by smashing all these different stories together, the following identification:  Mary Magdalene is also Mary of Bethany, who was a prostitute but had reformed because Jesus cast seven demons out of her.  This picture is not at all historical — it has come about simply by combining different stories that mention different Marys and yet other stories that mention other women, none of whom were named Mary, leading to one big conglomerate story about Mary Magdalene, the reformed prostitute.

And then other stories get attached to her — for example, the near-fatal attempt on the life of a woman caught in the act of adultery, who is taken out to be stoned before Jesus intervenes.  This then must be Mary, as, for example, in Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ and reprised in one of the rare flashbacks found in Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ, where again Mary Magdalene is the only faithful follower of Jesus (apart from his mother Mary), whom he had earlier saved when she was about to be stoned.

None of these New Testament stories, however, deals with Mary Magdalene — except in popular imagination, which has kept blissfully removed from a careful reading of the texts themselves.  But the New Testament texts actually tell a different tale.  Mary Magdalene is not the person she is sometimes said to be.


I’ll continue from there, next time, to explain historically how Mary Magdalene came to be thought of as all these people.