This Wednesday, we celebrate the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, who for too long has wrongly been labeled as a former prostitute, a label that was reinforced by her portrayal in various Hollywood films such as Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Passion of the Christ (portrayed as the woman caught in adultery), the 1927 version of King of Kings, Mary Magdalene (TV movie), The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Last Temptation of Christ.
There is no scriptural basis for this inference of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute.
She appears in four scenes in the Gospels:
- Luke 8:2—Luke describes Mary Magdalene as one of the group of women who were following Jesus and says that seven demons had been cast out of her.
- Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; Luke 23:49; John 19:25—All four Gospels describe Mary Magdalene as being present at the Crucifixion.
- Matthew 27:61; Mark 16:47; Luke 23:55—All three synoptic Gospels mention Mary Magdalene as a witness to Jesus’ burial.
- Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18—All four Gospels describe Mary Magdalene as a witness to the Resurrection and, in Matthew and John, her encounter with the Risen Christ is described.
In Catholic tradition, we sometimes accept as part of our faith story accounts that are extra-biblical, such as the roles of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, and Veronica, who wiped the face of Jesus. However, in the case of Mary Magdalene, there is no evidence that this tradition has inspired roots. Rather, it appears to be a misguided effort to embellish and dramatize Mary Magdalene’s character by relying on stereotypes (i.e. “If she had seven demons driven out of her, surely one of them was a sexual demon.”).
In honor of the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene this week, July 22, let’s commit ourselves to correcting this unfortunate mislabeling whenever we encounter it in homilies, at Scripture study, or in adult faith formation. Let’s clear the good name of St. Mary Magdalene!
Image: Fra Angelico, “Noli me tangere,” public domain via Wikimedia Commons.