Bible scholars seek to polish Mary Magdalene’s image

Baltimore Sun, via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Apr. 26, 2003
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By JOHN RIVERA Baltimore Sun

The name Mary Magdalene conjures up a Hollywood image of a voluptuous temptress, possibly a prostitute, who after hearing the message of Jesus of Nazareth sees the error of her ways and repents of her sinful life.

But there’s a problem with that popular image. It’s not true.

Look closely at the text, biblical scholars say. There are seven mentions of Mary Magdalene in the four Gospels and in none is there any indication that she engaged in prostitution, adultery or any other sexual misdeed.

Rather, in the Scriptures, she is a woman — tormented by seven demons — who is healed by Jesus, becomes one of his followers and is the first person to encounter him after his resurrection.

For the past decade, a new generation of Scripture scholars, spiritual writers and church reformers, many of them women with a feminist outlook, have tried to set the record straight and uncover the real Mary Magdalene.

So how did this woman from Magdala in Galilee get such a reputation?

Part of the problem was her hometown.

“Magdala was known for fabric, feathers, fish and fallen women. It had a very busy red-light district,” says writer Liz Curtis Higgs, author of “Mad Mary, a Bad Girl from Magdala Transformed at His Appearing.” “She had this shady history, and she is the only demoniac in the Bible who is named and whose demons are numbered. That’s quite significant.”

But the main culprit for Mary’s reputation, some say, is Pope Gregory the Great.

Pope Gregory preached a sermon in the late 6th century that merged Mary Magdalene with two other biblical characters: an unnamed “sinful woman” in the Gospel of Luke who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume poured from an alabaster jar and dries them with her hair, and Mary of Bethany, the sister of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, who was raised from the dead.

The pope can’t get all the blame, says theologian Jane Schaberg of the University of Detroit Mercy.

“The legend had a life of its own” before the pope’s sermon, says Schaberg, author of “The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene.” “He just puts the cap on it.”

From that point, the image of Mary Magdalene as a repentant public sinner became fixed in the imagination of Western Christianity.

The Vatican formally repudiated the false image of Mary Magdalene in 1969. But that teaching has never filtered down to many of the faithful.

So, who was Mary Magdalene?

Higgs argues that the sexy temptress image of Mary in popular culture, in novels such as Nikos Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ” or in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” are off base.

Higgs points out that nine times in the Gospels, Magdalene is included in a list with other women, and in eight of those lists, she is listed first.

“In that day and time, the order of listing indicated the order of importance. Mary had the pride of place every time, above Mary, the mother of Jesus, with the exception of one: when he addresses his mother from the cross.”

Because the culture also honored age, Higgs believes Mary Magdalene was probably the oldest women on those lists. “Unquestionably, Mary Magdalene would have been the senior among the women,” she says. Taking into account Jesus’ age of 33 at his death, and the probability his mother was at least 13 years older, “I’d say she was at least approaching 50.”

Schaberg turns to the Gospel accounts in the New Testament, as well as Gnostic writings from the early church that never made it into the canon of the Bible, such as the Gospel of Mary, to draw a portrait of the saint. And her conclusion, one that is shared by several authors of recent works on the misunderstood saint, is that Mary Magdalene held a position of great prominence in the early Christian church.

As the effort to accurately portray Mary Magdalene advances, many women have begun to embrace her as a symbol of feminine religious authority and inspiration. For about the past six years, Sister Chris Schenk, executive director of the Cleveland-based FutureChurch, which advocates a greater role for women in the Roman Catholic Church, has been encouraging women to celebrate Mary Magdalene’s feast day July 22.

“The entire proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection depends on (Mary Magdalene’s) witness because she and the other women were the only ones who accompanied him to his crucifixion, who saw his death, who saw his burial and who were witnesses to the empty tomb and experienced his risen presence,” she said. “In the meantime, the male disciples went to Galilee. So we can say the Easter proclamation came to us through women of faith.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 28, 2003.
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