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How Did Mary Magdalene Lose Her Reputation?

Dr. Brandon Scott explains.

Have you ever wondered how Mary Magdalene came to be regarded as a prostitute by much of mainstream Christianity when she is portrayed in many other early sources as an apostle, even as someone Jesus loved “more than the rest of woman” (Gospel of Mary 5:5)?

In this presentation Dr. Brandon Scott helps us understand how Mary Magdalene lost her good reputation.

This is part of a series of Bible and Beyond blog posts, podcasts, and videos dedicated to exploring the mysteries surrounding the extremely important but terribly misunderstood biblical character, Mary Magdalene. Click here to access more information about Mary Magdalene on the Early Christian Texts website.

Dr. Scott’s vast knowledge of ancient art, the Greek language, and early Christian history contribute to this informative presentation.


The following is a transcript of the video above.  

Mary Magdalene is one of those topics that I find interesting mainly because there are so many ways you can take the topic. You can ask all kinds of questions about Mary Magdalene. You just have to watch out that there may not be as many answers as you think.

She’s a very important figure in the history of the early Jesus movements, but she’s also kind of elusive. It’s really hard to pin down where she goes. That sounds bad, but it’s really the same situation we have with all these people. We know about as much about the historical Mary Magdalene, as we know about the historical Peter, that is, not very much. It’s really fairly minimal, but there are some things to kind of take into consideration here.

And I want to begin with pictures. I’m a great collector of early Christian and pagan art.

Earliest known image of Mary Magdalene from a house church in Dura Europa, Eastern Syria

This is the earliest representation we have of Mary Magdalene, and it’s dated at 240 and it comes from a house church in Dura Europa, Eastern Syria, right on the border with Iraq. It’s a desert town, and in the wall of this town, there was a synagogue, and a small house church, and they got buried around 250. And so it’s a kind of a marvelously preserved little example of what a synagogue looked like and what a house church looked like. There’s not much left in the house church, but we do have this image, which is of two or maybe three women coming to a tomb. You can see the sun up there, the supposedly rising sun on the edge of the tomb and the women are carrying torches.

And if you look in their hands, there’s the spice jars. So this is either two women or three women. If it’s Matthew’s story, it’s two women. If it’s Mark’s story, it’s three women. And you would think one of them, the lead woman, is Mary Magdalene, since she’s the lead character, the first one named in those stories. So this is very likely, possibly, almost for sure, the earliest image we have of Mary Magdalene. And she’s just presented as an ordinary woman, nothing extraordinary about her at all.

Italian Altarpiece showing Mary Magdalene

This image is from much later, in the 14th century. And this is a classical Italian altarpiece. And here you can see the images of Mary Magdalene, which become typical in the tradition. She’s always dressed —  almost always —  dressed in red or some shade of red because she’s viewed as a prostitute, and red symbolizes who you are. Since you can’t name characters in paintings, people have iconography, they have ways of designating them. This is from John’s gospel here. Here she is at the foot of the cross. And then there she is, seeing Jesus in the garden. It’s kind of an interesting piece.

This piece is from Rafael, even later (16th century). And it’s Mary Magdalene with Jesus being taken down from the cross. Very typical Rafael piece. Again, you can see she’s in red, not as predominantly as in the Italian altarpiece, but nevertheless, the red is there indicating that’s Mary Magdalene. And you know why she wears red.

The Deposition (1507), a painting by Raphael, showing a distressed, reddish-blond-haired Mary Magdalene dressed in fine clothes clutching the hand of Jesus's body as he is carried to the tomb
An oil painting of Mary Magdalene stirring or pouring liquid into a chalice

This piece is about the same time. And here she’s mixing up either the ointments for the burial or the ointments for the story where she anoints Jesus. That anointment thing becomes a part of her symbol. You’ll see it in lots of images. And she’s got the red dress on that makes you know that’s her. So she’s got this story that Mary Magdalene was a fallen woman, was a prostitute who was converted and saved by Jesus.

She also gets a starring role in Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, in which she is then Jesus’s wife. And Jesus’s lineage continues to live on in a physical way. A very odd book, which a lot of people liked. But it’s really a strange story, if you think about it. The ultimate conspiracy theory.

When we talk about women in the ancient world, the first thing you have to really remember is for the most part they get erased.  Scholars refer to this as the erasure of women.

Women in the ancient world aren’t visible, they simply disappear. We have virtually no writings from women in the ancient world. There are exceptions to that, but they are few and far between. For the most part, women are not literate. And so their artifacts don’t get preserved. They just disappear from the picture.

Here’s a great example of that erasure. If you were to ask most Christians or churchgoers, how many female apostles there were, they’d say no. If you’d asked the Pope, he’d say there’s none of them. But here in Romans 16:7, Paul knows a female apostle.

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and my fellow prisoners; they are prominent among the apostles and they were in Christ before me.”

Junia is a female name. She is clearly, and her husband is Andronicus; she is clearly an apostle. Paul knows her as an apostle and respects her as an apostle. So there were clearly female apostles in the early church. And yet that fact — here, very evident in Romans 16—completely disappears in the tradition and they get wiped out. That’s part of the erasure. That’s part of what you have to deal with when you’re going to talk about women in the ancient world.

So if we want to ask, “How did Mary Magdalene get a reputation, and where did that reputation come from,” we need to look at it historically. And for me, that means we look at the first mention. The first mention of Mary Magdalene is in the first gospel, Mark’s gospel. And she occurs in the scene after Jesus has been crucified.

“Now, some women were observing from a distance among whom were Mary Magdala.”

This is the very first mention of Mary Magdalene in any text, somewhere around, shortly after 70, most people think Mark was written.

“And Mary, the mother of James, the younger, and Joses, and Salome. These women had regularly followed and assisted him. When he was in Galilee, along with many other women who had come up to Jerusalem in his company.”

It’s important to remember that in Mark’s narrative, the men have all fled. There are no men at the foot of the cross. There are only women. These are the women that he knows. It’s also important to notice in here that he says these women had regularly followed and assisted him when he was in Galilee, along with many other women. So Mark is telling you that when you imagine all these scenes of Jesus with his disciples, that they’re all male, you’re wrong, that women have been in this story all along. They’ve just disappeared. They’ve just been erased.

The second mention of Mary Magdalene is after the burial.

“And Mary of Magdala and Mary, the mother of Joses, noted where he had been laid to rest.”

That’s at the end of the Marken burial story.

And then the final Marken story is at the empty tomb. At the beginning of the empty tomb story in Mark, which is 16:1, it begins,

“And when the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala and Mary, the mother of James and Salome, brought spices so they could go and anoint him.”

And the women see a young man in the tomb and he tells them that Jesus has gone before them to Galilee. They don’t see Jesus. There’s no resurrection from the tomb. That doesn’t happen at all.

And then Mark’s gospel ends at 16:8.

“And once they got outside, they ran away from the tomb because great fear and excitement got the better of them. And they didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone: talk about terrified…”

That’s the ending of Mark’s gospel that ends with the women being afraid and not telling anyone, which creates a real mysterious ending for this gospel. If they didn’t tell anyone, where did the story come from? So it creates quite a mystery in an ending, which is a great way to end the story.

So that’s the first mention of Mary Magdalene anywhere in early Christian literature, it’s in Mark’s gospel. And it has to do with the death and burial and the tomb of Jesus. And women were responsible for burial, so it’s a story that makes a certain kind of sense.

Matthew simply repeats Mark. He’s copying Mark. He’s using Mark as a source. And he doesn’t change the death, the burial story at all. He goes right along with Mark, and that’s his first mention, then, Mary Magdalene; it’s in the same way that Mark does.

“After the Sabbath at the first light on Sunday, Mary of Magdala and the other Mary came to inspect the tomb.”

That’s Matthew 28:1. Notice for whatever reason—and nobody knows why—where Mark has three women, he only has two women. Why he does that, nobody knows, but he does. He has two. It’s very handy because when you see this image, you see there’s two women and that tells you that this story, this image, is really from Matthew’s gospel.

This is Saint Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Its date is about 500, give or take 50 years, either side of that. And what’s interesting about this image, this is exactly 250 years after the one in Dura Europa. This is the second earliest image we have of Mary Magdalene. Saint Apollinare Nuovo is an imperial church. It was built by an Empress who was a resident in Ravenna. Ravenna is the Western capital of the Roman Empire in this period. Constantinople is the Eastern capital and the head of the whole empire.

These two women are pictured as noble Roman women. There’s nothing about her… you can’t tell which one’s Mary Magdalene, which one’s the other one. There’re just two noble women coming to the tomb. And so she’s an ordinary woman. There’s nothing extraordinary about her.

Notice in Mark and in Matthew—Mark’s the earliest gospel, Matthew is copying Mark—here’s no indication that there’s anything problematic about Mary Magdalene’s background. In fact, you’re not told anything about Mary Magdalene’s background. She just appears in the gospel at the foot of the cross, notices where the burial is, and is there to see the young man in the tomb. That’s it. You know nothing of her background from her first appearance. In John, John’s very different. I think John probably knows Mark, and John does what John likes to do, he tends to take a story and concentrate it.

And so he makes the three women or the two women, one woman, and the one woman is Mary of Magdala.

“Early on Sunday, while it was still dark. Mary of Magdala comes to the tomb, and sees that the stone has been moved away” (John 21)

“’Mary,’ says Jesus. She turns around and exclaims in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’). ‘Let go of me,’ Jesus tells her.”

This becomes a famous scene in art. And it goes by the Latin title “Noli Me Tangere.” “Do Not Touch Me,” because that’s how Jerome translated the phrase. What it really means in Greek is, “Don’t keep clinging to me.” He’s not telling her not to touch him. That’s Jerome’s mistake of the translation.

A fresco showing Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a green space outside the tomb

But this becomes a famous type of painting that goes under this name in the late medieval period in the early Renaissance. This is Fra Angelico’s version of this image. Notice she’s in red, so you know, he thinks she’s a fallen woman, and Jesus is telling her not to touch him.

Jesus moving away from Mary Magdalene in this oil painting

This is Titian’s version a little later than Fra Angelico. And again, she’s in red, and Jesus is telling her not to touch him.

So how did she lose her reputation? How did she get this reputation? And everybody knows she has—that she’s a fallen woman. Luke! Luke is the one who does her in. And this is a really important story to follow and grasp the details of. Luke changes the way Mary Magdalene is presented, in his gospel.

Mark introduces Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross. That’s the first mention of her in his gospel. That’s late in his gospel, okay? Chapter 15. Matthew follows the same way. Luke changes. He introduces Mary Magdalene in chapter 8, which is very early in his gospel. And he introduces her in the context of another story about an anonymous woman who loved too much.

Now we’re going to look at these two stories. The Luke story in Luke 7:36-39 is parallel to the story in Mark 14:3. Now remember Mark is the earliest gospel. Luke knows the Markan story, and he takes this story, which is in chapter 14 of Mark, and moves it up to the end of chapter 7 in his gospel; moves it way up.

Let’s look first at the Markan story.

“When he was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, he was just reclining there, and a woman came in carrying an alabaster jar of aromatic ointment made from pure and expensive nard. She broke the jar and poured the ointment on his head.”

Okay? In the Mark story, the disciples argue about why she is wasting all of this, but there’s no indication there’s anything problematic about the woman. Judas is just concerned about the spending of money. Jesus rewards her.

In Mark, Jesus is anointed Messiah before his death by a woman! “Messiah” means to be anointed. And it’s the woman who anoints him on the head exactly in the way David would be anointed as a Messiah. So this is a critical story for Mark. It’s a woman. This is a very scandalous story in Mark, and it’s meant to be scandalous that Jesus is anointed Messiah in his death by a woman.

Luke takes the same story, moves it up to chapter 7, and eliminates the overtones that Mark has put into the story.

“One of the Pharisees invited him to dinner; he entered the Pharisee’s house, and reclined. A local woman, who was sinner…”

Now notice this is not an anonymous woman. This is a woman who’s a sinner. And this is a euphemism for prostitute. That’s what this word means.

“… found out he was having dinner at the Pharisee’s house. She suddenly showed up with an alabaster jar of aromatic ointment and stood there behind him, weeping at his feet. Not his head, his feet! Her tears wet his feet, and she wiped them dry with her hair. She kissed his feet.”

This is a symbol of abasement, you know.

“The Pharisee who had invited him saw this and said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who this is and what kind of woman is touching him, since she is a sinner.’”

Now in this story, Luke has changed the woman from an anonymous woman who does something of virtue and anoints Jesus as Messiah on his head, to making her a prostitute who’s prostrate at the feet of Jesus, engaging in an act that’s really hard to understand.

It’s after this story that Luke introduces Mary Magdalene. So not at the foot of the cross, but after this story of the woman.

“And it came to pass soon afterward that he traveled through towns and villages, preaching and announcing the good news of the empire of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women whom he had cured of evil spirits and diseases; Mary, from one of Magdala, from whom seven demons had departed, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many other women who had provided for them out of their resources.”

Notice Mary Magdalene is singled out and it said she had seven demons have been thrown out of her. Nothing like that’s in Mark. So she now has this kind of problematic past as being someone who is demon-possessed.

At the crucifixion, if you look at the Markan story and the Lukan story, Luke knows Mark. Notice what he does. Luke eliminates the names of the women. Their names just disappear. They become erased. Unlike the Markan story, which he knows and which he’s copying. He’s deliberately erasing their names. Likewise, at the burial, the women are not named as they are in Mark. He eliminates their names. At the tomb, the same thing happens. Their names get eliminated and they disappear.

The story of the resurrection is very different in Luke than it is in Mark. And there’s this section where the women, after they returned from the tomb, they related everything to the eleven and to everybody else. The group included Mary of Magdala and Joanna and Mary, the mother of James. It’s only in the report to the eleven that he names them. So they’re being completely subordinated to the group of the eleven. That’s not the case in Mark or Matthew. They related their story to the apostles, but their stories seemed nonsense to them, so they refused to believe the women. What Luke has done has taken the women completely out of the resurrection tradition. Their witness is useless. For Mark, it’s the primary witness. This is a very, very different telling of the tale.

Now, many of you probably know there’s a longer ending of Mark. Actually, there’s several longer endings of Mark, three of them. But the one that got into the King James was Mark 9 to 11, and it’s clearly later. It doesn’t get added to Mark until sometime in the late second century, maybe early third century. It’s kind of iffy exactly where it comes in. But Mark, if you remember, ends with the women going away saying nothing. And that’s a kind of unsatisfying or problematic ending. So various endings got invented, beginning with Matthew and then Luke, and even John. Here’s the ending that gets added to the Markan manuscripts.

“Now after he arose at daybreak on Sunday, he appeared first to Mary of Magdala, from whom he had driven out seven demons.”

You can see that whoever wrote this longer ending of Mark got his evidence from Luke.

“She went and told those who were close to him who were mourning and weeping. But when those folks heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe it.”

So basically whoever wrote this ending has used Luke to construct a new ending for the Gospel of Mark.

If there’s a conspiracy there, here’s where it really gets deep. Pope Gregory the Great in 591 wrote a letter where he said, “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. . . It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh for forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner.”

So it’s Gregory the Great who takes these different fragments, the Lukan story of the woman who anoints Jesus turns her into Mary Magdalene, the longer ending of Mark with the casting out of the seven demons. And he combines those stories into Mary Magdalene, the prostitute. This is where the tradition puts it all together and it has stuck. That’s where her reputation was destroyed: with Gregory the Great. Luke planted the seed, and Gregory the Great reaped the harvest.

This is one of my favorite stories in this whole tradition.

This is a 15th-century Dutch painting of Mary Magdalene. And what’s interesting about it is down at the bottom, you can see the jar of ointment. Even though she’s now an upper class Dutch woman, at least in the painting, and she’s repentant, you’re never allowed to forget her past. There’s the ointment that she poured on Jesus’ feet. And you see the red sneaking around, you know, pointing out her past. She’s never allowed to forget her past, even in a beautiful painting like this.

Now you know how she lost her reputation.

A Dutch painter imagines Mary Magdeline reading

I think it’s time in our generation that we give it back to her. She’s not, she was not a prostitute. She is not somebody who lost her virtue. She was a noble follower of Jesus from the very beginning, and she really should be acknowledged for that.