St. Mary Magdalene was the first person to believe in the resurrection of Christ. One could argue that makes her the very first Christian. was the first person to believe in the resurrection of Christ. One could argue that makes her the very first Christian. She is known as the apostle to the apostles, because she told them of Christ’s resurrection. We celebrate all of these things on her feast day July 22nd.
But the one thing she is most known for, being a reformed prostitute, simply isn’t true.
Origin of the Myth
On September 14, 591, Pope Gregory the Great gave a homily in which he conflated Mary of Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery from Luke’s Gospel. One might note that adultery and sex work are not the same thing, but this is how rumors get started. While stories about Mary Magdalene as a sexual figure had been circulating a bit prior to this homily, they exploded in it’s aftermath. Legend stated that she was wealthy, beautiful, and lascivious. These stories become so widespread that many Christians even today are surprised to learn that they are not true.
St. Mary of Magdalene is mentioned by name many times in the gospels. If she were the sinful women in Luke’s gospel, she would have been named there as well. This should go without saying, but women are not interchangeable. There are more than one of us.
St. Mary Magdalene, Neither Madonna Nor Whore
The problem with confusing Mary Magdalene with a repentant prostitute is not that sex work precludes someone from Sainthood. (In fact, St. Mary of Egypt was a former prostitute.) The problem is that it feeds into the Church’s obsession with the women’s sexual sins. We simply do not know anything about Mary Magdalene’s sex life. In the absence of knowledge, the Church allowed a fantasy about her to flourish for centuries, not based in fact, that painted her as an object of desire. In other words, in the absence of information about Mary’s sexuality, the Church sexualized her against her will.
The Church turned a true friend of Jesus Christ, the first among believers, into a sex story. This matters.
Getting It Right
When it comes to a coherent theology of women’s sexuality, The Church has a long way to go. This is certainly related to the fact that The Church is run by men, and men in general struggle to conceive of women’s sexuality as unrelated to themselves and their fantasies. (See my series on pornography, starting here.) For all we know, St. Mary Magdalene was a married woman who had lawful sex regularly. Or perhaps she was a chaste single person. Or perhaps she had some experience with sexual sin, but was not a prostitute or an adulteress. What we do now is that she was a deeply holy woman and that she loved Jesus with her whole heart.
We don’t ask ourselves about the sex lives of the various men in Jesus’ life – about Peter or Luke or John. Because we don’t have information about them and it’s not relevant to everything they accomplished for God. We’re only obsessed with it comes to a woman. Because we have been conditioned to believe that we can’t honor a woman unless we know for certain her sexual status is pure (or that she has repented.)
Catholics, everything we need to know about St. Mary Magdalene was included for us by God in the Gospels. Move on.