Glad You Asked: Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?

On this episode of the podcast, Heidi Schlumpf talks about the origins and accuracy of the popular belief that Mary Magdalene was a sex worker.

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Mary Magdalene is probably one of the most recognized saints in the Catholic Church. She’s also one of those saints whose true history is obscured behind various stories and legends, from the early church to the modern era. Who was Mary Magdalene? Was she the woman who washed Jesus’ feet? Was she the same person as Mary of Bethany? 

According to multiple popular accounts, Mary Magdalene was a sex worker who converted and followed Jesus. According to a few arcane theories, she even married Jesus. The sex worker theory has been a popular one for centuries. People seem to enjoy stories about women who go from lives of transgression to lives of austere holiness. But is the story true? Where did it come from? And what are its roots—if any—in scripture and tradition? 

On this episode of Glad You Asked, the hosts talk to guest Heidi Schlumpf about the origins, development, and accuracy of this tradition. Schlumpf is a senior correspondent and former executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter. She previously served as the managing editor of U.S. Catholic. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including CNN Opinion, Sojourners, and Huffington Post. She is the author of Elizabeth A. Johnson: Questing for God (Liturgical Press), and While We Wait: Spiritual & Practical Advice for Those Trying to Adopt (ACTA).

You can learn more about this topic, and read some of Schlumpf’s writing, in these links.

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Emily Sanna: Welcome to the first episode of the fourth season of Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Emily Sanna, managing editor at U.S. Catholic.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: And I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic. On today’s episode, we’re going to discuss a very old, and widespread belief about one of the church’s most revered saints, Mary Magdalene.

Emily: Frequently, people talk about Mary Magdalene having been a sex worker before she met Jesus and became one of his disciples. This common idea has been popularized not only in hagiographies but in art and cinema as well. 

Rebecca: People really seem to enjoy the idea that Mary Magdalene was a sexual sinner who had to repent and abase herself before starting over as a faithful follower of Jesus. But where did this idea come from? What are its roots—if any—in scripture and tradition? 

Emily: And why is the notion of a holy woman as a reformed sinner still so popular? Today’s guest on the podcast, Heidi Schlumpf, is going to talk about the origins and development of this tradition.

Rebecca: Schlumpf is senior correspondent and former executive editor of the National Catholic Reporter. She previously served as managing editor of U.S. Catholic, and has reported extensively on religion, spirituality, social justice and women’s issues. She is the author of Elizabeth A. Johnson: Questing for God.

Emily: Heidi, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast.

Heidi: Great, thanks for having me.

Rebecca: Given your history with U.S. Catholic, not just as a former managing editor, but also as a long-time contributor, it kind of feels like we should be saying welcome back.

Heidi: Well, it’s great to be back and especially for Glad You Asked because I always loved that feature in the magazine.

Emily: So just to start us off, why is Mary Magdalene so important in the Catholic tradition?

Heidi: Well, I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how important she is, especially given her prominence in the gospels. No woman is mentioned more than Mary Magdalene except Mary, the mother of Jesus. So she obviously was one of Jesus’ followers in Galilee. She was present at the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus, so is seen as someone who was faithful to the end. And she was the first witness, if not one of the first witnesses, to the resurrection. So one of her titles, which is Apostle to the Apostles, I think indicates how much of a leader she was among Jesus’ followers in the early church. And I’ll just say personally, like I personally have always been drawn to her even when I was younger. I think it’s because I’m a child of the 1970s and she had all the good songs in Jesus Christ Superstar and God’s Bell.

I’ll try not to sing them for you. So I think even like her reputation as a repentant sinner was something that was compelling to me. It reminded me of the powerful forgiveness of God, although we’ll get into why that’s problematic. And it was when I was in grad school and I started learning about feminist scholars, feminist biblical scholars who were reclaiming the truth about Mary Magdalene. That’s when I got really interested in her and wanted to bring the message about her true reputation to a broader number of people, which is why I wrote the story for U.S. Catholic.

Rebecca: So, yeah, we have all these layers of fascinating tradition up through the pop culture of the 70s and even today. I know a lot of Lady Gaga’s songs reference Mary Magdalene, but what do we know about her just based on her role in the gospels?

Heidi: Yeah, so we won’t use Lady Gaga or Dan Brown as our scripture scholars today. So if we go right to the gospels, I think the first thing that’s important to look at is that we do have to do a little bit of digging and some speculating because the gospels were not written to share the stories of women of the time. So we have a lot of lost stories of women, we have unnamed women in scripture.

So I think it’s really significant that Mary Magdalene is named and is mentioned so frequently. So if we go to the gospels, the most important thing I think about her is that she’s there in those resurrection narratives in all four gospels. So the details may differ who’s with her, whether she’s alone, who runs to tell the news first or not, whether there’s an angel there or not, whether Jesus himself appears to her. But given that at the time women’s testimony is not really valued, the fact that all these gospel accounts include her being a witness to the resurrection, must mean that it’s most likely true and that it’s really important to the Christian story. So the other place where we see Mary Magdalene in the gospels is in Luke. So chapter eight, where she’s mentioned by name as a follower of Jesus who had seven demons cast out of her. Now later that comes to be seen as having some sort of sexual sin cast out of her and we see later that that’s probably a misunderstanding.

Emily: So where did that idea come from, that Mary Magdalene had some sort of sexual demon that she needed to be healed from?

Heidi: Well, again, and this is all kind of, you know, scripture scholars trying to piece this back together as they’re reclaiming her or rehabilitating her image. So I think casting out seven demons could have meant anything, actually, it could have meant some sort of healing. It could have been a physical healing or a mental or emotional healing. But I think what happened is that right in the previous chapter in Luke, in chapter seven, you have the story of an unnamed woman who is bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiping his feet with her hair. And I think because those two passages are so close to each other, that there’s some conflation there. Now that woman is also not explicitly named as a sexual sinner either, but you just have this conflation of so many women in the Jesus story, all getting sort of dumped onto Mary Magdalene. You know, there are other women who anoint Jesus. They’re unnamed in some gospels. In the Gospel of John, it’s Mary of Bethany. And then this sort of gets conflated too. So we have the woman at the well, who is named as a sexual sinner of some type, although not a prostitute. And again, all this is sort of as Christianity evolves, some of these things all get conflated. And it doesn’t help. In the sixth century, you have Pope Gregory the Great, who actually gives a homily where he says, this is true. Now, Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, these unnamed sinners who he says are sexual sinners are all the same person. So, and then you have that association with sexuality that just, you know, continues and gets brought up to the current day. Like I mentioned with the Dan Brown novel, The Da Vinci Code or The Last Temptation of Christ, where then we have this image of Mary Magdalene as somehow married to or sexually involved with Jesus, which is of course not church teaching.

Rebecca: So, given the fact that there isn’t any solid scriptural evidence for this idea that Mary Magdalene was a sexual sinner and a sex worker, why do you think this notion is so popular and it’s practically become doctrine in some people’s minds?

Heidi: Yeah, well, I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that it gained traction because of patriarchy. So what feminist scholars say is that the very early church, of course, thought Jesus was going to be returning very soon. And so there was less concern about conforming to the world at the time. But as it became clear that was not going to be happening.

You know, immediately, you have the early church more conforming to, you know, trying to be respectable in some ways to what the culture was at the time, which included quite a strong patriarchal culture. So you also have, I think, the biblical tradition of women being associated with sin from the story of Eve in Genesis. And so these long cultural forces affected how Mary Magdalene’s story got told. You know, the Gnostic gospel, some of these parts of things that are not part of official canon of scripture, but have been early writings that have been found by some archaeologists and have been examined by some people, they portray Mary more as a leader in the early church. So she was, you know, a disciple, an apostle, she was in a leadership position, maybe even sort of some tension between her and Peter about either in real life or as symbols about what kind of leadership the church will have. But I think we only have to look at how women have been marginalized in society and in the church throughout the centuries to think that that’s probably how something so seemingly obvious: Here’s this woman who’s the witness to the resurrection and must be so pivotal to Christianity gets turned into this sexual sinner who only stands for somebody who can be forgiven by Jesus despite this terrible sin.

Emily: So I think you’ve started to talk about this a little bit, but if we don’t think of Mary Magdalene as this kind of repentant sinner who somehow demonstrates the need for us all to repent and be saved, what’s a better way to think about Mary Magdalene and her importance, her legacy?

Heidi: Yeah, so I think there are a lot better ways to think about her. And, you know, the first one is as a disciple. So often as women, we think, oh, you know, here’s the apostles. There were 12 of them. They were all men. And it’s very helpful, I think, for many of the women of scripture to be rehabilitated as Jesus’ close followers. You know, I kind of like the way some groups today are [reclaiming] Phoebe as a deacon because of the call for the diaconate to be reopened to women. So seeing her as a fellow disciple and somebody we can model ourselves after, I also think her quality of faithfulness can be something that can be inspiring for her Christians today, men and women. So this idea that she was there till the end.

So many of the male apostles were hiding in the upper room or had fled when things got dicey in Jerusalem and Jesus is put to death, and she is there till the very end and possibly with other women. Then you know, it was this idea of her going to the tomb on Easter morning, going to take care of the end of life, burial, anointing, whatever might be involved with the body. That was kind of the job of women at the time. So maybe that’s not super surprising, but again, this idea that she was there even after Jesus’ death and was willing to go to the tomb where it would be seen that she was a disciple. I mean, a lot of the followers of Jesus at the time were bailing because they were afraid. Hey, we might be next up there on the cross. So I think that idea of faithfulness and discipleship are things that are worth reclaiming. And then, of course, women’s leadership. So several decades ago, some of the church reform movements, specifically Future Church, and I believe Call to Action as well, started reclaiming her as this model of women’s leadership while they were also calling for the church today to do more to have women be leaders in the church. And I think that that’s a very valid way to think of her. She clearly was the person who went and spread the good news. She was a leader. And I think it’s very helpful to think of her that way.

Rebecca: So, we have this kind of tradition, an oral tradition outside of the gospel stories, reinforcing this notion of Mary Magdalene as a sexual sinner. What are some stories from the tradition that we can tap into to highlight her role as an apostle and as a leader in the early church?

Heidi: So in addition to, you know, going to the gospel stories, there’s a lot of, like I said, extra canonical writings about her that we can look at, and also many things from the oral tradition that are stories about her that I think can be helpful or interesting. One that I like to point out is, and I think it’s helpful to note, that the Eastern churches did not have the sinner bandwagon idea about Mary Magdalene. There was still some conflation of her with the woman who anointed Jesus, but they don’t take that next step into saying that she’s like any woman in the gospel or a sexual sinner. And so I think some of the stories too from the Eastern tradition are interesting. So there’s a story that she went to Rome, you know, after Jesus’s death to spread the good news. And she was in the court of Tiberius and was challenged. How can you say that someone was raised from the dead? A person can’t be raised from the dead any more than that egg could be turning red. And then apparently, the story says she picks up the egg and it turned red. And so you see a lot in art of Mary Magdalene, pictures of her holding a red egg or the color red being associated with her. And I kind of started looking for images of Mary Magdalene after I got really into her and had devotion to her. And I do a lot of traveling internationally for work and personally, wherever I would go, I would try to find, you know, go into the religious tchotchke shops and be like, do you have something of Mary Magdalene? And, you know, in the Eastern tradition, you’re more likely to find something. I was showing you before we started this, an icon I have of her that I believe I picked up when I was on my honeymoon in Greece.

And many of the pictures from the Western tradition do show her in some sort of sexual way, like with her breasts bared or something like that. She’s often holding a jar, so that association of her, again, that unnamed woman. But the Eastern tradition ones, you do often see her in red or holding the red egg, which I think is a cool story.

Emily: So you mentioned that there are some groups that have kind of taken Mary Magdalene and sought to raise up this different way of thinking about her that is maybe prevalent in Catholicism. Are there examples of that happening more in church hierarchy? Are there any popes or any Vatican writings from the USCCB that maybe suggest any different ways of looking at Mary Magdalene?

Heidi: Maybe you’ve caught me. Maybe there are some that I should know about. But I mean, we do have, she does have an official feast day on the calendar, it’s July 22. It tends to be like in the middle of summer when a lot of people are on vacation or otherwise busy. But I know, you know, most churches would recognize her on that day. And, you know, a number of parishes or other groups sometimes have events associated or around that day. Maybe they’ll have a woman give a reflection or part of the homily or something like that. You know, I don’t know of anything that the USCCB has done, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t. You know, there is a tendency of more progressive Catholics to claim her, especially if they are seeing her as some sort of model for expanded women’s leadership in the church today. I also like, just personally, I like to think of her as a good patron saint for journalists. I’m a journalist because I think of her as, she went to go spread the good news, right? So she’s a news spreader. Maybe she could be a patron saint of social media or something like that. So yeah, I think there’s a lot more that could be done. Let’s put it that way.

Rebecca: Are there ways we could talk about Mary Magdalene and rehabilitating Mary Magdalene as a disciple without vilifying sex workers?

Heidi: Yeah, so I mean, since there’s no evidence that she was a sex worker, I think probably, you know, the first step would be in the best way would be just to depict her accurately. And so in that sense, then the issue wouldn’t be there. But, you know, I think that’s a really good question about especially, you know, as there’s become more acknowledgement that many women who do sex work are often forced into it or have no other options. I think we also need to look at more broadly in Christianity this idea that sexual sin is the worst sin of all and that it’s the only one or the one that we primarily need to be talking about.

You know, again, because of the history of how sexual sin has been associated with women or sin more broadly, even through the Adam and Eve story, I think this can be problematic. So we see that continuing today where the so-called pelvic issues, whether it’s abortion or contraception or LGBTQ issues, seem to be paramount for some Catholics. And the impression can be given to people outside the church that that’s all the Catholic Church cares about or it’s what we care about the most. So I think that’s unfortunate because that too is a misinterpretation of Jesus’ main message. So I think maybe those rehabilitations can kind of go hand in hand. Maybe we can pray to Mary Magdalene to help us with that.

Emily: Well, Heidi, that’s all the questions we have. Thank you so much for being a guest on today’s podcast.

Heidi: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I always like to talk about Mary Magdalene.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.