Almost 2,000 years after the Gospels were written, Mary Magdalene remains one of the most mysterious figures of the Bible. In past centuries, Magdalene has been interpreted in many ways. She’s been seen as a repentant prostitute, an early follower of Jesus, and some have even suggested that she might have been Jesus’ wife. Part of the reason it’s so hard to know anything for certain about Magdalene is that not much is written about her in the Bible. And she doesn’t appear in many other historical sources. That’s made it easy to invent new roles for her over the life of the Church. But, just who was Mary Magdalene: prostitute, saint, or Jesus’ wife?
We know that Mary Magdalene was a first-century woman who probably lived in the region around the Galilee Sea. But that’s about all we know for sure. The Gospels usually reference her as Mary “the Magdalene,” which implies that she might have been from the town of Magdala. However, the word “Magdalene” comes from an Aramaic word meaning “fortress,” which has led some historians to suggest that it’s really more of a nickname. Instead of being from Magdala, she might have been called the Magdalene in reference to her position as a tower of strength for the early church.
To further confuse matters, she is far from the only Mary in the Bible. The name Mary, or Miriam in Hebrew, was extremely common, and there are at least four other Marys mentioned in the Gospels. Mary Magdalene is usually distinguished from these other women with her full name, but not always. As a result, there are different traditions in Christianity about which passages actually refer to her. This means that there are also different traditions about who Mary was. In the Western Church, she’s best known as a repentant prostitute. But this interpretation is probably inaccurate.
Mary Magdalene first enters the story when Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, encounters “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out.” This fact that Mary was apparently cured of demons implies that she might have been seen a sinner, which leads some evidence for the idea that she was a prostitute. But just after that passage, the Gospel mentions that the women are helping to support Jesus by their own means. That implies Mary was probably an upper-class woman, rather than a prostitute.
The tradition of Mary as a prostitute seems to come from a confusion based on the text of the Gospels. You see, there’s actually no reference in the Bible about Mary being a prostitute. Instead, there is an unnamed woman in the Gospels who is identified as a woman with a “bad name” (i.e. a prostitute) who anoints Jesus’ feet with oil. By the sixth century, Mary had somehow come to be identified as this unnamed woman and is mentioned as a prostitute in a speech by Pope Gregory I. This “composite Mary” formed the main idea of Mary in the Church. But the real Mary was probably quite different. And she may have played a much more important role in the life of Jesus than you ever realized.