Mary Magdalene is definitely one of the most well-known female characters of the New Testament. She has been popularized in dozens of films, stories, and once in the popular rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. In almost all popular presentations, she is portrayed as a former prostitute who comes to Jesus in the spirit of true repentance. While the gospels are known for their graciousness towards persons with moral failings (both men and women), in our interpretation of the Bible I believe we have misrepresented the person we call Mary Magdalene.
There are several women named Mary mentioned in the Gospels – not least, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus. But there is also Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus; Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Mary the wife of Cleopas. Equally important, there are two unnamed women who are expressly identified as sexual sinners – the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume in Luke 7:36-50, and an adulteress whom Pharisees brought before Jesus to see if he would condemn her in John 8:1-11. [Note: this incident is not found in most ancient manuscripts.]
Do the Gospels actually support the notion that Mary Magdalene was once a prostitute? The answer, surprisingly, is no.
So who was Mary Magdalene? While we don’t know much of her story, but there are some things we do know for sure.
Mary is a traditional Jewish name (Mariam) and Magdalene is a form derived from a Hebrew root (Migdal) which means “tower.” This may refer either to a place with that name or to Mary’s character (strength, persistence, etc.) as observed by her community. So, for an experienced reader, her name already gives a hint of her towering personality that is yet to be revealed.
The association of Mary Magdalene with prostitution (albeit as a repentant prostitute) is the result of post-New Testament interpretations which identify her with several other women; at least one of whom was indeed a prostitute. Mary was one of the most common Hebrew names at that time. Simply because someone named Mary was a prostitute does not mean that Mary Magdalene was one as well. In the final analysis, there is simply no scriptural basis to definitively link these “sinful women” stories to Mary Magdalene.
The traditional interpretation hinges on a reference in Luke 8:2 that speaks of Jesus casting demons from Mary Magdalene, sometime prior to her becoming his committed follower. However, when demons left people (men included) the unclean spirits were never specifically identified as demons of sexual addiction or sexual immorality. Why then, in the case of Mary Magdalene, do we need to immediately think that the spirits Jesus cast out were of a sexual nature?! Have we made the same interpretive mistake here as we did with the Samaritan woman of John’s Gospel; labelling her too as a woman of ill repute? Have we allowed the chauvinistic hermeneutics of the past to influence our modern interpretation? The answer is, yes, probably so.