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.

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52 COMMENTS

  1. There is enough in Scripture that is true. We don’t need to embellish or assume to make our point. I appreciate your work on this and the Samaritan woman story.

  2. I’ve wondered about this myself. Also some people want to say Mary, the sister of Martha, was the same as Mary Magdalene. Too much supposition going on, I think.

  3. Dr. Eli, I am one of your biggest fans/students(informally). My name is Neil K Morris, I am retired US Army and US Marine Special Operations. I’ve been around the world many times. I start with intro FYI. I am one of your most dedicated students and read everything you write or listen to all you speak. I intend on taking the entire course, coming to Israel to meet you and staff, seeing the Holy Land, and truly let the Lord Lead me from there. I’m a dynamic public speaker, love to spread the truth. I have NO FEAR! Respectfully, Neil

  4. I never knew this was so. However, since it is often presumed, for want of better explanation on the exorcism of demons from Mary Magdalene by Jesus himself makes a better perspective than mere assertion. May the Lord continue to bless you Dr. Eli.

  5. Finally an exoneration of a woman who was probably one of the early leaders of the church and a respected member. The first witness to the resurrection. I like the point that her name shows her the respect which church leaders of the 4th century AD were at pains to remove. Thank you Eli for exonerating Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan Woman. There are many demons in the demonic realm that attack both men and women, what reason is there to suppose the one Yeshua cast out of Mary was sexual from the Texts. Please keep up the good work.

  6. I guess I would ask if Mary Magdalene was one of the people in Luke 7:21 because 8:2 says Jesus brought with him women who had been healed of evil spirits. If that is the case, then the focus in 7:21 was on who Jesus was (“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”) not on what Mary did or did not do. I looked back to 7:21 because looking past 8:2 doesn’t make sense.

  7. Wow, I just saw a documentary about Mary Madeleine the other night. It was said that the,Catholic Church was the first to say that she was a prostitute, but sometime in the 1960s after much study found that the idea of her being a prostitute was wrong. They found that many women of means followed Jesus and the diciples and often funded them. They also mentioned 3 books that were found which includes a book by Mary Madeleine. Have you heard of this?

    • Hi Elizabeth, Do you mean they found a book allegedly written by Mary Madeleine, herself? I must confess I am a bit of skeptic regarding these matters….

  8. Thank you, Dr. Eli’s for not downgrading Mary Magdalene. Luke 8:2 may speak about how Jesus drove out the demons know as pride, greed, lust, envy, wrath, and sloth in Mary Magdalene. On a higher more profound level, Mary=Mirmin in Jewish the Mother was at the foot of the Cross and Mary Magdalen at the Tomb of Jesus. They were there to represent the fore-mothers of change and rebirth. Scroll of Revelation, John the Divine points to the persecution shown to the “woman,” that emerges and how opposition power want to make war with “the remaining ones of her seed:

  9. Absolutely agree. So much of the Bible we’ve been taught wrong about. Much of it intentional, but probably in this case as you say just an assumption made by the church fathers and passed down for centuries by those who never questioned what they were taught. We need to question everything as we read scripture, being careful not to make our own assumptions. As you say scripture doesn’t specify if her demons were sexual or not. The important thing is we are all sinners as we come to Yeshua, but there is forgiveness in Him, regardless our own “demons.”

  10. The first “me two” movement? France seems to have her in great favor in their findings. Seems they may even have some relics of her’s. Just started studying about MM. Keep up the good corrections. Two wrongs seldom make even one good right!

  11. There is excellent work being done at Migdal on the Sea of Galilee. One insight we have about Mary Magdalene is that she must have been prosperous and independent, perhaps an independent businesswoman. Migdal was a major center for not only salted fish but also manufacture of garum (the Roman equivalent of ketchup) which was shipped all over the Roman world. Perhaps Mary was a ketchup magnate. In any case she was able to travel with the disciples and support them financially, which puts an end to the idea that she was a prostitute.

  12. Great work Dr Eli.I recently bought a book “The gospel of Mary Magdalene” I haven’t it read yet though.Also the gnostic gospels are available.Any thoughts Dr Eli?She was a strong woman.Thank you for all.Fiona

  13. Hi Dr. Eli I have been reading most everything you send out in emails and it is very informative. I am LDS and most everything you comment on I agree with. We believe that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute but could very well have been married to Jesus Christ. After all weren’t Rabi’s usually married in the Jewish faith? There is a lot missing about the life of Christ and he certainly was not Catholic. We also believe we are part of the tribes of Israel so we feel very close to you all and why I am interested.

    • Marriage of Jesus to Mary is not as crazy as most Christians think (although probably incorrect) 🙂 Actually Jesus was not a Rabbi in later sense when you can almost never find unmarried rabbis. He was a rabbi in ancient sense where many pious Jews especially from the Essene branch were not married.

  14. Truly appreciate your views on Mary Magdalene. She is to be honored for her role since she chose to honor the life of Jesus! She took efforts to observe the place where Jesus was buried. Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome went with spices early in the morning – probably just to clean up the tomb area and sprinkle the perfumed spices – so many thousands could turn up from far off places to pay their respects would be at ease! But, she was able to see Jesus who rose from the dead!

  15. I knew there was no scriptural evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute because I searched for it in the New Testament. I am pleased to know you think the same way I do about it. Thank you for the information about Essene Rabbis not marrying. I did not know that. If Yeshua was married that would not make him less holy or less a Messiah but I think he most likely was not. Shalom

  16. I do not have the source with me right now (I came across it during the days of the “Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene” hype), but an ancient narrative has it that Mary Magdalene was ditched at the altar and devoted her life to the ministry, later became ascetic and died unmarried (and a virgin) at the age of 80. She might have been one of those who believed that Jesus was coming back soon so there was no point in getting married and starting a family.

  17. Thank you for this Dr. Eli. Bits of these are building blocks for my understanding of Jewish mindset culture and setting. Thanks for the opportunity you have given me.

  18. Shalom! Dr. Eli. I am so grateful for your expository analysis of the Bible character known as Mary Magdalene. You know, we have been misinformed much about the background of this woman by theologians and Bible scholars alike who practice hit or miss hermeneutics. But now I am quite glad because I have learned the true background, through you professor, of Mary Magdalene. By the way, was the woman caught in an act of adultery and brought to Jesus by the Pharisees also called Mary? Stay blessed!

  19. Shalom Dr Eli.

    Thank you for exposing such truth about Mary Magdalene. I have always been concerned about the Samaritan woman. It is amazing how we focus on their presumed ill character, then the real message that Jesus was exposing. I believe that if they were prostitutes the Bible would have told us. I assume , it is easier to see the bad in.people and in the process loose the message.

    I have been encouraged by your teaching and bringing the Jewish pespective, which I believe is very critical if we have to appreciate scripture.

    SHALOM

  20. Dr. Eli,
    One would have thought that the Holy Spirit would have revealed to believers all about Mary Magdalene. I would love to hear from anyone who has this true information?

  21. I think the point I take from this is that us as humans will always focus on the sin of a person instead of the glory to God work they perform. Does it really matter if she was or was not, what really matters is that she served our Lord Jesus Christ to such an extent that the Gospel writers had to include her in the Gospels. Its all about Jesus and not about us. Thank you Dr Eli for all the enlightened teachings, I have really learnt so much from you

  22. It is bad enough that speculation is made about all sorts of things in the Bible such as Mary Magdalene being a prostitute prior to converting to Yeshua. But, like I say to friends often ” Be careful not to misquote scripture. You don’t want to become a Jehovah’s Witness. ” Heresy according to Paul is anything where we accept false teaching on anything because we don’t ” rightly divide the Word of Truth.” Thank you for your due diligence in sorting out this trivial heresy about Mary Magdalene. Speculation established as doctrine can’t stand up to proper scrutiny.

    • We and you (we all most be careful) :-). Speculation is not a problem AS LONG AS we acknowledge the fact that this an interpretive option and is not fully established fact.

  23. Dear Dr. Eli, Just as Mary Magdalene was miscast as a repentant prostitute for hundreds of years by the Catholic church, so today, modern scholars miscast her as a paramour of Jesus. The truth is, Mary Magdalene was the mother of Jesus, not his lover or another female follower. How do we know this? From the ancient writing, The Story of Joseph and Aseneth. Aseneth is a theophoric for the ancient Egyptian goddess Neth or Neith, known in antiquity as the virgin mother goddess, a direct reference to Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus. No room here to elaborate more.

  24. I believe that the correct rendering is Mary the Magdalene since she was from Magdala – It is believed that she was the daughter of the Cyrus king of Magdala so definitately a woman with sufficient financial means to help support Jesus ministry. After being delivered I believe she was thankful enough to do just that. I also agree that she was not a prostitute. I don’t think that Rahab was either. Dr. Eli do you have thoughts on Rahab, I think she is getting a bad rap as well.

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