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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70 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
    • Shalom, Neil. I am flattered. It's an honor to meet you! I'm sure you've heard it many times but nevertheless let me also say thank you for your service. I look forward to meeting you in person here in Israel. By the way, my colleague, Dr. Noel Rabinowitz, is a former Marine. I know he'll be excited to meet you as well.
    • Hi Neil, Good to know that you have no fear. Will you come with to Pakistan to share the gospel as a dynamic pubic speaker. I am planing to visit Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg too. May be we can catch up there. Thank for your work, ministry and dedication Dr. Eli to bring the truth of the Word to the surface!! blessings.

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  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.
    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with Exodus and The New Testament or Jewish Insights Into Scriptures I. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!
    • We don’t know that, if Mary was John the disciple Jesus loved, Jesus married her odds are she use to be a whore. Hosea married a whore, GOD the good husband takes us whores as wife, Jesus I think would not marry a pure virgin but redeem one in marriage

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  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:
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