Wednesday, July 22, 2009

St. Mary Magdalene: Former Prostitute and/or the Repentant "Sinner" Woman of Luke 7?

By Dave Armstrong (7-22-09)

As I understand it, the notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute comes from conflating the woman who anointed Jesus' feet (Luke 7) with Mary Magdalene. Luke 7:39 seems to imply that the woman described was a harlot ("what sort of woman this is" in RSV). The Bible itself doesn't make this equation (at least not explicitly or directly). The Bible does plainly assert that she was cured of possession by seven demons (Lk 8:2; cf. Mk 16:9).

The Protestant New Bible Dictionary (edited by J.D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1962) states ("Mary", p. 792):

    There is really no justification for identifying Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene, and certainly none for associating either with the sinful woman of Luke 7. . . .

    If Luke had known that the Mary of chapter 8 was the same person as the sinner of chapter 7 is it not probable that he would have made the connection explicit?

The Catholic Encyclopedia, however ("St. Mary Magdalen"), makes a different argument:

    The Greek Fathers, as a whole, distinguish the three persons:

    * the "sinner" of Luke 7:36-50;
    * the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Luke 10:38-42 and John 11; and
    * Mary Magdalen.

    On the other hand most of the Latins hold that these three were one and the same. Protestant critics, however, believe there were two, if not three, distinct persons. It is impossible to demonstrate the identity of the three; but those commentators undoubtedly go too far who assert, as does Westcott (on John 11:1), "that the identity of Mary with Mary Magdalene is a mere conjecture supported by no direct evidence, and opposed to the general tenour of the gospels." It is the identification of Mary of Bethany with the "sinner" of Luke 7:37, which is most combatted by Protestants. It almost seems as if this reluctance to identify the "sinner" with the sister of Martha were due to a failure to grasp the full significance of the forgiveness of sin.

The article does concede that if we had only Luke's Gospel to go by, this theory would be unsubstantiated:

    . . . here again we note that there is no suggestion of an identification of the three persons (the "sinner", Mary Magdalen, and Mary of Bethany), and if we had only St. Luke to guide us we should certainly have no grounds for so identifying them.

But it goes on to make various deductive arguments from the book of John (none, I think, compelling) and concludes triumphantly:

    If the foregoing argument holds good, Mary of Bethany and the "sinner" are one and the same. But an examination of St. John's Gospel makes it almost impossible to deny the identity of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalen.

So there was a tradition in western, Latin Catholicism, of one person (Mary Magdalene = Mary of Bethany = the sinner woman of Lk 7:36-50, who anointed Jesus' feet). This article in The Catholic Encyclopedia was written by Hugh Pope in 1910. Not all traditions, however, carry equal weight, and not all are binding. Personally, I think the Greek fathers were right about this.

Nor do all Catholic sources agree with this older tradition. A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by Dom Bernard Orchard (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953) is a completely orthodox work, and it takes a different position. Commenting on Luke 7:36-50, it states:

    The similarities between this story and those recorded in Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; Jn 12:1-8, have led to the opinion that the four evangelists narrate the same incident. Latin tradition since the time of St Gregory the Great has been in favour of identity; the general tradition among the Greeks (except for Origen) is that Lk's incident is altogether different and most modern Catholic commentators adopt this view. It must be admitted that the divergences seem irreconcilable . . . There is nothing in Lk which justifies identifying her with Mary of Magdala, 8:2, or Mary of Bethany, 10:38 ff. Greek tradition generally distinguishes them all.

Note also that the Catholic Church in its first thousand years was composed of both Latin and Greek traditions. They were both Catholic. So it is not disallowed to believe that a Greek, or eastern exegetical tradition was more correct than a Latin (western) one. I think this is one such instance.

In the article, posted at Catholic News Service, "Scholars seek to correct Christian tradition on Mary Magdalene,", written by Jerry Filteau, it is stated:

    In A.D. 591 Pope St. Gregory the Great preached a sermon in which he identified as one person the New Testament figures of Mary Magdalene, the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet and washed them with her tears, and the Mary who was the sister of Lazarus and Martha of Bethany.

    Although he was only reflecting a tradition that had gained some ground in the West (and was resisted by many of the church's early theologians), the sermon became a reference point for later scholarship, teaching and preaching in the West, Father Raymond F. Collins, a New Testament scholar at The Catholic University of America, said in an interview. . . .

    The identification of Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinful woman was solidified in the Latin Church for centuries by the use of that story, reported in the seventh chapter of Luke, as the Gospel reading for Mary Magdalene's feast, July 22. In fact, in the Roman Calendar before the Second Vatican Council, the day was called the feast of "Mary Magdalene, penitent."

    Father Collins noted that this changed in 1969 with the reform of the Roman Missal and the Roman Calendar. Since then the Gospel reading for Mary Magdalene's feast has been Chapter 20, verses 1-2 and 11-18, of the Gospel of John.

This seems to have been a rather late tradition, in terms of the fathers, with Gregory Great living into the 7th century. Thus, it is not particularly compelling as proof that this exegetical tradition was apostolic, and preserved in the first five centuries (when most of the well-known Church fathers lived). Further research along those lines would yield fascinating results, I'm sure.

Fr. William Saunders, on the other hand, in his article, "Who Really Was Mary Magdalene?," (Catholic Culture website), takes the traditional view expressed in The Catholic Encyclopedia.

The Catholics United for the Faith website put out a lengthy, informative article about Mary Magdalene, "St. Mary Magdalene: A Model Penitent," taking the traditional western view also, but noted (importantly for our purposes):

    Either way, although ancient, this tradition is not to be confused with an essential aspect of the Catholic faith. There are many reasons to accept this tradition, but it is not a doctrine of the Church.

Catholics (as seen in the above conflicting understandings) are at liberty to differ on this question. In any event, whatever her sins were, St. Mary repented of them and became a great saint and early witness of the resurrected Jesus, and that is far more important than these other "identity" disputes.


Anders said...

I recommend an extensive research of the origin of NT and Pauls doctrines; and a study of what the first followers of Ribi Yehoshua (ha-Mashiakh; the Messiah) – the Netzarim - said about Paul and NT and Miryâm of Migdâl (see the below website).

You will find a wealth of invaluable documented information at:

Anders Branderud

Dave Armstrong said...

And what position are you coming from?

romishgraffiti said...


Martin said...

The Netzarim are the only followers of Ribi Yәhoshua as Mashiakh on the planet since 135 C.E. (!) who are in good standing in the same community in which Ribi Yәhoshua and the original Netzarim lived, practiced and taught — i.e., recognized by Pharisaic (today's Orthodox) rabbis as Jews and geirim in good standing.

It might be interesting to have someone like this outline the cause of their belief but, when I've spent any time looking, it usually comes down to: so-in-so said it.

Maureen said...

So what's the deal on the Talmud thing about curly haired women/Magdalene = adulteress?

Jordanes said...

Like you Dave, I tend to lean in favor of the Greek tradition that distinguishes these women, but I do admit that, looking at the arguments for the Latin tradition, there’s a decent case to be made that Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, and the sinful woman are the same. As regards the traditional Latin liturgical commemoration of Mary Magdalene, it should be mentioned that not only is she called “penitent,” but the scripture lections and propers of her traditional Mass are a clear and explicit endorsement of the Latin tradition identifying all three women: one of the proper prayers in her Mass even says Mary Magdelene successfully entreated Jesus to raise her brother Lazarus from the dead. Not that any of that means the Latin tradition has been definitively endorsed by the Church, because it hasn’t been.

So what's the deal on the Talmud thing about curly haired women/Magdalene = adulteress?

The Talmud tractates Shabbat 104b and Sanhedrin 67a are among those that mention “Yeshu,” a legendary individual named in rabbinic tradition who is evidently based chiefly on Jesus of Nazareth. In those passages, the rabbis refer to him by the names of “Ben Stada” and “Ben Pandira” (or Ben Panthera), and say that his mother was “Miriam the women’s hairdresser [and was called Stada]. As we say in Pumbedita: She has turned away [Stat Da] from her husband.” (The translation “curly-haired woman” is wrong.)

This is evidently a reference to the slanders of Mary’s character that arose when she conceived a Son before she and her husband Joseph had completed the period of their betrothal. Rather than accepting the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, the old Jewish tale (cf. the non-Talmudic Toledot Yeshu) alleges that Mary sinned with a man named Pandira or Panthera (which interestingly enough is an anagram from parthenos, virgin).

The Jewish legends about “Yeshu” or “Ben Pandira” also show a conflation of Mary, mother of Jesus, with Mary Magdalene – “Miriam the women’s hairdresser” in Hebrew is Miriam megadla nashaia,” an accidental or deliberate garbling of the Gospels’ references to Mary the Magdalen and Jesus’ mother Mary. The Talmud reference can’t be taken as any sort of evidence of a tradition that Mary Magdalene was an adulteress, because the Talmud’s testimony is obviously garbled with the age-old slur on the Blessed Virgin’s character. It’s not clear that the Talmud is saying anything about Mary Magdalene, nor that the title “megadla nashaia” means “adulteress.”

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Jordanes,

So do you know if it is regarded as fairly certain (in the Latin exegetical tradition of this), that if Mary Magdalene was the woman of Luke 7, she was indeed a prostitute?

Jordanes said...

Dave, I believe the traditional identification of Mary Magdalene with the sinner is distinct from the tradition of what kind of sinner she was, but as far as I know within the Latin tradition sexual misconduct is always identified as among the sins that caused her to be known as a sinner. Not necessarily prostitution, but I’m pretty sure that is the kind of sexual misconduct that the tradition alleges. As I recall, in one story, St. John and St. Mary were betrothed to be married, but St. John broke it off when he became a disciple of Jesus. Shattered by this rejection, St. Mary then turned to prostitution, until Jesus rescued her from that life. But of course it is only a story, a romance really, with the former lovers reunited, so to speak, at the foot of the cross, their love purified and perfected by their love for Christ.