The woman kneels at Jesus's feet, wiping them with her abundant tresses. In Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo's drawing, taken from several passages in Luke, the dinner guests are up in arms, waving in protest that this sinner from the city has the gall to seek forgiveness. Jesus does forgive her and tells the protesting guests, "Her many sins have been released, because she loved much." The 18th-century Italian artist mistakenly calls her Mary Magdalene, but he can be forgiven, too.
Few characters in the New Testament have been so sorely miscast as Mary Magdalene, whose reputation as a fallen woman originated not in the Bible but in a sixth-century sermon by Pope Gregory the Great. Not only is she not the repentant prostitute of legend, meditating and levitating in a cave, but she was not necessarily even a notable sinner: Being possessed by "seven demons" that were exorcised by Jesus, she was arguably more victim than sinner. And the idea, popularized by The Da Vinci Code, that Mary was Jesus's wife and bore his child, while not totally disprovable, is the longest of long shots.
But arguments over whether Mary Magdalene was Jesus's wife, a reformed harlot, or the adulterous woman Jesus saved from stoning pale in comparison with the most rancorously disputed aspect of her legacy—what exactly she witnessed at Jesus's Resurrection. In a new biography of Mary Magdalene, theologian Bruce Chilton contends that Mary witnessed not the resurrection of a flesh-and-blood Jesus but a spiritual visitation. This is one of the principal reasons that she has been sidelined in the New Testament, says Chilton. Like the apostle Paul, who claims that only a "fool" could believe in the physical resuscitation of the body, and Jesus himself, who maintains men will be reborn "like angels," Mary perceives the risen Christ as a "sequence of visions," shared by the disciples, argues Chilton. (Luke, of course, insists that Jesus is bodily resurrected. "A spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have," Jesus tells the disciples in Luke, then eats broiled fish to drive his point home.)
Mary Magdalene's nonphysical interpretation of resurrection was ultimately suppressed, says Chilton, because it came uncomfortably close to the view of the Gnostics, a heretical sect of Christianity that flourished in the second and third centuries. But it came to light in 1896 when the second-century Gospel of Mary was acquired by a German scholar. In this fragmentary eight-page papyrus text in Coptic, Mary has a vision in which Jesus tells her she witnessed his reborn image with her "mind." This is followed by a section of likely elaboration that may have been purposely ripped from the manuscript to discredit her, says Chilton. She then urges the apostles to follow Jesus's instructions to spread his teachings to nonbelievers. When Peter angrily scoffs at the idea that Jesus would entrust such an important vision to a woman, another disciple, Levi, rebukes him as "hot-tempered." But now, after centuries of neglect, outlandish distortions, and outright male fantasies, Mary Magdalene is beginning to regain her place as what Chilton terms "one of the prime catalysts and shaping forces of Christianity." Catholic groups around the country celebrate July 22, the anniversary of her death, as Mary Magdalene's feast day, using the occasion as a way to counter myths surrounding her and promote the ordination of women.