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.
"We're trying to right a 2,000-year-old wrong," Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based organization behind the movement, told U.S. Catholic magazine.
Mary first appears in the Bible around A.D. 25 in Capernaum, a fishing town on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus is rapidly gaining a reputation as a healer. Afflicted with "seven demons," this single woman is probably 25 or 26. A few years older than Jesus and Jewish as well, she has made her way from Magdala (the origin of her name Magdalene), a cramped, smelly fish-processing town seething with angry, dispossessed farmers 7 miles to the southwest. It's not hard to picture Mary fleeing this hellhole in desperation, full of gratitude for finding someone who might save her from her demons. After an arduous, yearlong treatment, writes Chilton, she is finally cured by Jesus, who exorcises all the unnamed psychological torments.
Although Luke speaks of Mary as one of the women who provide for Jesus "out of their means," the Gospel does not says she is rich, like Joanna, another follower, who is married to King Herod's steward. And it's not easy to imagine anyone wealthy coming from a place like Magdala.
Still, Renaissance painters like Caravaggio and others portrayed the wealthy, fallen Mary as a red-haired siren draped in ermine, silk, and pearls. In these fantasies, the idly rich woman turned to prostitution not for money but for vanity, making her repentance and forgiveness that much sweeter.
After Jesus cures her, Mary becomes the most influential woman in his movement, the oral source for the accounts of other exorcisms in the New Testament. According to Chilton, she teaches Jesus to use his own saliva for healing a deaf-mute and a blind man, an account that appears in Mark, the oldest Gospel, but is dropped from subsequent Gospels as women's magic.
Mary also figures prominently in rituals of healing and anointing, practices intended to invoke the Holy Spirit. In one episode in Mark, where she seems to foreshadow Jesus's burial, she incurs the wrath of some of the disciples for pouring expensive spikenard oint-ment over Jesus's head. We could have sold the ointment and used the money to help the poor, they complain. Sternly upbraiding them, Jesus praises Mary for her beautiful gesture. "For you always have the poor with you," he says, "but you will not always have me. She has anointed my body beforehand for burying."
Mary Magdalene is unquestionably one of Jesus's most faithful followers, witnessing the Crucifixion with his mother, Mary, while the male apostles flee to avoid arrest. In all four New Testament Gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first (either alone or with a group of women) to arrive at Jesus's tomb, where she encounters an angel (or a pair of angels) who instructs her to go tell the disciples that Jesus has risen.
In John, she later encounters the resurrected Christ, who warns her not to touch him, perhaps because he is an intangible spirit, not flesh and blood. In works by Giotto, Fra Angelico, and others, a joyous but frustrated Mary reaches to Christ with intense longing, so near yet so far.
Nine verses further on in the text, Jesus orders doubting Thomas to place his hand in Jesus's side. A possible explanation of this seeming inconsistency is that the first episode stems from Mary herself and the episode with Thomas arises from another witness.
It is not by chance that Mary Magdalene is among the first to learn of Jesus's rebirth. Surely, the divine prophet who forsaw his own crucifixion also forsaw the witnesses of his resurrection; in a sense, Jesus chose Mary Magdalene as the herald of his return. For her pivotal role in the Resurrection, she became known as "the apostle to the apostles," a figure powerful enough to chide the apostles to follow Jesus's command to preach to nonbelievers, despite the risks.
In Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary Magdalene travels to Rome, where she preaches to Tiberius, then settles in Ephesus in northwest Turkey with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the apostle John. Other accounts place her in southern France or even in India with the apostle Thomas. According to Chilton, she returns to Magdala, where she continues preaching, healing, and anointing. In A.D. 67, she becomes one of thousands of victims massacred by the Romans in reprisal for an armed rebellion.
Soon after, the early leaders of the emergent church, including the authors of the New Testament Gospels, written around 70-95, continued the process of erasing Mary Magdalene and other female followers that had begun with Peter and the other male disciples. In one text, the heretical Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus himself makes the astonishing statement that Mary, and indeed all women, cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless they become male.
In order to offer a moral alternative to the decadent Roman religion, the emergent church trumpeted male-dominated traditional family values. "This allowed Christianity to make great strides in the Greco-Roman world, but at the enormous price of forgetting about the movement's influential women," says Chilton.
In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great brought Mary firmly back into the picture—not the way she was but as the church wanted her to be. With breathtaking oversimplification, Gregory conflated Mary Magdalene of the seven demons with the unnamed "sinner" who washed Jesus's feet with her hair in Luke (a close reading of Luke 7 and 8 shows that they are not the same woman) and also Mary of Bethany, who anoints Jesus with nard in John.
Gregory reasoned that if a woman like Mary, who had fallen so low, could be forgiven through faith and the church, her carnality transformed into spirituality, the worst sinners could hope for salvation. Mary Magdalene wiped away Eve's original sin. "In paradise, a woman was the cause of death for a man; coming from the sepulcher, a woman proclaimed life to men," Gregory declared in his famous sermon in 591. The Eastern Orthodox Church, however, never accepted Gregory's melding of the three women.
In short order, Mary Magdalene soon became identified with the adulterous woman Jesus saved from stoning in John and with another woman who is not even mentioned in the New Testament—Mary of Egypt, a fourth-century prostitute who converted to Christianity and lived in a cave for the rest of her life.
Historian Jane Schaberg coined the term "harlotization" to describe Mary's negative makeover, a process that disempowered a powerful leader of the faith.
Tales about the hermit Mary clawing her breasts and tearing out her hair in penance for her sins abounded, inspiring the creation of orders of flagellant monks. Churches claiming bodily relics proliferated, with nearly 200 boasting a piece of the saint by the end of the 13th century. At Saint-Maximin in southern France, Dominican friars still display her skull with a miraculously preserved scrap of skin where Jesus touched her forehead after the Resurrection.
Painters like the 13th-century Italian Master of the Magdalene, Hans Holbein, and William Blake focused on her role in the Resurrection, while artists like Titian portrayed the saint in ecstasy, barely covering her naked body with long reddish-blond hair.
Victorian photographers posed seminude adolescent girls, many living in charity schools named after her, as "Magdalenes," a prurient mixed message perpetuating the saint's image as the vixenish Lady Godiva of Christianity.
Finally, in 1969, 1,378 years after Gregory fused three New Testament women into Mary Magdalene—and more than 450 years since religious scholars rejected this fusion confusion—the church officially corrected the mistake. Even so, the legend of the repentant prostitute still exercises a tenacious hold on the public imagination. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese in 1988's Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ in 2004 keep the fiction alive.
The sexy, reformed Mary Magdalene is a symbol that's proven difficult to abandon. But the visionary Mary, full of faith at the foot of the cross and messenger of the Resurrection, a founding disciple entrusted by Jesus with a special mission to spread God's word, carries the greater ring of truth.