The short answer to this assertion is, no, Mary Magdalene was not a woman of ill repute. The longer answer to this assertion has a lot to do with a great many Marys in the New Testament, resulting in the heightened possibility of confusing them; a general carelessness, if not misogyny, around the identity and actions of women in the Bible; and the discomfort of western culture with women in religious hierarchy.
We’ll begin with the plethora of Marys in the community around Jesus. Mary, an anglicized form of Maria, a transliteration from Greek, which is, in turn, from Syro-Aramaic Maryam, which is originally from the Hebrew, Miryam. It may have derived from an Egyptian equivalent and is likely to have meant beloved, which would be fitting for all of the New Testament Marys, especially the mother of Jesus and the Magdalene. Here is the line-up, with all the references to them in the Bible:
Mary, the mother of Jesus and wife of Joseph (Mk. 6.3—and identifying Jesus’ mother without name in Mark 3.31, 32; Mt. 1.6, 18, 20, 2.11, 13.55; Lk 1.27, 30, 34, 38, 41, 46, 56, 2.5, 16, 19, 34; Acts 1.14; and Jn 2.1-12, 19.25-26—again not named but identified as Jesus’ mother)
Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha (Mk. 14.3-9, Mt. 26.6-13—an unidentified woman from Bethany anoints Jesus in the same manner as Mary does in Luke and John; Lk. 10.38-42, Jn. 11.1-2, 12.3)
Mary, Cleopas (Mk. 15.40, Mt. 13.55-56, 27.56, and Jn. 19.25)
Mary of Magdala (Mk. 15.47, 16.9; Mt. 27.55-56, Lk. 8.1-3, and Jn. 19.25, 20.1-10)
As one reads through these accounts of the Marys Jesus knew and traveled with, it becomes apparent that the appellations by which the women are identified are less than precise and not always consistent. Mary the mother of Jesus is named sometimes and sometimes not named, Mary, Cleopas is sometimes the mother of James and John, or the wife of Cleopas, or the sister of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Mary of Bethany is not mentioned with Lazarus in Luke but in the Gospel of John, she is. Is that all clear?
Why this transition? Well, in his Easter Sermons of 591 A.D. the Bishop of Rome, Pope Gregory I conflated the identity of Mary Magdalene, out of whom seven demons were driven by Jesus (Lk. 8.2) with Mary of Bethany who sits at Jesus’ feet (Lk 10.39) with an unnamed woman (Lk 7.37-38), who is a most likely a prostitute (her sin is talked around in Lk 7.38, 39), who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears and an ointment in Simon the Pharisee’s house.
There is also a Simon in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark and he lives in the town of Bethany, where Lazarus, Martha, and Mary live. Do you see that without a program card, Pope Gregory I might get confused?
This is where the issue around women in Bible gets even more complicated and where preconditioned notions influence the preacher. The Bible does have a tradition of faithful and outstanding women who have truly given their hearts to God: Sarah, wife of Abraham, Rachael, wife of Isaac, Rebekah and Leah, wives of Jacob, Miriam, sister of Moses, Ruth, great grandmother of King David, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, Mary, Mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Lydia, the purple merchant and patron of Paul, and many more. Their stories are often obscured but their faithfulness and love for God should not be. By the way, I have left out the names of faithful and wonderful women who were in all of these stories but have not traditionally been highlighted. There is not enough space for that here. The church community is learning this, though our learning is sometimes slow. And the church community has gotten better at this as we have added more women’s voices to our preaching and teaching.
Pope Gregory I was a product of a foreign place, the past. As a preacher he really wanted to make the obvious point that Mary of Magdala overcame much. Jesus exorcised seven demons from her. She was a prostitute (even if the evidence of the text does not really support this). She then became one of Jesus’ most ardent followers and she was the apostle to the Apostles. What a story! A story every storyteller would love to spin. But the details are more wonderful than the story Gregory I told.
The conflation exercised by Pope Gregory I, was quite possibly contextualized by his place and time. Prostitution was part of the life of Rome in the Sixth Century. It makes sense to a Sixth Century Pope that a woman who was a prostitute might also be possessed by demons. Though this is not a defense of that conflation, and likely smear. Attending to this context, the Bible highlights four women whose backgrounds have discomforting issues in them right in the genealogy of the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 1.1-17). Those women are Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, eponymous founder of Jesus’ tribe. She carries on the family line through a union with Judah after his sons’ wickedness causes them to be killed by God without her having borne them children. Rahab is the prostitute who assists the Israelites in taking Jericho and then becomes attached to that people. Ruth a Moabite women, a tribe with whom the Israelites were in enmity, is the great-grandmother of King David, the ideal King of Israel. And, Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon, King of Israel, and wife of David, who took her as a lover out of desire while they were both married and after having her husband Uriah killed in battle at his own direction because she was pregnant by the King, he married her. This is quite a list of women whose own faith may have been greater than any of the men on the list but who were considered societally problematic through no fault of their own. But God believed in them and they in God and that makes their stories extraordinary.
The best way, it seems, to wrap-up this Episco-fact is to tell what Mary Magdalene did and why she is remembered. Mary Magdalene was known by this name because she was likely from the Galilean town of Magdala. She became a follower of Jesus and was among a group of women who supported the Rabbi and his disciples as they traveled about Galilee. The story around her was that Jesus exorcised her from demon possession. She was named in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John as being at the foot of the cross at Jesus’ execution, and is presumed to be among the women who witnessed Jesus’ entombment in the Gospel of Luke.
All four Gospels attest to her being at the tomb on Easter morning to see that it was empty and to be directed by an angel or angels to witness to the disciples, and in the Gospels of Matthew and John, she is the first to meet the resurrected Jesus. For her faithfulness and especially her brave witness on the first Easter morning, Mary is given the attribution, the apostle to the Apostles. The acknowledgement of her faithfulness and her position as the first person sent to witness to the resurrection was a prominent factor in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England opening Holy Orders to women at every level of ministry—deacon, priest, and bishop. Hers is an extraordinary story of faith and she needs no slur or embellishment to heighten her honor.
Photo credits: Lawrence OP All rights reserved. Stained glass from St Nicholas’ church in Ghent. This stained glass window by Kempe is in Christ Church, New Haven CT. Belgium Dutch tapestry, ca. 1500–1520 in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York