In A Nutshell
Our image of Mary Magdalene has long been that of the fallen woman, contrite, repentant of her ways, looking to Christ for guidance and forgiveness. It’s absolutely false, a careful creation of a church that chose certain Gospels to read and others to ignore, combining stories and weaving a carefully formed tapestry that buried the truth of one of the strongest female characters in early literature. The biblical Mary Magdalene was never a prostitute and was in fact one of the most revered of apostles: a revelation that would have forced the church to change its thinking dramatically.
The Whole Bushel
Over the centuries of Christian doctrine, Mary Magdalene has been a number of things. She’s always a sinner, she’s often a prostitute, and she’s also an example of a fallen woman redeemed by faith. More recently, she’s been the wife of Jesus and the mother of His children. She’s an apostle, a preacher, and a saint.
But one of those things that we know she absolutely was not was a prostitute.
There’s no actual mention of prostitution in connection with Mary Magdalene in any verses of the Bible. She’s called a sinner, but that could have referred to any number of things. Her sins are mentioned, briefly, and it’s said that before her devotion to Christ, He had removed demons from her (although this in itself is pretty vague). She gets her bad reputation by being confused with a number of other women of questionable morals who are featured throughout the Gospels, including a woman with loose hair (pretty erotic stuff for the time) who anointed Christ with oil.
There are only a few concrete references to her actions in the Gospels that have been accepted as canon, including her refusal to leave Christ as He’s being crucified and her discovery of his resurrection. Add in numerous characters named Mary and many unnamed women, and it’s not surprising that her portrayal has grown into the tangled mess it’s become. And it was all helped along by Pope Gregory, an aristocrat who served as pope from 540 to 604. It was Gregory who issued statements that Mary Magdalene was the same woman as others named Mary, and in adding on all the other stories to the background of one woman, she was made much more the figure of the ideals of the day, instead of the strong apostle she was originally written and remembered as.
So why do we think that she’s a prostitute?
Because the church wanted to use evidence from the Bible to keep women out of the clergy.
During the time of the Gospels, women were on a much more equal footing with men. Mary Magdalene was considered one of Christ’s main followers, not only given the honor of discovering his resurrection, but also being one of those who didn’t desert him in the end. (All of those who didn’t flee were the women.)
The Gospels as we know them weren’t established as canon until the fourth century, during a time when the church most definitely wanted to make it clear that its upper echelons would be male-only. Certain texts were decided to be canon, but others—including the Gospel of Mary—were conveniently excluded from the church’s approved reading list.
According to the Gospel of Mary, she was not only one of the apostles, but the only one who didn’t lose faith in Christ after His death. She counsels the others, and says that He is still speaking to her through visions, choosing to appear to her instead of the others.
This Gospel dated from the fifth century; well after the others were written, but still a telling, early picture of this supposed whore that the church would obviously find very, very dangerous to their male-centric doctrine.
The same ideas that were behind the creation of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute were behind the deification of the Virgin Mary. Women were sexual creatures, that was their identity: The mother of Jesus is rarely referred to without making nought of her virginal status.