Mary Magdalene’s story is intimately linked with Jesus. She plays a starring role in one of the most powerful and important scenes in the Gospels.
When Jesus is crucified by the Romans, Mary Magdalene was there supporting him in his final terrifying moments and mourning his death. She also discovers the empty tomb, and she’s a witness to the resurrection. She was there at the beginning of a movement that was going to transform the West.
But the Mary Magdalene that lives in our memories is quite different. In art, she’s often semi-naked, or an isolated hermit repenting for her sins in the wilderness: an outcast. Her primary link with Jesus is as the woman washing and anointing his feet. But we know her best as a prostitute.
What did Mary Magdalene do for a living?
There is no evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. She mentioned in all four gospels, she was present at the crucifixion and resurrection, but at no point does anyone cast aspersions on her virtue.
The myth of Mary-as-prostitute probably arose because she was confused with two other Marys. One was the sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead; the other was a sinner called Mary who washed Jesus’s feet with her hair. In the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great declared all there Marys were the same woman. The Catholic Church didn’t correct the mistake until 1969.
In the 1971 musical Jesus Christ Superstar it is implied that Mary is a prostitute when Jesus sings, ‘Its not that I object to hear profession/But she doesn’t fit in well with what you teach and say.’ This has no basis int eh gospels either.
She might, however, have been a fishmonger. Mary Magdalene is also known as ‘Mary of Magdala’. Magdala means ‘tower’ or ‘fortress’ in Aramaic, and there are several places of that name in and around Galilee. One is Madala Nuniya, ‘the tower of fish’, which was famous for its salted fish. Another translates as the ‘tower of dyers’, so Mary (who is several times descried as wealthy) might have made her money from dying cloth.
It is also possible that mandala was being used as an adjective, where it can mean ‘hairdresser’ (from the Aramaic gala, ‘to plait hair’). Or perhaps she wore a braid. Or maybe it was an affectionate nickname – Mary ‘the tower’ (like Peter ‘the rock’) because she was tall; or prophetic one – ‘Mary the watchtower’, because she was the first disciple to see Jesus after he rose from the dead. There is more evidence for any of these options than there is for her being a prostitute.
Other Scandalous Women in the Bible
There are plenty of genuine prostitutes in the Bible. There is Rahab, who helps Joshua by hiding his spies before the Battle of Jericho; the Moabite woman who use sex to tempt the Israelites to worship Baal (Joshua 2: 1-21. Numbers 25:1-3); and the Midianite harlot who gets spread with her lover in flagrant. Most memorable of all are the sisters Oholah and Oholibah, who lusted after Babylonians ‘whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses’ (Ezekiel 23:1-21).
Many books have claimed Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children. There is no hard evidence for this, although in the gospel of Philip, one of many apocryphal gospels (i.e. those unapproved by the Church), Jesus kissed Mary on the ‘…’
Unfortunately a this point the papyrus has been eaten by ants, so we’ll never know exactly where.
Mary Magdalene is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches with a feast day of 22nd July. The Eastern Orthodox churches also commemorate her on the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearers which is the second Sunday after Pasca (Easter). She is also an important figure in the Bahá’í faith.
sources: ‘The third book of General Ignorance’. Joh Lloyd and John Mitchinson
Mary Magdalene BBC