Most people still think of Mary Magdalene as the unnamed sinner (possibly a prostitute) in Luke 7:36-50. Of course we think of her as “the repentant prostitute” because she turns her life around because of the encounter with Jesus. The problem is that for the first 300+ years of the Church, she was only seen as the first witness to the Resurrection. Did you know that Mary Magdalene is mentioned 12 times in the gospels, more than most of the Apostles? She was present at the crucifixion and was the first witness to the Resurrection (John 20 and Mark 16:9). She was the “Apostle to the Apostles,” an honorific that St. Augustine bestowed upon her in the fourth century, and possibly he was but repeating a moniker already in use.
The first written evidence we have of Mary Magdalene being a repentant prostitute comes from Ephraim the Syrian later in the fourth century. What really sealed her reputation was a homily from Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century (homily XXXIII). Since then, despite the biblical record, it is this image of Mary Magdalene that continues in art, sculpture, film, and even musicals.
One of the more striking images of Mary Magdalene is Donatello’s sculpture, located in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, that captures the repentant part. The rest is reflected in art such as Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, in José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
16 Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.” 17 The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ 18 For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” (John 4:16-18) The Samaritan woman at the well gets the same treatment. The most popular understanding is that this woman has skittered through one marriage after another. She is an adulterous person and a pariah to the village – hence she has to go to the well at noontime, in the heat of the day, because she is a sinner.
The thing is, this text is not, as so many almost unanimously assume, evidence of the woman’s immorality. Jesus does not judge her; any moral judgments are imported into the text by tradition. There are many possible reasons for her marital history other than her moral laxity. Perhaps the woman, like Tamar in Genesis 38, is trapped in the custom of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10; see also Luke 20:27-33), and the last male in the family line has refused to marry her. Isn’t it interesting that the reasons for the woman’s marital history intrigue us but do not concern Jesus.
Jesus engages the God-given dignity of the woman. In the end, even before Mary Magdalene, she goes on to be the Apostle to the Samaritans, well before Philip (Acts 8:4 and following).
What is common to these two women – other than not being treated well by “tradition,” – is that both encountered Jesus at a deep and intimate level. The encounter propelled them beyond their society-assigned roles, beyond their own self-image, beyond their imagination, beyond their life – whatever it was. Such is the power of Christ.
Apostle or prostitute, there is no guarantee that history will get it right. Be assured that Jesus is none too concerned with the history we write down, but rather with the life we live before God. For we are that and nothing more.