Mary Magdalene was slandered. She is often presented as a repentant prostitute that followed Jesus. Pope Gregory I in homily 33 issued in 591 misidentified her as a prostitute. This identification stuck and starting in 1324, in Naples, the Roman Catholic Church started the first “Magdalene house” for the rescue and care of “fallen women.”  However, there is no evidence that she was ever a prostitute.

Pope Gregory mixed together two separate events and merged three separate individuals in his famous homily. He took the unknown woman, a known sinner, who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-39; and Mary of Bethany, sister to Lazarus, who anoints Jesus’ feet in John 12:1-8 and merged them into Mary Magdalene. Two other stories describe the anointing of Jesus’ feet in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9, however, these don’t name the woman but indicate it took place at the house of Simon the leper.

In his homily, Pope Gregory I says, “We believe that this woman is Luke’s female sinner, the woman John calls Mary, and that Mary from whom Mark says seven demons were cast out.”

Pope Gregory merges the unnamed woman, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene into one person.

Gregory then explained that the ointment used by Luke’s unnamed sinner, now Mary Magdalene, to anoint Christ’s feet had previously been used by her “to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.”

Did the Pope do this to slander Mary Magdalene and remove her from her place of prominence in early Church leadership? I don’t think so. I think Pope Gregory did what many preachers do; he added his own ideas and interpretations into easily conflated scripture passages.

Let’s clean up Mary’s reputation, shall we? First, it does get a bit confusing with all the Mary’s that are mentioned in scripture. The name Mary in English derives from the Hebrew name Miriam. Miriam was the sister of Moses, so it was a famous and very popular name.

The unknown woman mentioned in Luke describes in verse 37 as “A woman in that town who lived a sinful life” does not name her sin. To assume she was a prostitute is unfounded. Gregory claims the fragrant oil was used to perfume her flesh for forbidden acts, but that sounds like a bit of assumption on his part.

Mary Magdalene is described as having seven demons cast out of her, “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out;” (Luke 8:1-2) Most scholars agree that these “demons” were most likely physical or mental illnesses. In ancient times diseases such as fevers were believed to be demonic presences. Nowhere does it mention that Mary Magdalene had a demon of prostitution.

What we do know about Mary Magdalene for sure is that she was one of Christ’s followers, she was present at the crucifixion, she was a witness to the resurrection, and she was told by Jesus to announce His resurrection to the disciples.

Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene (Noli Me Tangere). Painting by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). 0,67 x 0,95 m. Beaux-Arts Museum, Grenoble, France (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

Here’s some other bits of interesting information about her, her name is listed first six of the seven times the names of the women who followed Jesus are listed, that Magdalene may be a reference to the city she was from, Migdal. The word also means tower, castle, or great. It could mean her name means Mary the Great. Many apocryphal writings present her as a preeminent disciple of Christ.

So, an assumption on the part of a Pope leads to an important follower of Christ being labeled a prostitute. His intention was to show how anyone, no matter what they had done, could be redeemed. I think that instead of showing the scope of Christ grace, he lessened the importance women had in the ministry of Jesus. In light of how the Church tends to give women an inferior role, it’s important to emphasize the truth about this remarkable woman.

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