Mary Magdalene the Prostitute?

Have you ever heard tell that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute? The rumor’s been floating around for ages.

This morning I was reading the story of Jesus’ anointing by the “sinful woman” in Luke, and the rumor resurfaced in my mind. So I thought I’d do my readers a favor and show you how rumors get started (“…get started by the jealous people and they get mad seein’ something they had and somebody else is holdin’…,” thank you, Timex Social Club).

In Mark 14, Jesus’ head is anointed by a woman, using costly oil. Indignity is expressed toward the woman for wasting such an expensive jar by pouring it out on Jesus. Matthew 26 is about the same.

In Luke 7 we have a similar story. Only this time, rather than being set at the home of Simon the Leper (as in Mark), it is set in the home of Simon the Pharisee. The woman anoints Jesus’ feet rather than his head. This time, however, the indignity is tied not the waste of money but rather to the moral standing of the woman. She is a “sinner,” and Jesus should know it (as everyone else seems to); and, it seems that she’s acting the part of “sinner.” Perhaps a prostitute?

This is the only anointing of Jesus by a woman in Luke, and it seems to be a different version of the same story. Jesus, we now know, was anointed by a “sinful” woman, perhaps a prostitute.

To John 12. There, we have a similar that mixes elements of the two: Jesus’ feet are anointed (as in Luke), but the complaint has to do with the wit money rather than the woman’s sinfulness (as in Mark and Matthew). John’s clearly intends to be the same episode as Mark and Matthew’s (judging by placement just prior to Passover and last Supper and the rebuke of Jesus, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me with you). But now we learn the woman’s identity: this is Mary the sister of Martha.

Thus, by the transitive property, Mary the sister of Martha was the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet.

There is another Mary running around the pages of the Synoptic Gospels: Mary Magdalene. This Mary has been said to follow Jesus around, witness the crucifixion and resurrection. Thus, not wanting to unduly multiply Marys, and perhaps also wanting that the person who anoints Jesus as King be a witness of the death and resurrection, Mary Magdalene has often been equated with the Mary who anointed Jesus, Mary the sister of Martha and the “prostitute”.

If you really want to get excited about harmonizing stories, I guess you could go with the “Mary the sister of Martha, the brother of Lazarus was a prostitute” line. But I don’t think that any of the stories invites even that identification. And, Mary Magdalene is not drawn into the same orbit as the woman who anoints Jesus with oil in any of the stories. (There’s also the question of whether or not Mary of Magdala (=Magdalene) should be equated with Mary of Bethany.)

So, I hereby declare that you can put to rest the rumors that “Mary Magdalene” was the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet and thus the sister of Mary and Lazarus. Probably not the same person. But if you want to say Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven demons you might have a leg to stand on.

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