Here’s who Mary Magdalene was: one of Jesus Christ’s original followers, the last to stay with him while he was nailed to the cross and, Christians believe, the first to see his empty tomb and his resurrection.
Here’s who she wasn’t: a reformed or forgiven prostitute.
Yet on Easter Sunday, Christianity’s holiest day, that’s exactly how she will be described in some sermons and how she continues to be portrayed in much of popular culture.
The woman dubbed in the Bible the “Apostle of the Apostles” has spent two millennia being reduced to a seductress. In some ways, Mary Magdalene’s story is the story of modern women everywhere.
From the relentless focus on the looks of female leaders to the nude photos being circulated of female Marines, women who dare to work among men as equals get sexualized and marginalized.
In Mary Magdalene’s case, it’s a 2,000-year-old slut-shaming that a group of Christian woman are trying to stop.
The Junia Project, a California group preaching egalitarian theology, is using social media to spread their public service announcement: “As you preach this Sunday, please note: Mary Magdalene was NOT a prostitute. Thank you.”
They have to be proactive.
Even a popular Easter sermon on the website Sermon Central repeats the myth. “Mary Magdalene was a forgiven prostitute,” reads the second line of the sermon reminding people what to remember about the first Easter.
Hollywood loves casting Mary Magdalene as a sex worker. She was a hooker in “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1973, in “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988, in “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 and even in last year’s “Risen.”
It’s a delicious story, Jesus being so cool that he even forgives a prostitute. It’s “Pretty Woman” in the sackcloths and sandals age.
Gail Wallace, one of the co-founders of the Junia Project, hates the way Mary Magdalene gets maligned.
“For me, the bottom line is that we are fed up with the way women’s stories in the Bible have been retold in a way that sexualizes them unnecessarily and in ways that aren’t supported by the biblical texts,” she said.
Biblical scholars and historians have been trying to make the same point for decades. The Catholic Church acknowledged and tried to correct the widespread misperception in 1969.
But somewhere along the telephone game that is Christian history, the prostitute label stuck.
“Women looking to the Bible for inspiration already have limited choices of female role models,” wrote Chicago nun and professor Barbara Bowe, before her death in 2010. “When we suddenly cut Mary Magdalene off at the knees and turn her into some kind of evil sex pervert, we deprive men and women, but especially women, of a figure with whom they can identify.”
Kate Wallace Nunneley, another of the Junia Project’s co-founders, said she saw the Mary Magdalene myth repeated in modern seminary texts, too.
That’s OK, though. Because now Team Mary’s got the Internet. And every year, after the Junio Project runs their PSA about Mary Magdalene on social media, they hear from people about what was said in church.
“Around Easter is really one of the only times in general evangelicalism that women get preached about,” Nunneley said. “After we first ran that PSA . . . we heard from so many women who said they still heard [the myth]. One woman told me, ‘I sent this to my pastor and he still preached about her being a prostitute.’ ”
This is, of course, part of a larger debate about the way women are treated in other arenas.
Take those women in the Marines who have been serving their country in the most macho branch of the military. How did the guys who couldn’t handle their success deal with it? They circulated nude pictures of them. Even after they were busted, they kept at it.
Nunneley considers that the modern parallel to Mary Magdalene.
“As we see with the story about the women in the Marines, their personhood gets overlooked and the men want to only focus on their sexuality,” she said.
It’s an old story. A tired story. And it’s time for it to end.