A great saint with a big case of mistaken identity
Mary Magdalene confused with three other women
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
Have you ever been the victim of mistaken identity?
Maybe you looked like someone else. Or shared the name of someone who had a less than timely attitude about bill-paying.
So when we mention Mary Magdalene, one of the most prominent women in the New Testament, whose feast day is July 22, what's the first image that comes to mind?
High-profile sinner? Prostitute? Penitent?
Mary Magdalene offers a case of mistaken identity that has lasted nearly 1,400 years.
The Gospels only say that Mary was someone "from whom seven demons had gone out" (Lk 8:2), someone who stayed with Jesus at the cross (Mk 15:40; Mt 27:56; Jn 19:25), and the first person to see the risen Jesus (Jn 20:11-17). They mention nothing about what "demons" she had - although the number "seven" (a biblical number of completeness) indicates that she had a huge problem. The "demons" might well have been sins, but they could just as easily have been illnesses.
The notion that Mary was a notorious sinner comes to us more by association than reputation. It's a case of mistaken identity - or as scripture scholars call it: "conflation."
Conflation merges one person with another. It's as if - far in the future of history - someone thinks George W. Bush chopped down a cherry tree. Not because he did, but because: he was named George; was president of the United States; and was the "commander in chief." Conflation would have merged his identity with that of George Washington.
Mary Magdalene suffered that fate. Her identity has been merged with that of two, even three, other women. Who are they?
The first is the repentant woman who appears immediately before Mary Magdalene does
in Luke (7:36-50). This woman who weeps at Jesus' feet, drying them with her hair, is identified as a sinner, and remains anonymous. Since Mary Magdalene's name appears afterwards - although in a whole new chapter - she has become blurred with this woman. Indeed Luke's Gospel - which we heard June 17 - was traditionally used on Mary Magdalene's feast day until 1969.
The connection to prostitution comes in here as well, since the fact that the anonymous woman unbound her hair before a stranger indicated loose morals. In that Mid-East culture, women showed their hair to relatives and husbands only. (In art, Mary Magdalene is often shown with uncovered hair, adding to the image of loose morals. Other women, especially the Virgin Mary, are depicted with covered hair.)
The second woman confused with Mary Magdalene is another anonymous woman who anoints Jesus - this time with ointment from an alabaster jar (Mk 14:3-11; Mt. 26:6-13). Yet she is not called a sinner; instead, Jesus recognizes her act as preparing him for burial. In fact, the Lord commends her great love. However, the jar - often used by high-class prostitutes of that time - came to be associated with Mary and she is shown holding one in artwork. (In Eastern Orthodox icons, she also holds a jar, but this represents her Eastern Orthodox title of "the myrrh bearer," who brought unguents to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body.)
The third woman confused with Mary Magdalene is Mary of Bethany. In the bible references above - Mark and Matthew - about the anointing of Jesus for his burial, the woman is not identified. But in John, Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus with expensive oil and dries his feet with her hair (Jn 12:1-8), also in preparation for his burial.
Mary of Bethany's actions indicate closeness to Jesus. (Yet no tradition attributes loose morals to Lazarus' sister). A closeness clearly existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, who supported him with her finances, traveled with him and his disciples, and was among the first witnesses - if not the first witness - at the tomb in all four Gospels.
After the resurrection, Mary - who has been called the Apostle to the Apostles since the early church (and "Equal to the Apostles" in the Eastern churches) - disappears from history. There are traditions that tell of her traveling to Rome to convert the emperor, to France with Lazarus, and to Ephesus with the Virgin Mother. There is also some indication - in
non-canonical references - of a tension that may have developed between her and the other apostles. Certainly in the Gospels, she vanishes into history after the resurrection.
Not long after those gospels were written down, however, Mary's reputation, quickly began to merge with the women mentioned above. It didn't help that the name of her hometown - Magdala or Migdal - was also a word (meaning "curled hair") used as local slang of the time to refer to prostitutes.
However, it was Pope St. Gregory the Great who sealed her reputation as an adulteress and sinner about 1,400 years ago.
In a 591 homily, the pope said, "She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven demons were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?"
The reputation stuck, at least in the church in the West. As noted above, the Eastern church never took up the confusion about her reputation. And Protestant reformers - Lutherans also honor her on July 22 - did not think of her as a prostitute or great sinner.
Not until 1969, when Pope Paul VI revised the lectionary - the readings used for Mass, was Mary's identity as Apostle to the Apostles fully resurrected. And, by extension, her reputation of ill repute was cleared. The readings for her feast were changed to Jn 20:11-17, telling of her meeting the risen Lord at the tomb and being called by her true name - "Miriam" (Mary in Aramaic). Then she was sent, as all true disciple are, to share the Good News.
(Sources: U.S. Catholic, "Who Framed Mary Magdalene?", April 2000; Catholic Update, May 2006; Catholic Encyclopedia; Smithsonian Magazine, June 2006; www.beliefnet.org - Ben Witherington III; www.wikipedia.org; and www.orthodoxwiki.org)