If there’s a feminist figure from the Bible for the #MeToo era, it could very well be Mary Magdalene.
The major character in the life of Jesus was long maligned in the West and portrayed as a reformed former prostitute. But scholars have adopted a different approach more recently, viewing her as a strong, independent woman who supported Jesus financially and spiritually.
The New Testament tells how Jesus cast demons out of her. She then accompanied Jesus in his ministry around Galilee, before witnessing his crucifixion, burial and resurrection in Jerusalem, which is being commemorated by Christians this week and next. The Roman Catholic Church and Western Christian churches observe Easter on Sunday, Eastern Orthodox Christians a week later.
Pope Francis took the biggest step yet to rehabilitate Mary Magdalene’s image by declaring a major feast day in her honour, July 22. His 2016 decree put the woman who first proclaimed Jesus’s resurrection on par with the liturgical celebrations of the male apostles.
“By doing this, he established the absolute equality of Mary Magdalene to the apostles, something that has never been done before and is also a point of no return” for women in the church, said Lucetta Scarrafia, editor of the Vatican-published Women Church World monthly magazine.
For centuries, Western Christianity depicted Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute, a narrative that began in the sixth century. Pope Gregory the Great conflated her with an anonymous sinful woman mentioned in the chapter before she’s introduced in the Gospel of Luke.
Only in 1969 did the Catholic Church roll back centuries of labelling Mary Magdalene as such, stating she was distinct from the sinful woman mentioned in Luke. Eastern Orthodox Christians never depicted her as a prostitute.
Mary Magdalene was from a thriving fishing village on the Sea of Galilee named Magdala, which has been excavated extensively by archeologists in recent decades.
The site is home to the oldest known synagogue in Galilee, where a stone bearing the likeness of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was found, as well as a marketplace, ritual baths and fishing harbour. Marcela Zapata-Meza, the lead archeologist at the site, has called it “the Israeli Pompeii.”
Modern scholars have adopted a different understanding of Mary Magdalene, and regard her as one of Jesus’s most prominent disciples, who stood by him to the end while his most devoted apostles did not.
“Historical tradition says she was a prostitute from Magdala,” said Jennifer Ristine, director of the Magdalena Institute at Magdala. “Reanalyzing that reputation that she had we can see she was probably a woman of greater social status, higher social status, a woman of wealth who accompanied Jesus as we see in Luke 8:2, helping Jesus and his disciples with her own resources.”
Nonetheless, the image of Mary Magdalene as a licentious, sexualized woman has persisted in Western culture, including in Jesus Christ Superstar and The Da Vinci Code.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister, said Mary Magdalene’s reputation was sullied by her depiction in art over the centuries.
“Art history made her become a prostitute, which is something that is not present in the Gospels,” he said, adding that she also has been portrayed as Jesus’s wife.
“It is important to find the real face of Mary Magdalene, who is a woman who represents the importance of the female aspect on the side of Christ,” he said.
The Gospel of Mary, an early Christian text, depicted her as a visionary who received secret revelations and knowledge from Jesus.
Claire Pfann, academic dean at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, said Mary Magdalene must be seen for what she was: “An independent woman who has discretionary time and wealth from the city of Magdala, not identified by a father or a husband, whose life was dramatically restored, healed, changed by her encounter with this Jewish itinerant teacher and healer, Jesus of Nazareth.”
“It takes a long time for serious scholarship to trickle down to the popular level,” she added.
A new film on the life of Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara in the title role, Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter the Apostle, recasts her in that mould.
The film has been released in Europe and Australia. Release dates for North America have not been set, following the collapse of its original distributor, the Weinstein Co., after a series of sexual-harassment and assault claims against founder Harvey Weinstein. The rash of allegations made against Weinstein spawned the global #MeToo movement.
Ms. Ristine said Mary Magdalene plays a critical role in the New Testament and carries an “essential pivotal message of Christianity.”
“Why is a woman there, giving testimony to that in a culture where women are just not paid attention to, or not placed as witnesses?” she asks. “Well, this speaks very strongly to women today, that the power of their witness, the power of their testimony to speak up for a truth, can have effects that ripple down through the centuries.”