Christians and Intimacy
Was Mary Magdalene A Prostitute?
The Last Temptation depicts Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and
also as, apparently, the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus
saved from being stoned to death. The latter is clearly a
departure from the Holy scriptures while the former continues to
be a matter of some debate. It’s important to note, however,
that, in biblical times, any man—any man at all—could point an
accusing finger at any woman, literally any woman walking down
the street, and accuse her of anything. I personally doubt
Maggie was a prostitute, but, for all we know, she could have
rebuffed some guy’s advances, and he, in turn, could have
accused her of soliciting him. The man need not actually prove
anything, women had virtually no rights and a woman of age—as
Maggie appeared to have been—should have been married off long
ago. An independent grown woman was considered an oddity and/or
presumed to be a widow, a concubine, or a whore.
Without a husband or male relative to speak for her, to provide security and cover, she could be
accused of any and all things.
According to Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9, Jesus had cleansed Maggie of “seven demons.” Maybe this explains her singleness and even her reputation. Was Maggie a prostitute? Was she the same woman who intruded on dinner at a Pharisee’s home in Luke Chapter 7 and performed a similar act—anointing Christ’s feet and drying them with her hair?
If I called this a case of biblical writers getting the story wrong, some of you folks would be up in arms. The Gospel of Luke was written some fifty years after Jesus’ Death and resurrection. It is based largely on Mark’s Gospel, but is more detailed and complete than Johnmark’s lean Gospel tract. Outside of that reference, Luke had his own experience and an oral tradition to rely upon as the basis for his work. Our belief system also demands that Luke wrote under the influence of the Holy Spirit—just as I presume to be doing at this moment. However, speaking only for myself, being inspired of the Holy Spirit does not stop me from making typos or getting stuff wrong. Which isn’t to say Luke somehow confused two different accounts or that he misremembered, but just pointing out the fact that, as theologian Charles C. Ryrie puts it, “...the inerrancy of the Bible means simply that the Bible tells the truth. Truth can and does include approximations, free quotations, language of appearances, and different accounts of the same event as long as these do not contradict.” He concludes, “The Bible is inerrant in that it tells the Truth, and it does so without error in all parts and with all its words.”
The alternative I find a little less plausible, that two different women, having nothing to do with one another, spontaneously thought to perform that same intimate act. This view is embraced by A.T. Robertson in his Harmony of The Gospels:
The anointing has nothing in common with that given by Luke, except the fact of a woman anointing the Saviour’s feet, and the name Simon, which was common. The former was in Galilee, this is at Bethany near Jerusalem. There the host despised the woman who anointed, here her brother is one of the guests, and her sister an active attendant. There the woman was “a sinner,” a notoriously bad woman, here it is the devout Maggie who “sat at the Lord’s feet and heard his word” months before. There the host thought it strange that Jesus allowed her to touch him, here the disciples complain of waste. There the Saviour gave assurance of forgiveness, here of perpetual and world-wide honor. Especially notice that here the woman who anoints is anticipating his speedy death and burial, of which at the former time he had never distinctly spoken. In view of all these differences it is absurd to represent the two anointings as the same, and outrageous on such slender ground to cast reproach on Mary of Bethany.
I believe Maggie seems exotic and mysterious only because of sexism. There were, likely, lots of women around Jesus, lots of female followers of Christ. But records were routinely kept only of the men. The feeding of the five thousand, for instance, referred only to the men. Presuming each man had at least one wife and one child, the crowd was exponentially larger. The most vivid and memorable characters in the Gospels were mostly men, with women being mentioned only as necessary. I doubt there was a big secret relationship, a hidden tryst between Jesus and Maggie. I sincerely doubt they were married—I mean, why would anybody bother to keep that a secret? I’m sure Jesus loved her, as He loves all of us. Was His flesh tempted by her? Hard to say. Possibly. But, as I mentioned in a previous lesson, I believe Jesus was an enormously disciplined man. I believe His thinking was on a different level because His awareness was so much more broad than ours. The temptations and stresses of this life certainly touched Him, but only during extreme circumstances where His humanity became both a hindrance and a distraction. His choices were otherwise informed by His awareness of the bigger picture, having answers you and I can only content ourselves to wait and hope for. For, if we had those answers, if we ourselves had visceral experience of such things unseen rather than hope in them, we’d make better choices. We’d be more patient. We’d be better equipped to withstand temptation. But, like Christ Himself, we’d still be vulnerable to our own transient humanity, which would betray us and cloud our judgment at times most critical. When we so desperately need clarity and resolve, we are robbed of both—just as He was.
I believe Christ’s awareness as God routinely trumped the temptations
of His flesh. To Him, Maggie was (as all women were) part of His divine creation. Christ’s celibacy, therefore, may have been His divine example for us. But it’s also just as likely that He wasn’t interested. Which isn't to say that He was not tempted by the adoring, worshiping flocks of women—wives and virgins—in the multitude, any one of whom would likely have given in to Him had He so requested. That might have been an important lesson to include in the Gospels; I can't imagine that, in 33 years, not a single woman ever batted an eye at Jesus. But the Lord's awareness of Who He was and what His mission was created the kind of focus you and I can only aspire to. Far too many preachers have fallen to the misplaced affection of sisters, these ministers losing their credibility and derailing their mission. For far too many of us, Maggie would have been what is reasonable to suspect some observers around Jesus assumed she was—his sexual companion. I don't know many pastors who could have the kind of close, trusted relationship with a woman, married or not, that Christ obviously had with Maggie. we'd shun Maggie if only for the sake of appearance, making it biblical, "Let not your good be evil spoken of."
But, the truth is, whether we ourselves are
weak or not, there's been such a sad history of ghastly moral
failure on the part of clergy that we miss the biblical model of
this intimate relationship between a teacher and His protégé,
one that leaves no evidence to suggest was ever improper. Many
of us lack the will to have a productive relationship like this
one that does not lead to temptation. Was Jesus made of stone?
Wasn't He just as human as we are? For Christ's human experience
to have been of value to us, to be a model for us, I assume He
was tempted in every way we are—including sexually. I also
assume the writers, being led of the Holy Spirit but also being
subject to their own flesh, either never discussed this aspect
of humanity with Jesus, or never wrote abut it—not even as a
suspicion that the Lord might have been sexually tempted which,
by syllogistic argument He had to have been. Which, if true, further clouds the
whole celibacy debate because we’re getting His choices and His
motives for them wrong.
Mary Magdalene was totally submitted to Christ. Would she have slept with Jesus had He made some sideways pitch, the way we pastors and ministers make our lame sideways pitches, warping scripture and bending the rules to create some loophole on our conscience? I believe Maggie was vulnerable and needy. I believe Jesus literally saved her life and her soul. I am quite sure Maggie would have done whatever the Master asked her to do, and she would have done it without hesitation. And, this is the temptation for many pastors and ministers: the hero worship, the misplaced dedication to us rather than to God. In many ways, pastor, you hold these women's fate in your hands. Lonely, troubled, lost, vulnerable women. Remember, there were no books in those days. Nobody was running around with a bible to quote scripture and recite the Law. They had an oral custom, they knew the basic rules, but Jesus could have convinced Mary He'd come to do away with the rules. Nobody would accuse either of them. Luke would not have written about it.
And Jesus would have failed in His mission, in His purpose, just as so many of us have failed in ours, and we'd all be lost for eternity. This, for me, is the biblical example of intimacy, not the church's mangling of Paul's teaching on fornication (in which he was usually speaking about sex with prostitutes, orgies and/or incest. More on that here).
But, our takeaway from this story should be a healthy respect for important boundaries but also a responsible and disciplined intimacy that is difficult to achieve, maintain, and defend from Church Folk who will spread rumors and destroy reputations based on assumptions borne of their own weakness and lack of spirituality.
There wasn’t a big focus on Maggie in scripture, but the fact she was mentioned as much as she was is, in fact, huge, considering women were often regarded as property of their husbands and fathers. There is no record of Maggie having either. She was, from what little is written of her, an independent, never-married woman. It is fair to presume, from scriptural context, that Mary was "of a certain age," likely late twenties, early thirties. Which is young for modern times, but in biblical times it was unusual for a grown woman of that age to not be married or widowed. It is also, therefore, reasonable to infer men would presume unattached women of that age to have discrete means of meeting their sexual needs. which doesn't necessarily make Maggie a prostitute, but likely earned single women of a certain age the skunk eye from married women and holier-than-thou types. Was Maggie a lesbian? That would certainly fit the story. Was homosexuality a component of the "seven demons" Jesus delivered her from? As I mention above, anybody at all could have pointed a finger and accused Maggie of prostitution, homosexuality, parking in a handicap zone—and it would have been accepted as fact.
There is no scriptural evidence to suggest Maggie felt belittled or diminished in submitting herself to Jesus or in operating along the periphery of Christ’s male-dominated inner circle. There is no evidence of her being brash, loud, brassy or stubborn. Of her gossiping, tattling or throwing tantrums. There is no evidence of Maggie wearing tight, revealing clothes with plunging necklines, short skirts and flirting, as so many of our sisters do in church—church. There is, about Maggie, only an aura of worship and adoration, kindness and peace. And, while the authors never wrote about it, Maggie was likely among the most dedicated and respected people in the room, a natural leader. A model for today’s Christian woman.
Christopher J. Priest
26 June 2011
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