The Church commemorates the witness of St. Mary Magdalene today. She has become a controversial figure, restructured by some as an avatar of feminist aspirations and then rebranded in the fiction of popular culture as the subject of conspiracy theories that are intended to reveal how dastardly forces have labored to keep the “real” Jesus hidden from view. Sigh. Will the real St. Mary Magdalene please stand up?
Confusion about the identity of Mary Magdalene antedates all the contemporary controversies. Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century conflated Mary Magdalene with the unnamed sinful woman described in Luke 7:36-50, a mash-up that gained even more traction from a homily delivered by St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century in which the pontiff seems to accept the association of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman as well. Mary Magdalene is identified specifically in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Luke as a woman “from whom seven devils had gone out.” Yikes!
St. Gregory uses this terrifying description from the eighth chapter of Luke as a means of explicating what are known as the seven deadly sins, of which many people still think that lust is the most deadly and most interesting. Though the Gospel speaks of Mary Magdalene as a victim of diabolical possession, her predicament comes to be associated with willful acts of defiance against morality, particularly chastity. As such, the association of her with the unnamed sinful woman in the seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel and the woman caught in adultery in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John seems to stick and with it the enduring popular perception that Mary Magdalene was, prior to her conversion to Christ, a prostitute.