The Saintly Sinner

I am obsessed with the New Yorker. It’s the only magazine I subscribe to, and I read it cover to cover every week. Every week, I find something that I want to blog about, but I’m usually too lazy to re-type entire paragraphs — and since the magazine doesn’t put the stories online until the issue is a week old and a new one has come out, by the time I can put in a link I’ve usually forgotten all about it. But this week, I remembered — and I introduce you to a great article on the lore of Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene gets only fourteen mentions in the New Testament. Luke and Mark describe her as the subject of one of Jesus’ exorcisms—he cast “seven devils” out of her—and as one of several women who followed him. In all four Gospels, she is present at the Crucifixion. Nevertheless, her role remains minuscule, until, all of a sudden, after Christ’s death, it becomes hugely magnified. Each of the Gospels tells the story a little differently, but, basically, the Magdalene, either alone or with other women, goes to the tomb on the third day to anoint Jesus’ body, and it is to her (or them) that an angel or Christ himself announces that he is risen from the dead, and instructs her to go tell this to his disciples. That command gave the Magdalene a completely new standing. The Resurrection is the proof of the truth of Christian faith. As the first person to announce it, Mary Magdalene became, as she was later designated, “the apostle to the apostles.”

But there was a problem. Why her? Why a person who previously had been referred to only in passing? Above all, why a woman?

You have to read the whole piece, as the author does a fantastic job of describing how the mainstream church has steadily removed Mary Magdalene from its history, seeking to tarnish her in an effort to instate patriarchal authority. At the same time, her story — short as it is — has inspired generations of cult religions, and she remains one of the most interesting figures in the Bible.

Jesus, for his time and place, was notably unsexist. In Samaria, when he talked with the woman at the well—this is the longest personal exchange he has with anyone in the Bible—his disciples “marvelled”; a Jewish man did not, in public, speak to a woman unrelated to him. In another episode, in Luke, Jesus is dining with Simon the Pharisee when a “woman in the city,” a “sinner”—presumably a prostitute—enters the house, washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them, and then anoints them with balm from a jar. Simon says to Christ that if he can accept that tribute from such a person then he is surely not a prophet. Christ answers that the “sinner” has shown him more love than Simon has.

Now, having actually read the Bible — the whole thing, unlike a lot of so-called “Christians” — it’s fairly apparent that it isn’t exactly a picture of gender equality. But, like the writer says, given the time that Christ was living, the story protrays him as remarkably less sexist than almost anyone else in the book.

According to some scholars, Christ’s equanimity regarding gender was honored in some early Christian communities, where women served as leaders. But by the second century, as the so-called “orthodox Church” consolidated itself, the women were being shunted aside, along with the thing that they were increasingly seen to stand for: sex. It was not until the twelfth century that all Roman Catholic priests were absolutely required to be celibate, but the call for celibacy began sounding long before, and the writings of the Church fathers were very tough on sex. By the fourth century, Christ’s mother was declared a virgin. Chastity became the ideal; women, the incitement to unchastity, were stigmatized.

Emphasis mine, because it’s the most interesting paragraph in the whole piece. It’s no secret that the anti-sex view of the modern church is an invention, not something that was handed down from God above. Take even the position on abortion and birth control: Even St. Augustine believed that “There cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation,” and asserted that, while abortion required penance, it was only for the sexual sin. Abortion in the Bible is punishable as a property crime. Until 1917, Church Canon law didn’t qualify abortion as homicide before 40 days of pregnancy; Pope Innoccent III believed that abortion was homicide after “quickening,” but not before. Pope Gregory XIV agreed, and said that quickening occurred at 116 days (approx. 17 weeks).

Interestingly, the Catholic church’s opposition to abortion and birth control both occurred when church power was directly threatened. From 1848 to 1870, the Papal states shrank from about 1/3 of Italy to what is now Vatican City — and in 1869, Pope Pius IX’s Apostolical Sedis eliminated the animated/non-animated fetal distinction and asserted that excommunication was the punishment for abortion at any time during pregnancy. In the 20th century the Church was again faced with waning political power and a lack of loyalty from its members — and in 1930, the encyclical Casti Connubii strongly condemned birth control. This condemnation was reiterated and specified in 1968 with Humanae Vitae, which issued a church ban on any contraceptive method that altered conception, including (but not limited to) birth control pills, IUDs, and condoms. The late 1960 and 1970s, as most of us know, was a time of great social upheavel, deep questioning of religion and popular morality, and shifting views of sex and reproduction. The church, again faced with a crisis, responded by tightening the reigns.

…and now I’ve gotten totally off-topic. The point is, the current sex-phobic, sexist construction of Christianity isn’t the only story, or the whole and unchanged truth.

One wonders, at first, how it would help the Church’s new chastity campaign for the first witness of the Resurrection to be a prostitute. But, as noted, the Church was pretty much stuck with the Magdalene. Furthermore, the keynote of Jesus’ ministry was humility. A god who chose to be born in a stable might also decide to announce his Resurrection to a prostitute. And Luke’s sinner was not just a prostitute; she was a repentant prostitute, shedding tears so copious that they sufficed to clean the feet of a man who had just walked the dusty road to the Pharisee’s house. But the crucial gain of grafting this woman onto the Magdalene was that it gave the Magdalene some fullness as a character while also lowering her standing. The conflation was already being made by the third or fourth century, and in the sixth century it was ratified in a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great. Mary Magdalene, one of the few independent women in the New Testament, became a whore.

I always laugh when I hear people try and argue that the Bible is a static text, and an absolute truth, and that the way we currently understand it is the way that it’s always been understood. It’s not. Mary Magdalene wasn’t always a prostitute, but labeling her as one allowed the boys in the church to maintain their authority and discredit her importance. Because being a whore is the worst thing you can be.

But at the very least, Mary Magdalene-as-whore gave a lot of artists the ability to paint a naked lady (full-frontal) in a time where that sort of thing probably couldn’t have been done with most other Biblical figures.

2 comments for “The Saintly Sinner

  1. February 23, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    I’m fascinated by the Biblical books that were dropped by whomever for whatever reason, particularly the books written by women. The Marys, so to speak, were always my favorite people in the Bible when I went to church. It wasn’t until I got older that I learned about the great virgin/whore divide, and how that plays into church mythology and social control.

  2. Magis
    February 23, 2006 at 3:06 pm

    The Good Book does not explicitly name Mary Magdalene as the washer of Jesus’ feet nor as the woman about to be stoned as an adultress. These could have been other women. She was, says the legend, entrusted with the body of Anne and later went to France.

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