Was Mary Magdalene Wife of Jesus? Was Mary Magdalene a Prostitute?

How did her reputation evolve “From Saint to Sinner?”

Read Birger A. Pearson’s article “From Saint to Sinner” as it originally appeared in Bible Review, Spring 2005. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in October 2011.—Ed.

Mary Magdalene

Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute? Was Mary Magdalene wife of Jesus? Her being a repentant whore was not part of the biblical text. Photo: Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library / Courtesy of IAP Fine Art

When novelists and screenwriters try to insert something salacious into the life of Jesus, they focus on one woman: Mary from Magdala. Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute? Was Mary Magdalene the wife of Jesus? Birger A. Pearson addresses these popular notions in the article “From Saint to Sinner” below.

As Pearson notes, there’s no substantial evidence to either of these theories. As for her being named in the New Testament, none of the Gospels hints of her as being Mary Magdalene, wife of Jesus. Three Gospels name her only as a witness of his crucifixion and/or burial. All four Gospels place her at the scene of Jesus’ resurrection (though Luke does not list her as a witness). Only in the Gospel according to Luke is there even the slightest implication that she might have had a past life that could raise eyebrows and the question: Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute? Luke 8 names her among other female followers and financial supporters and says that she had been released from the power of seven demons.

Theologians in later centuries consciously tried to downplay her role as an influential follower of Jesus. She became identified with the “sinful woman” in Luke 7 whom Jesus forgives as she anoints his feet, as well as the woman “taken in adultery” whom Jesus saved from stoning. In the sixth century Pope Gregory preached of her being a model penitent.

Only the Western church has said that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. The Eastern church has always honored her as an apostle, noting her as the “apostle to the apostles,” based on the account of the Gospel of John which has Jesus calling her by name and telling her to give the news of his resurrection to the other disciples.

As Birger A. Pearson sets forth in “From Saint to Sinner” below, a noncanonical Gospel of Mary enhances her role to a greater proportion. Her ongoing role in the early church is subject to speculation, but she is indeed getting more respect in theological circles, not for being Mary Magdalene wife of Jesus nor for being Mary Magdalene a prostitute but for being a faithful follower of her Rabboni—her teacher.

The recent discovery of a Coptic papyrus fragment reignited the discussion on Jesus’ marriage. Read more about this early Christian text featuring the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …,’” as well as new tests conducted on the papyrus fragment’s authenticity.


From Saint to Sinner

by Birger A. Pearson

Dan Brown, William Phipps, Martin Scorsese—when looking for a lover or wife for Jesus, they all chose Mary Magdalene. It’s not surprising. Mary Magdalene has long been recognized as one of the New Testament’s more alluring women. Most people think of her as a prostitute who repented after encountering Jesus. In contemporary British artist Chris Gollon’s painting of The Pre-penitent Magdalene (at right), Mary appears as a defiant femme fatal adorned with jewelry and make-up.

Yet, the New Testament says no such thing. Rather, in three of the four canonical Gospels, Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name only in connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus. She is a witness to his crucifixion (Matthew 27:55–56; Mark 15:40–41; John 19:25) and burial (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47).1 She is one of the first (the first, according to John) to arrive at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1–8; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10). And she is one of the first (again, the first, according to John) to witness the risen Christ (Matthew 28:9; John 20:14–18).

Only the Gospel of Luke names Mary Magdalene in connection with Jesus’ daily life and public ministry. There, Mary is listed as someone who followed Jesus as he went from village to village, bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. “And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Luke 8:1–3).

To learn more about Biblical women with slighted traditions, take a look at the Bible History Daily feature Scandalous Women in the Bible, which includes articles on Jezebel and Lilith.

The epithet “Magdalene,” used in all the Gospels, indicates that Mary came from the mercantile town of Migdal (Taricheae) on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.2 She must have been a woman of some means, if Luke’s account can be trusted, for she helped provide Jesus and the twelve with material support. She had also experienced Jesus’ healing power, presumably involving an exorcism of some sort.3 It should be noted, though, that the author of the Gospel of Luke has a tendency to diminish Mary Magdalene’s role, in comparison with her treatment in the other three canonical Gospels. For example, Luke is alone among the canonical Gospels in claiming that the risen Lord appeared exclusively to Peter (Luke 24:34; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:5). No appearance to Mary is recorded in Luke.4 Accordingly, his reference to seven demons may be tendentious.5

So how did Mary become a repentant whore in Christian legend?

Critical scholarship has provided the answer to this question: It happened as a conscious attempt on the part of later interpreters of the Gospels to diminish her.a They did this by identifying her with other women mentioned in the Gospels, most notably the unnamed sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment and whose sins he forgives (Luke 7:36–50) and the unnamed woman taken in adultery (John 7:53–8:11).6 This conflation of texts was given sanction in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great (540–604) in a famous homily in which he holds Mary up as a model of penitence. Pope Gregory positively identified the unnamed anointer and adulteress as Mary, and suggested that the ointment used on Jesus’ feet was once used to scent Mary’s body. The seven demons Jesus cast out of Mary were, according to Gregory, the seven cardinal sins, which include lust. But, wrote Gregory, when Mary threw herself at Jesus’ feet, “she turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.”7

Thus was invented the original hooker with a heart of gold.

Interestingly, the legend of Mary the penitent whore is found only in the Western church; in the Eastern church she is honored for what she was, a witness to the resurrection. Another Gregory, Gregory of Antioch (also sixth century), in one of his homilies, has Jesus say to the women at the tomb: “Proclaim to my disciples the mysteries which you have seen. Become the first teacher of the teachers. Peter, who has denied me, must learn that I can also choose women as apostles.”8

Mary’s historical role as an apostle is clearly tied to her experience of an appearance of the risen Christ. As noted above, in the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene goes alone to the tomb, where she is the first to see the risen Jesus. He tells her to tell his “brethren” that he is ascending to God the Father. She then goes to the disciples and tells them what she has seen and heard (John 20:1, 11–19).9 Later that same day Jesus appears to the disciples gathered behind closed doors. He thus confirms in person the message Mary had given them. In contrast to Luke’s picture of Mary, in John she emerges as an “apostle to the apostles.”10

The Galilee is one of the most evocative locales in the New Testament—the area where Jesus was raised and where many of the Apostles came from. Our free eBook, The Galilee Jesus Knew, focuses on several aspects of Galilee: how Jewish the area was in Jesus’ time, the ports and the fishing industry that were so central to the region, and several sites where Jesus likely stayed and preached.

The positive role played by Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John was considerably enhanced in Christian circles that honored her memory. The Gospel of Mary, quoted in the accompanying article, is the product of one such early Christian community. In her recent book The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, Jane Schaberg presents the following nine-point “profile” of Mary:

(1) Mary is prominent among the followers of Jesus; (2) she exists as a character, as a memory, in a textual world of androcentric language and patriarchal ideology; (3) she speaks boldly; (4) she plays a leadership role vis-à-vis the male disciples; (5) she is a visionary; (6) she is praised for her superior understanding; (7) she is identified as the intimate companion of Jesus; (8) she is opposed by or in open conflict with one or more of the male disciples; (9) she is defended by Jesus.11

All nine characteristics are prominent in the Gospel of Mary, although many of these nine points are found in other noncanonical texts.

But does this portrait of Mary Magdalene as an early Church leader reflect historical reality? Perhaps. One scholar has suggested that Mary may even be mentioned along with a few other female leaders whom Paul sends greetings to in Romans 16:6, where he writes: “Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.”12 But this must remain speculative. It is true that we have no reason to suspect Mary was a prostitute or lover or wife of Jesus. But it is also true that if she was an apostle to the apostles, the evidence for her role has successfully been suppressed—at least until now. As a result of the recent work of a number of scholars, Mary Magdalene’s apostolic role in early Christianity is getting a new hearing.

That, in my view, is more important than viewing her as Jesus’ wife.

“From Saint to Sinner” by Birger A. Pearson originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Bible Review.

birger-pearsonBirger A. Pearson is professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is one of the world’s leading experts on the Coptic gospels and has written hundreds of articles and books on Gnosticism and the Nag Hammadi codices. Since 1968, he has been involved in Claremont University’s Coptic Gnostic Library project.



1 Luke 23:55 refers to “the women who had come with him from Galilee” without naming any of them.

2 On that town, see esp. Jane Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (New York: Continuum, 2002), pp. 47–64.

3 Reference to seven demons may mean that she was totally possessed. On the seven demons see Esther de Boer, Mary Magdalene: Beyond the Myth (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), pp. 48–55.

4 See esp. Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 19–40.

5 In a secondary ending to the Gospel of Mark, it is said that Jesus “appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons” (Mark 16:9). The secondary ending is probably dependent upon the Gospel of Luke. As the best manuscripts attest, the earliest versions of Mark end at 16:8.

6 Mel Gibson makes that identification in his movie, The Passion of the Christ. On the tendentious conflation of traditions, see esp. Schaberg, Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, pp. 65–77, 82.

7 Quoted in Schaberg, Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, p. 82.

8 Quoted in de Boer, Mary Magdalene, p. 12.

9 Vv. 2–10 are probably a later interpolation into a more original account and interrupt the flow of the narrative.

10 On this term see Brock, Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle, p. 1. Brock’s book is a valuable discussion of the apostolate in early Christianity and Mary’s role in it.

11 Schaberg, Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, p. 129.

12 de Boer, Mary Magdalene, pp. 59–60.

a See Jane Schaberg, “How Mary Magdalene Became a Whore,” Bible Review, October 1992.

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  1. Cahyana says

    Mary Magdalene in the mind of Indonesian Christians at large, especially in terms of generic honor according to Indo-Malaysian (Old Malay) language connotation to her specific role as noted in the Bible, has a good reputation. She was worthy-woman, as in Old-Malay said (specifically called with “per-empu-an where “empu”=mastering something), because the Bible says so. It is simple but it has certainly expressed a genuine faith

  2. John says

    ‘Scholars’ and others who have connected other women mentioned in the gospel’s to Mary of Magdala seemed to have overlooked a principle of Christianity, i.e., to bear all things. This instruction for agape in Paul’s definition means, in layman language, to not say damaging things about anyone – whether true ot not. To connect Mary to these other women is to overlook this instruction.
    One might then ask about Rahab the Harlot from Jericho. Rehab was venerated in Hebrews 11 as one of faith. Her faith overoad any disparage on her character.

  3. Eldad says

    A good reading. Yet one must ask: what was the reason that Mary Magdalene attended the burial in the first place? Who was entitled to attend any Jewish burial back then?
    Was she his wife? I’m not sure. But if she was his son’s mother, she could well attend the burial.

  4. David says

    Studying cultural norms and the biblical concepts of sin in the first century and I have been reminded of it’s overarching stress on purity, on the laws defining sin keeping the people of Israel separate from the law of the Roman Empire and other cultural influences of the world.

    Furthering my study , in the RSV the word homosexuality taken the Septuagint’s translation in the Book of Romans is “unnatural desire”. This phrase carried through in my recent reading of Gospel of Mary. I am struck by her rebuttal to arguments for her expulsion from the community of apostles. The claim against her is ultimately a claim of “unnatural desire”. It appears the claim against her is that she claimed to be the equal of a man. Today we view “unnatural desire” culturally referring to pedophilia, homosexuality. How culturally we have been driven by the fears, the sins of others. And how confused we have shown to be in the light of good scholarship.

    An excellent article and bibliography.

  5. Rob says

    Rob asks: An Englishman named Laurence Gardner maxxed out Mary, and also presents lineage for Charlemagne from JC and the Caesar family by way of Marc Anthony. Popular in Europe; any truth to this?

  6. JOSEPH says

    Excellent article. The headline teaser had me worried.

    She was a great woman, if Jesus appeared to her first.

    She was NOT the one who anointed Jesus’ feet – that was Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. I do not understand why so many people assume Mary Magdelene was the one.

  7. Gary says

    Mary — Usual English form of Maria, which was the Latin form of the New Testament Greek names Μαριαμ (Mariam) and Μαρια (Maria) – the spellings are interchangeable – which were from the Hebrew name מִרְיָם (Miryam). The meaning is not known for certain, but there are several theories including “sea of bitterness”, “rebelliousness”, and “wished for child”. However it was most likely originally an Egyptian name, perhaps derived in part from mry “beloved” or mr “love”.

  8. Môlsem says

    I wonder sometimes if the Western interpretations of Mary Magdelene were simply male-dominant society, if not misogynist society, simply could not tolerate the notion of a female apostle, or even if Jesus chose to conceal her role and importance to avoid colliding with then Jewish misogyny.

  9. KL says

    If a person questions over the Holiness of Jesus Christ will never receive the charming answer from any man who has the fear of God. Then questioner will have to read Holy & True Bible prayerfully.

  10. esther says

    Was Mary Magdalene Wife of Jesus? Was Mary Magdalene a Prostitute?

  11. Akere says

    Why did they say Mary magdalin was the wife i never had or seen such please tell i like to know

  12. Regina says

    Mary Magdalene has always been a woman of speculation. I think we see her as a repentent prostitute because, if Mary, a woman of sexual sin can be saved, then why can’t we?

  13. Ann Beverly says

    it is pretty easy to discuss Jesus in scholarly terms…or even in a secular note…however, for those who experienced Him, he becomes too big for dissection…thank you, all of you who do study and defend His holiness and character…

  14. tapani says

    Mary Magdalene is one of the head persons in essealism. There bad spirits were driven off by a comissio of leaders. I am not expert but I have read one book wich surveys status of women at the time of early christianity.

  15. Rob says

    Charlemagne’s descent from Christ was focused upon in a recent European best seller, with lineage charts at the back. For some reason the author misdirected the reader to focus upon the Merovingian dynasty (dull bunch) over the really meaningful Carolingian chart. As a boy I always wondered why Europeans placed so much faith and interest in Charlemagne, even to the point of recently completing a canal from headwaters of the Rhine to the Danube, as “the boss” had desired much earlier. Circles in Europe must have ignored the portrayed ascetic life of Christ as simple church propaganda for the unenlightened. Therefore, why not Mary Magdalene as a bride?

  16. donne says

    Wir sind eine neighborhood von Freiwilligen und starting Up a contemporary Plan Within unsere regional. Ihre world breit Web delivered uns mit Lucrative information und Fakten toward get die Stelle Done bei. Von yourself habe durchgeführt Out bold process und unsere Full nearby werden dankbar in die Richtung Of your Self.

  17. oyedele adesina says

    wich time jesus get married

  18. bate says

    send i?

  19. Maria says

    “2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons have gone out” Luke 8:2

    SEVEN DEMONS were in her she must have had gone through hell. For a person to have 7 Demons in the body, may some of her accusers have their turn, to see how they can live with 7 demons in their bodies. The Lord Jesus Christ healed her, and why cannot women or men or children follow the Son of God knowing He performed too many miracles and He came to save us?

    If I were back then, I too would follow the Lord. I would sleep at the entrance of the tomb instead of returning home. When a person like myself have no family or relative, Lord Jesus is the only ONE I look up to Him as my patents. Mary Magdalene was no exceptional. Mary Magdelene looked up to the Lord as her parents, master, savior and her God, just like how I would do if I were there. Can the people who fear God follow the Lord like Mary Magdalene did? Just because she was a woman, she cannot follow the Lord everywhere is ridiculous. Can a gay man or gay woman follow the Lord everywhere because they believe Him as the CHRIST? Or some of these haters will again accuse the Lord that He was gay lover?? The fact the BIBLE mentioned nothing that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. And DO NOT confuse Mary Magdalene with the sister of Lazarus named Mary who annointed the Lord’s feet. God has never made mistakes nor He lied, and the Bible is the words of God, so be aware of Satan.

    “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” Hebrews 13:8

  20. annunci says

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  21. Kurt says

    Why did the resurrected Jesus invite Thomas to touch him yet stop Mary Magdalene from doing so earlier?
    Some older translations of the Bible give the impression that Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to touch him. For instance, the King James Version renders Jesus’ words: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” (John 20:17) However, the original Greek verb, which is usually translated “touch,” means also “to cling to, hang on by, lay hold of, grasp, handle.” Reasonably, Jesus was not objecting to Mary Magdalene’s merely touching him, since he allowed other women who were at the grave to ‘catch him by his feet.’—Matthew 28:9.
    Many modern-language translations, such as the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, The New Jerusalem Bible, and The New English Bible, help us to understand the real meaning of Jesus’ words by rendering them: “Stop clinging to me.” Why would Jesus say that to Mary Magdalene, who was a close associate?—Luke 8:1-3.
    Evidently, Mary Magdalene feared that Jesus was about to leave and ascend into heaven. Moved by her strong desire to be with her Lord, she was holding fast to Jesus, not letting him go. To assure her that he was not yet leaving, Jesus instructed Mary to stop clinging to him but instead to go and declare to his disciples the news of his resurrection.—John 20:17.

  22. jakob says

    The location of the tomb of Mary Magdalene is given to us in the form of prophecies by the two witnesses. It is the finding of her that precipitates the rise of the anti-Christ in Rev. 13.

    I’m looking for someone that is interested in finding Mary Magdalene. Read thegoodguise@wordpress.com and if interested write to me on the blog.


  23. MAC says

    All Scripture is God breathed.We can have several interpretations but Scripture is accurate in what it says.Please dear Sirs, do not lean on your own understanding based on worldly imaginations.

  24. andre says

    And bye the way …. marry Magdalene was a prostitute who was forgiven for her sins do to fact jesus told her to go out there and sin no more meaning repent from ur old ways and never go back to them …so she did do so….however jesus was married to Israel who Israel was whoremonger and refuse to repent from there sins keep in mind god the father christ the son divorced Israel for there none repentance of way of living yet he still loves them…and will give grace and mercy toward them if they repeant. .however christ got remarried to the church and till today he remains married to the church so please dont ever say christ was married to merry that is ur fact not gods fact .

  25. KUTHUBUDEEN says

    Oh Jesus ! Why all these researches? Well planed to devide Christian believers. Mary Magdalene is a woman like prophet MOHOMAD’S wife KADEEJA to Jesus.

  26. janae5362 says

    And this is what I consider beneficial information. Continue the great work.

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