Scandalous Women in the Bible

Mary Magdalene, Jezebel, Rahab, Lilith. Today, each is considered one of the most scandalous women in the Bible. Are these so-condemned salacious women misrepresented? Have they been misunderstood? In this Bible History Daily feature, examine the lives of four women in the Bible who are more than they seem. Explore the Biblical and historical texts and traditions that shaped how these women are commonly viewed today.

mary magdalene

Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute? Photo: Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library/Courtesy of IAP Fine Art.

Was Mary Magdalene a Prostitute?

Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute who repented or simply an influential female follower of Jesus? Mary from Magdala has popularly been saddled with an unfavorable reputation, but how did this notion come about? In “From Saint to Sinner,” Birger A. Pearson examines how Mary Magdalene’s notoriety emerged in the early Christian tradition. Pearson writes that later interpreters of the Gospels attempted to diminish her “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).”

Read “From Saint to Sinner” by Birger A. Pearson as it originally appeared in Bible Review.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.

Who was Jezebel? Image: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, UK/Bridgeman Art Library.

Who was Jezebel? Image: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, UK/Bridgeman Art Library.

Who was Jezebel? How Bad Was She?

Who was Jezebel? For over 2,000 years, Jezebel, Israel’s most accursed queen, has been condemned as a murderer, a temptress and an enemy of God. Who was Jezebel, really? Was she really that bad? In “How Bad Was Jezebel?” Janet Howe Gaines rereads the Biblical narrative from the vantage point of the Phoenician wife of King Ahab. As Gaines writes, “To attain a more positive assessment of Jezebel’s troubled reign and a deeper understanding of her role, we must evaluate the motives of the Biblical authors who condemn the queen.”

Read Janet Howe Gaines’s article “How Bad Was Jezebel?” as it originally appeared in Bible Review.


Rahab the harlot or just the inkeeper? Image: CCI/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.

Rahab the Harlot?

As described in the Book of Joshua, Rahab (a heroine nonetheless known as “Rahab the Harlot”) assisted two Israelite spies in escaping down the city wall of Jericho. Was Rahab a Biblical prostitute? While the Biblical text identifies her as a zônāh, a prostitute (Joshua 2:1), Josephus reports that she kept an inn. Anthony J. Frendo critically examines the textual evidence.

Read about Anthony J. Frendo’s conclusions on Rahab the Harlot.

The Bible is full of scandalous men, as well. In the BAS DVD lecture set Biblical Bad Boys, eminent scholars explore the textual accounts and archaeological evidence of some not-so-nice notables from the Old and New Testaments: from a ruthless Assyrian king to a confused Judean governor, from Roman executioners to a betraying friend. Read more >>


Who is Lilith? Courtesy of Richard Callner, Latham, NY.

Who is Lilith?

Fertile mother, wilderness demon, sly seductress—the resilient character Lilith has been recast in many roles. Who is Lilith? As Janet Howe Gaines writes, “In most manifestations of her myth, Lilith represents chaos, seduction and ungodliness. Yet, in her every guise, Lilith has cast a spell on humankind.” Follow Lilith’s journey from Babylonian mythology, through the Bible, to medieval lore and modern literature in “Lilith” by Janet Howe Gaines.

Read “Lilith” by Janet Howe Gaines as the article originally appeared in Bible Review.

The Bible History Daily feature “Scandalous Women in the Bible” was originally published on April 28, 2014. It has been updated.—Ed.


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  • Daniel says

    Well, in the King James version of the Bible, Lilith is described as an owl, however in other versions the description is somewhat different. In the Jewish Midrash Lilith is the first woman and wife of Adam.

    Mary Magdalene of course was not described as a prostitute until Pope Gregory in 591 AD who accidentally or otherwise confused her with repentant sinner who washed Jesus’ feet.

  • Rob says

    The hard illustration with Mary Magdalene portrays a hard, coarse face of a less attractive woman. What if Mary was simply a very attractive sexually liberated woman without the hard face? Would that disappoint a lot of people? I would prefer to remember her that way. A recent book by Londoner Laurence Gardner reveals lineage charts from Mary going down to Charlemagne and his Carolingian lineage, which has many descendants to this day; must they all accept a hard image of their ancestor?

  • DALLAS says

    The owl, as a symbol of wisdom, was also the mascot of Athena, the patroness of Athens, and goddess of wisdom, among other things.

    While Lilith (in connection with the Babylonian wise men) is mentioned once, in Isaiah, the version we know from the Talmud is part of a common Near Eastern folklore.

    A modern example is the movie “Fatal Attraction.” While the conflict here is superficiailly between the Michael Douglas and Glenn Close characters, the real conflict is between the Glenn Close and Anne Archer characters. Michael Douglas merely looks in charge.

  • Ryan says

    Lillith (see Isaiah) was a Babylonian character represented by an owl, because Babylonians thought of the owl as “wise/wisdom.” Isaiah mentions Lilith one time, and is condemning the “Babylonian wise men (their wisdom has ceased, they are cruel men, without knowledge).”

    America even uses the same image (see the $1 bill) for “wisdom,” which comes from the ancient Canaanites.

  • janice says

    There was no Lillith in the Bible. lillith meant owl in the bible, and so any apocryphal books that mention ‘her’ are making up a myth from ancient pagan stories

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