I have to credit Mary Magdalene with my first gentle nudge into feminist interpretation of Scripture. I went to parochial school, and from Kindergarten through the eighth grade, religion classes were part of the curriculum. I was an observant child and noticed that it was the priests and not the nuns who got to teach the classes where we talked about Jesus. By the time I reached the third grade, I was already wondering why only it was only the men who got to teach about religion, so I asked the priest in charge, the monsignor. His response was something along the lines of “Jesus was a man and he only chose male disciples.” Even then, that felt flawed to me. It seemed Mary Magdalene would have a lot of information about Jesus, and I got real interested in her. Seriously. I can’t remember which grade it was, but my affection for Mary Magdalene was so well known that one year the person who picked my name for Secret Santa got me the soundtrack to “Jesus Christ Superstar.” On that album, the Mary Magdalene character has a song about Jesus called “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” that I wore all the way out. Needless to say, I’ve been interested in Mary Magdalene for a minute.
In the song, Mary Magdalene is torn about her feelings for Jesus. One of the lyrics she sings goes like this: “I’ve had so many men before in very many ways…he’s just one more.”
This touches on this belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. For centuries, Mary Magdalene has been at the forefront of the debate about female power and sexuality, sexual sin, prostitution, and thanks to the film The DaVinci Code, questions arose as to whether or not she was Jesus’ secret wife and the mother of his child. We’ll talk more about that later.
All of this interest in Mary Magdalene’s sex life is one reason I suspect she was a sista. Even though she is described in ancient literature as a missionary, a visionary, a healer, an intellectual, the apostle to the apostles, more often than not, she is remembered as a loose woman. Despite her place as an extremely important figure in early Christianity, despite that she is mentioned more than any other woman in the New Testament, even Jesus’ own momma, she is sexually stigmatized. Heck, Mary Magdalene was and continues to be sex-shamed.
Black women know a little something about being sexually stigmatized. Scholar and public figure Melissa Harris-Perry argues that the goal of a stereotype is to characterize something in a monolithic image; to paint a specific group with very broad strokes as though every one of them is the same. I suspect it is far easier to embrace stereotypes about Black women than to appreciate our diversity.
Of the familiar stereotypes about Black women, it is not at all surprising at all that a good many of these tropes address (or attempt to negatively characterize) our sexuality. There is the tragic Mulatta, the alluring, seductive woman who would be a viable mate were it not for her Black blood and of course our “hyper” sexuality is personified in the image of the Jezebel. The Jezebel myth came to symbolize those women who take advantage of men through sex, and are in possession of voracious sexual appetites. In fact, the myth of the Strong Black Woman has some sexual connotations to it as well, as it was believed that while the “white missus” was too pure and fragile to engage in illicit sex, the black female slave was so ‘hot-blooded’ and ‘insatiable’ that she was strong enough to endure whatever depravity resided in the lust of the slaveholder or the slaveholder’s employees. Even in modern popular culture, you don’t have to look too far in film, television, or music to find images of the Jezebel.
Perhaps as a means of battling this imagery, many Black women are sexually conservative. Mary Magdalene has come to be the involuntary spokesperson for prostitution in the ancient world even though there isn’t a single verse in the Bible that identifies her as one. Although there is quite a bit of discussion of prostitutes in the Bible, we don’t hear very much about the root causes. There could have been several factors that drove women in prostitution, as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza argues here: “prostitutes usually were slaves, daughters who had been sold or rented out by their parents, poor women, exposed girls, the divorced and the widowed, single mothers, captives of war or piracy, women bought for soldiers—in short, women who could not derive a living from their position in the family or those who had to work for a living but could not engage in ‘middle’ or ‘upper’ class professions. In Palestine, torn by war, colonial taxation and famine, the number of such women must have been great.”
So why was Mary Magdalene characterized as a prostitute if she wasn’t one? Somewhere around the year 590 A.D., Pope Gregory gave a speech and decided to assign the seven demons cast out of Mary Magdalene as mentioned in Luke 8:2. Pope Gregory determined that prostitution was one of the demons Jesus cast out of her. We can certainly speculate about his motives in his decision to portray Mary Magdalene as a garden tool. Perhaps he was just trying to help out by naming exactly what her demons were since Luke failed to elaborate. Or, perhaps he was intentionally attempting to cast her in a negative light in order to diminish her place as a leader in the early Christian church, since the early church did not recognize women as leaders.
Another reason I suspect Mary Magdalene could have been a sista is the fact that she is described as dark-skinned in some of the early Christian literature that did not make it into the Bible. If you watched the miniseries that picked up where “The Bible” left off, you saw that the producers cast a woman of color to play her. The actress who played Mary Magdalene is a Chinese-Zimbabwean actress named Chipo Chung, as pictured above. It is also worth noting that there was also a city named Magdala in what we now know as Ethiopia. There is a school of thought that believes this is the Magdala Mary Magdalene came from. It is an interesting notion to say the least. In the ancient world, people were named for the geographic locations from which they hailed, as in Jesus of Nazareth. Women were typically named according to the house of their father or their spouse. Mary Magdalene is a woman of the ancient world not identified by her daddy or her husband, she is named for her geographic location. Things that make you go hmmm.
So now that we have rescued Mary Magdalene from her false portrait as a prostitute, and discovered there is ancient literature in which she was described as a dark-skinned woman, how does Mary Magdalene impact women in church leadership as we know it today? That will be the topic of Part II of this series on one of the most prominent women in the life of Jesus.