There is no evidence in the bible or church history to suggest that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.
Yet this tarnished picture is perpetuated through films like Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Passion of the Christ (2004), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and most recently, Risen (2016), a new Columbia Pictures film starring Joseph Fiennes.
Since Mary is not around to defend herself, I'd like to set the record straight.
1. Why She is Called "The Magdalene"
The most likely reason Mary is called "The Magdalene" is that she was from Magdala, a thriving fishing town on the coast of Galilee. Magdala is within walking distance of Capernaum, where Jesus was based at the start of his ministry. Recent archaeological findings in the current day Israeli town of Migdal support this explanation.
There are other theories about the title Magdalene (explained well here). Whatever the origin, this "nickname" distinguishes her from the half dozen Marys mentioned in the bible. Of course, the most distinguishing characteristic is that Jesus cast seven demons out of this Mary (Luke 8:2-3).
2. How She Became Known as a "Repentant Prostitute"
The characterization of Mary as a prostitute shows up several hundred years after the time of Christ when her identity was merged with that of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus' feet (Luke 7:36-50). This "composite Magdalene" was popularized by Pope Gregory I around 591 AD:
"She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts" -- Pope Gregory the Great (homily XXXIII)
Conflating the stories of biblical characters was not uncommon in those days, so we cannot assume malicious intent. But Mary Magdalene is named 12 times in the gospels, and not one of those references indicates that she was a prostitute.
3. She Traveled with Jesus
These falsehoods distract us from what we should be focusing on; Mary's devotion to Jesus. The gospel writers are specific in noting that Mary had followed Jesus from Galilee (Matthew 27:55). The first mention of her is in Luke 8:2-3, so we know that she was with Jesus at the start of his ministry. The last mention is in John 20, when Jesus appears to her at the empty tomb.
Mary left home and followed Jesus for most of his three year public ministry. The film "Magdalena: Released from Shame" imagines this experience for us.
4. She Funded Jesus's Ministry
In Luke 8:1-3 we read that at the start of Jesus' ministry "The twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means."
Most scholars agree that this was financial rather than domestic support, although the women probably did that as well. The same term is used in Matthew 19:21 when Jesus tells the rich young ruler to go and sell his possessions.
5. She is Called "Apostle to the Apostles"
After reporting that Jesus had risen, Mary Magdalene disappears from the New Testament. But we find some clues about her later life in extra-biblical texts. Several early church writers portray her as a leader in the early church movement.
In light of recent conversations about the role of women in the Catholic Church it is interesting that Pope Benedict XVI had this to say about Mary in a 2007 address:
"St. Thomas Aquinas reserved the special title, "Apostle of the Apostles" (apostolorum apostola), dedicating to [Mary Magdalene] this beautiful comment: 'Just as a woman had announced the words of death to the first man, so also a woman was the first to announce to the Apostles the words of life' (Super Ioannem, ed. Cai, § 2519).
Restoring Mary's Reputation
In recent years efforts have been made to restore Mary Magdalene's reputation and to help her take her rightful place as a devoted disciple and respected early church leader. Groups like FutureChurch promote observances of Mary Magdalene's feast day (July 22) to make current biblical scholarship known. A new church built on the archaeological site at Magdala gives tribute to Mary as a model disciple, and honors other notable women in the bible.
As New Testament professor Barbara Bowe rightly observes, "Women looking to the Bible for inspiration already have limited choices of female role models. When we suddenly cut Mary Magdalene off at the knees and turn her into some kind of evil sex pervert, we deprive men and women, but especially women, of a figure with whom they can identify".
Even though Mary was not a prostitute, people would have known about her previous life, whether that was literal demon possession or a myriad of physical and mental illnesses, as some scholars believe. There would also have been a social stigma related to being a woman traveling with a group of men in those days. But Mary did not let this get in the way of following Jesus.
This is a valuable lesson for all of us, but especially for women experiencing marginalization and discrimination. I once heard someone say that "Mary owed much, gave much, loved much, served much".
The truth is, we would be hard-pressed to find a better role model in the bible to follow than Mary Magdalene.
Read more about women in the bible at The Junia Project.
Scripture References to Mary Magdalene--Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1-19;Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1-18.