Was Mary Magdalene a Prostitute?

Next Monday, July 22, is the feast day for Mary Magdalene. So I thought you all might be interested to hear more about one of the most common claims people make about Mary Magdalene—that she was a repentant prostitute.

So was she? The short answer is “no,” but let’s talk about why this misconception came into being in the first place.

In the time of the New Testament, Mary was the most common name for a Jewish woman/girl. And people didn’t have last names like they have today. They might be identified by the place they are from, or by one of their family members (e.g. “daughter of John” or “sister of Elizabeth”). So Mary Magdalene was probably a woman named Mary from Magdala, a small town near the Sea of Galilee.

However, there are many other Mary’s mentioned in the Gospels: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary of Bethany; Mary, the mother of James; Mary, the wife of Clopas. Because there are so many Mary’s, people sometimes get confused and start associating one with the other. Mary Magdalene fell victim to this confusion in a convoluted way, which I will try to explain in the least convoluted way possible.

In the Gospel of John, Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment and dries them with her hair. In the Gospel of Luke, an unnamed “sinful” woman anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment and dries them with her hair. Because of the similarities in their stories, people often confused Mary of Bethany with this “sinful” woman. Because Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are both named “Mary,” people confused the two, and started identifying Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman.

The final nail in the coffin: In one of his homilies, Pope Gregory the Great not only confused Mary Magdalene with the unnamed “sinful” woman, but also claimed (even though “sinful” is VERY broad and there is no indication of what the woman’s sins are in the Gospel of Luke), that “Mary Magdalene” was described as “sinful” because she was a prostitute. (Pope Paul VI tried to straighten people out, with mixed results).

Thus the myth that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute gained traction and is still popular today.


Do you have any other questions about Mary Magdalene, another Mary, or anything Episcopal-related? Click the button below to suggest a topic for another What Why Wednesday!