'Tis Pity She's a Whore: The Revision of Mary Magdalene in Contemporary Fiction

By Brown, Kevin | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

'Tis Pity She's a Whore: The Revision of Mary Magdalene in Contemporary Fiction


Brown, Kevin, Papers on Language & Literature


Though the information the Bible presents concerning Mary Magdalene is thin, she has long fascinated artists and religious leaders. In her review of research on Mary Magdalene since 1975, Pamela Thimmes writes,

Apart from the other Mary, Mary the mother of Jesus, no other woman character in the Christian Scriptures has received as much attention. What makes this interest so extraordinary is that Mary Magdalene is a character found in all of the canonical gospels, but nowhere else in the New Testament. However, she is a character in 11 gnostic/apocryphal works, where sometimes she is a major character. (193)

Galen Knutson adds, "However, if a count is made more narrowly of the passion, death and resurrection narratives, only Peter who denied Jesus and Judas who betrayed Jesus are mentioned more frequently" (207). That attention has not always been positive, however; in fact, for most of the past two thousand years, Mary has been portrayed as a prostitute, a sinner who was in need of redemption rather than as the first witness to Jesus's resurrection. Though there have been gains made in the critical evaluation of Mary Magdalene, Mary Rose D'Angelo is too optimistic when she writes, "Feminist interpretation has debunked the image of the fallen and repentant Magdalene, substituting the figure of Mary Magdalene as the intrepid and faithful disciple of Jesus, an apostle with and to the twelve and a witness to the resurrection" (105). In fiction, rather than in the theological realm, Mary has largely moved from an apostle in the early church to a redeemed prostitute to the main cause of Jesus's sexual temptation, depending on whose version of the story one reads. Four contemporary authors and works--Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ, Anthony Burgess's Man of Nazareth, Jose Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, and Nino Ricci's Testament--retell Jesus's story and use Mary Magdalene to reinforce themes of redemption or temptation in their works through how they present her: whether or not she was a prostitute, how she lived her life with Jesus, and whether or not she had any role in the spreading of the story of the resurrection. Other novelists, such as Margaret George, Christopher Moore, and even Dan Brown, use Mary Magdalene in similar ways, and, thus, will be discussed where appropriate.

Three of the four authors focus on the Mary Magdalene of legend, the prostitute. As Thimmes writes,

Based on the strategy that sex sells, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (1969) and Nikos Kazantzakis's books, The Last Temptation of Christ (1960, and the subsequent film in 1988) and Report to Greco (1965) built their fictionalized portrayals of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and the lover of Jesus from conflated and erroneous biblical interpretations, popular legends and Christian art. (194)

Through her, they show the sexual temptation that Jesus faced (and gave into in Saramago's case, though he does not see that action as negative), but they also use her to show the idea of redemption and Jesus's acceptance of those whom society did not accept. Even in Ricci's case, when he does not present Mary as a prostitute, he gives her a background that still makes her an outcast. (1)

It is not surprising, given the number of legends and the teaching of the early church concerning Mary Magdalene, that almost all writers who deal with her draw on her mythical past as a prostitute. She had been seen as an equal to the apostles--the "apostle to the apostles," (2) in fact--but that changed on September 21, 591, when Pope Gregory presented a homily where he stated, "We believe that this woman whom Luke calls a female sinner, whom John calls Mary, is the same Mary from whom Mark says seven demons were cast out" (qtd. in Jansen 32-33). (3) Thus, Gregory connects Mary Magdalene to Mary of Bethany, but he also connects her to the woman mentioned in Luke who anoints Jesus's feet with perfume. …

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