Did Mary Magdalene Get a Raw Deal? after Years of Having Her Reputation Dragged through the Mud, the Bible's 'Other Mary' Gets an Extreme Makeover in the Public Eye

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Byline: Robert McCoppin Daily Herald Staff Writer

For hundreds of years, Mary Magdalene was widely considered a prostitute.

Painting after painting showed her as the repentant sinner, reflecting on her days as a harlot. Now we come to learn - oops - she never practiced the oldest profession.

In fact, the Gospels tell us she was the first to see Jesus after he rose from the dead and first to proclaim the "good news." When Jesus was preaching, she was among several women who used their own resources to help pay for his ministry.

Students of the Bible have known her story for years, but Magdalene's image finally is getting an extreme makeover in pop culture.

There she is in "The Da Vinci Code," on best-seller lists for almost a year, married to Jesus and having his child.

Here she is in Mel Gibson's new movie "The Passion of the Christ." When the other apostles abandon Jesus, Magdalene follows him faithfully through his crucifixion, death and resurrection.

In scholarly works, Magdalene is getting the star treatment, with entire books devoted to reconsidering her identity.

And in women's groups and church groups in the suburbs, Magdalene has become a new role model, showing what a crucial role a woman can play, even in a male-dominated world.

It's the greatest transformation from woman of ill repute to squeaky-clean starlet since "Pretty Woman."

While the new populist image of Magdalene includes speculation and wild conspiracy theories, advocates say it's an outgrowth of scholarly research, a papal reversal and divinely-inspired timing.

The metamorphosis also reflects the changing portrayals of women from oral story-telling in Jesus' time to today's celluloid legends.

It's a correction that's centuries overdue. And to think, it all started with an old literary device: the composite character.

Mary of Magdala

In 591, St. Gregory the Great, who was pope at the time, gave an Easter sermon in which he "conflated" three different characters in the Bible, according to the Rev. Thomas Baima, provost of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary.

That is to say, Gregory mixed up three different women from the New Testament: Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair; a repentant sinner who also anointed and was forgiven by Jesus; and Mary of Magdala, from whom seven demons were cast out.

Though Magdalene had been possessed by demons, Baima says, that did not necessarily make her a sinner; the Bible often refers to those with mental or physical illness as having "demons."

Church historians argue over whether St. Gregory's mix-up was intentional, or how much it reflected a patriarchal view. The pope did not call Magdalene a prostitute outright, Baima says, but in the public eye, she became known as a woman of ill repute.

As her reputation solidified, Renaissance paintings depicted her as the repentant sinner, with long, red hair, revealing clothes and an alabaster jar of oils.

All along, the Catholic Church had venerated Magdalene as a saint, held an annual feast day and consecrated numerous churches in her name. Many other honored figures in the church, from St. Paul to St. Augustine, were reformed sinners.

In 1969, the church clarified that Magdalene was not a prostitute. That correction was a start, but with it came more questions.

As other early Christian writings came to light, feminist scholars began to advance the idea that the male-dominated world of Jesus' time influenced the way the New Testament was written and which books were chosen for it.

Ancient writings discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and elsewhere, revealed "Gnostic gospels," a term applied to a variety of early Christian writings which Catholic authorities ruled were not divinely inspired and did not include in the Bible. …