Was Mary Magdalene a Forgiven Prostitute?
Next to Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene is one of the most well-known women of the New Testament. She’s also one of the most misunderstood. She has been mistakenly identified as a repentant prostitute for two millennia—and, more recently, as the wife of Jesus.
Since the Middle Ages most of Christianity has mistakenly identified Mary with the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50 who anointed the feet of Jesus after wiping the dust from them with her tears—despite the fact that the passage never mentions a Mary.
How can it be that the woman without a name is identified with Mary Magdalene? The misidentification was a result of three interpretive mistakes: (1) assuming the woman of Luke 7 is the Mary Magdalene of the following chapter, Luke 8; (2) combining Luke 7:36-50 with Mark 14:3-9 and Matt 26:6-13; and (3) assuming that John 12:1-8, a story where Mary Magdalene is named, to be the same story as the one in the other three Gospels. A careful reading of all of these passages in the four Gospels shows that there are clear differences in the episodes, both in details and in locations of the stories in the flow of each Gospel’s presentation of the life of Jesus.
Studying the Gospels can be complicated, but one thing is clear: Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. But was she the wife of Jesus?
Was Mary Magdalene the Wife of Jesus?
Remember the mega-selling novel The DaVinci Code? It was published in 2003 and later made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. The author Dan Brown presents a fictional story about Jesus and the Holy Grail, which he presents in the book as the bloodline of Jesus and his wife, Mary Magdalene. Where did Brown get that idea?
The DaVinci Code drew a lot of attention because Dan Brown’s notion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married seemed to have a basis in at least one ancient text, a work called the Gospel of Philip found among a cache of manuscripts in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in the mid-1940s. Here’s a line from the Gospel of Philip (a gospel not included in the New Testament) that Brown had one of his characters read:
And the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth.
The line created enormous controversy once the public found out it came from an actual ancient manuscript. But there was one problem that neither Dan Brown, nor his fans who wanted to believe his fiction, never pointed out: the line in the Gospel of Philip doesn’t actually say what you just read above.
The official scholarly translation of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts was published in five volumes in 2000 under the title The Coptic Gnostic Library: A Complete Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices. As the title suggests, the Nag Hammadi manuscripts were written in Coptic, an ancient language similar to Greek. This five-volume set juxtaposed the Coptic text with English translation. The Gospel of Philip is in volume 2 of the set. Here is the line quoted by Dan Brown’s character in the scholarly edition:
The companion of the […] is Mary Magdalene. [… loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her […]
The ellipsis dots denote places in the actual Coptic manuscript that are missing. The phrase that set off such a firestorm isn’t even in the manuscript. We actually don’t know anything about the kiss. Additionally, the word translated “kiss” can also be translated “greet.” The scholarly edition of the Nag Hammadi text has a footnote at this line:
kiss: or greet. Although kiss may be correct, the Coptic construction found here is not normally used in this sense.
On her […]: possibly, on her [mouth]; or on her [feet]; or, on her [cheek]; or, on her [forehead
How do the scholars know that all these renderings are possible when nothing is actually in the manuscript? Because (1) each of these options in Coptic has a number of letters that can fit into the manuscript gap, and (2) they are all customary places where someone was kissed in antiquity.
The Gospel of Philip, then, provides absolutely no confirmation that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married or intimate in any way. But millions of people now believe that because Dan Brown didn’t direct his readers to the actual primary source.
The marriage fallacy actually is much worse than this one manuscript. The Nag Hammadi manuscripts by now are all available in digital form for searching via software. If one searches for all places in the Nag Hammadi texts for where “Jesus” and every form of the verb “marry” (“married”; “marry”; “marrying”; etc.) or nouns “marriage” or “wife” occur, there are absolutely no instances where Jesus is married to anyone. This of course means that Mary Magdalene was not married to Jesus according to the Nag Hammadi literature. The same is true when one searches the New Testament.
The reality is that there is not a single text from the ancient world (Christian or otherwise) that has Jesus and Mary Magdalene married. Scholars have pointed out that it wouldn’t matter if there were. The New Testament teaching about Jesus being God in the flesh isn’t marred or overturned if he was married. It’s just that there is zero evidence he was, to Mary Magdalene or any other woman. The idea is a hoax that still has life after Dan Brown. In 2012 Harvard professor Karen King was duped by a clever forger into believing that he had given her a Coptic text fragment that had Jesus uttering the words “my wife.” It took a few years, but Coptic experts were able to prove the forgery with conclusive evidence.
Majella Franzmann, Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004)
James McConkey Robinson and Richard Smith, Coptic Gnostic Library Project. The Nag Hammadi Library in English (4th rev. ed. Leiden; New York: E. J. Brill, 1996)
A. S. Marjanen, The Woman Jesus Loved: Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library and Related Documents (Philosophia Antiqua 40; Leiden: E. J. Brill; 1996)
Darrell Bock and Dan Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: exposing popular culture's quest to unseat the biblical Christ (Harper Collins, 2010)
Ariel Sabar, “Karen King Responds to the Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife,” The Atlantic (June 16, 2016)
Francis Watson, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed,” (Sept 2012)
Andrew Brown, “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: A Very Modern Fake,” (The Guardian, October 2012)