So the controversy over who Mary Magdalene was has jumped out of the pulpit and lecture hall, and into the Washington Post. For some on the "Right", Mary is a lowly prostitute who Jesus cast demons out of and saved to be one of the "little women" in the Gospel story. For others on the "Left", Mary is one of the leading Apostles, the patron saint of feminine empowerment, who was unjustly and unfortunately silenced by the growing patriarchy of the early Church. Both sides of the debate paint this as an either-or. Either Mary is a barely redeemable ex-whore, or she is an unjustly maligned Apostle. But perhaps the battle lines have been drawn based upon the logical fallacy of the excluded middle.
I sense in this debate a puritanical streak from the Left which is as pharisaical as the Puritanism of the Right. I grant that the scant Biblical evidence here is far from conclusive, but it is far from conclusive for both sides. John 11.2 identifies Mary as the one who anointed Jesus with oil: And in that culture, to have a woman anoint the Messiah is already a subversive statement against Roman and Jewish patriarchy. Some of the other anointing narratives portray her as a "sinner", which often strongly implies sexual sin (cf. Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 7; John 12). This does not mean she had to be a prostitute, and there is also the question of mixed up traditions being recorded. But Matthew in particular is not shy in pointing out that women and men of less than stellar moral and sexual reputations were key branches of Jesus' family tree (cf. the Matthean Genealogy in Mat. 1). And one of the standard Pharisaical charges against Jesus was that he was a friend of "tax collectors and prostitutes". So, there could hardly be a more profound statement about Jesus' commitment to the equal dignity and redeemability of ANY and EVERY person than if he chose to be anointed as Messiah by a woman who had once been a prostitute. To me that speaks not of slut shaming, but of complete redeeming.
I know how this narrative can be twisted by the Right. I've been to sermons in which it was twisted. But I've also been around a ton of hipster left leaning people who talk a lot about social justice, but get offended and turned off when they encounter actual homeless people, actual prostitutes, actual gang members, actual single moms, actual ex-cons, actual veterans, and actual mentally ill people. The Left can have a strange "don't see don't smell" policy about actual poverty, while talking a big game about social justice. This article smacks of this to me. It's fine to talk about God redeeming victims of sex slavery. But when it might be the case that a person redeemed from sex slavery was a leading Apostle, we vehemently deny it and say anyone who raises the possibility is slut shaming.
The case is, we just don't know. Some of the narratives seem to imply Jesus had redeemed her from sex slavery. Other narratives do not. And we don't have access to the traditions or actual history behind the narrative. But I think that as long as we accord Mary her full dignity as a human, and her full heritage as one of the leading Apostles, we are free to speculate and talk about the story of redemption and transformation that she went through.
Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.