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A Look Centuries-Old Misconceptions About Mary Magdalene


Now because it is Easter, let's talk about something you might have heard, along with millions around the world in church today, the story of Mary Magdalene. Some churches have long told the story of a prostitute Jesus befriends and absolves of all her sins. And in the story, Mary Magdalene was the first person who found out he was alive, not in the tomb. Mary Magdalene has even made her way into popular culture.

She's a sex worker who marries Jesus in the Dan Brown book "The Da Vinci Code," and she's a prostitute deeply in love with Jesus in the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar."


YVONNE ELLIMAN: (As Mary Magdalene, singing) He's just the man, and I've had so many men before.

SUAREZ: But here's the catch - in the biblical texts, Mary Magdalene was never described as a prostitute. That's a misconception that started a long time after the life of Jesus, and it stuck around for centuries since. Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post who recently wrote about the history of this persistent misunderstanding.

Petula, thanks we're taking a break from your own Easter celebration to join us.

PETULA DVORAK: Thank you so much for having me. It's sometimes nice to take a break from Easter (laughter).

SUAREZ: What's the common perception of Mary Magdalene? What do most people think they know about her story?

DVORAK: Reformed prostitute, forgiven sex worker - those are the things that are immediately associated with Mary, both in the theological world and in the secular world. She's a big story. Her story of the forgiven fallen woman is as common as David and Goliath. You're not even talking Bible when you talk about her. And the problem is that has been wrong for a couple thousand years now.

SUAREZ: Where does that come from? Is there a beginning point where - that you can point to and say, aha, here's how this got started?

DVORAK: Absolutely. The best I could see that scholars found was in 591. Pope Gregory gave a sermon conflating all the stories of all the Marys that were in the gospels, and all the stories - many of the stories of women actually - the scene that we're so familiar with, the prostitute who is weeping weeps on Jesus's feet, washes his feet with her hair. That is in scripture, but it's not Mary. Nobody ever said it was Mary.

SUAREZ: Now this is not a 100 percent mistake. Let's be clear. Yes, the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches that grew out of the Reformation - this is part of popular fable. But the Orthodox have revered Mary Magdalene, haven't they?

DVORAK: Absolutely. And there are feast days in the name of Mary Magdalene and even the misconcepted story - Mary as a reformed prostitute still is quite revered and shows the power of reformation, the power of forgiveness. It's still a powerful story.

But the problem with so many women is it familiarizes how that feels to have a woman's role if it's not sexual to be disowned or undercut or dismissed.

SUAREZ: Now, with a couple of century head-start, is it difficult to correct the record on Mary Magdalene?

DVORAK: Oh, yes, I think so. The Catholic church quietly, but they did issue a statement in 1969 saying Mary Magdalene is not a prostitute. But so many folks hear it today. I did a quick survey of folks I know. I said Mary Magdalene - what's the first thing that comes to your mind? Almost always it was prostitute or, you know, an array of other terms.

And what was interesting is there's a group of evangelical feminists out in California who are so sick of hearing it. They heard it in sermons even in the last couple of years that they put out a PSA that said this Easter, remember Mary Magdalene is not a prostitute. Thank you.

SUAREZ: Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post. She spoke with us today from her home in Washington. Good to talk to you, and happy Easter.

DVORAK: Thank you. You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ray Suarez