This is the question Mary Magdalen: The Lost Diary tries to answer.
What the Official Tradition Tells Us
The official tradition in the western Church is that Mary Magdalen was a prostitute who went straight after she met Jesus and converted. This “repentant prostitute” tradition was an interpretation that became popular a few centuries after the gospels were written, by which time church leadership had become an all-male preserve. Even an all-male clergy could not deny Mary Magdalen her place of honor as Apostola Apostolorum (Apostle to the Apostles), and Mary continued to be a troublesome reminder of female witness and leadership. Ultimately it fell to Pope Gregory the Great to put her in her place. At the end of the sixth century AD, Gregory officially identified Mary Magdalen and Mary of Bethany as one and the same person, and, since Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus and wipes his feet with her hair in John 12:1-8, further conflated her with the unnamed repentant sinner who does the same thing under different circumstances in Luke 7:36-50. Add to that the story about Jesus driving seven demons out of Mary Magdalen, and she, too had to be a repentant sinner. Because then as always, people were quick to assume that a woman’s sins can only be sexual, in subsequent church tradition – even to this day – both Mary Magdalen and the unnamed sinner became loose women, weeping for their sins. Some have even gone so far as to identify her as the woman taken in adultery in John 8:1-11. In effect, Gregory turned Mary into a prostitute.
But the evidence tells us otherwise.
What the New Testament Tells Us
Nowhere in the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is Mary described as a reformed prostitute. She is mentioned by name in all four gospels as a follower of Jesus, and is cited as one of the women who went to Jesus’ tomb early Easter morning and found it empty. Luke’s Gospel also tells us that Jesus drove seven demons out of Mary Magdalen, and that afterwards she was one of the women who financially supported Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:3). Matthew, Mark, and John record that Mary was present at the crucifixion (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25), and Matthew and Mark name her as one of the women who watched as his body was being put into the tomb (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47). That she is named in the New Testament gospels tells us that Mary held a place of prominence among Jesus’ disciples. There is also the question of the Beloved Disciple in John’s gospel – an unnamed person who is traditionally identified as the Apostle John. It is possible that this unnamed disciple was actually Mary Magdalen. If so, the fourth gospel tells us that Mary was especially close to Jesus, that they had a special relationship, which the other disciples recognized. There are some who argue further that the fourth gospel itself is Mary’s work.
What’s in a Name?
Mary (or Miriam) was the most common name for Jewish women in First Century Palestine, small wonder then that there are a number of Marys (at least 5) mentioned in the gospels. It is to distinguish her from the other Marys that Mary Magdalen is identified by the name of the town, Magdala, and this tells us three things about her: first, that she was from Magdala, a town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, second, that she had neither husband nor son when she followed Jesus (otherwise, she would be called Mary, wife of X, or mother of Y ), and third, that in Magdala, she was a person of prominence. To be a person of prominence there one had to be either a member of a priestly family or in trade on the ownership level. Magdala in the First Century was a prosperous town known for two products much prized by the Romans: fine woolen textiles and a sardine-like fish.
It is unlikely that a woman from a priestly family would take to the roads as part of the entourage of a vagrant holy man. Women’s lives were severely restricted by socio-religious codes, and in a priestly family it would be unthinkable to allow a female member to break those codes. More likely, Mary was from a family in trade. For one thing, she had money: Luke tells us that Mary was one of the women who financially supported Jesus’ ministry. That she could do so tells us she had control over her money: she was financially independent. This tells us she was either a widow, free from a husband’s control (a single unmarried woman would be under the control of a male relative), or a businesswoman. It was not uncommon in Mary’s day for a wealthy widow to have control over her own money. It was also not uncommon for women to run businesses in the absence of husbands, sons, or other male heirs. Thus, Mary could have been either of these things.
What the Non-Canonical Ancient Writings Tell Us
The ancient gospels, acts, and other writings that didn’t make it into the New Testament tend to show women generally as more active and prominent followers of Jesus, both during his lifetime and after, than the canonical writings do. In these non-canonical works women prophesy and preach, and they convert many to the faith. Mary Magdalen features prominently in the Dialogue of the Savior, the Gospel of Mary, and the Pistis Sophia as one who understands Jesus before the other disciples do, and explains his teachings to them. The Gospel of Philip records that Mary was especially close to Jesus and his mother. Her preeminence causes jealousy among the other disciples, and there is some hint that the attachment between her and Jesus is romantic – though there is no hint of marriage or a child, as some later writers would have it. When the other women disciples ask Jesus why he loves Mary more than any of them he answers it is because she sees the light – that is to say, he loves her for her spiritual insight. He loves her for her mind. The jealously of the male disciples, especially Peter, plays out vividly in the Gospel of Mary and the Pistis Sophia. In the Pistis Sophia, Mary tells Jesus she is afraid of Peter, “because he threatens me and hates our sex.”