St Strumpet?

The image above is one of our representations of Mary Magdalene whose feast falls today. It comes from Gwyneth Leech’s murals in St Mary’s. We turned towards this image this morning whilst reading the gospel of the day. It is a noli me tangere image – do not touch me yet, a recollection of her seeing the risen Christ but being forbidden to embrace him.

Mary M is someone whom people are prepared to squabble over a bit these days.

The traditional interpretation is that she was a “fallen” woman. A tart, a strumpet, even a whore, who was redeemed and restored to a holy and righteous way of living by her encounters with Jesus.

There was more than a hint of that in the collect that I looked up for this morning’s mass:
Almighty God,
whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene
to health of body and mind,
and called her to be a witness to his resurrection;
Mercifully grant that by thy grace
we may be healed of our infirmities
and know thee in the power of his endless life;
who with thee and the Holy Spirit,
liveth and reigneth one God, now and for ever.

I have to admit that I baulked at the first couple of lines and made up my own. For in recent times, feminists and others have wanted to challenge the image of Mary as a tart – after all there is little in the Biblical evidence to suggest that Mary Magdalene was any kind of loose woman at all. The red hair and red frock have been added later. Does not her depiction as a sleeze, they might ask, have more to do with the church’s inability to deal with women as powerful intelligent human beings in their own right than Mary herself? Is not The Strumpet an invented figure to hide the face that we are unable to deal with Mary as businesswoman, apostle and saint of power and integrity?

Indeed, a womanist liberation theologian might say, yes, woman of power and more than that. She is a signifier of liberation – she shows us that the encounter with Christ could lead to a woman being redeemed from the slavery of their culture which kept women down, kept women out of religious discourse and kept women quiet.

To which a feminist Jewish New Testament critic might say: Hey! Whose religion are you referring to? I don’t think that the Jewish culture of the day has much to learn from Christians about attitudes to women. There’s a faintly anti-semitic tone to all this talk of the slavery of women in a Jewish culture. Judaism of its time wasn’t that bad to women you know. Mary M is evidence that women could be empowered in that culture. Have you forgotten that Mary Magdalene was Jewish, as was Jesus?

And then along comes a queer theorist who will say: No! The point about Mary Magdalene is not her Jewishness nor her being a woman but that she was a boundary transgressor. Let us embrace the queerness of the Magdalene – let us remember her as someone who has been celebrated throughout the Christian tradition whist simultaneously being proclaimed as being outside the normative expressions of human sexuality through the ages. Let us celebrate Mary’s difference and oddness and ability to queer the accepted norm. Mary Mag is one of us and it is to such as the Magdalene that God always comes first.

And you, who do you say that she was?


  1. Mary Brown says

    How about the wife of Jesus, airbrushed out of the story by later misogynist Christians? See Starbird, M “The Woman with the Alabaster Jar” and other books by her. She is an ex-Catholic who set out to refute the Holy Blood, Holy Grail story and ended by being convinced that Jesus and Mary were a married pair (and an archetype of the male/female balance principle). There’s a wonderful window in Kilmore Church, Mull. Check it out – whoever created it intended it to represent J and M as husband and wife, and M is clearly pregnant. Of course, there is no unchallengeable evidence that Jesus was married, but what I would like to ask the sceptics is why, given that He was the word made flesh and dwelt among us, is it unacceptable for Him to have been a sexual being? Why have later Christians considered sexuality, even in a loving relationship, to be something disgusting? Because they have, we are now stuck with the nasty views of the NotW brigade that sex is either an acceptable leisure activity or something gross. As Margaret Starbird points out, if we restored Mary as Jesus’ beloved consort we would be creating a much more wholesome myth!

    • It is a little like the arguments that might be made of the relationship between Jesus and the beloved disciple though, isn’t it? All very attractive and neat if you come from a particular point of view but not really backed up with enough evidence apart from modern presumption, presupposition and desire.

  2. I think the arguments on Jesus being married are very far from being liberationary. Rather, they’re the natural end-point of the Evangelical mindset that homophobically (and unbiblically) divides the world into Normal Heterosexual Married types and the demonised Other. “It is better to marry than burn” might have some mysognistic readings conducive to the fundamentalist world-view, but it hardly most naturally supports the idolatarisation of particular heterosexual relationships.

    If I had a pound for every time a nominal Sola Scriptura type had told me that St.Paul had to have been married (presumably because Our Lord’s asceticism and disinterest in heterosexual marriage is bad enough) then I would be a very rich man indeed 😉

    Interesting post Kelvin! Had no idea that St.Mary M even had red hair Perhaps she could be reclaimed as the Patron Saint of Gingers and Other Persecuted Minorities? 🙂

  3. How reginal! 😉

Speak Your Mind