About five years ago, I wrote a chapter for a large study on the reception history of Mary Magdalene, one that begins with the Bible and moves all the way up through the present da Vinci Code ideas of who the Magdalene was. I contributed a chapter on the Three Magdalenes Debate among the humanists and early Reformers in the 16th century. A shortened version of the Magdalene study was just published in Italian, Una sposa per Gesù: Maria Maddalena tra antichità e postmoderno (2017), without my chapter. However, the originally planned, full volume is apparently moving forward, and I was just sent my draft to look over before final review. So I suddenly have to read very closely a study I haven’t looked at in half a decade. I began to remember why the project was so interesting to me back then.
Here’s the issue I deal with: the Roman Catholic Church had come to conflate three women – Mary Magdalene (possessed by seven demons, and present at the crucifixion and resurrection), Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), and the sinner who anoints Jesus in Luke 7. The Marys can be conflated because of their similar names. The sinner can be conflated with Mary of Bethany because John explicitly has Mary anoint Jesus (Mark’s and Matthew’s woman is anonymous). While the scenario in Luke 7 is very different in chronology, geography, plot, characterization, and meaning, it is nevertheless an anointing. So with some creative rereading, instead of three women mentioned tantalizingly in important episodes but never mentioned again, we have one woman with a developed story arc: A sinner (probably a prostitute) possessed by seven demons due to her sinfulness, who is exorcised by Jesus and forgiven by him, then travels around with him, following Jesus all the way to the cross and becoming the first to see him when he is resurrected, even becoming the Apostle to the Apostles!
It was the latter saint that became venerated in France in the Middle Ages, with a shrine holding “her” skull in southern France. The story was expanded too: the penitent Magdalene lived the rest of her life as a naked ascetic in the cave where her skull is now held (this storyline is ~borrowed~ from another saint, Mary of Egypt). The controversy I explore in my chapter occurred when humanists began studying the Greek manuscripts of the Bible, and found that there was little to support this intricate biography in the Gospels. They began to question whether the three women should be confused with one another, advocating for three separate women. Down the line, the Catholic Church maintained the identification, to the point that a Catholic friend who named her daughter Madeleine joked about the possible consequences of naming her after a whore. Meanwhile, Protestant exegesis tends to recognize three separate women, with footnotes in modern editions of Luther’s works where he identifies the three explaining that this was a way that people interpreted the Bible “back then.”
What is notable about the debate is that, despite all the exegeting and rhetoricizing, the initial debaters fell into one of the two camps out of a single concern: was it better to have a saint who was a sinner but who repented to glory and honor? Or, was it better to have a virginal saint ~worthy~ of veneration?
The humanists who began to divide the Magdalene did so because they were embarrassed to venerate a former whore, a woman who spent the end of her life naked and alone. They were celibate men with little to no pastoral experience. They blushed at the stories preachers would tell about Mary Magdalene before she was saved by Christ. By separating the three women, they could portray Mary Magdalene as merely a possessed woman thankful for her exorcism; and more importantly, they could portray Mary of Bethany as a virgin, absolutely pure in her faith, the model of a Godly woman.
Meanwhile, the other humanists, including John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, as well as the early Reformers (Luther, Chemnitz, and Zwingli among them) had much more pastoral experience. They knew that the penitent Magdalene was a powerful symbol to bring people back to the Church after they had sinned. No matter how bad you acted, think of Mary Magdalene! She was such a sinner that seven demons possessed her, yet Christ welcomed her into his fold when she repented! They were not embarrassed by her sinfulness any more than Peter’s or Paul’s – they made it central to a story of redemption. Fisher agreed with Luther on this (despite portraying him as a horrible heretic), and Luther even named his third child Magdalena while rejecting the more celibate reading.
Both versions of the saint are problematic. In one, a woman is chosen to anoint Jesus before he dies only because she is virginal and wealthy, she attends to Christ, and she gives everything she has to Christ (≈ the Church), while Martha, whose virginity is not as strongly maintained and who has shit to do, is belittled. In the other, Mary Magdalene must repent alone in a cave in a foreign land her whole life despite being forgiven by Jesus, directly and unequivocally, only because she performed sexual sins, while Paul can murder early Christians (according to this thinking) and go on to be the Apostle (big A), with no hint that Paul must preach the Word and eventually die as a martyr because he sinned, but rather to glorify the Lord.
Nevertheless, the choice of which saint to venerate, whose story to tell, fueled the debate to a much greater degree than has been previously recognized. I’ll be happy to sit down with the volume once it appears in English.