Mention the name Mary Magdalene and most people will free-associate the word “whore,” albeit the repentant whore whose love for Jesus led him to forgive her. In Jesus Christ—Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Timothy Rice’s 1970s musical, she is depicted as a prostitute platonically in love with Jesus, not having a sexual affair with him but obsessed and baffled by him, not knowing how to love him. At about the same time as Jesus Christ—Superstar, in Franco Zeffirelli’s TV movie Jesus of Nazareth, Anne Bancroft plays the Magdalene as a prostitute of angry intelligence, in contrast to Jesus’ disbelieving male disciples. More recently, in Martin Scorsese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis), the Magdalene is a tattooed prostitute to whom Jesus was attracted physically—hislast temptation.
In the popular mind Mary Magdalene represents the repentant sinner, lifted from the depths of whoredom by her romantic love for Jesus—proof that even the lowliest can be saved through repentance and devotion.
Yet this is a very different picture from the one the Gospels give us. How did this happen? And when? And why?