An Indecent Reading of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Garrity-Bond

cynthia garrity bondRecently I took one of those on-line quizzes that show up on Facebook. Based on my response to particular questions, it promised to tell me what my Biblical name would be. To my joy I received Mary Magdalene. To my disappointment her bio lacked any of the historical tensions we have come to expect.

On July 22 we celebrate the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene, witness to the Resurrection and therefore deemed, “apostle to the apostles.” For as many depictions of Mary there are just as many interpretations. Her status in early Christianity surpassed the Virgin Mother in popularity but by the fourth century her positive image began to decline. In 594 Pope Gregory the Great delivered a sermon in which he conflated the story of the unnamed woman anointing Jesus in the Gospel of Luke with Mary of Magdala as penitent whore, a title she would embody for nearly 1,400 years until in 1969 when the Catholic Church repealed its teaching of Mary as prostitute.

On the other hand, recent feminist theological scholarship, especially by Karen King, offers a depiction of Mary as leader within ecclesial settings, where, “From the second to the twenty-first century, women prophets and preachers have continued to appeal to her to legitimate their own leadership roles,” (King, 153). By casting Mary as prostitute and adulteress, King argues, the church tarnished the image of Mary as a spiritual leader. It is this binary of Mary as repentant whore or “prominent disciple of Jesus, a visionary, and a spiritual teacher” (King, 154) that I wish to explore.

To begin I ask the question what does it mean for Mary’s role as leader for her to have been a prostitute who also functioned, in the words of King, as disciple of Jesus, a visionary and spiritual teacher? To answer this question I turn to Marcell Althaus Reid and Indecent Theology, and more specifically to Martín Hugo Córdova Quero’s “The Prostitutes Also Go Into the Kingdom of God: A Queer Reading of Mary of Magdala.” Quero begins by bringing to light those binaries that establish decent from indecent theologies:

            Normal. Correct. Honest. Saint. Orthodox. . .Labels of decency.

Abnormal. Incorrect. Dishonest. Sinner. Heterodox . . . Labels of indecency.

Indecent and Queer theologies challenge this binary between normal and abnormal as a denial of the body and sexuality. For Quero, Mary is held hostage to this way of thinking, she is “either sinner or saint, decent or indecent. Binary thinking does not allow for further alternatives.” Binary thinking eliminates Mary’s sexuality from her role as prominent leader in order to co-opt her as a decent woman. The task of Indecent/Queer theology is to challenge what is considered acceptable and normal, especially when sexuality is introduced.

A destabilization of sorts occur when we ask if a queer Jesus is capable of saving humanity or if a prostitute can be a reliable eye witness to the resurrection? For Indecent and Queer feminist readings, Mary’s movement from indecent to decent is little different from classical Christian tradition imposed by men, she must become acceptable to traditional Christian morality. Only when Mary’s reputation is cleaned-up and her sexuality denied might she function within the right order of morality and leadership. In so doing Mary now “fits” into sanctioned roles deemed acceptable and necessary by hetero-patriarchal understandings of female sexuality.

Issues centered on what qualifies as normal, decent or orthodox render those viewed as abnormal, indecent or heterodox silent through nonconformity to artificial modalities. What is needed, as Quero argues, is a theology unafraid of indecencies. What might this look like? To begin, it would worry more about the safety and violence experienced by sex workers worldwide than the morality of sex work as judged by abolitionist feminists and hetero-patriarchy. When speaking of all forms of sex outside of marriage within the Catholic Church, Christine Gudorf argues the overall focus regarding the framework of sexual ethics continues to suggest:

[T]hat it is the physical structure of the act or the status of those engaged in the act, rather than the qualitative nature of the relationship in which the act occurs, or the motives emerging from that relationship or lack of it, or the consequences of the act on persons, which determine the morality of the act (Gudorf, 15).

While not speaking of sex work directly, Gudorf’s analysis situates itself within my own concern for the binary that has found its way into our understanding of Mary Magdalene as prostitute when viewed as either sinner or saint. For Quero, in speaking of Mary Magdalene as a queer counter-icon, Christianity must “embrace people whose gender and performances of sexualities disrupt the assumptions of normalization carried out through centuries by classical theology” (99).

To that end I suggest we free Mary from safe readings that make us uncomfortable. That sexuality, even sex work, is viewed within a framework of context and relationship, liberated from a short-sided moral minimalism of either or thinking. The title of prostitute/sex worker does not imply a loss of moral standing or integrity as hinted at by Karen King’s insinuation of a loss of moral capital when Mary Magdalene is viewed as whore. Mary is no less a disciple or leader if she actually were a prostitute. Slut-shaming does little to advance the subjectivity and advancement of women.

This July 22 I hope you find the time and space to honor Mary Magdalene in all her various incarnations. May she be freed from any forms or readings that lessen her strength, faithfulness, discipleship or moral integrity and may she be situated within an expansive framework of indecency.


Cynthia Garrity-Bond is a feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past six years Cynthia has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthia is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.

Author: Cynthia Garrity-Bond

Cynthie Garrity-Bond, feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past two years Cynthie has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interest includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, transnational feminism and ecofeminism. Cynthie is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.

13 thoughts on “An Indecent Reading of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Garrity-Bond”

  1. Good point, reminds me of the Gnostic text The Thunder Perfect Mind:

    For I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one.
    I am the whore and the holy one.
    I am the wife and the virgin….
    I am the barren one, and many are her sons….
    I am the silence that is incomprehensible….
    I am the utterance of my name.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Carol for The Thunder Perfect Mind. It reads much like Meister Eckhart in which we are at once singular and both. Beautiful.


  2. I also was directed by the search engine to this essay by FAR contributer Elizabeth Cunningham.
    “I’d like to leave you today with this proposition (pun more or less intended): Maybe Mary Magdalen, whom according to Gnostic texts Jesus loved above all others, was a whore, a real and unrepentant whore. Though there is no scriptural evidence that she was, scripture also makes no mention of her father, brother, husband or son.”


    1. Love your post, Cynthia! Thanks for the link, Carol. I probably wrote that essay before or during the writing of The Maeve Chronicles. For a very indecent read, I hope anyone interested in MM will risk encountering her as Maeve, a feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple! Happy Mary Magdalen’s feast day to all!


    2. Only after I posted my piece did I read Elizabeth’s post on MM. Had I been on my game I would have given credit to Elizabeth and her insightful words. Thanks again.


  3. Thanks Cynthia!! To me, the unlikely complexity of Mary of Magdala, as both prostitute and “apostle to the apostles,” is what makes her so profoundly fascinating as a character. She is also the icon of “our sister,” feminist and otherwise, that is, in connection to her role in the Mary and Martha stories in the Gospels. At the Resurrection, in the garden, the Magdalene recognizes Jesus as “Rabboni,” the Hebrew term for “My Teacher.” But in so naming him, she is being called to that same name herself.


    1. Indeed. Mary inhabits multiple spaces for women, especially feminist. Thank you for reminding us of her role as “Rabboni.”


  4. I can’t agree. The church hierarchy harlotized Mary Magdalene to discredit her. While any woman is capable of being a spiritual leader, and no one should be degraded for being in the sex trade, the spread of romanticizing claims by feminists that she was a “sacred prostitute of the Goddess” disregards this instrumentalization and the few facts we do have about MM, and for that matter, the society she lived in.


    1. I agree too as regards making historical claims. Very little is known about about Mary Magdalen or even the historical Jesus, for that matter. There are four Gospels written for four different communities with one quite different in term of events and chronology. In fact they read more like novels than historical documents or theological arguments, which is why (I believe) they still fascinate. I am one of those novelists who explore MM as a prostitute (an unrepentant one). I was careful not to romanticize her condition. In my novel she is taken prisoner and sold into prostitution as so many women and children are today. The novel also explores how prostitution can be a sacred, healing art. Both/and. I did as much research as I could to make the historical settings in the novels as realistic as possible. But I am writing fiction. The premise of any fiction is “what if…. “


    2. Here in lies the tension for many of us, MM as spiritual leader or prostitute. With regard to MM cast as harlot by Gregory the Great, I found one interpretation worth considering. In Cynthia Bourgeault’s text The Meaning of Mary Magdalene. Bourgeault wants to suggest a less intentional response from the church and the historical depiction of MM as penitent whore. Instead B. offers a more Jungian explanation, beginning with the monastic practice of lectio divina. This practice of reading scripture depends upon imagination–placing oneself directly into the narrative with varying degrees of outcomes. In this context the church is pointing to a unconscious projection of its fixation with sexual purity and celibacy. Gregory indeed takes great license when he interprets seven demons to mean seven sins of lust upon Mary. As B. points out, this is not to excuse Pope Gregory but instead points to a larger split between body and soul and the mistrust of anything sexual, especially for women. This mistrust of the body and sexuality brings me back to my initial point of creating fault lines when Mary is conceived through the binary of decent/indecent.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: