Re-Imaging Three Marys by Janet Sunderland

The recent #metoo movement, along with young women entering Congress, has pointed to an important question. Why, in this 21st Century, are these achievements remarkable? Why has it taken so long for women to be recognized as capable for these positions? One possible reason is the Christian mythology around women. However, to recreate the way women are viewed, we must re-imagine the women who have been standard-bearers for two thousand years.


Mary the Mother of Jesus

This title comes with an image created in Luke’s Gospel: a young woman, robes bordered in gold, sits in a roses-strewn, arched doorway, head bowed and hands folded at her breast. The Angel Gabriel stands in front of her. It’s a beautiful image and one many Christians treasure.

After the Annunciation, Mary sets out on a journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Imagine: a sweet, submissive, newly-pregnant virgin tramps across the hills from Galilee to Judah, sixty to seventy miles, through country containing wild animals, rebels, and robbers. Three months later, she tramps back across the same hostile territory. At nine months pregnant, she rides a donkey to Bethlehem where she gives birth.

We have held onto the myth of a perpetual blue-eyed, blond hair virgin while the real Mary was a Jewish country woman, robust, dark-haired and dark-eyed, who saw the cycle of life and death.

Scholars agree the Gospel of Luke was written by a second or third-generation Christian who probably did not personally know any of the first disciples.

“The Gospel [of Luke] attempts to meet various needs, such as instructing and edifying women converts, appeasing the detractors of Christianity, and controlling women who practice or aspire to practice a prophetic ministry in the church.” Jane Schaberg, author of The Illegitimacy of Jesus

Mary Magdalene

The name “Mary Magdalene” evokes a very particular kind of image: red-haired, voluptuous, the repentant prostitute.

All four gospels have an account of a woman anointing Jesus with a costly ointment: Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12: 1-8.  In Matthew and Mark, the woman brings an alabaster jar filled with costly ointment and pours it on the head of Jesus; in John’s Gospel, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, “took a liter of costly perfumed oil…and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair.”  Only Luke describes the woman as a “sinner.”

How then, and even why, did the account evolve from a woman anointing Jesus’ head to one of a repentant prostitute named Mary Magdalene wiping his feet with her hair?  Who would benefit from such a story?

Mary Magdalene, scholars now say, was probably a cherished disciple of Jesus.  From the information on early Christianity gleaned from the fragments of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, she was likely vocal, smart, and a leader in the early community. We know she followed Jesus from town to town, along with “the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities.” She was also a woman of resources and helped bankroll the ministry of Jesus, says Professor Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt Divinity School.  “Women paid his bills,” Levine writes. If Mary Magdalene wasn’t a poor prostitute, where did she get her money, and why do we have this consummate image of Mary Magdalene, repentant prostitute, washing the feet of Jesus with her hair?

We have that image because Pope Gregory VIII, at the end of the 6th Century, wrote a sermon connecting Chapter 7’s woman with the alabaster jar, a woman called a “sinner,” with the woman Mary Magdalene at the beginning of Chapter 8. Gregory’s sermon effectively revised history. His view held sway for fourteen hundred years and gave artists a rich palette of feminine imagery in contrast to the virginal mother. The Vatican did not rescind that view until 1969. In the intervening centuries, the image of a woman repentant and humble before the Lord became an overriding symbol for the way women ought to act. A woman, in the image of Eve, was the original sinner; now, before the Lord, she was given the chance to be humbly saved.

Mary of Bethany 

The most common image of the third Mary and her sister Martha also comes from Luke: Martha, busy with cooking and serving, complains about her sister Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus, listening. Mary does not enter into dialogue, rather she is a passive audience.

Jesus’ reply to Martha is the kindly voice of patriarchy: “Martha, Martha…” in the same way men today might say, “Now, now, dear.” This language reverberates throughout our modern society, patting a woman on the head as one would a loyal dog, not understanding why a woman might feel offended.

Protecting the rights of the patriarchy is a political birthright of Western Culture, and like every birthright, survives past all reasonable divestiture.

The writer of the Gospel of John shows women as active rather than passive actors in the ministry of Jesus when Jesus returns to Bethany and the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Mary takes “a litre of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard,” anoints the feet of Jesus, and dries them with her hair. This woman who anoints the feet of Jesus is neither a prostitute nor a sinful woman, but rather a leader in the community.

These three women’s stories illustrate the political stress placed on early Christianity, while the Roman Empire, followed by Western Civilization’s art and culture, continued to keep women subservient.

Today’s political stresses demand re-imaging women’s roles in early Christianity in order to change the way women are defined. In a world demanding new voices seeking peace, this new woman must be encouraged to speak out – for justice, for an end to discrimination against all peoples, and for an end to all oppression.

It is only by re-imaging what was that we will evolve into what we must become.


Janet Sunderland holds a BFA from Kansas State University, an MA from St. John’s College, and an M.Div. from Sophia Divinity School. She is an ordained priest, the author of published essays and poetry, including the collection, At the Boundary, and serves on the Board of Whispering Prairie Press as Senior Editor. She teaches writing and behavioral workshops, is an experienced speaker and a professional actor/member of SAG/AFTRA.

14 thoughts on “Re-Imaging Three Marys by Janet Sunderland”

  1. Thanks for this history lesson–some of which was unknown to me. In my opinion this was a large part of why the Quran was sent. God corrects the creation story. In Quran BOTH Adam and Eve reach for the apple. Original sin is not blamed on the woman. Also Maryam, mother of Jesus is the only woman named by name, and a chapter of Quran is named for her. She is revered and some Muslims like myself believe she is a prophet of God.
    Curious if you considered the Black Madonna in your research?


    1. Thank you so much for responding, Jammyali. Actually, I’ve read the chapter on Maryam in the Quran copy I have, but since my knowledge of the Quran is only spotty, I refrain from quoting it. As for the Black Madonna, while I have seen her in my travels, she is another whom I don’t know well. Which doesn’t mean that Maryam or the Black Madonna aren’t relevant, rather that my limited knowledge prevents me writing about them. Perhaps you have, however, now sent me on a new quest! Thank you.


  2. Thank you. It always feels reassuring to witness Christian women openly exploring and seeking beyond the patriarchal overlay. I left Christianity behind me in my mid-twenties and only now as I near sixty — and have returned to living in the Bible Belt roots of my youth and family history — have I become curious enough (and strong enough within my own sense of personal spirituality) to explore many aspects and history of the early church and Jesus. While I feel no draw to return to that faith, I am finding the exploration allows me to understand in a way I’d never considered before how and why there is such vast diversity within Christianity.


    1. Thank you for responding, Daria. I loved your line, “seeking beyond the patriarchal overlay.” That is, in fact, how I became a priest – just about the last thing I ever expected to be. When I lived in Santa Fe, I visited an Independent Catholic community where the priests blessed “In the name of God Father/Mother.” My mouth fell open, literally. And in time, I entered seminary and was ordained. My husband and I now have a community in Kansas City (I didn’t expect to be back in the Bible Belt either! LOL). We both believe the holy, by the many names we call it, is both a masculine and a feminine energy as is all of nature.


  3. Thanks for this – What a fun and useful exploration of these stories. I find it a tremendously nourishing part of my faith to retell the stories in the Bible -as all biblical writers did – in ways that best meet the needs of my community today. I have learned a lot about the motivations of the early christian writers, and why the wrote the gospel stories the way the did, based on their perceived needs of their communities. I’m grateful to have the stories, the scholarship about them, the creative engagement of adherents throughout the millennia, and the opportunity now to sing a new song, find new wineskins, and say myself, “you have heard it said… but I say to you…” <3

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Trelawney. What a beautiful name you have! And you are correct, the biblical writers wrote the stories they heard from others. You probably know that Mark, the earlies gospel, was written some thirty years after Jesus died while John’s gospel was written in the Roman community some 90 years later. And you are exactly right in saying they were written “on their perceived needs of their communities.” Well said. Last Sunday, on my week to preside, I said something very much like that when exploring the Gospel of John. I expect that if I were a Roman citizen who had been converted to Christianity and faced the possibility of being eaten by lions in the Coliseum, I would also have appreciated that message. Thank you so much for responding.


  4. In my mind, the pastel blue plastic image of the passive virgin mother is a small sliver of the coming Cosmic Mary! Your story is the beginning of what many women are imaging was closer to the “real” story… one we shall never really know but which we can, as living breathing real women, imagine. I imagine Mary asking rather bluntly, “What?” “What kind of nonsense is this?” And, later, at the foot of the cross, there is no passivity. Not a shred. Like any mother, Mary demands to know what could this God possibly be thinking!

    Thanks for opening a rich conversation!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are very welcome! Thank you so much for responding. I love your image of Mary saying, “What???” It made me laugh. And I agree. There simply wasn’t much that was passive in Mary. Or any of the Biblical women for that matter. Pope Gregory VIII created a lot of problems for women with his exhortations on what a woman’s role is – one has to wonder why he had such a fondness for the prostitute images.


  5. How very very true “Protecting the rights of the patriarchy is a political birthright of Western Culture, and like every birthright, survives past all reasonable divestiture.”


    1. I’m glad you liked that line. One can only wonder what our western culture might be like if there weren’t such a need to protect the patriarchy. Perhaps in this century we will finally find a way not to fight for our rights but rather to step into a place that welcomes us.


    1. Thank you Vivian! I’m so glad you liked it. Myths are always difficult to debunk – we so much rely on them. At the same time, finding the underlying truth to any myth might be the task for all of us in this time of division and remaking.


  6. Some consider Mary the Magdalene the same woman as Mary of Bethany. Wonder if you have heard this or read about it? Fascinating to think of Mary and her service to Jesus and the disciples. I revere her as the Apostle of the Apostles.


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