There is Something About Mary Magdalene, Part I

By Catherine Schmidt, Georgia State University 

There is something about Mary…Magdalene that is.  She is one of the few New Testament women (or even characters for that matter) that continues to fascinate the public; and yet, we know so very little about her.  Because we know so little, it leads some people to create stories of what they think she was like.  Depending on the time and place, she is different things for different people.  Sometimes she is a repentant whore while other times she is the lover—or even wife—of Jesus Christ.  

Many of these depictions of Mary Magdalene actually diminish her memory.  Mary, according to leading feminist scholar Rosemary Radford Ruether, was an unfortunate recipient of a “mud-slinging job” in order for her authority to be questioned by the early Catholic Church.[1]  The Catholic Church could then use Mary as an excuse to keep women from power.  The American popular culture takes this marginalization and runs with it.  Numerous forms of popular media portray Mary in a diminished role and so it is harder to correct the minds of the public.  

According to Richard Santana and Gregory Erickson, America is a “biblical” culture that does not actually read the Bible.  They argued that American popular culture and popular religion have been heavily influenced and impacted by religiously themed books—as well as anything else visual.[2]  This article is part of a four part series that will examine how Mary’s role is diminished within popular culture through her sexuality, and how that image then affects women’s role in Christianity.  

Part I will discuss pre-Vatican II portrayals as demonstrated in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent film The King of Kings, part II will provide background to post-Vatican II depictions using Lady Gaga’s 2011 music video for her song “Judas” as an example.  Part III will expand further on Mary’s reputation with Norman Jewison’s 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar based on the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and, lastly, part IV will conclude the series with Ron Howard’s 2006 film The Da Vinci Code based on Dan Brown’s book by the same name. 

As briefly discussed above, according to Ruether, women in Christianity, not just Mary, were marginalized in order for their power to be removed.  She argued: 

Occasionally a woman in the tradition stands out as so powerful and so central that she can neither be silenced or sanitized.  Here the patriarchal censure introduces what might be called a “mud-slinging job” to displace them from authority and dignity…The Christian tradition marginalized Mary Magdalene by turning her into a repentant prostitute, thus marginalizing her from her position as leading female apostle and first witness of the resurrection, commissioned to bring the good news back to the male disciples who had fled the scene and were trembling in the upper room.[3]

Diminishing Mary’s role allowed men to have complete control over the Catholic Church as well as over women.  Women were not allowed to hold a position that would have her above a man.  The Catholic Church, to this day, does not allow the ordination of women based primarily on the belief that Jesus’ disciples were all men.[4]  It is interesting to note, however, that several non-canonical gospels show that Jesus possibly had female disciples.  If women in the canonical gospels were portrayed as weak and unbelieving sinners, then the Catholic Church (i.e. men) could treat all women as such.  Even after other non-canonical texts have been found to show that women were not always seen as frail, doubting, and adulterous and previous distortions of Mary’s image by the Catholic Church reversed, Mary has continued to be portrayed by popular media in a way that marginalizes her.  

There has been some popular media, such as the book and movie The Da Vinci Code, that attempts to correct the idea that Mary was just a prostitute, but even when she is not portrayed as such, the way she is portrayed still marginalizes her, just in a different way. This will be discussed in the fourth installment of the article.  These alternative portrayals of Mary are deemed inaccurate and unorthodox by those in power within the Catholic Church, and thus, the misinterpretation of Mary as a prostitute or sinful woman is harder to prove erroneous in the minds of the public, both Christian and non-Christian.  

If one of the most important woman in Christianity can be made weak and unimportant, then women can continue to be oppressed, and verses such as 1 Timothy 2:12 (which states that women must be silent in the church) can continue to be used as basis to keep women out of power.  James Carroll argued that the early Church Fathers wanted to “disempower the figure of Mary Magdalene, so that her succeeding sisters in the church would not compete with men for power” and had “the impulse to discredit women generally.  This was most efficiently done by reducing them to their sexuality.”[5]  Reducing Mary to her sexuality affected not only her memory, but how women have been treated throughout Christian history.           

When Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings was released in 1927, it was not the first time in the short history of filmmaking that Mary was depicted on the silver screen.  The King of Kings was the ninth movie to portray Mary, however, this movie continues, even to this day, to be “one of the most popular and influential movies ever made” due to its continued popularity worldwide.[6]  At the very beginning of the silent film, there is a short note from DeMille stating: “He Himself, commanded that His message be carried to the uttermost parts of the earth.  May this portrayal play a reverent part in the spirit of that great command.”  From this statement it is clear that DeMille wanted to make a film about the story of Jesus in order to, at some level, evangelize.  However, that does not mean that the film was completely accurate.  DeMille liberally quotes the Bible throughout the film.  Bible verses are out of order, out of context, paraphrased, and said by people who did not actually say them.  As well, DeMille added material to what is not found in the canonical gospels.  It has been argued that DeMille did this for two reasons: “to make money and to make the narrative about Jesus work on the screen.  In doing so, DeMille made Jesus interesting and thereby distorted the original gospel narratives, voiding the rhetorical and theological purposes of the gospel accounts of Jesus.”[7]  And of course, if the biography of Jesus is uninteresting based solely on the canonical gospels, Mary’s would be even less interesting.  “The sparse information in the New Testament about Mary of Magdala is not adequate for a biography, and thus not for a biographical novel either.  Anyone who attempts the latter therefore has recourse to legends and creative fantasies.”[8]  How would one depict a woman who, according to the gospel of Luke, had seven demons cast out of her?  By making her a prostitute and associating the seven demons with the seven deadly sins, according to DeMille.  

When it was first shown in theaters, the movie was praised for accurately portraying the story of Jesus.  According to Diane Apostolos-Cappadona: 

The seeing of this film had an indelible impact on the minds of thousands of young people who saw it throughout the 1920s and 1930s.  Ask them to describe Mary Magdalene, and see if you don’t recognize Jacqueline Logan—bad girl turned saint!  After all, seeing is believing.[9]

Since the film, like many others, relied heavily on previous depictions of Jesus and Mary in art, which often had her wearing little-to-no clothing with ornate jewelry and extravagant hairstyles,[10]  DeMille’s Mary was what the audience expected. 

In The King of Kings, there are three scenes in which Mary is prominent that I will focus on.  The first scene is the opening scene of the movie, which opens up at the elaborate home of Mary.  She is cast as a successful prostitute surrounded by what appear to be important people of the community; this is affirmed when she, later in the scene, asks for her zebras that were gifts from a Nubian King.  She has multiple servants that will do whatever she commands, including one that keeps her cool her with a large, feathered fan.  She is surrounded by musicians, exotic animals, and food to show off her opulence.  Mary is dressed in an outfit which for the 1920s was very provocative and revealing.  One could argue that this outfit could rival only Princess Leia in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.  As if the gold bra were not enough, Mary sports heavy makeup, has her hair braided elaborately, and wears much jewelry to drive home the point to the 1920s audience that she is a woman of sin.  The viewer learns that Mary’s favorite customer, Judas, has been missing for several days.  Mary demands to know where he is (and who his new lover is) and learns that he is with “a Carpenter from Nazareth.”  She decides to go to this carpenter and bring her best client back.  In a sign of her great importance, she goes off in a Zebra-drawn chariot.  At this point the scene cuts to Jesus performing miracles and the twelve disciples, along with Jesus’ mother Mary, are introduced.  Mary the Mother is dressed in polar opposite of what Mary Magdalene is dressed in.  Jesus’ mother is literally dressed from head to toe in cloth.  Women in this film are dressed either as Mary Magdalene at the beginning scene—as a prostitute—or like Mary the Mother—as a virginal woman.  This portrays to the audience that women can be only whores or virgins with no middle ground.  

Mary arrives at the home Jesus is in with an air of prominence around her.  She commands beggars away and requires her servants to lay a carpet down on the ground so that she does not have to walk in the dirt.  She enters the home and sees her former client Judas, now one of the twelve disciples.  Mary struts over to Jesus with the intention of demanding Judas to return to her, but as soon as she looks into the eyes of Jesus she is transformed from prostitute to penitent sinner.  She becomes very aware that what she had been doing was against everything Jesus teaches.  Jesus then casts out seven demons from Mary, which DeMille chooses to be the seven deadly sins (he even modifies a Bible verse to make it seem like the demons cast out of her were the seven deadly sins).  Once the demons are cast out of Mary, she looks down on herself and is ashamed.  She covers herself up with her cape.  After this scene, she dresses in a manner similar to Mary the Mother.  This again signals to the audience that women are either virginal or prostitutes, with no other options.  

The final scene of importance that includes Mary, is the second to last scene in the film.  This is the resurrection scene and the only color scene in an otherwise black and white film.  Here Jesus first appears to Mary and commands her to tell the others that he has risen.  It is unclear from the next scene if Mary is actually successful in doing as commanded.  Ten of the now eleven disciples are in a room looking sad and forlorn (Thomas enters the room only after Jesus has appeared).  Had Mary been successful, would not the disciples be waiting in anticipation for Jesus to come back?  Or, did they not believe her because she was a mere woman? 

Viewers saw the way DeMille depicted Mary as real or true due to her being depicted as they believed she should be.  Jacqueline Logan as Mary confirmed what the audience already thought Mary should look and act like from church sermons, Bible studies, and Sunday school.[11] DeMille himself was heavily influenced by the pictures in his family Bible, illustrated by James Tissot (1836-1902), as well as the Biblical art of GustaveDoré (1832-83).[12]  These depictions show Mary as a prostitute.  As it is well-known, however, Mary as a prostitute did not start with these nineteenth-century artists.  In a 591 sermon, Pope Gregory I combined Mary Magdalene, several unnamed women, and Mary of Bethany (who washed Jesus’ feet) and stated that all the women were actually just one: Mary Magdalene.  By doing such an act, Mary’s greatest claim to fame (according to the canonical gospels) of being the first to witness and announce the resurrection is changed to her repenting her sexual and/or evil ways.[13]  Mary was then, for more than a millennium after Pope Gregory I’s sermon, “unjustly condemned for something she never did, and denied her rightful place in Church history, while Paul has been exonerated for his own sins and held up as a model for all.”[14]  Mary goes from a faithful follower and supporter of Jesus who is worthy enough to be the first to see him risen to repentant whore and is condemned for that.  Yet Paul, a male, who admits to persecuting and killing Christians, is considered an exemplary Christian.  Pope Gregory I’s sermon was the “mud-slinging job” Ruether is alluding to.  By combining the women, “whether intentionally or not, he changed the Christian world’s attitude toward Mary Magdalene, women, and sexuality for centuries to come.”[15]  From that point on, Mary would be defined by her sexuality, and not for being an important disciple (and if one takes into account the non-canonical texts she was also a confidant of Jesus) that was the first to see Christ’s resurrection.[16]  The audience of The King of Kings will likely remember the opening scene Mary over the closing scene Mary because that is the Mary they have been raised to know because of Pope Gregory I’s “mud-slinging job.” 

We will continue to build on the myth of Mary’s reputation in the next segment and see how early film depictions of Mary—such as The King of Kings—contributed to how she has been  perceived in subsequent portrayals.

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Author’s Bio

Catherine Schmidt is an associate editor of Religion Nerd.  Catherine earned her BA in Religious Studies at Arizona State University (2005) and her MA in Religious Studies at Georgia State University (2012).  She has presented her work at academic conferences in the local, regional, and national level.  Catherine’s interest range include: religion and popular culture, women and religion, Mary Magdalene, and early Christian history.  She hopes in the future to pursue her PhD where she can combine her many interests. 



[1]Ruether, Rosemary Radford.  “The Future of Feminst Theology in the Academy.”Journal of the American Academy of Religion.LIII.4 (1985).   p 708.   [2]Santana, Richard W. and Gregory Erickson.Religion and Popular Culture: Rescripting the Sacred.  North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2008.  p 10.  [3]Ruether p 708.  [4] Carroll, James.  “Who Was Mary Magdalene?”  Secrets of Mary Magdalene.Ed. Dan Burstein and Arne J. De Keijzer.  New York: CDS Books, 2006.  p 31.  [5] Carroll p 34.  [6]Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane.  “The Saint as Vamp: Mary Magdalene on the Silver Screen.”  Secrets of Mary Magdalene.Ed. Dan Burstein and Arne J. De Keijzer.  New York: CDS Books, 2006.  p 259.  [7] Jenkins, Bill.  “Jesus Christ, Superstar?  Why the Gospels Don’t Make Good Movies.”  Journal of Religion and Film.  Vol. 12, No. 2 October 2008.  [8]Maisch, Ingrid.  Mary Magdalene: The Image of a Woman through the Centuries.  Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998. p 170.  [9] p 259.  [10]Apostolos-Cappadona p 257.  [11]Apostolos-Cappadona p 254.  [12]Apostolos-Cappadona p 258.  [13] Carroll. p 27.  [14]Plumer, Eric.  The Catholic Church and American Culture: Why the Claims of Dan Brown Strike a Chord.  Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 2009.  p 241.  [15] Burstein, Dan.  “Our Fascination with Mary Magdalene: Confessions of a Da Vinci Code Fan.”  Secrets of Mary Magdalene.Ed. Dan Burstein and Arne J. De Keijzer.  New York: CDS Books, 2006.  p 16.  [16] Carroll p 22. 

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