There is Something About Mary Magdalene, Part III

By Catherine Schmidt, Georgia State University

This is part III of a IV part series exploring popular culture depictions of Mary Magdalene.  In part I, we looked at a brief history of pre-Vatican II portrayals of Mary.  Part II discussed the history of Vatican II in relation to Mary and how the change in Church thinking did little to how Mary was portrayed in popular culture as seen in Lady Gaga’s music video “Judas.”  Part III will build on the post-Vatican II portrayals with the musical film Jesus Christ Superstar

In stark contrast to DeMille’s and Lady Gaga’s Mary is the Mary that is portrayed in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical turned film Jesus Christ Superstar.  Unlike the other two Marys discussed, Webber and Rice’s Mary is not dressed in elaborate costumes.  As well, she is without makeup and her hair is plain.  The one similarity in dress is the jewelry she wears.  In Jesus Christ Superstar, the only differentiating feature from Mary to the other women is that she has both a necklace and earrings on during her two most prominent songs.  Another stark difference is that this Mary is actually more conservatively dressed compared to the other women in the cast.  Where some women are dressed showing plenty of skin (as can be expected for a film made in the 1970s), Mary is dressed in a long tunic.  However, just because she is dressed more conservatively—a term I will use loosely since Mary’s dress is low-cut—does not mean her character is no longer part of the ancient “mud-slinging job.” 

Jesus Christ Superstar was first produced as an album in 1970 just after the Second Vatican Council.  One year later it came to Broadway and received a great reception.  In 1973 it was made into a film and, thus, allowed more than just those able to make it to either New York or London (where it was also now being performed) to see the production.[1]  The musical continues to be produced all over the world and the film has been re-adapted two times, with a third scheduled for release in 2014.[2]  Though the writing of the musical comes at the heels of Vatican II, Webber and Rice apparently did not get the memo about Mary.  Once again, Mary is confused with other women in the Bible and she is still represented as a prostitute.  During the song “What’s the Buzz” Mary starts to wash Jesus’ head and feet with oils.  Then, Judas interrupts the song with his own titled “Strange Thing Mystifying.”  He does not explicitly call Mary a prostitute, but it can been easily inferred when Judas sings “…a man like you can waste his time on women of her kind…” and later “it’s not that I object to her profession, but she doesn’t fit in well with what you teach and say.”  Jesus responds by defending Mary and verbally throws stones at Judas.  He screams/sings “If your slate is clean, then you can throw stones.   If your slate is not, then leave her alone!”  In this one scene, Mary has been combined with three different women in the New Testament, none of which are actually Mary Magdalene.  Mary washing Jesus occurs a second time (possibly to mirror the two separate times different women anoint Jesus’ feet in the New Testament) during her song “Everything’s Alright.”  In this song, Mary tries to calm and seduce Jesus.  Her hands are strategically placed throughout the song to show the intimacy she has for Jesus.  Yet again, Judas interrupts Mary anointing Jesus arguing that the money used for the ointment could have been used to feed the poor (a scene lifted straight from John 12:1-8, except that the Mary in these verses was actually Mary of Bethany and not Mary Magdalene). 

In Mary’s most famous song in the musical, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the audience learns more about her past.  Unlike The King of Kings in which Judas was her best client or “Judas” in which she is in love with Judas, in Jesus Christ Superstar Mary is in love with Jesus himself.  She laments “I don’t know how to take this.   I don’t see why he moves me.   He’s a man.  He’s just a man.   And I’ve had so many men before in very many ways.   He’s just one more.”  Later in the song she admits that she would not know how to respond if he loved her back.  She would be “lost,” “frightened,” and she would “turn [her] head” despite that she “want[s] him so” and “love[s] him so.”  It has been argued that this song is “no distanced reverence for a demi-god but rather a distressed, emotional entanglement with a fellow human-being.”[3]  By having Mary love Jesus as any woman may love a man, the story becomes more relatable to the audience.  Add Judas, who believes they are wrong for each other and should not be seen together, and it becomes a soap opera of biblical times. 

DeMille was not the only director that looked at popular Christian art and legends for inspiration.  Webber and Rice relied heavily on “conflated and erroneous biblical interpretations,” as well as prevalent art and legends.[4]  In fact, the scene of the last supper, the disciples and Jesus make a point of copying the body positions in Leonardo Di Vinci’s famous masterpiece.  The art that is imitated into the film reinforces the concepts they depict to the audience and, unfortunately, many in the audience believe the images are accurate and not fabrications of the artists’ minds.  If Mary is continually portrayed as a prostitute, audiences will believe she was one, even if academia states otherwise.  Film, especially, has great power in reinforcing the pre-conceived notions of Mary’s image.  As well, what the audience sees in film (especially if the same image is repeated in different films) often over-shadows people’s own interpretations of people and events represented in a film.[5] 

The ending to Jesus Christ Superstar is quite unsettling.  After the death of Jesus, there is no resurrection scene.  The movie ends with the cast packing up the set and loading onto the bus the movie opened with.  With no resurrection scene, Mary is unable to be the first to see the risen Jesus, and thus, unable to be the first to spread the message of his resurrection.  The only Mary the audience is aware of in this musical/film is that of a prostitute in love with Jesus.  

Bart Ehrman argues that because Mary was the first to witness and proclaim the resurrection, she started Christianity.  He stated that if the resurrection did historically happen[6], Mary is far more important than how she is depicted currently (and historically).  His argument is based on the idea that: 

The Christian religion is founded on the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead.  And it appears virtually certain that it was Mary Magdalene of all people, an otherwise unknown Galilean Jewish woman of means, who first propounded this belief.  It is not at all farfetched to claim that Mary was the founder of Christianity.[7]

Had it not been for Mary, Christianity may never have started, according to this argument.  Christianity needed someone to announce that Jesus had risen.  And since she was the first to make such an announcement, Mary started Christianity.[8]  By omitting this scene in Jesus Christ Superstar, Mary’s importance vanishes, and she is just another woman around Jesus. 

We will finish this series with Part IV of that will discuss The Da Vinci Code and concluding remarks.  According toThe Da Vinci Code, Mary knew how to love Jesus.

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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]Goodacre, Mark.  “Do You Think You’re What They Say You Are?  Reflections on Jesus Christ Superstar.”Journal of Religion and Film.  Vol. 3, No. 2 October 1999.  [2] “Jesus Christ Superstar (2014).”IMDb.  IMDb.com, Inc, Web 16 June 2011.  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1262410/[3]Goodacre.  [4]Thimmes, Pamela.  “Memory and Re-Vision: Mary Magdalene Research since 1975.”  Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 6 (1998).  p 194.  [5] Nichols, Stephen J.  Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History From the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008.  p 157.  [6] Ehrman, Bart D.  Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.  p 186.  [7] Ehrman p 229.  [8] Ehrman p 256

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