Hair Is To Wipe With: Three Women In One by Robert Gorham Davis (March 1994)

She contributed a common word, “maudlin,” to the English vocabulary. Two British colleges, one at Oxford, one at Cambridge, are named for her. Often naked, covered only by her long, flowing red hair, she appears in innumerable Renaissance paintings as the repentant prostitute become saint–Saint Mary Magdalene. Yet as such she is completely bogus, the result of a wanton falsification of the Bible.

This non-existent being bearing Magdalene’s name derives from a miswriting and misreading of the four Gospels. The incongruous result was promoted until quite recently by the Roman Catholic Church, and is still exploited in some of its branches. An advertisement I came across in a journal made me realize how Magdalene’s name has been misused for centuries.

The advertisement was placed by the Society of Saint Mary Magdalene–officered, of course, by male priests. It included a coupon to be sent in by anyone wanting to be more fully informed about this composite Mary, considered by her devotees to be almost equal in importance to the Blessed Virgin herself. I dispatched the coupon and received through the mails an amazing series of circulars, tastefully printed and illustrated, whose content, one would suppose, was suitable only to the Middle Ages when the cult of this celebrated repentant “harlot” received the homage of Emperors and Popes.

The incidents from the Bible which follow give an idea of how this strange figure of the false Mary Magdalene came to be. They also show how arbitrary and inconsistent the Gospel authors were in their selection of places, persons and physical details. Apparently these unknown writers felt free to set down anything, however unwarranted, that would serve their religious aims. I have numbered the incidents for ease of reference.

1. Let’s begin with the simplest version of the story of the sisters Mary and Martha. When, according to Luke, Jesus entered an unnamed village, “a woman named Martha received him into her house.” (In this essay my quotes come exclusively from the King James translation.) Her sister Mary–not Mary Magdalene but Mary of Bethany–sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to his teaching while Martha prepared a meal.

Martha reproached their visitor, with worshipful Mary at his feet, for not caring that “my sister hath left me to serve alone. Bid her therefore that she help me.” Jesus, showing no sympathy, refuses. “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Note that though Luke knows the names of Mary and Martha, he says nothing of their brother Lazarus, who is to be a central figure in the account John gives of this family.

2. In Matthew the quite different attention Jesus receives from a woman resembles only in its conclusion the incident I have just recounted from Luke. On both occasions Jesus responds favorably to the woman’s behavior, and rejects criticism of it. By implication he is defending himself, too.

As Matthew tells it, “when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head , as he sat at meat.”

The disciples were indignant at the waste, observing that the ointment might have been sold for a substantial amount of money, to be given to the poor. But Jesus said to them, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.” Shortly afterwards Judas leaves to go to the chief priests and arrange for Jesus’s betrayal.

Of Simon “the leper,” who is also called that by Mark, nothing more is known than his playing host on this occasion and on that described by Mark. The use of such a designation is strange, considering how contagion from lepers was feared. Some commentators suppose that Simon was a former leper whom Jesus had cured.

Note that in this version the ointment is poured on the head and that there is no wiping by hair or reference to it. No Martha and Mary either. In fact the woman doing the anointing is not named at all.

3. Matthew’s account is repeated almost verbatim in Mark. Once again it occurs in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. A unnamed woman comes with an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard. This time she breaks the box before pouring the contents on Jesus’s head. This time the indignant protesters, not identified as disciples, estimate the value of the ointment at three hundred pence, which could have been given to the poor. “And they murmured against her”–the woman, that is.

Jesus’s reply is almost precisely the same as in Matthew, including, slightly rephrased, the remark about the poor.

4. The Gospel of John, usually considered the latest of the four Gospels, brings many of these elements together, but in what is clearly an inventive composite.

According to John, six days before the Passover, Jesus visited Bethany, where some time earlier he had raised Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, from the dead. Such a demonstration of his miraculous power ultimately was to lead to his own death, because of the threat it seemed to present to the Jewish religious establishment.

In John’s account the risen Lazarus received Jesus warmly and sat by him at table. Note that we are in Bethany, “the town of Mary and her sister Martha.” The house, though, is the house of Lazarus and not of Simon the leper.

In John’s version, while Martha served supper, as in the account I cited from Luke, Mary “took a pound of costly nard and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair, and the house was filled with the fragrance.” This time the feet are anointed, not, as in versions 2 and 3, the head.

Judas, who was present, rebuked Jesus for permitting such waste. He is now the one to ask why the ointment was not sold for three hundred denarii, the money to be given to the poor. A denarius was equal to a day’s wages. Jesus replied, essentially as in accounts 2 and 3, “Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.”

The reader will have noticed that in none of the stories I have so far retold, does Mary Magdalene appear. Until the time of the crucifixion only Luke mentions her role in the life of Jesus. She and the repentant prostitute who washes Jesus’s feet with her tears are brought together in Luke’s gospel by mere textual sequence. On this juxtaposition–and it is nothing more than that–is the whole cult of Mary Magdalene based.

5. At the end of Chapter 7 of his Gospel Luke writes that a Pharisee had asked Jesus to eat with him. When “a woman of the city, which was a sinner” learned of this, she brought an alabaster flask of ointment. Standing weeping at the feet of Jesus–he was apparently eating in a reclining position, as was the custom then–she “began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.”

The Pharisee who was his host, rebuked Jesus for permitting this, just as Judas had done in the similar incident described in John. Addressing the Pharisee as “Simon,” Jesus replies at length, beginning with the parable of a creditor who forgives debts, and naturally pleases most those whose debts are largest. To the woman he says “Thy sins are forgiven,” and later, “Thy faith has saved thee; go in peace.”

The host in this case was Simon the Pharisee; not Simon the leper at whose house the unnamed woman poured ointment on Jesus’s head in the accounts I have given by Matthew and Mark. It is idle to ask whose account to believe, or how seriously to take any of the details. In its listing of ten New Testament Simons, Harper’s Bible Dictionary can only suggest that Simon the Pharisee is a “variant” of Simon the leper. If the Bible is God’s word, it is a very changeable word indeed.

6. The story of the nameless woman who was a sinner, and wet the feet of Jesus with her tears had come in Luke’s Gospel just at the end of Chapter 7. At the beginning of Chapter 8, the narrator Luke–and this is the key point–obviously shifts scenes entirely, and tells how Jesus went through a number of cities and villages accompanied by the disciples and “certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna and many others, which ministered unto him out of their substance.”

Lest any connection be made between the woman who wiped with her hair the feet of Jesus at the Pharisee’s house, and Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned at the beginning of Chapter 8, my Oxford Annotated Bible is careful to say of Mary Magdalene that “there is no evidence to connect her” with the woman in the preceding chapter, the unnamed sinner. Anyone reading carefully the two relevant chapters of Luke would certainly agree. Modern Biblical scholars also warn us that the seven demons who had “gone out” of Mary Magdalene need not be a sign of sinfulness, but were more probably the supposed cause of a complication of physical illnesses.

Mary Magdalene figures largely in the account of the resurrection. All four gospels name her foremost among those witnessing Jesus’s death. She stood by the cross with the Virgin Mary and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Three of the gospels identify her as the one who told the disciples about the risen Christ, and his coming ascension. This Jesus himself ordered her to do. As transmitter of revelations from the supposedly resurrected Jesus, Mary Magdalene rivals Saint Peter.

All these distinctions among the women were lost on Pope Gregory I, a Saint himself, elected Pope in 590. Apparently he did not read his Bible carefully, for he not only identified Mary Magdalene with the unnamed sinner in the Pharisee’s house, but with the Mary of Mary and Martha as well, called Mary of Bethany. The three had been clearly distinguished by Origen, the chief Biblical authority in the early centuries of the Church.

Pope Gregory’s reasoning was apparently this: Since in the Gospel of Luke the major introduction of Mary Magdalene occurs immediately after the account of the nameless sinner who anoints Jesus’s feet, the two must be the same. And since Mary of Bethany wiped Jesus’s feet with her hair, she must be the same woman too, though Mary Magdalene is never depicted as wiping anyone with her hair. On the contrary, she seems a practical woman of affairs whom Jesus deeply trusted at an absolutely crucial time for the future of Christianity.

Though the Greek Catholic Church never accepted this un-Biblical identification, nor did most serious scholars, the Roman Catholic Church did, down to our own time. I suspect that the reason was erotic. Everybody was excited retrospectively to imagine the wanton acts of a beautiful sinner whose number of demons could be equated with the greatness of her sins. Certainly artists loved the idea, making flowing hair the Magdalene’s most evident feature, the very hair with which she wiped Jesus.

I learned the extent of the Church’s dishonesty when I clipped and sent in the coupon placed by the Society of Saint Mary Magdalene. Nowhere does its literature even hint at what the Biblical text makes quite clear–as most Biblical scholars both Catholic and Protestant now attest–that the woman described in this literature as one person was actually three. Even the Church’s Roman Calendar now acknowledges this to be the case. And my suspicions about an erotic appeal is confirmed by a passage in the Society’s literature describing Mary Magdalene as “a shameless courtesan. Endowed with charm, elegance and wit, the usual attributes of such a person.”

Equally shocking is the way this literature uses legends about Mary Magdalene as if they were facts. According to its story, Mary Magdalene, twelve years after the Crucifixion, was forced by enemies of the Church to cross the Mediterranean in a small open boat, without oars or sails. She was accompanied by an apostle named Maximin. and by her presumed siblings Lazarus and Martha (which could be true only of Mary of Bethany). They landed in Marseilles, where Lazarus became its first bishop, despite the fact that a supposed tomb of the same Lazarus is venerated near Jerusalem.

According to these legends Mary took to the hills in France for 30 years of contemplative life in a cave. At her death Maximin buried her, and when Saracens invaded that part of France, monks hid her tomb, which remained hidden for some 200 years.

In 1279, according to the Society’s bulletins, her remains were discovered by the future King Louis IX of France, later a saint himself. “All those present testified that an overwhelming pleasant fragrance came from the tomb before it was opened, which lasted many days.” On the skull’s forehead were two inches of living flesh thought to have been preserved, according to the Society’s publication, by the touch of Jesus when he appeared to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection. A section of her jaw was missing, but the space matched precisely a bone venerated as a relic of Mary Magdalene in a church in Rome. Supposedly it had been removed from her skeleton by the guardian monks and sent to Rome when the Saracen invasion became threatening.

These later legends the Encyclopaedia Britannica calls “spurious.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia says that they do not “deserve credence.”

Subsequent literature from the Society makes me a handsome offer. Anyone who sends three dollars or more for remembrance in prayers will receive a “card that includes a small relic of St. Mary Magdalene.” What can one suppose that relic to be? I can hardly believe that for three dollars I will receive a tiny portion of the skin that the finger of the risen Jesus actually touched. Or even a fragment of the jawbone of the Saint, who for those thirty years in the solitary cave was fed by angels. Perhaps simply a bit of anonymous French earth from the ground around the tomb. I shall certainly send the three dollars at once. Then I will know.

Robert Gorham Davis, Ph.D., a Foundation member from Massachusetts, is a well-known scholar and is professor emeritus of Columbia University.

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