You’ve probably heard the story before: Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who had anointed Jesus with oil and washed His feet with her tears. Not too many months ago I heard this very story being told on a local Christian radio station. It’s obvious that many in modern times have come to believe this story, and, if you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, the story is embellished even further, depicting Mary Magdalene as the woman from John 8 who was caught in the act of adultery. Now, if you were thinking this is all true, you’d be wrong.
Yep, that’s right, there isn’t a shred of evidence in the Gospels that suggests anything of the sort concerning Mary Magdalene. So the question is, where in the world did this notion come from? There is an account in each of the Gospels of a woman anointing Jesus with expensive oil. However, only the accounts in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12 are parallel accounts, while the account in Luke 7 is an entirely different story. Here’s how we can know this to be true.
In Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12, Jesus is anointed with expensive oil by a woman. Each of these accounts tells us exactly where and when this happened: this anointing took place in Bethany during Holy Week. In each of the accounts, when the disciples protest at what they perceive to be a waste of money, Jesus responds that she has done this to prepare Him for burial. Matthew and Mark tell us that this took place in the home of Simon the Leper, most likely one of the lepers whom Jesus had healed. St John does us the courtesy of identifying the woman who anoints Jesus as Mary. But not Mary Magdalene, mind you. Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus.
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair.” (John 12:1-3)
Now that we’ve settled which Mary it was who anointed Jesus prior to His betrayal, trial and crucifixion, on to the account found in Luke 7. As I mentioned earlier, this account is entirely different. How do we know? First, the timing and location are very different. At the beginning of Luke 7, Jesus is in Capernaum, and from there travels to Nain, about 30 miles away. Bethany was another 80 miles away, so Jesus wasn’t anywhere near Bethany on this occasion. The timing is also very different, with this event taking place early in Jesus’ earthly ministry. But not only is the location and timing different from the account in the other gospels, but the details are as well. Luke identifies the host as a Pharisee, not a leper. The woman is also identified only as a sinner:
“And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, ‘This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.’” (Luke 7:37-39)
Somehow, somewhere along the way, someone threw these accounts into a blender and came up with Mary Magdalene being a prostitute. Yet as we can see, not only did the wrong Mary get credit for anointing Jesus with expensive oil, somehow, magically, she became the unnamed “sinner” in Luke 7, even though there isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest this. Here’s all we know from Scripture about Mary Magdalene: she’s the one from who Jesus had cast out seven demons (Luke 8), she was one of Jesus’ followers present at His crucifixion and burial, and she’s the one to whom Jesus first appeared after His resurrection. That’s it.
So the next time someone tells you that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, feel free to have a little fun at their expense. Ask them to show you in the Gospels where it says that. You’ll have them searching for hours, because they’ll be looking for something that isn’t there. And remember it’s not nice to call a lady a prostitute if it isn’t true.