Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary: From Harlot to Celibate

A historiographical analysis of how the changing sexual paradigm in Western society has metamorphosed ecclesiastical portrayals of Mary Magdalene

By Caitlin Gordon-King

Please note: this piece discusses Christian figures outside their traditional context, religious writers with bias, and is critical of Catholic Church teachings. Please be cautious when reading if this notion offends you.

Mary Magdalene has travelled far. Within two thousand years, her representation as a repentant prostitute by the Western ecclesiastical school has developed, popularised and fallen. While this shift was dictated by a multitude of factors, the changing Western societal doctrine concerning female sexuality has contributed significantly. The social circumstances of Ambrose, Voragine and Lefèvre have influenced their varying stances on female sexuality and contributed to the broad and nuanced differences between their portrayals. Through the centuries, the figure of Magdalene has been a means of promoting the underlying values of historians through interpretations of both her role in the Bible and her life as a woman.

The societal matrix of Ambrose influenced his appropriation of the traditional proto-orthodox ecclesiastical portrayal of Magdalene coined by Hippolytus. This break preluded the prostitution myth. Constructing a figure representative of all women, in 3rd C Hippolytus had described Magdalene as ‘cling(ing)’ (Boer 2007) to Jesus for ascendance but rejected on equation with Eve. Her subsequent repentance conveys support for the control of female sexuality through religious adherence and marriage. This portrayal was reformed by the Church fathers’ classification of women as the ‘misbegotten’ (Acquinas 1999). Ambrose’s consequent depiction of Magdalene as overcoming man’s sexual sin through faith preluded her misidentification as a prostitute in Church tradition. The bishop was the first to associate ‘hereditary guilt’ (Ambrose A.D. 381) with Magdalene in works such as On the Holy Spirit (Ambrose A.D. 381). His assertion of Magdalene’s promiscuity before meeting Jesus and consequent consideration of her conflation with Luke’s Sinner, typified theological consensus concerning the figure’s representation of man’s sinful past. In vast contrast to Hippolytus before him, Ambrose’s context rendered his interpretation of Magdalene not as apostle, but as the ‘messenger’ in whom ‘sin had exceedingly abounded’ (Ambrose A.D. 381). His interpretation of Magdalene was thus as the repentant sinner and ultimate role model for celibacy.

Ambrose’s social context promoted misogyny, influencing his portrayal of Magdalene. The male pronouns used in the Gospels had fostered an absolutist belief in God’s masculinity and led to a perception of female inferiority (Haskins 1993). This was further confirmed by the Roman influenced attitude of disciples, expressed in Peter’s ‘…women are not worthy of life (Gospel of Thomas)’. From the second century, theological speculation of Eve’s sole responsibility for the Fall emerged, and therefore, from her temptation of reluctant Adam. Coined by Tertullian in 305, the pair’s betrayal had been ‘one of the flesh’, a sentiment adopted unanimously by the Church fathers (Haskins 1993). Prominent philosophies such as Stoicism rejected pleasure to attain perfection. Eve, and by extension women, were thus the ‘devils gateway’ (Acquinas sourced Kyam 1992). Ambrose’s Magdalene conformed to these perceptions. His advocacy for purification through her directly contributed to the prostitution myth.

The transition from this context to the Middle Ages allowed theologians to develop Ambrose’s conception. Jacobus De Voragine’s interpretation of Magdalene as past prostitute and later ascetic exemplifies the dominance of the prostitution myth during this period. In the historian’s anthology of hagiographies The Golden Legend (Voragine 1260), Magdalene’s past is presented as wretched with ‘indulgence’ (Voragine 1260), a feature expounded as negative and frivolous in his text.  Magdalene is corrupted by wealth and ‘sensuous pleasures’ (Voragine 1260), her prostitution meaning she is ‘simply referred to as the sinner’ (Voragine 1260). Extending previous portrayals, Voragine’s Magdalene becomes an ascetic following repentance. Living in a cave, she is content to survive not on ‘earthly food but with heavenly nourishment.’ (Voragine 1260) Contemporary connotations of angels allowed their incorporation in Voragine’s piece to symbolise abstinence, through which Magdalene becomes the ‘light giver’ (Voragine 1260). Voragine’s portrayal thus exemplifies the hegemony of the prostitution myth as Magdalene is used to encourage abstinence and repentance.

Following the assertions of Ambrose, in AD 591 Pope Gregory presented a Homily which drew on the sentimental doubts of his predecessor. His conflation of Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and Luke’s Sinner solidified notions of her initial prostitution. This development was adopted by the Western Church as doctrine. Having asserted hegemony in Europe during the 12C, the Catholic Church imposed this teaching upon theologians. Paradoxically however, the sexual paradigm had shifted between the times of Ambrose and Voragine. Developing urbanisation had resulted in an increasing number of prostitutes in Europe (Weisner-Hanks 2000). Hoping open heterosexuality might discourage homosexuality, the growing tolerance by Italian authorities eventuated in the formation of municipal houses of prostitution (Weisner-Hanks 2000). Mary Magdalene’s alleged prostitution was promulgated by the Church to counter this acquiescence open sexuality. The Order of St Mary Magdalene was formed to encourage repentance (Weisner Hanks 2000). This campaign established Magdalene as a symbol of ‘penitence’ (Elliot 2000) within popular culture (Jansen 2001). Influenced by this context therefore, Voragine’s interpretation conformed to conventional portrayals: Magdalene, the prostitute whose repentance demonstrates the human ability to control innate sexual desire.

This portrayal of Magdalene was undermined by changing perceptions of reasoning and sexual morality during the 14C; typified by the work of Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples. In 1517, the humanist scholar published a series of pamphlets in which he attempted to disprove the Church’s denigration of Magdalene as a prostitute (Porrer 2009). His De Maria Magdalena (Lefevre 1517) argued her distinction from Luke’s Sinner and Mary of Bethany (Porrer 2009), thereby revealing the ‘authority of the gospel’ (Lefevre 1517) and fallibility of Church doctrine. Through reference to early church fathers, Lefèvre claimed that Magdalene’s ‘seven demons’ had not been an allegory for sexuality, but actual possessors (Nolan 1990). This catalysed a heated debate between humanist and traditional branches of the ecclesiastical school, preluding the Protestant reformation (Encyclopedia Britanica 2011) and initiating the downfall of the prostitution myth.

Societal changes influenced Lefèvre’s interpretation. As the ascetic focus of the religious paradigm eased with an increasingly secular authority, people sought direction from personal morality and reasoning rather than the dictates of the Church. Perceptions of the female role became less focused on the sexual ‘diabolus’ (devil, reference to woman), towards a more subordinated, practical role as housewife (Weisner-Hanks 2000). This role effectively robbed women of their independent sexual drive, with male academics asserting that the ideal woman was to ‘be utterly ignorant of and averse to any sensual indulgence’ (Haskins 1993). Furthermore, scientific anatomical revelations demystified sexuality, thereby distancing it from notions of morality (Haskins 1993). Lefèvre thus represented Magdalene as a woman without desire. While some future works echoed the prostitution myth, Lefèvre’s portrayal marked the end of its absolutism as his argument received growing support from the monarchy and his contemporaries (Porrer 2009).

The development, hegemony and fall of the prostitute myth within the Western ecclesiastical school has been dictated by historical context. This is demonstrated by the works of Hippolytus, Ambrose, Voragine and Lefèvre. Enveloping the character for millennia, the persistence of the prostitution myth within modern popular culture demonstrates its profound impact on history. From the character’s identification as the new Eve, Middle Age denigration as repentant prostitute and modern feminist appraisal as sexual independent, Mary Magdalene has reflected the context which wrought her.

~ Caitlin Gordon-King

You can also find this article in the current herstory issue of wom*news!


Acquinas, sourced: Kvam, K. E., Eve & Adam, Jewish, Christian and Muslim readings on Genesis and Gender, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1999

Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit 3, 11.73-75, sourced: Boer, E. D., The Mary Magdalene Cover-Up, The Sources Behind the Myth, trans. Bowden J., T&T Clark, London, 2006

Artemis; Baldock J., Women in the Bible, Miracle Births, Heroic Deeds, Bloodlust and Jealousy, Arturus Publishing Limited, London, 2006

Bellevie, L., The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mary Magdalene, Penguin Group, New York, 2005

De Gruyter, edited by Wolfgang Haase, Hildegard Temporini, Rise and decline of the Roman world: Principate, Part 2, Volume 36, Walter D Gruyter & Co, Berlin, 1992

Elliot, W. S., Sex and the Single Saint: Physicality in Anglo-Saxon Female Saints’ Lives, Athens, Georgia, 2004

Encyclopedia Britannica, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, Encyclopedia Britannia Online, viewed 9 April 2011, <;

Flemming, R., The Sexual economy of female prostitution in the Roman Empire, The Journal of Roman Studies, Volume 89, 1999, viewed 3 December 2010, <;

Gospel of Thomas 51.19 – 26; in Nag Hammadi Library

(See complete list at!)

Haskins, S, Myth and Metaphor, HarperCollinsPublishers, Suffolk, 1993

Hippolytus, On the Song of Songs, 3rd C, sourced: Boer, E. D., The Mary Magdalene Cover-Up, The Sources Behind the Myth, trans. Bowden. J, T&T Clark, London, 2007

Jansen, K. L., The Making of the Magdalene, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2001

Lefe’vre, J. D, sourced: Porrer, S. M.,  Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples and the three Maries Debates, Warburg Institute of London, Geneve, 2009

Lefe’vre, J. D., sourced: Nolan, L., Equally in God’s Image: Women and the Middle Ages, Peter Lang Publishing, New York and Berne, 1990

Lefe’vre, J. D., Intro by Porrer, S. M.,  Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples and the three Maries Debates, Warburg Institute of London, Geneve, 2009

Nolan, L., Equally in God’s Image: Women and the Middle Ages, Peter Lang Publishing, New York and Berne, 1990

Paul, The Letters to the Corinthians, accessed: The Daily Bible: The Letters to the Corinthians, Westminster John Knox Press, Kentucky, 2002

Porrer, S. M.,  Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples and the three Maries Debates, Warburg Institute of London, Geneve, 2009

Smith, Y.W., The Mystery of the Anointing: Hippolytus’ Commentary On the Song of Songs in Social and Critical Contexts,, viewed 9 January 2011,<;

Tertullian, K., Homily 64, delivered 3rd C Rome, sourced: Haskins, S, Myth and Metaphor, HarperCollinsPublishers, Suffolk, 1993

Voragine, D. J., The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, Volume 1, trans. William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, West Sussex, 1993

Weisner-Hanks, M. E., Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World, Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice, Routledge, London, 2000


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