The Magdalene Myth & Purity Culture

This is a summary of a paper presentation that was originally made as a contribution to a short series hosted by the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence, called In the Cross Hairs: Biblical Violence in Focus, to support emerging scholarship on biblical texts that deal with, or respond to, violence. I summarized the other papers from this symposium in a blog entitled, Sitting in on a Symposium at “Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence”. This paper demanded a bit more attention, since I was particularly moved by the topic and appeal made by the author, Siobhán Jolley, a doctoral candidate at University of Manchester.

Jolley’s paper, entitled Asking for it? Lessons from Mary Magdalene in a Culture of Sexual Violence, explored negative attitudes toward female sexuality in the Magdalene Myth that have had a direct bearing on Christian purity culture.

Mary Magdalene was the name identified for one of the women who traveled with Jesus. She is particularly referenced in narratives associated with the Passion of Christ in the New Testament Gospels. There are not many details about Magdelene, but she is often identified with the narrative of the woman from whom seven demons were ejected (Luke 8.2). She is also affiliated with imagery of sin. Western Medieval Christianity associated Mary Magdalene with the Mary of Bethany who washed Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume (John 12.1-8). Both the actions and the ownership of the perfume were seen as evidence of an immoral livelihood. Indeed, it is these portrayals that have earned Mary Magdalene the eternal reputation of the harlot.

Jolley’s presentation pointed out that there is a failure to separate action from identity that is then carried into artistic portrayals which perpetuate the Magdalene Myth. One thing that is recorded as certainty in the Gospels is that Mary Magdalene was among the first to witnesses the resurrected Christ (Mark 16:1–8, Matthew 28:1–10, John 20:1–10). However, despite this great honor, artists throughout time have rendered Magdelene as gazing lovely at the risen Jesus, her hair loose, and her breasts uncovered—the unvirtuous woman.

Jolley read this prejudice against Mary Magdalene as a form sexual violence given the patriarchal tendency to reduce all issues of sexuality to a matter of purity. Even though Mary Magdalene is recorded as a Saint, her identity as a sexual sinner keeps her an outsider to Christian society.

Two Marys, Two Saints

Jolley’s presentation suggested that Mary Magdalene is portrayed opposite the Virgin Mary. Both are Saints, but one is an outlier, and one an insider. This binary interpretation sends a message to Christian women about purity culture: if you cannot fit neatly into sexual purity expectations, conforming to the Virgin Mary, then you fall as an outsider with the whore Mary Magdalene. The irony of such a dichotomy is in the impossibility of being the Virgin Mary, who was concurrently Virgin, Mother, and Wife. Jolley refers to this as a ridiculous demonstration of impossible purity, where sexual violence, as well as physical and psychological trauma is overlooked. In fact, there may be an underlying implicit suggestion that sexual violence may be acted upon outliers without consequence. Just as the identity of the Magdalene has not been redeemed, so the outliers “cannot be spoiled by further damage.” Jolley recommended that this view be corrected in order to support the return of female agency in purity culture.

Jolley’s paper sought to redeem the Magdalene Myth. Mary Magdalene’s identity is never described in terms of a man. She is her own person in the narrative. Her outlier status should be superseded by her elevation in witnessing the resurrected Christ. Yet, her status as an outsider has defined her low station as unredeemable. Her violators are neither shamed nor judged because her status cannot be lower.

The received version of Mary Magdalene demonstrates how sexual perception is a brand of exclusion. Victim blaming and slut shaming is promoted by how the Magdalene has been remembered. This practice has fueled a commonly recurring myth that women who are raped must be promiscuous.

Siobhán Jolley’s presentation forces us to examine public views of sexuality and purity culture. She challenges assumptions of bias that fail to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable. The acceptance of the Magdalene Myth that the outlier will never become the inlier is simply un-Christian, yet it is an idea spread throughout Christianity.

As a woman raise in Christian purity culture, I identified greatly with the teachings influenced by Siobhán Jolley’s presentation. Her paper caused me to think through my own upbringing, the things I was taught, the books my friends read, and mostly, how I will choose to teach my daughter about sexual ethics and social responsibility.

As it is, purity culture offers a dangerous message for young women. It is filled with bias against redemption and prejudice against women who have been victims of sexual violence. The passive associations of impurity are problematic. How Christians read and speak about women during the time of Jesus has a direct impact on how we perceive purity. This is only one aspect of the very large topic of purity culture. I am grateful to Siobhán Jolley for opening the door to such a subject through the single topic of Mary Magdalene.


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