|Amber Rose Revah as Mary Magdalene|
Throughout the history of Jesus films, the depiction of Mary Magdalene has been disappointing. And that's an understatement. Some would say that it has been scandalous. It has been absolutely standard to depict her as the repentant prostitute, harmonizing Luke 7.36-50 (anonymous "sinner") and John 8.1-11 (anonymous woman taken in adultery) with references to Mary Magdalene (Luke 8.1-3, Mark 15.40-41 etc.).
In Jesus Christ Superstar (dir. Norman Jewison, 1973), Mary (Yvonne Elliman) is the repentant prostitute, who now does not know how to engage with Jesus ("I don't know how to love him"). The character combines elements from all of those stories. Jesus castigates Judas for being judgemental, "If your slate is clean, then you can throw stones; if it is not, then leave her alone". Without her sinful past, there is no story.
So too in The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988), Barbara Hershey's Mary Magdalene is depicted in the brothel, and her repentance is part of the action of the film. As in so many Jesus films, she becomes the woman taken in adultery found in many of our textual witnesses in John 8. She is dragged before Jesus and presented to him in a scene that is absolutely standard in Jesus films.
Even Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ (2004), which focuses the action solely on the Passion Narrative, manages to insert a flashback to the story of the woman taken in adultery. Monica Bellucci's Mary is humbled by her experience, at the feet of Jesus, now beginning a new life with him:
|Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene in Passion of the Christ|
When one is so used to this cliché, one almost comes to expect it in a new Jesus film. Surely, once again, we will see Mary Magdalene, the repentant prostitute, the "sinner" who comes to Jesus to anoint his feet, the adulterous woman who was nearly stoned but for Jesus' intervention. It is so standard a part of the grammar of Jesus films that it would be surprising not to include it.
But of course New Testament scholars have been at pains for years in trying to rescue Mary's reputation. Books by Karen King, Jane Schaberg, Esther deBoer, Robin Griffith-Jones and others have underlined that the evidence for Mary the prostitute is nil. There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that Mary was a prostitute. Moreover, the discovery and publication of the Gospel of Mary, alongside a critical appraisal of other early Christian texts in which Mary features, has served to rescue her reputation over the last generation or so.
It is therefore a matter of great joy to see The Bible series reflecting the best scholarship on Christian origins and depicting Mary as one who follows Jesus and ministers to him from Galilee (Mark 15.40-41; Luke 8.1-3) all the way to Jerusalem, following him to the cross (Mark 15.40-1, John 19.25), his burial (Mark 15.47) and his resurrection (Mark 16.1-8; John 20.1-18).
|Amber Rose Revah as Mary Magdalene in The Bible|
There is no part in the story where Mary is made to appear like a repentant prostitute. When we get to the famous scene found in some witnesses of John 8.1-11, the pericope adulterae, far from being the woman at the centre of the action, she is depicted comforting the woman's son; that's her just behind Jesus and the woman in this production still:
|The Woman taken in Adultery, The Bible|
Mary is depicted throughout among the band of Jesus' disciples, a key part of the action, in the boat at the Walking on the Water pericope, at Jesus' side as he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and so on, and always there in the group shots like this (also a production still):
|Jesus and disciples, including Mary Magdalene, The Bible|
Of course the Gospels depict Mary as one of several women who travelled with Jesus -- Joanna, Susanna, Mary of James and Joses, Salome among them (Luke 8.1-3; Mark 15.40-41 etc.) -- but the narrative benefits from homing in on one key character, just as The Bible series singles out Peter from the inner group of Peter, James and John.
In a recent talk ("Myths of Mary and the Married Jesus"), I suggested that while popular culture often provides the context for the reception of scholarly claims about Mary Magdalene, there are important ways in which the scholarship has begun to change popular culture. This has happened on at least one other occasion in recent history, when Paloma Baeza played Mary Magdalene as a disciple of Jesus in BBC / HBO's The Passion (2008), and again not as a prostitute:
|Paloma Baeza as Mary Magdalene, The Passion (BBC / HBO)|
I remember the late Esther de Boer writing to me back then to express her delight that finally there was a Jesus film that did not depict Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. I only wish she were still alive, and Jane Schaberg too, to see Amber Rose Revah's wonderful portrayal of the character in The Bible series, and I dedicate this post to their memory, with great affection and gratitude for their scholarship.