by Princess O’Nika Auguste
When most people learned about Mary Magdalene in church, the popular narrative portrayed her as a whore, a prostitute. Sometimes she is even confused with Mary, the sister of Lazarus, the woman who anoints Jesus’s feet with oil in John 12:3–8, Mark 14:3–9, and Luke 7:36–50.
But this isn’t accurate. Mary Magdalene is a person in her own right. Her real story is remarkable, and can be uncovered through the accurate interpretation of scripture. Mary Magdalene is featured in the New Testament more than any other woman, with the exception of Mary, the Mother of Jesus; she’s mentioned in 14 different verses.
The first we hear of Mary Madgalene, in Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9, is in a story of Jesus casting seven demons from her. Though no other information is made explicit in the text, these references were, over the years, incorrectly sexualized. This Bible Gateway article explains:
The Roman Catholic Church was guilty of fastening this slander upon Mary Magdalene when at Naples, in 1324, it established its first “Magdalen House” for the rescue and maintenance of fallen women. Great masters, taken up with the idea that Mary was formerly a courtesan, have provided art galleries with paintings of her as a voluptuous female.
Mary was one of the main women who followed Jesus, and it is possible that she may have provided financial blessings to his ministry.
All four canonical gospels list Mary Magdalene as the first to see the risen Jesus, either alone (Mark 16:9–10; John 20:11–18) or with the “other” Mary, Jesus’s mother (Matthew 28:1–8), or with a group of women (Luke 23:55–24:10). She was the person Christ instructed to tell the other disciples that he was resurrected.
In John 20, after Jesus tells Mary to go to the disciples and tell them he has risen, she disappears from the narrative and the story continues without mention of her.
Cultural and Historical Context
Jewish women in ancient Palestine were little more than property and had few rights. According to K. C Hanson, “First century Palestine (and the ancient Mediterranean as a whole) was patriarchal in its structures and assumptions, and this was a foundation stone in its world view. This means that the public aspects of society were heavily controlled by males, and the older males over the younger…” (Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts by K. C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1998, p. 24). Hanson and Oakman also state that “the father’s sperm is perceived to be the creative element, and the mother is the vessel that nourishes the seed” (p. 29). Further, in the Jewish creation story, since males were created first, this was seen to prove their superiority to women.
Hanson and Oakman continue; “Gender division is . . . rooted in fears of the female,” and “women are often categorized as fundamentally sinful.” (p. 25). Women in the time of Jesus were “expected to keep the family from shame by their modesty, restraint, sexual exclusivity, and submission to male authority” (p. 26).
This is the culture of Mary Magdalene’s time. It would have heavily influenced the way she was regarded by the other apostles and, later, by the male authority figures in the early church.
About Lady Gaga’s “Judas”
“Judas” is a hit single from Lady Gaga’s album Born this Way. Born this Way is a musical exploration of freedom. Diverse experiences of identity and sexuality are accepted and not deemed to be wrong. “Judas” itself has significant biblical references, many to do with Mary Magdalene, the women who has been inaccurately identified as a prostitute.
Lady Gaga is sometimes viewed as Generation Y’s Madonna, the pop superstar who rose to fame in the eighties. Gaga does not shy away from controversy, and her music often utilizes religious imagery to deal with social justice issues, including LBGTQ rights, women’s equality, and advocacy for rape victims. She, like her idol Madonna, came from an Italian Roman Catholic background and steps into, rather than shying away from controversy.
Learning Activity One: Biblical Imagery
In the song “Judas,” Gaga and the song’s lyricists take on the Roman Catholic Church, using its own imagery to reject the traditional misinterpretation of Mary Magdalene.
• Which biblical characters do you recognize in the video of the song?
• What biblical plots can you identify in the visuals?
• How does Lady Gaga reclaim the narrative?
Learning Activity Two: Reinterpretation
Work with another person in this activity if possible.
• In the first verse of “Judas,” Lady Gaga sings, “When he comes to me I am ready / I’ll wash his feet with my hair if he needs,” referencing Luke 7:36–50. Create a short (five-minute) play demonstrating the reinterpretation. Link it to a particular 21st-century cultural context.
• Can you identify other scriptures reinterpreted in this song?
Learning Activity Three: Your Story
Work with two other people in this activity if possible.
• Assess and critique the tradition of the church that asserts that Mary Magdalene is a whore. How does this differ from the presentation and interpretation Lady Gaga presents in the song?
• How does Gaga resolve the narrative as presented in her video? Compare Gaga’s narrative to the biblical narrative.
• Recount to the group what your church taught you about Mary Magdalene. Share how you may have been judged and misinterpreted by others, remembering that we all have done things that have been misinterpreted by our communities.
© 2016 by Princess O’Nika Auguste and Christian Feminism Today