In a break from television, I have been pondering why it is much easier for people (Christians and non-Christians alike) to accept that Mary Magdalene was a reformed prostitute than to accept that she suffered from mental illness.
Obviously, part of the problem is mistranslation, pop-culture osmosis, and centuries of reinforcement of the idea that she was a prostitute. Understandably, it is hard to let go of the image. However, “mentally ill” and “prostitute” are not mutually exclusive. Yet accepting the former is met with much more scepticism than the latter.
The Bible does not mention much about Mary Magdalene. Although she is an important witness at the Resurrection, little is said about her other than she was once afflicted by demons until Jesus drove them out of her. Other than that, she was merely one of the women who followed Him.
There are several people from whom Christ drove out demons that are mentioned in the Gospels. Two examples include the boy with convulsions (likely an epileptic), whose father and family had to look after him and brought him to Christ’s disciples as a last resort, and the Gadarene demoniac(s), who were so reviled by their families that they lived among tombs. In both cases, our twenty-first-century minds immediately turn to mental illness. In both cases, the people in question are healed. However, while the boy is embraced by his family, the Gadarenes are still shunned by their relatives — partly because Jesus drove their herds of pigs into the sea, partly because they probably did not truly believe that these men were healed. What happened to them is unclear — did they stay and try to rehabilitate themselves, or did they end up following Jesus?
Mary Magdalene’s demons are mentioned in the past tense, suggesting that the writers of the Gospels only knew her after she had been healed.
Unfortunately, the association with prostitution has led to Mary Magdalen being associated with sex regardless. Some want to say that the “big bad church” wanted to call her a whore because she was actually Jesus’s wife, which was apparently incompatible with their view of Him. I do not agree with this, but even as a wife, she is associated with sex. Nothing about what was said of her in the Bible corroborates this. She calls Jesus “Teacher!” when she recognises Him after the Resurrection. Not “my beloved!” or “my love!” or even His name. He was the Teacher to her.
So why was she so close to Him?
She suffered from mental illness, from which she was healed. However, her life history was probably a lot more like the Gadarenes than the boy with epilepsy. Like many with mental illness, she was likely on the margins of society. Perhaps she was indeed a prostitute, but that is not certain. Cast out from her family, she might have wandered from village to village, begging for food or eating what was fed to livestock. Or she was simply kept as a shameful reminder by her family, not allowed to marry or do anything that would give her respect in her culture and society. Perhaps she didn’t want to marry or have children and thus was considered a pariah. Perhaps she did marry and had children, but they were all struck down with disease, or her mental illness caused her to hurt them.
Either way, Mary Magdalene had nothing to go back to once she was healed, or she found that Christ had replaced any desire to go back and try to lead a “normal and respectable life.” All of the disciples had abandoned their previous lives, so naturally so did she. No one knows how old she was, either. Perhaps one of the reasons that she is not present in later Christian works is not because she was struck out by woman-hating priests, but because she did not live on Earth long after the Resurrection.
Understandably, the followers of Jesus were sceptical when Mary Magdalene, a former madwoman, came running to tell them that she had seen Him risen from the dead. They probably thought her demons had returned. Likely so did she, at first — hence why she grabbed at him. But no, she wasn’t crazy anymore: He really had risen from the dead. Her demons had been defeated.