Sister Sallie Latkovich, CSJ

Reclaiming Mary Magdalene in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

NBC’s live broadcast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on the night of Easter, April 1, may very well have been “live TV at its best,” as Rob Weinert-Kendt argued in his review for America magazine. The stage play opened April 27 at the Lyric Opera here in Chicago.  

One of the songs of the rock opera is “Everything’s All Right,” but in fact, everything is not all right in the portrayal of Mary Magdalene. Misinformed by centuries of errant biblical scholarship, ignorance of early Christian history, false artistic renderings and bad theology, “Jesus Christ Superstar” delivers a Mary Magdalene that quite simply never existed and who some scholars suggest may have even been invented to keep women in “their place.”

The rock opera was composed around 1970, so it is understandable that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice would have gotten her all wrong. However, any further misrepresentation of this important woman is no longer acceptable. In 2018, good information is too readily available, and the stakes are too high. The world must know about the true Mary Magdalene.

In “Jesus Christ Superstar,” few can forget Mary Magdalene’s character sensually singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Although the portrayal depicts the depth of her devotion and love of Jesus, it is unfortunately tainted with an oversexualization of her character. The image of Mary Magdalene as sexual temptress is deeply entrenched in culture and belief. The renewal of the rock opera continues to reinforce this tragic misconception of her.

While no individual or time of the church deserves blame, it seems clear that Mary Magdalene’s reputation was deliberately altered to suppress women’s leadership in the church in those early centuries. Given the Gospel accounts, her importance could not be denied. She was indeed the first witness and evangelist of the good news of Jesus’ Resurrection. We simply must remember her for this important role in our faith.
She was not a repentant prostitute, nor was she Mary of Bethany who is scolded by Judas for anointing Jesus’ feet. There is no evidence to suggest that Mary hopelessly pined for Jesus.  

Scripture and early Christian texts reveal Mary Magdalene as a woman of means, who funded Jesus’ ministry, one of the few disciples who stood by him even as he was executed, the first witness and preacher of the Resurrection and an important leader in the early Christian community.

How did Mary Magdalene become a prostitute some several hundred years after her death? The short answer is the she has been confused with several other women in the Bible, most significantly with the unnamed sinner in Chapter 7 of Luke’s Gospel. In that story, a woman bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, anoints them with ointment from her alabaster jar and dries them with her hair. 

When the Pharisees object, noting that she is a sinner, Jesus admonishes them and forgives her “because she has shown great love” (Lk 7:47). Nowhere does it say that this woman was a prostitute, and nowhere is she identified as Mary Magdalene.  

The confusion may have come from the passage that identifies Mary Magdalene by name as a follower of Jesus who had had seven demons cast out of her (see Lk 8:2). Although previously interpreted as referring to sexual sin, the mention of seven demons is now believed to mean physical or perhaps even mental illness.

Furthermore, archaeological investigations at Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, just north of the city of Tiberias, reveal it to have been a significant and prosperous center where fishing boats brought their catch to be prepared for shipment. A synagogue has also been excavated there. The prominence of her hometown, its industry and place of worship reveal much about Mary Magdalene.

This is the Mary Magdalene we need to remember today as Christian denominations seek to be more inclusive of women in leadership. This is the Mary Magdalene we need to reclaim if we are to authentically stand with women who claim their voice. 

Women the world over can draw inspiration from the true Mary Magdalene, whose voice persists as she speaks to us from the pages of the Bible and history proclaiming the Resurrection of our Christ.


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