Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1311.
As any reader of the New Testament knows, there are several women named Mary and scripture is not clear as to which is which. Meanwhile, readers make a number of assumptions regarding Mary Magdalene, most of which are unsubstantiated in scripture.
Smithsonian.com is exploring this situation in a detailed article by James Carroll, who writes:
In one age after another her image was reinvented, from prostitute to sibyl to mystic to celibate nun to passive helpmeet to feminist icon to the matriarch of divinity’s secret dynasty. How the past is remembered, how sexual desire is domesticated, how men and women negotiate their separate impulses; how power inevitably seeks sanctification, how tradition becomes authoritative, how revolutions are co-opted; how fallibility is reckoned with, and how sweet devotion can be made to serve violent domination—all these cultural questions helped shape the story of the woman who befriended Jesus of Nazareth.
One of the first matters Carroll addresses is the biblical presence of multiple Marys:
There are several Marys—not least, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus. But there is Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. There is Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Mary the wife of Clopas. Equally important, there are three unnamed women who are expressly identified as sexual sinners—the woman with a “bad name” who wipes Jesus’ feet with ointment as a signal of repentance, a Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets at a well and an adulteress whom Pharisees haul before Jesus to see if he will condemn her. The first thing to do in unraveling the tapestry of Mary Magdalene is to tease out the threads that properly belong to these other women. Some of these threads are themselves quite knotted.
The article also discusses a key aspect of the Magdalene confusion that carries contemporary overtones is the male need to dominate women, especially in the Catholic Church.