Will the Real Mary Magdalene Please Stand?

What’s right and what’s wrong with the biblical historical details in the film, Risen.

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Is the portrayal of Mary Magdalene in the film, Risen, biblically accurate?

I saw the new film Risen at the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem on a Sunday afternoon (with an occasional “Alleluia” coming from the audience). It’s pretty good on historical details. For instance, the wounds on Christ’s body are on his wrists at the bottom of his hands where a criminal would be nailed to the cross, not on the palm of the hand which wouldn’t support the body.

But as Bible scholar Ben Witherington notes in his review of the film, one crucial historical and biblical detail the film gets wrong is making Mary Magdalene a repentant prostitute.

In a scene from the movie, actor Joseph Fiennes, playing a Roman tribune, visits what is apparently a house of ill repute and asks if any of men know Mary Magdalene. Almost all the men in the dimly-lit room raise their hands. They knew her–wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Oh, come on.

Why does this myth persist?

Mary Magdalene gained this unfair reputation in an apparent conflation of several New Testament stories about sinning women. For instance, there is the unnamed woman who brings Jesus an alabaster vase of perfumed oil and wipes it on His feet along with her tears.

Jesus’ host, the Pharisee Simon, is appalled and asks Jesus if He has any idea what kind of woman is touching Him. Jesus knows only too well and forgives her sins. “I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven so she has shown great love,” He says. (Luke 7: 47)

Is this Mary Magdalene? Goodness no. It couldn’t be because the real Mary Magdalene shows up a few verses later in Luke, identified as one of the women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses. “Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out).” (Luke 8:2)

A lot more could be said about this remarkable follower of Jesus: that she was dubbed “apostle of the apostles” and appears in all four gospels as one of the first witnesses of the Resurrection. The version that moves me the most is in John’s gospel, when Mary doesn’t even recognize Jesus until He says her name, “Mary.” “Rabbouni,” she replies. “Teacher.” (John 20:16)

Now that’s a moment that I wish had been dramatized in the film. That’s a message I hold with me in faith and prayer. Sometimes I miss seeing Jesus in this worrisome world because I have the wrong expectations–I don’t look for new life and hope; I don’t expect the Resurrection. But if I sit and wait and listen, I know He knows my name. Like Mary, I come to recognize Him.

Have you seen Risen? Check out our review here.

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