Mary Magdalene in Film: Response jshj

In: Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus
Joan E. TaylorDepartment of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London, London, UK

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This essay responds to the four essays concerning the portrays of Mary Magdalene in film and television for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.


This essay responds to the four essays concerning the portrays of Mary Magdalene in film and television for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.

Almost as soon as moving pictures were invented, the medium was used to portrayal the story of Christ, and Mary Magdalene was represented on screen. She appears first in the hand-tinted film Vie et Passion du Christ (dir. Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nongue, 1902–1905), about 17 minutes in, as the sinner of Luke 7. We see a scene in which Jesus sits at a table with two ‘Oriental’ men, served by two bare-legged servants garbed in Egyptian-themed outfits. Mary Magdalene – young, beautiful, bejewelled, white-robed with long black hair – swans in from behind, arms wide open, and throws herself at Christ’s feet. Mary as the woman who was turned from a life of carnal sin to one of chaste devotion to Christ was of course standard in Western art, and such high drama was perfectly suited to cinema. Mary was instantly recognisable, with features such as her loose, long hair, necklaces and beauty.

In Cecil B. DeMille’s film King of Kings (1927) Mary, played by Jacqueline Logan, is a wealthy courtesan whose principal lover is a somewhat louche Judas. She has a retinue of admirers, attractive male slaves, and a pet leopard. Mary is shown as partly bare-skinned and exotic, in dangly jewellery, driving in a chariot pulled by zebras. After her repentance, we have an exorcism of her demons (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2) as the Seven Deadly Sins, Lust being one. Jesus tames her; she becomes then the modest, subservient woman of faith.

Overall, in biblical epics through the 20th century, the cinema-going public expected to see Mary shown as the beautiful prostitute or sexual sinner with long, loose hair and a fancy wardrobe. She is young, body-exposing, jewellery-wearing and erotically charged. In line with cinematic conventions, Mary becomes the implied (unrealised) love interest character for the male hero, Jesus, like Maid Marion to Robin Hood with his band of men. The need to have a beautiful young actress in a starring role in turn may even perhaps have elevated Mary to a starring role in terms of historical imagination. The role of Mary Magdalene was filled by a succession of Hollywood female stars known for their beauty and sexual allure: Carmen Sevilla in the King of Kings (1961), Joanna Dunham in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).1

This Mary can also be alluded to without direct representation. In ‘Mary Magdalene and the Life of Judith in Life of Brian,’ James Crossley examines how the character of Judith in Monty Python’s Life of Brian reflects ideas about Mary Magdalene in 1970s Britain, particularly as she was presented in the earlier, very influential, stage and screen productions of Jesus Christ Superstar. Crossley emphasises that the character of Brian is – of course – ‘a cipher for (a certain type of) Jesus’.2 After all, in calling a film ‘Life of Brian’ in a culture familiar with the ‘Life of Jesus’, and directly parodying Jesus films from start to finish, there is a clear intent to indicate that Brian had certain Jesus-like features that allowed his followers to claim he really was the Messiah. And one of those features, it appears, was his having a principal female follower: as Mary is to Jesus, Judith is to Brian.

Here though the traditional Magdalene as repentant sex-worker who is emotively devoted to Christ to the last – as portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar – is replaced with (off screen) actual sex between the two characters, and Judith’s devotion to Brian is not so much emotional but political. She might be a ‘Welsh tart’ to Mandy, Brian’s mother, but she is actually a 1970s Leftist, liberatedly willing to have sex with whoever took her fancy, in contrast to the traditional Mary, who is in many ways a sad figure in terms of her sexual fulfilment when it comes to the man she really loves.

The actual sex between Judith and Brian is suggestive of a ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ response to the way the Jesus and Mary relationship was portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar. This is explored by Crossley via newspaper articles and reviews. Linda Wray, playing Mary in one production, thought there was both ‘an emotional and a physical love’. Indeed, ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ was an enduring hit song not just because it represented Mary’s devotion to her Lord, but because young listeners could sing along to it as an accompaniment to a difficult (emotional and physical) relationship.

Mary Magdalene as portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar had to be alluring, beautiful and young, and actresses were commended for such features, but the sexualisation of Mary is centuries old and not particularly surprising. It does not of itself imply there was a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary: if anything it shows how very chaste Jesus was, to resist even her immense charms. In her Medieval portrayal, in the classic Magdalene tradition of the West, she was an extremely beautiful fashionista. She was not in fact a sex-worker, but rather a wealthy lady who had a profligate and sensuous lifestyle (clothes, food, lovers); it is a modern tradition that would specifically associate Mary with the sex-workers of industrialised Europe.

Crossley mentions Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, The Last Temptation of Christ (1955) for the idea of Mary and Jesus having a sexual relationship. However, the intimacy between Jesus and Mary in the book is ultimately all in Christ’s head as he is dying. It really was Jesus Christ Superstar that pushed this paradigm, and Crossley is right to focus on it. After all, the scene of Mary’s anointing of Jesus (‘Close your eyes, close your eyes and relax, think of nothing tonight’), places the anointing scene not during dinner but at bedtime, and one cannot but think of massage oil rather than a healing balm. The implication is that this had happened several times, with Mary sleeping beside Jesus as well: ‘and I think I will sleep well tonight; let the world turn without me tonight’ says Jesus.

Ultimately though, Crossley notes how the Mary-Judith correlation is complex, because Judith’s surname ‘Iscariot’ alerts the viewer to another biblical character folded into her: Judas the betrayer. She is already made complex visually, because the actress playing Judith, Sue Jones-Davies, is not polished up to rival Hollywood starlets, and – interestingly – her head is covered with a black veil in all but the post-coital scene, when she is completely naked. I think here Crossley might also have noted that Judas, in Jesus Christ Superstar, also sings a version of, ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ when he goes to his own death (‘Does he love me too, does he care for me?’). Judas is also someone ‘in love’ with Jesus (‘I’ve been your right-hand man, all along’). His confrontation with Mary in the anointing scene aims to besmirch her and push her away from Jesus, ostensibly to keep the message clean and safe, but there is an element also of this being a pivotal moment in which Judas is rejected in favour of a woman.

Crossley writes that Judith is ‘arguably the only sensible and intelligent character in Brian’s circle’. However, in the end Judith is as silly as everyone else. Judith betrays Brian, on the cross, after being convinced by the revolutionaries that he should be a martyr. It is true that Judith is ‘naively idealistic’ to the end, but she loses her good judgement, fails to save him from the cross, and leaves. As Crossley says, this makes the story in fact a tragedy. In Judith’s failure, she directly contrasts with the devoted attendance of the gospels’ Mary Magdalene at the cross.

In ‘Redeeming Mary, Redeeming Jesus: Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ’, Matthew Rindge explores the character of Mary Magdalene in the 1988 film version of Katzantzakis’s book, directed by Martin Scorsese. One aspect that always intrigues me is the association of Mary with the adulterous woman of John 8:1–11, despite this not being part of the Magdalene legend. It is of course inconsistent for a prostitute to be also an adulterous woman, because the charge of adultery implies an angry husband. It is not quite satisfactorily explained why people would furiously stone prostitutes, but movies demand action scenes. The association is implied also in Jesus Christ Superstar, in the anointing scene, in Jesus’ rebuttal of Judas (‘if your slate is clean then you can throw stones, if your slate is not then leave her alone’), but I myself am not certain when exactly this association begins.

The point that Mary is sexual throughout the narrative in The Last Temptation is well made by Rindge: there is simply a pause in the middle, when she becomes a muted companion of Jesus. Unlike in the Magdalene tradition, either East or West, Mary loves Jesus already in Nazareth (the novel provides the backstory that is only alluded to in the screen version). Rindge argues that ‘Jesus is (finally) converted to Mary’s perspective regarding the goodness of sexuality.’ But this is his ‘temptation’, which is ultimately of Satan; the ‘real’ Mary Magdalene – the repentant and chaste prostitute close by Jesus’ side – and the ‘tempting fantasy’ Mary Magdalene, surely do need to be distinguished. The ‘redemption’ of the temptation is not actually a redemption at all, because it is not part of Jesus’ own redemptive sacrifice on the cross. Nevertheless, it is only by going along the journey of the temptation that Jesus in the end is led to recognise he really has to die.

As with Jesus Christ Superstar, there is a kind of ‘love triangle’ between Jesus, Mary and Judas, and Rindge rightly traces this to King of Kings.3 This may be a kind of necessary device for a filmic audience, which requires simplifications of both plot and character to fit the parameters of movie magic, and romantic love is the common stuff of cinema. The conflict between Judas and the anointing woman, in the Gospel of John (12:1–11) guides this portrayal beautifully: they are the faithless and the faithful (unrequited?) lovers.

In ’Tis Pity She’s (Still) a Whore: Mary Magdalene in The Chosen,’ Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch rightly notes how for Mary in film ‘promiscuity remains her most persistent trait’. In The Chosen, a posted commentary affirms there is no basis to any association between Mary Magdalene and the penitent sinner of Luke 7, but Burnette-Bletsch astutely notes how Mary’s first appearance on screen as an adult is in a dingy room at ‘Rivka’s place’ from which a bloodied ‘customer’ runs from ‘Lilith’ (her new name). In this case, the demons are not sexual sins: the customer is expecting the latter. Rather, the demons are violent: the customer has blood on his face, she has blood on her hands, and he is alarmed that she has hurt him. While I agree that Mary’s ‘makeup, hair, and dress are modest,’ she appears initially without a veil, with long black hair, and the actress – Elizabeth Tabish – is strikingly beautiful. She is therefore recognisably the standard Western Mary Magdalene, and she is even reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s ‘Madonna’ lithograph (1865). What is striking about The Chosen’s Mary is that there is no sensuality or eroticism about her. She’s traumatised by rape and loss, and the ‘demons’ are a kind of ptsd.

Burnette-Bletsch’s comments on how sex-workers are depicted on screen, as part of the ‘male gaze’ or the heteronormative male imagination,4 are highly important, also because such observations can be applied backwards chronologically to countless images of Mary Magdalene in the repertoire of Western art. In The Chosen, as noted, Mary fits the ‘martyr’ type of cinema prostitute, as opposed to the other types, like the siren (in deMille’s King of Kings). Moreover, in The Chosen, Mary backslides and, as Burnette-Bletsch observes, it seems ‘backsliding episodes reinscribe patriarchal ideology by establishing that danger and temptation to sin await women outside the safety of the [Christian] family. The implication is that women are in need of strong male protectors, but such protection comes at the expense of female autonomy.’

In Garth Davies’ Mary Magdalene (2018), however, the filmmakers were intent on incorporating the work of feminist scholarship that strongly detached Mary from sex work and on showing Mary as (in the end) an empowered and autonomous female leader. The trouble is, as Meredith Warren points out, with all this progress, ‘White feminism’ can lead to cinematic portrayals that are implicitly (or even quite explicitly) racist and anti-Jewish.5

Rather than casting appropriately Middle Eastern actors, the colour-blind casting approach was employed, which resulted in Peter being played by a Black actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jesus and Mary being played by White actors: Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara. Given that the film drew on the conflict between Peter and Mary represented in the Gospel of Mary, Peter is a negative character. To have a negative Black man set up against a positive White woman in representing the authentic legacy of Jesus, there is a problem. Warren’s critique is vitally important.

Likewise, there is a danger of seeing a female-liberating Jesus as standing against a patriarchal Judaism, a dichotomy which has been critiqued from the first wave of feminism until today,6 but it still lives on. As Warren notes, the rejection of key aspects of Judaism is quite explicitly shown in the film’s Temple scene, where Jesus rejects the sacrificial system itself. For all the employment of Jewish elements and Mary’s love of Torah, in this film, Mary’s struggle against patriarchy can be read as a struggle against Jewish patriarchy, in the same way that Jesus’ struggle against the authorities of this world looks like a struggle against Jewish authorities, following the Temple scene, despite the appearance of various violent Romans on horseback. The fact that neither Mary or Jesus are portrayed by Jewish actors sends a subtle message: Mary and Jesus are just not as Jewish as those who oppose them.

Warren rightly notes that Mary is attractive, young and her hair is not always covered, which points to familiar images, even if she is not sexualised. We may note also here a ‘love triangle’ of Judas, Mary and Jesus. While Peter comes in as a fourth wheel, Judas’ deep love for Jesus and hope in what he can bring is both moving and painfully doomed, as he is himself. The relationship between Jesus and Mary might not involve sex, but it involves physical touching, not only in the immersion scene, but in a poignant scene of intimacy after the Last Supper when Mary washes Jesus’ feet. We are made to feel a ‘connection’ between the two characters that we associate with romantic love, constructed by cinematic conventions of eye contact, lowered voices and close-ups.

In short, all these four articles provide insightful ruminations on the portrayal of Mary Magdalene in film, leading to the conclusion that the cinema Mary is not yet quite as interesting as she might be. As I write this, I have yet to see the more radical presentation of the film Magdala (2022), directed by Damien Manivel, where an elderly Mary is played by the Black Jamaican choreographer Elsa Wolliaston. This is based on the Medieval legend, rather than on the gospels but, even so, in the summary of the film in imdb, we find a familiar trope: living alone in her later life, ‘she remembers her lost love’.7


Somewhat working against this, Franco Zeffirelli has a slightly older (very attractive) woman, Anne Bancroft, as Mary Magdalene in his epic Jesus of Nazareth (1977). She is the reformed prostitute and, after her witness to the male apostles at the end of the film is rejected by them, she is even portrayed as angry, an emotion missing in every other version of Mary on screen.


James Crossley, “The Meaning of Monty Python’s Jesus,” in Joan E. Taylor (ed.), Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and His Times via Monty Python’s Life of Brian (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015), 69–81.


So Adele Reinhartz, Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford: oup, 2007), 168.


Russell Campbell, Marked Women: Prostitutes in the Cinema (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006).


I am grateful for the note – given myself and Amy-Jill Levine were consultants on the film – that it was likely that ‘these subtler anti-Jewish features of the film were included without their knowledge’. Actually, even knowledge does not mean power. There is much to say about what being a consultant on a film like this entails, or does not entail, since even slight tweaks can be hard won. In the cinematic process the director is the captain of the ship, and a consultant is more like a useful deck hand. A consultant has nothing to do with casting, and is not a script editor. Brought in late to the project, my main role was to provide advice on appropriate realia during the shoot, and advice on the first cut; it was not one of design. As a consultant and script editor for a documentary, one has far more authority and capacity; one becomes a lieutenant. But the director is still the captain.


As Sarah J. Melcher has noted: ‘The Problem of Anti-Judaism in Christian Feminist Biblical Interpretation: Some Pragmatic Suggestions,’ CrossCurrents 53 (2003): 22–31, at 23, and see, inter alia, Judith Plaskow, ‘Christian Feminism and Anti-Judaism, CrossCurrents 33 (1978): 306–309.

7, accessed 26 August, 2022.

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