IN THE OPENING scene of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent film The King of Kings, a scantily clad but opulently accessorized Mary Magdalene reclines on a lush chaise lounge, caressing a cheetah. She’s an upper-class prostitute, and she learns that Judas, one of her clients, has left her to follow a carpenter. Furious, Mary demands, “Harness my zebras—gift of the Nubian King! This Carpenter shall learn that he cannot hold a man from Mary Magdalene!”
Before she mounts her chariot, someone wagers a purse of gold that she won’t be able to take Judas back from Jesus, because Jesus has magical power to heal the blind. Mary scoffs in reply, “I take thy wager—I have blinded more men than He hath ever healed!”
An angry, haughty Mary finds Jesus, but when he looks at her, she is shaken and steps back. Jesus begins to heal her of seven demons, which emerge one by one from her body like ghosts. After the demons have departed, Mary looks down at her partially naked body, picks up her cloak to cover her skin and hair, then kneels at Jesus’ feet. He pats her head, as if patting a child, and looks away, speaking not to her, but to a man beside him.
I had enjoyed Mary Magdalene’s exotic transportation via zebras, her fury at being scorned, her verbal sparring with the men who doubt her ability to win Judas back. But as I watched the “demons” drain out of her, I felt her life draining too. Now docile and meek, she responds to healing by clothing herself more modestly. The viewer, I take it, is supposed to feel amazed at her transformation. Instead, I felt horror, like I was watching Christianity’s centuries-long suppression of women captured in a 20-second clip, with Mary Magdalene standing in for all of us. The film was silent, but I could hear it speaking to women loud and clear: “Cover up. Lower your eyes. Kneel. Repent. Leave your body and your sexuality behind. Submit. That’s a good girl. You are allowed to belong now.”
Centuries of obsession
WHILE CHEETAHS AND zebras and Judas as Mary’s patron were new adornments to the Mary Magdalene story, the rest of the film’s portrayal was consistent with how Mary has been painted in popular culture for the last 1,500 years: Mary, the prostitute and sinner, turned repentant.
In the earliest accounts, Mary Magdalene is never called a prostitute. Luke 8 says she was healed of demons, but nothing is mentioned about her line of work. It is not until 591 C.E. that Pope Gregory I preaches a sermon calling Mary Magdalene a prostitute, and the misidentification has stuck.