Queering Mary Magdalene

by Rev . Dr. Angela Yarber

Many of the revolutionary women in my Holy Women Icons Project identify as queer in some way. Many are emboldening straight allies. And there are many whose sexuality we know nothing about. When it comes to some of the women in scripture, reading their stories through the lens of queer theory, or “queering” their stories, brings to light often overlooked elements of their narratives.

This work can affirm, welcome, and empower queer folks when many churches still use the Bible as a bludgeon to exclude us.

Such is the case with the intrepid Mary Magdalene. But before her story, I think it’s important to briefly review how “queer” is a lived lens through which to read scripture.

Queer approaches to scripture can be understood in three primary ways. The first is as an umbrella term for the LGBTQIA community. Referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning, and asexual people as “queer” is a way of including everyone without resorting to what some have called an “alphabet soup acronym.”

Referring to all these different types of people as “queer” is also a way of including both sexual orientation and gender identity. So, each person who identifies in these ways reads scripture through a queer lens simply because that is our personal experience and we all read scripture through the lens of our experience.

Many of my Holy Women Icons who identify as LGBTQ fall into this iteration of queer.

A second understanding of queer harkens back to its original definition, which is “strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric, or transgressive.” In this manner, “queer” becomes a self-conscious embrace of those intentionally transgressing societal norms with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity. To “queer” something is to disrupt the status quo and upset convention.

Utilizing this iteration of queer, I’d contend that virtually everything Jesus said or did was actually quite queer. For Jesus was eccentric and transgressive, intentionally subverting norms for the sake of justice. Similarly, most of my Holy Women Icons were subversive and transgressive in queer ways.

So, reading scripture through this lens is to intentionally understand it as disrupting the status quo.

The third and final way of defining queer is as a way of erasing boundaries.

This understanding is grounded in the academic discipline of queer theory. Queer theory seeks to deconstruct societal boundaries regarding sexuality and gender. Queer theorists maintain that the traditional binary categories of gender and sexuality are actually social constructs rather than biological essences. So, someone is queer if that individual deconstructs those binary socially constructed elements of gender or sexuality.

When we read about scriptural figures through the lens of queer theory, we search for those intentionally deconstructing societal boundaries, while simultaneously dismantling the binaries and constructs many place upon these figures under the guise of normality.

Using the lens of queer theory and the transgressive definition of queer offer an illuminating light through which to read about Mary Magdalene. She is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented people in all of scripture.

Both her misunderstanding and misrepresentation are something queer people can identify with.

How many times have you heard so-called “Christians” say that all gay people are pedophiles or represent us in books, movies, and television as innately evil, claiming that our “lifestyle” is an abomination?

These are misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the queer community that have been used to exclude, demean, and violate us in the name of “right religion.” There is nothing right about that.

Over the centuries, Mary Magdalene has been dubbed a prostitute, a sinful woman, deviant, and a bad girl. Yet scripture doesn’t speak of her in these ways. Rather, the Bible portrays Mary Magdalene as the most important of Jesus’ women disciples; after casting seven demons out of her, she supported Jesus’ ministry and becomes the first to witness the resurrection.

Many have incorrectly identified her as the unnamed “sinful woman” who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair.

Others have claimed she was the adulterous woman Jesus saved from being stoned. Countless artists portray her as the repentant prostitute who changed her life upon encountering Jesus. Because of these false assertions, queer author, artist, and activist, Kittredge Cherry claims that “LGBT Christians may be able to relate to Mary Magdalene as someone who had a close relationship with Jesus, but got an undeserved bad reputation in the church for sexual sins.”

Let us be clear. Neither queer folks nor Mary Magdalene are guilty of sexual sins; for the church to give either a bad reputation is antithetical to the message of Jesus and a grave misunderstanding of scripture.

Cherry bravely reminds us that there are some artists who boldly portray the Magdalene as queer. For example, Peter Grahame reimagines Jesus as bisexual and in love with two beloved disciples—Mary and John—in his photo “Saying Goodbye to John and Mary.”

Painter Alex Donis portrays Mary Magdalene kissing Our Lady of Guadalupe, thus queering understandings of both Marys. 

These myriad queer understandings of Mary Magdalene guided me as I was recently commissioned to paint her as a Holy Woman Icon. Clad in her signature red, she holds a red egg, which is a symbol of resurrection in iconography, thus reminding us that she was the one Jesus first trusted to share the news of resurrection. The heart of the Apostle to the Apostles cries out to us:

Clinging so wildly to resurrection,
The world tried to erase her, demean her.
Yet her passionate heart remains.

Beloved, when the church and the world try to erase or demean you because you are queer, because you transgress their norms, because you upset the status quo, remember Mary Magdalene.

Trust that resurrection is given directly to you.

Know that you, too, shall rise. Now, go share the good news!

Artwork by Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber