A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. It wasn't all that great and yes I found it a bit offensive, however it did get me thinking. Why does it seem as if Mary Magdalene was portrayed as a prostitute? She appears to have been a supportive force for Jesus, and not in any sexually immoral way at that. Could it be that during that time period women were seen as less than men, and those who were supportive were seen merely as prostitutes if they were not married? There seem to be several women throughout the Bible that were followers of Christ, and made a difference but were not seen as prostitutes, such as Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2. So why portray Magdalene as such?
Traditionally Roman Catholics have identified St. Mary Magdalen with the "woman in the town who was a sinner" of Luke 7:36ff -- that's the Gospel reading for her feast day in the older form of the Roman liturgy. It's true that at face value the Gospel does not identify the nature of her sin but it seems clear that her sin is well-known, at least locally:
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." (Luke 7:39, RSV)
And it also appears to go beyond being ritually unclean, for the Lord himself seems to consider it fairly serious:
And Jesus said to him, "... her sins, which were many, have been forgiven" (Luke 7:43 & 7:47)
So the Gospel text may not establish for certain that she was a prostitute but it's at least a reasonable reading.
Her importance, of course, has less to do with her sin, whatever it was exactly, than with her conversion. Most female saints in the traditional liturgical calendar are identified as virgins or widows, but Mary Magdalen has the unique title of "penitent".