Who was the 'sinful woman' ?

Mary Magdalene, by Donatello (Italian, 1386–1466) (Jastrow, own picture) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Magdalene, by Donatello (Italian, 1386–1466) (Jastrow, own picture) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Who was the 'sinful' woman ?

St Luke's Gospel (7:36) provides the following account:

'One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. 39 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.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” '

For the Christian monks seeking to teach about penthos, this became a core text: a woman who weeps bitterly for her many sins shows her love for Jesus by anointing his feet, is forgiven, and enters a new relationship with him and with the world around her. It is her sorrow for her failings that opens up the possibility of the joyful knowledge of God's forgiveness.

The episode is also reported by St. Matthew (26: 6-13), albeit in a different setting (the house of Martha and Mary in Bethany), and at a different point of Jesus' ministry (the start of the final progression to his death in Jerusalem). In his Passion according to St Matthew, JS Bach sets the story most sympathetically, and the English translation in the edition by Edward Elgar and Ivor Atkins of the aria 'Grief for sin', sung here by Kathleen Ferrier, is a fine illustration of the mourning of penthos, even if, from a proper Orthodox point of view, it fails to convey the resulting joy .

Despite there being nothing in this account to identify her, tradition in the Church has it that she was Mary Magdalene (Mary 'of Magdala'), who joined the band of Jesus' followers, and who appears in all four accounts of the resurrection. In St John's Gospel, having first mistaken him for the gardener, Mary Magdalene was the first to greet Jesus after his resurrection. The moment of recognition, encapsulated by her utterance 'O Rabbunai' ('Teacher'), speaks of a special bond. In the teaching of penthos, this bond is the fruit of her repentance and his forgiveness. Both these stories are part of a pattern in the Gospels, where it is so often a woman who sees, grasps, understands and acclaims what is being revealed by Jesus.

In recent times, Mary Magdalene has undergone a restoration, not least through a recent film, where she is portrayed as a wealthy woman who followed Jesus and put her wealth at his disposal. We must view the connection with the sinful woman of Luke 7 as historically dubious, even if it seems to suggest a deeper truth which appealed to the monks.