Mary Magdalene in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)

Updated: Nov 22


***Update: Learn more about the origin of "Lilith" in my recent post ***


The important role that Mary Magdalene plays in The Chosen is not nearly as surprising as that of Nicodemus. Although, like Nicodemus, the account of Jesus' life in the Gospels tells us relatively little about her, the part that she plays as the first witness to the Resurrection is objectively much more significant. Moreover, her biblical significance has been amplified even more by the attention that she's received from the interpretative and artistic traditions of the West. Under the influence of this tradition, many people see Mary as being emblematic of Jesus' compassion for lost and broken souls, and this makes her a perfect candidate for the kinds of stories that The Chosen wants to tell.


Mary Magdalene, the Resurrection Witness

Although The Chosen is still a few seasons away from the Resurrection of Jesus, it is clearly beginning with the end in mind. One day (hopefully) we viewers will get our first glimpse of the resurrected Jesus as we follow Mary to the empty tomb. In the same way, we get our first glimpse of the pre-resurrected Jesus as we follow her struggles in the first episode. And the parallels don't end there.


Consider how the show depicts Jesus' first appearance. Just like one day Mary Magdalene will be caught up in despair because she can't find Jesus' body, she's caught up in despair at her own situation. And just like one day Mary will initially fail to recognize the risen Jesus, confusing him for a gardener, she initially fails to recognize Jesus when he first comes to her, confusing him for one of the men who's been hassling her. And just like one day the risen Jesus will reveal himself to Mary and free her from grief and fear by calling her name, Jesus first reveals himself to "Lilith" and frees her from her grief and fear and demons by calling her by her true name, Mary. And just like one day Mary Magdalene will be the first witness to the risen Jesus (perhaps to Nicodemus as well as the disciples), the show also makes her the first witness that we see in action.

These parallels are more than a neat bit of foreshadowing. They prompt us to consider how these two events, Mary's first encounter with Jesus and her first encounter with the risen Jesus, are connected in a deeper way. Although we'll have to wait in order to understand fully what the show wants us to conclude, this could be a subtle and effective way to show how Jesus' ability to heal and save is ultimately grounded in his willingness to die and rise again.



Mary Magdalene, the Prostitute?

One challenge that film adaptations of Jesus' life need to overcome is the lack of significant female characters. Yes, there are plenty of women who show up in the Gospels. Yes, we see that Jesus had warm and empowering relationships with females. Still, at the end of the day, the 12 disciples who get the most screen time in the Gospels are all males.


Be that as it may, the Gospel of Luke tells us that there were women who went Jesus and names Mary Magdalene among them (Luke 8:1-3). The Gospels don't tell us very much about what these women do, with the significant exception of the burial and resurrection, but this provides leeway for female characters to play a more significant role throughout the ministry of Jesus and not just when they are mentioned.


But why does Mary Magdalene get all the attention and not Joanna or Susanna, who are also mentioned? Luke notes that Mary had seven spirits exorcised from her, but the other women experienced miraculous healing as well. What distinguishes Mary from the other women, however, is her association with prostitution. Just before Luke introduces us to Mary Magdalene, he tells a story about a prostitute that Jesus forgives (Luke 7:36-50). Although there's nothing in the Gospels that suggests that these two figures should be linked together, Mary mistakenly became identified with the forgiven prostitute in the interpretative tradition of the Western Church. This association with prostitution opens a variety of directions for adaptations to take in their portrayal of her, especially given the affection Jesus shows for her (John 20).


In a previous era of Hollywood Mary's status as a prostitute made her exotic and intriguing. The assumption at that time was that women became prostitutes because they were inherently immoral and desirous. As a result, adaptations of the Gospels from previous generations place a greater emphasis on how Jesus calls Mary to repent and brings about her moral transformation.


Interestingly, The King of Kings (1927) also uses Mary Magdalene to introduce us to Jesus for the first time. The difference between its depiction of her life as a prostitute, with super-sexualized clothing and a zebra chariot, and The Chosen's depiction of her life is emblematic of changing views of prostitutes between the 1920's and today.


Over time, there's been a growing awareness of how most women end up in prostitution: not because they are innately promiscuous but rather as a result of coercion, sexual trauma, and systemic inequities. This shift in our societal understanding of the sex trade has changed the significance of Mary's supposed role as a prostitute. Instead of being a femme fatale that Jesus needs to resist and tame, Mary Magdalene the prostitute is seen as an object of compassion and pity that Jesus needs to provide acceptance and safety.


This version of Mary - not the one who needs moral reformation but the one who needs sympathy and belonging - fits perfectly with the kinds of stories that The Chosen has focused on. As a general rule, the characters who follow Jesus aren't bad people; they're misunderstood and rejected and in need of love. When they are engaged in sin, it's often a result of their difficult circumstances or their status as outsiders, and so what they primarily need is love and acceptance, not forgiveness and repentance. Thus, when Jesus first encounters Mary, what he offers her isn't forgiveness for her life of prostitution; it's relief from the oppressive demons that drove her to the type of life that she's lived.


The Chosen does the "misunderstood reject rather than sinner" quite a bit in Season 1, but I think it's a sensible direction for Mary's character. What's disappointing is that it doesn't delve too far into the implications of this. The Chosen seems to be hinting that Mary is a prostitute (e.g. we first meet her as a client flees her place in "the Red Quarter"), but it's relatively disinterested in depicting what her life as a prostitute was actually like. This allows the show to be more family friendly, but it also weakens the narrative that the show is telling about Jesus' compassion and pity. After Mary's encounter with Jesus, we never really get to see her deal with her former life. Personally, I would have been much more interested in a subplot about Mary's former pimp trying to coerce her back into her former life than I am with the overly long fish taxation plot. There's a sense in which Mary's demons might be seen as a metaphor for the oppressive forces that brought her into her life in the sex trade but this is only barely suggested.


Unfortunately, because Mary's change happens so quickly, her character goes from being pretty dynamic in episodes 1-2 to being a pretty flat in the remainder of the season. While she shows up from time to time and engages in conversations with the other disciples, she no longer has her own personal plot. She becomes too perfect and seems to have no ongoing struggles in her faith like Peter or Andrew. The episode with the woman at the well in the season finale could have been an interesting opportunity to bring her character into conflict with the other male disciples, but this opportunity was also missed. Hopefully though, season 2 will find more ways to develop her character in a manner that's dynamic and engaging, because there's still much that could be done.


[Update: In the comments below, an astute reader pointed me to a post by the official Twitter for The Chosen, which claims Mary is not being portrayed as a prostitute. I take comments made by The Chosen Twitter account with a grain of salt, especially since they are most likely made by digital marketers and not the actual creators of The Chosen. I agree with the Twitter post that the show clearly depicts Mary as a victim of rape/sexual assault, but prostitutes often are victims of rape and sexual assault. The implications of Mary living in the "Red Quarter" are still there. However, I'll acknowledge that what the show is suggesting about Mary's past life is certainly open to interpretation.]


The Chosen Season 2 Update

Since I criticized Season 1 of The Chosen for making Mary too perfect, it's only fair that I acknowledge how Season 2 seeks to rectify that issue. To recap: in Episode 5 of Season 2, Mary begins to experience PTSD tied to the trauma of her rape by a Roman solider (implied very quickly in Episode 1 Season 1). This is symbolically tied to her encounter with another demon, Belial, who calls Mary Lilith, asserting the continued existence and power of her old identity. These experiences cause Mary to flee back to her old life, drinking and gambling. In Episode 6, Jesus sends Peter and Matthew to find Mary and bring her back. She struggles to believe that she can be accepted after falling back into her old life but Jesus forgives her and the disciples embrace her. In Episode 8, we see that Mary is still struggling a bit - her failure is driving her to be a bit too unrelenting in her work for Jesus- but other than that she seems to be back on track.


I thought Mary's storyline in Season 2 of The Chosen had a lot of potential but it was unfortunately not given enough room to breathe. I would have introduced her PTSD much earlier in the season, giving her more space to try to struggle with it on her own before eventually falling back into her old life. As it was, we didn't really get a good sense of why Mary responded the way she did. For Mary's actual fall, it felt like the show was trying too hard to keep her character PG. I'm not saying we needed to see anything explicit, but the show certainly could have implied a bit more than it did. It's also strange that we never actually return back to the fact that Mary was having PTSD - Jesus forgives her fall but doesn't say anything about her ongoing suffering (perhaps that's a storyline for a future season).


One other thing - the show could have allowed some of the disciples (like John) to go a bit further in being judgmental toward after her return. There was just a hint of judgment in Episode 7, but it gets brushed aside way too quickly, given the cultural expectations. More importantly, allowing some of the disciples to judge Mary a bit more would have added more tension and could have fueled future arcs.


Having offered some criticism, I will say that the scene of Jesus forgiving Mary was moving. Dallas mentioned how some viewers didn't like that Mary fell back into old ways, which seems ridiculous, but just goes to show how out of touch some people are with both real life and how stories work. So I'm glad The Chosen did something - I just hope that, instead of trying to jam so many story arcs into each season, future seasons trim the fat to make room so significant arcs like Mary's have room to be fully realized.

 

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Mary Magdalene in The Chosen & in the Bible (FAQ)


Who is Mary Magdalene in the Bible and why is she important?

Mary Magdalene was a female disciple who traveled with Jesus during his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). She was a witness of Jesus' crucifixion and burial (Mark 15:40-47) and also the first person to discover the empty tomb, witness the resurrected Jesus, and share the good news with the disciples (John 20:1-18).


Where is Mary Magdalene mentioned in the Bible?

All four Gospels suggest Mary was the first witness of the resurrected Jesus (Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-11, and John 20:1-18). Matthew, Mark, and John also describe Mary as a witness of Jesus' crucifixion/burial (Matthew 27:55-61, Mark 15:40-47, and John 19:25). Luke briefly describes how Mary Magdalene was exorcised by Jesus and became one of his traveling followers (Luke 8:1-3).


Was Mary Magdalene possessed by a demon and healed by Jesus?

The Bible includes Mary Magdalene in a list of women who had evil spirits healed by Jesus. Jesus is said to have cast seven evil spirits out of her (Luke 8:1-3).


In The Chosen, when we first Mary Magdalene in Season 1 Episode 1, she has already been possessed by evil spirits for some time. Jesus heals her evil spirit(s) at the end of Episode 1.


Why is Mary Magdalene called Lili or Lilith in The Chosen?

Mary Magdalene is never called Lili or Lilith in the Bible. In The Chosen, when we first meet Mary Magdalene, most of the characters refer to her as Lili. When Nicodemus encounters her, we discover that the evil spirit that is possessing her is named Lilith. After Jesus heals her evil spirit, she resumes calling herself "Mary," her birth name, and refuses to answer to the name associated with her spiritual oppression.


Who is Lilith in the Bible?

The Hebrew word "lilit" only shows up in Isaiah 34:14, where most modern translations render it as something along the lines of "night bird." However, some scholars believe the word would be better translated as demoness and see it is a reference to a Mesopotamian spiritual being. Later Jewish tradition described a demonic figure known as Lilith in a variety of ways. For more details, check out my post focused specifically on Lilith, Demons, and Evil Spirits.


Did Nicodemus try to help Mary Magdalene?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Nicodemus met Mary Magdalene or that he tried to heal her or exorcise her evil spirits.


In The Chosen, Nicodemus meets Mary Magdalene in Season 1, Episode 1. He attempts to heal her and exorcise the evil spirit in her, but he is unsuccessful and concludes that she is beyond hope. When he encounters her again in Season 1 Episode 2, he is surprised to discover that she has been completely healed and is free of the evil spirits. This story was invented by The Chosen for the purposes of the plot.


Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?

As I noted above, in the Bible there is no indication that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Her association with prostitution was a result of the proximity between the first mention of her in Luke (Luke 8:1-3) and a story about a prostitute (Luke 7:36-50). Over time, the Western artistic tradition repeatedly depicted Mary as a prostitute and the mistaken association got stuck in the cultural consciousness.


In The Chosen, it is not entirely clear whether Mary Magdalene was engaging in prostitution before the events of Season 1, Episode 1. She is clearly sleeping with a man out of wedlock when the episode begins and they are sleeping together in "the Red Quarter" - a sleazy part of town. However, a post by the official Twitter account for The Chosen claims that Mary is not being portrayed as a prostitute.


What is the Red Quarter?

The Bible never mentions "the Red Quarter." In the modern vernacular, a "red light district" is a term that refers to an area of the city known for prostitution, strip clubs, and other immoral establishments. Because The Chosen seeks to be kid-friendly, it may use the term "Red Quarter" in order to hint to older viewers that Mary is either a prostitute or a sexually immoral woman without explicitly mentioning prostitution or sex.


Was Mary Magdalene raped?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Mary Magdalene was raped.


In The Chosen, we see a brief flashback during Season 1, Episode 1 that strongly implies that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier. The trauma of her rape is hinted at again in Season 2, Episode 5, and is the trigger that causes Mary to backslide.


Did Mary Magdalene backslide or fall back into sin?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Mary Magdalene fell back into sin, backslid, or left Jesus. That being said, there's no biblical reason to think that she could not have done so. Jesus clearly expected his disciples to sin frequently and made it clear that he was committed to pursuing them and offering forgiveness (Matthew 18:10-35).


In The Chosen, during Season 2, Episodes 5-6, Mary Magdalene briefly leaves Jesus and falls back into sin, before being sought out, forgiven, and restored to ministry. The Chosen invents this story to illustrate biblical teachings about Jesus' grace and forgiveness.


Who plays Mary Magdalene in The Chosen?

In The Chosen, Mary Magdalene is played by Elizabeth Tabish.


 

Further Reading

An adaptation like The Chosen isn't meant to replace the Bible; it's meant to drive us deeper into the Bible and spiritual reflection. The creators of The Chosen have published a series of interactive Bible Studies that help viewers explore some of the Scripture and biblical themes that inspired the show.

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If you liked this post, I've done several posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation that you might want to check out, including articles on how The Chosen adapts key biblical characters and discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Season 1 and Season 2. You may also be interested in some of my other content on adaptation and youth ministry.


The Chosen Season 3

Adapting Biblical Characters Series