Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ by Jane S. Webster

In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Martin Scorsese tells a controversial story of a Jesus (played by Willem Dafoe) who struggles to follow his destiny: is he fully God or fully human? His companion Mary Magdalene (played by Barbara Hershey) wants him to “be a real man.”

Scorsese creates a character out of several unrelated biblical women, relying more on the novel by Kazantzakis than on historical research about Mary Magdalene. For example, he draws on the Samaritan woman who has multiple husbands (John 4) and presents Mary as prostitute who is naked, unveiled, and covered with tattoos, having sex with a series of men while others, including Jesus, watch; she has become a prostitute because Jesus refused to marry her. Scorsese also borrows the story of the unnamed woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11).  In The Last Temptation, Jesus interrupts the stoning of Mary Magdalene, who is accused of breaking the law by having sex with Romans on the sabbath. Scorsese also pulls in the woman who anoints Jesus (unnamed but “remembered,” Matt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9; Mary of Bethany, John 12:1-8; a sinner of the city, Luke 7:36-50). Instead of the woman anointing Jesus, however, Jesus wipes the feet of Mary Magdalene.

For the temptation scene (see Luke 4:1-14), Scorsese ignores the gospel details and uses the Garden of Eden motif instead, casting Mary in both the role of Eve and the serpent (Genesis 3:1-7). As Jesus waits in the desert, a serpent with Mary’s voice comes to him because, like the first man, Adam, he was lonely. “Just nod your head,” says the voice, “and we will be in my bed together.” At the cross, Satan—in disguise as a guardian angel—offers Jesus one “last temptation” to come down from the cross and live like a normal human. In the following dream sequence, Jesus and Mary Magdalene marry; she becomes pregnant but unfortunately dies; Jesus marries Mary and Martha, has several children, and grows to old age. On his deathbed, he sees that his angel is really Satan and returns to the cross where he “accomplishes” the task of the divine Messiah. In order to make this last temptation believable, Scorsese exaggerates the seductive characteristics of Mary Magdalene. Alas, she no longer resembles the biblical woman.

According to the gospels, Mary Magdalene was one of the women who had traveled with Jesus and the disciples and provided for them (Luke 8:2; Mark 15:40-41); she also sees Jesus being crucified (Matt 27:55-56; Luke 23:49; John 19:25). These two details are the only biblically accurate moves that Scorsese makes. He does not recount that Jesus cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2; cf. Mark 16:9), nor does he present any resurrection stories in which Mary Magdalene shines (e.g., Matt 27:61; Mark 15:47; John 20:1-18). Scorsese literally strips her of the role as “apostle of the apostles” (so called by later Christian texts) and leaves her the naked temptress, for, according to the film’s Satan-angel, “There is only one woman, with many faces.”

Jane S. Webster, "Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ", n.p. [cited 18 May 2022]. Online:


Jane S. Webster

Jane S. Webster
Professor, Barton College

Jane S. Webster is professor of religious studies at Barton College in Wilson, N.C., author of Ingesting Jesus: Eating and Drinking in the Gospel of John, and coeditor of Teaching the Bible in the Liberal Arts Classroom and Lady Parts.

A postbiblical title of Mary Magdalene, because she brought the news of Jesus' resurrection to the disciples.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

John 4

Jesus and the Woman of Samaria
1Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John”2—although it was n ... View more

John 8:3-11

3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them,4they said to him, “Teacher, this woman ... View more

Matt 26:6-13

The Anointing at Bethany
6Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,7a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and ... View more

Mark 14:3-9

The Anointing at Bethany
3While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly oin ... View more

John 12:1-8

Mary Anoints Jesus
1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.2There they gave a dinner for him. ... View more

Luke 7:36-50

A Sinful Woman Forgiven
36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table.37And a woman ... View more

Luke 4:1-14

The Temptation of Jesus
1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,2where for forty days he was tempt ... View more

Genesis 3:1-7

The First Sin and Its Punishment
1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘Yo ... View more

Luke 8:2

2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,

Mark 15:40-41

40There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.41These us ... View more

Matt 27:55-56

55Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.56Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Ma ... View more

Luke 23:49

49But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

John 19:25

25And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Mag ... View more

Luke 8:2

2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,

Mark 16:9

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
9[Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom ... View more

Matt 27:61

61Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

Mark 15:47

47Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

John 20:1-18

The Resurrection of Jesus
1Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed ... View more

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