The title of my 2019 book, Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow, contains not-so-much a statement of fact as an acknowledgement of how easy it is to mischaracterize biblical figures.
Technically, Mary could have worn eye shadow, as it has existed for thousands of years. In Egypt and Babylonia, where many cosmetics originated, eye shadow had not only a decorative purpose but was also thought to protect sensitive eyelids from the sun and insects. Minerals such as malachite would be ground into a powder like today’s popular “mineral makeup” and smeared directly on the skin with rigid spatulas.
Archaeologists have found makeup containers and tools in Israel, so it was used by God’s own people. But the Bible suggests that makeup was not worn by everyone, as it may have been in other cultures. When makeup is mentioned in the Bible, it is associated with evil and sexually immoral women. For example, Jezebel—another biblical character whose name is synonymous with prostitution—wore makeup (2 Kings 9:30).
The association of makeup with prostitution is ancient and enduring. As recently as the twentieth century, polite Western society equated actresses, dancers, and even opera singers with loose morals. To this day I’m uncomfortable wearing heavier makeup for an evening out or in front of a camera.
The Bible never says that Mary Magdalene “painted her face” (KJV) as Jezebel did, so why did popular culture lump her in with immoral women for so long? In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I was bothered by the fact that the “sinner” who washed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50 was unnamed. In September 592 he delivered a homily in which he tried to “fix” God’s Scripture by assigning her story to the next female named in the text. That happened to be Mary Magdalene. Since Gregory was the church’s supreme authority on earth at the time (and Protestantism was still almost a millennium away), no one questioned his word. And then the rumor grew, as they tend to do, and the sinner became an adulteress who became a prostitute.
Mary Magdalene has endured centuries of slander simply because her story begins in Luke 8:2, a mere two verses after Jesus’ highly aromatic pedicure.
Many traditional artistic depictions of Mary Magdalene imply that she was a prostitute by “painting” her face with garish makeup. Our 1980s Sunday School felt boards were among the worst offenders; the Mary Magdalene paper doll was always the prettiest one, thanks to her bright clothes, heavy jewelry, dark tan, and dreamy batting eyes. I remember a golden castanet in each hand too. But that Mary would have fit better seducing the shah in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights than visiting Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.
Such false traditions are incorrect and can undermine our interpretations of Scripture. They need to be recognized, debunked, and shelved under Fiction; but that is difficult to do when untruth is “common knowledge” that has been immortalized by artists and is believed by Bible teachers themselves.
If Mary wore eye shadow—and I doubt that she did—it was to repel insects and UV rays, not to attract men.