Other than Jesus, there probably isn't a character in the Gospels that has captured the attention (and imagination) of people like Mary Magdalene has. Just who was this woman that shows up in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
Depending on where you look, you could end up with all sorts of fanciful answers to this question. Was Mary a prostitute, as church history has often portrayed her? Or should we listen to controversial fiction authors like Dan Brown who tell us she was secretly Jesus's wife?
We truly only have one definitive source on this enigmatic and historical figure. So let's look at what the Bible has to tell us about Mary Magdalene.
The many Marys of the Gospels
Mary was one of the most popular names for first-century Palestinian girls. So the first task for understanding Mary Magdalene is sifting through all the Marys. Traditionally speaking, there are six women named Mary in the New Testament:
- Mary, the mother of Jesus
- Mary Magdalene
- Mary of Bethany—sister of Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10:38–41, John 11:1–12:8)
- Mary, the wife of Clopas (John 19:25)
- Mary, the mother of James and Joseph (Matthew 27:55–56, Mark 15:40, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10)
- Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12)
If we're not careful, it's easy to get these women confused. So when we begin to unearth what Scripture says about Mary Magdalene, it's essential to recognize that Mary was a common name.
Was Magdalene Mary's last name?
We're pretty used to using first and last names to tell each other apart, but that wasn't really how it was done in the first century. If you were talking about a woman you knew, you'd identify her with her husband or children, and if you couldn't do that, you would mention her town of origin.
Mary Magdalene was Mary from Magdala, a fairly large town on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee. We don't know much about the ancient city of Magdala, but we do know that Mary's name comes from the place she called home.
Mary's role in Jesus's ministry
The first time we see Mary Magdalene is in Luke 8:
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means (Luke 8:1–3).
Luke wants us to know that Jesus wasn't only accompanied by the disciples. There were some women in His entourage, too. These women had very profound and significant experiences with the Lord. Some had been cured of afflictions and others had been delivered from demons. Luke tells us that this Mary had been delivered from seven demons.
We're not given any more details into this story, but Mark's Gospel backs it up:
When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons (Mark 16:9).
It's no wonder she decided to follow Jesus. Like many of us, Mary defined her life by the moment when the Messiah set her free.
In this passage, Luke also gives us another interesting insight: these women were helping to bankroll Jesus's ministry. He changed their lives so dramatically that they chose to support His ministry financially. This would indicate that Mary had some personal wealth. Her home city, Magdala, was tied to fish processing. It could be that she had some connections with that industry.
Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?
One of the most enduring "facts" about Mary is that she had been a prostitute at one time. This is a belief shared by many Christians and nonchristians alike. But is it true? The Bible never tells us so. This legend became mainstream around AD 600 when Pope Gregory I claimed in a homily that Mary Magdalene was the sinful woman in Luke 7:38–50:
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner" (Luke 7:36–39).
This story often gets conflated with the story about Jesus's feet being anointed in the home of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:6–13, Mark 14:3–9, John 12:1–8). In this story, it's Mary that anoints Jesus's feet. In his homily, Gregory says, "The one that Luke calls a sinner, and that John names Mary, we believe that she is that Mary of whom, according to Mark, the Lord has cast out seven demons."
There are several problems here:
- We can't be certain these are the same stories. There are definitely similarities, but there are some questionable differences, too. The story in Luke happens in the home of a Pharisee (named Simon), and the point is about the Pharisee's judgment on the sinful woman. The story in Matthew, Mark, and John happen in the home of Simon the Leper, and the focus is the waste of the expensive perfume. It could very well be the same incident, but not necessarily.
- We're not explicitly told that the sinful woman in Luke 7 is a prostitute. As is the case with men, there are a lot of reasons women could develop reputations for immorality. There's a historical tendency to assume that a woman's unnamed sin has to do with promiscuity. This repentant woman may have been a prostitute, but we shouldn't presume she was.
- Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are not the same person. It's a strong possibility that the unnamed woman in Luke is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and Luke didn't want to defame her. But these two Marys are different individuals. Unfortunately, Pope Gregory created a composite Mary that stuck. The Catholic church redacted Gregory's decree in 1969, but his assumptions lived on.