Who Was Mary Magdalene?

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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.

“Magdalene” is often used as a descriptive term rather than a last name. It refers to Mary’s association with the town of Magdala (also known as Migdal), which was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in ancient Israel.

In the New Testament, Mary is referred to as “Mary Magdalene” to distinguish her from other women named Mary, such as Mary the mother of Jesus or Mary the sister of Lazarus. The term “Magdalene” helps identify her based on her place of origin.

It’s worth noting that the concept of modern surnames as we know them today didn’t exist in the same way during the time of Jesus. People were often identified by their given names and sometimes by additional descriptors like their hometown, occupation, or parent’s name. The use of “Magdalene” in Mary’s case serves this purpose of providing more context about her identity.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Supporting Jesus in His darkest hour

When Jesus was arrested, chaos broke out among the disciples. Every one of them fled, and Peter famously denied even knowing the Lord. We do know that John shows up at the crucifixion, but we can’t be sure about any of the other disciples. Mary Magdalene was one of the few individuals who stuck by Jesus at His lowest point.

Matthew tells us about the women at the cross:

Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons (Matthew 27:56).

Other Gospel writers confirm her presence (Mark 15:40, John 19:25).

Jesus was being crucified as a blasphemer. The frightened disciples recognized the danger of being associated with His movement. Amid this danger, Mary Magdalene is steadfast and loyal. Although this must have been an incredibly traumatic event, Mary didn’t run. She supported Jesus with her presence-and by being there for His mother.

After the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene didn’t leave with the crowd. She stayed and watched as the stone was rolled in front of the tomb.

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb (Matthew 27:57-61).

The apostle to the apostles

After the Sabbath, the women went to the tomb to anoint the Lord’s body. Although the accounts differ, every Gospel agrees that Mary Magdalene was there.

John’s account tells it this way:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:1-2)

She runs to inform Peter and John. These two come to the tomb and confirm that Jesus is no longer there. At that point, John tells us that they believed. They head back leaving Mary in the garden.

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her (John 20:11-18).

Mary was in deep sadness. Jesus’s body was gone, and she had no idea where it was. In her grief, she didn’t even register surprise when two individuals (who we know to be angels) were sitting in the tomb and asked why she’s crying. When she turned around, Jesus was there, but she didn’t recognize Him. Mistaking Him for the gardener, she pressed Him for answers about her Savior’s body. It wasn’t until He spoke her name that she recognized Him.

The fact that Mary shared the good news of the resurrection with the disciples earned her the title: “apostle to the apostles.” Luke tells us that along with Joanna and Mary, the mother of James, Mary Magdalene went to tell the disciples what had happened, but Luke tells us:

“But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11).

After all the disciples had experienced, they were still part of a culture that didn’t give women much credibility. Jewish law didn’t even permit a woman to testify in a trial. The fact that Jesus would entrust Mary (and the others) with this critical communication is one of the many signs that Jesus elevated women above the cultural norms of the day.

Finding ourselves in Mary Magdalene’s story

Even though it’s not likely that Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman who anointed his feet are the same woman, Jesus could have said the same thing about both: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven-as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47).

Jesus delivered Mary from seven demons. This moment changed everything. Because her deliverance was great, so was her love and faithfulness. She became part of Jesus’s entourage, supporting His ministry financially. She witnessed the horror of the cross, and she was one of the few people who stayed until they rolled the stone in front of His grave.

Every one of the Gospel writers wanted us to know that Mary Magdalene was among those who continued to minister to Jesus-even after His death. And it was Mary that Jesus chose to reveal Himself to after He had risen.

We have been delivered, too. And as we reflect on what Jesus has done for us, it’s only natural that we would respond with love and loyalty of our own. Like Mary, it’s a dedication that impacts how we use our resources, how we spend our time, and the message we have to share.

In many ways, Mary’s story is also our story.

If you’re interested in learning more about Mary, you can watch the film Magdalena for free right now! Or download the Jesus Film Project® app on iOS or Android, where you can watch the movie and share it with others.