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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The World into Which Jesus Came

Don Stewart :: Who Was Mary Magdalene?

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Who Was Mary Magdalene?

The World into Which Jesus Came – Question 17

Mary Magdalene is certainly an important character in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Indeed, while many godly men and women in the Scripture remain nameless this particular woman is mentioned by name in all four gospels with 14 specific mentions in all. Since she receives much attention by the gospel writers as well being the object of so many wild speculative theories, it is crucial that we know exactly what the authoritative sources, the four gospels, have to say about her.

Why Was She Called Mary Magdalene?

The name “Mary Magdalene” represents the town from which she came. In the same way Jesus was called as a Nazarene, as one who came from city of Nazareth, Mary Magdalene is a description of Mary who came from the town of Magdala.

The town of Magdala was located two miles north of Tiberius along the lakeshore of the Sea of Galilee. While it is only briefly mentioned in the gospels, the first century Jewish writer Flavius Josephus tells us that at the time of the Jewish revolt, A.D. 66-70, Magdala had a population of around 40,000. In other words, it was not a small town.

There Are Five Mary’s Mentioned in the Four Gospels

To discover what the New Testament says about Mary can become a bit complicated. Indeed, it is easy to become confused when reading of “Mary” in the four gospels since there are actually five different women with the name Mary that are mentioned in the life and ministry of Jesus. They include Jesus’ mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Mary of Bethany, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. She is also called “the other Mary.”

Misidentifications of Mary Magdalene

The fact that there are a number of women named “Mary” in the New Testament has led to a several misidentifications of Mary Magdalene. Indeed, over the course of church history there have been three major misidentifications of this woman. Each of these has made its way to the general public. They can be listed as follows.

Misidentification 1: She Is Not the Unnamed Prostitute Who Washed Jesus Feet (Luke 7:37-50)

This is one of the common mistakes about Mary. Many people believe that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. However, there is no evidence of this whatsoever. The mistake is made when she is identified with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet at the home of Simon the Pharisee. This unnamed woman is not only misidentified as Mary Magdalene, she is also misidentified as Mary of Bethany. She was neither of these women.

Misidentification 2: She Was Not Mary of Bethany, Lazarus’ Sister (Mark 14:3-9, John 11:2)

This leads us to our second misidentification of Mary of Bethany. She was the woman who anointed Jesus’ in anticipation of His coming death and burial. Mary of Bethany is an entirely different person than Mary Magdalene. The problem comes when people attempt to equate Mary Magdalene with the anointing mentioned in Luke’s gospel, Luke 7:37-50, and then assume that the accounts given in Mark and John are speaking of the same event. They are not.

Misidentification 3: She Was Not the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)

There has also been the popular idea that Mary Magdalene was actually the woman whom Jesus forgave for her adultery after she had been brought to Him by the religious rulers. Again, there is no historical basis for this whatsoever. However, this has not stopped people from making this connection.

Mary Magdalene Was among the Inner Circle of Jesus Disciples

If Mary Magdalene was none of these women, then who was she? What do we know of her? For one thing, we know that she was in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. Luke tells us that she, along with several other women, were helping to support the ministry of Jesus. He explained it in this manner:

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 TNIV)

We learn from this that Mary had been demon-possessed at one time. However, Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. The grateful Mary then followed with Him in His ministry. Mary eventually became one of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.

There is a passage in Mark’s gospel which also speaks of Mary as one who had been demon-possessed. It reads,

Early on the first day of the week, after He had risen, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had driven seven demons. She went and reported to those who had been with Him, as they were mourning and weeping. Yet, when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe it. (Mark 16:9-11 HCSB)

The problem is that this passage is in a contested section of the Gospel of Mark. While the authenticity of this passage is questioned, there is no question about the authenticity of the passage in Luke’s gospel which also tells us that Mary had been demon-possessed.

Mary Magdalene Was at the Cross

We also find Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ cross when He was crucified. Matthew records who was present at that time:

Many women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and given him support were also there, watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. (Matthew 27:55-56 NET)

When the other disciples of Jesus had fled, Mary and some other women who had given Him support, continued to support Him until the end.

She Was the First Witness of Jesus’ Resurrection

Mary Magdalene had the honor of being the first person to whom the resurrected Christ appeared. It started when she and some other women went to Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday morning. John records what happened:

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. (John 20:1 TNIV)

Thinking the body of her Lord had been taken away by someone, Mary hurried to find Jesus’ disciples. She convinced Peter and John to come to the empty tomb and view things for themselves.

Mary Sees the Risen Christ

Finding the tomb of Jesus empty, these two disciples returned to their homes. Yet Mary remained weeping outside the tomb. She was still unwilling to abandon her Lord; the One who had done so much for her. Such faithfulness on her part was soon rewarded.

Suddenly two angels appeared wearing white garments. With them was another man who Mary mistook for a gardener. John explains what took place:

And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). (John 12:12-16 ESV)

Her response to recognizing the Lord was immediate as well as telling. She said, “Rabboni!” The meaning is here is “Teacher.” This made clear the nature of their relationship. Jesus was the Teacher while Mary was the pupil. They certainly were not husband and wife!

Jesus Tells Mary to Spread the Word

Jesus then gave a commandment to Mary Magdalene; tell others the good news that He has risen from the dead:

Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. (John 20:17, 18 ESV)

She was obedient to the command of the Lord. Mary told the disciples that she had indeed “seen the Lord.”

This is the last we read of Mary Magdalene from Scripture. It becomes clear that she was an important person in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Indeed, when others abandoned Him she remained faithful. She not only followed Him during His public ministry but she was there when He was crucified as well as the first person to whom He appeared after His resurrection from the dead. We can certainly learn many positive lessons from her behavior.

One Final Issue: There Is No Evidence That She Was Married to Jesus

There is one other issue which must be dealt with concerning Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus. We cannot say this strongly enough: there is no evidence whatsoever that Jesus and Mary were married or even romantically involved! None!

Apart from the fact that we do not have the slightest hint of any relationship between the two, we can also mention some things which we do know.

She Called Jesus My Lord and My Teacher

There is the fact that Mary referred to Jesus as “my Lord” when looking for His body at the Garden tomb. She never said “my husband.”

When the resurrected Christ appeared to her Mary addressed her as the “Teacher.” There was no endearing term we would expect a wife to give to her beloved husband.

Therefore, we should not give any credence to theories which attempt to say Jesus and her were romantically involved, that they married, or that they had children. None of this is true.

Summary – Question 17
Who Was Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, are the two most important women in the gospel story. Therefore, we should know certain things about her.

The gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene was a woman whom Jesus cast out seven demons. She became His follower. She, along with several other women, helped finance Jesus’ public ministry.

Mary Magdalene eventually became one of the inner circle of the followers of Jesus. Indeed, she was a witness to his crucifixion, and the first witness to His resurrection.

Unfortunately, too often Mary has been misidentified. Indeed, she has been identified with the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet, with Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus body for burial, and with the woman Jesus forgave who had been caught in the act of adultery. Yet Mary was none of these people.

Neither was she romantically involved with Jesus, married to Him, or bore Him any children.

Mary called the crucified and risen Jesus her “Lord” and “Teacher.” This was her relationship to Him as should it be with the rest of us.

What Do We Know about the Twelve Disciples? ← Prior Section
What Was Golgotha? Next Section →
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