Who Was Mary Magdalene? 1/3

Since my (Catholic) youth I’m confused by all the Maria’s in the New Testament read in church. Here I’m going to find out who they were and especially Maria Magdalene.

Maria Magdalene

Mary Magdalene was a figure in the Bible’s New Testament who was one of Jesus‘ most loyal followers and is said to have been the first to witness his resurrection. While the Western Christian Church portrayed her as a repentant sinner for centuries, newer research has disputed this interpretation, and the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels, including the Gospel of Mary, describes Mary as a reflective, wise spiritualist favored by Jesus.

Penitent Magdalene by El Greco, painted 1585-90

According to the Bible

Most of what is known about Mary Magdalene comes primarily from the New Testament Gospels. She is believed to have been of Jewish descent, though her culture and manners were that of a Gentile1. Her name, “Magdalen,” comes from her birth town of Magdala.

The canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John place Mary as witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The gospel references primarily speak only to her presence and rudimentary actions at these events; they don’t describe her personality, history or character. However, over the centuries, Western Christian doctrine, Renaissance art and literature and modern media have depicted Mary as a prostitute, love interest of Christ and even his wife.

According to the Western Christian Church

The notion of Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinner became the generally accepted view in Western Christianity. Powerful as this image may be, it is not the story mentioned in each of the four gospels in the New Testament, not once does it mention that she was a prostitute or a sinner.

A lot of Maria’s?

Some of the confusion and misinformation about Mary Magdalene stems from the fact that there are a lot of Marys in the New Testament. The Hebrew name Miryam, later translated as Mary, was very common for Jewish women in the first century since it was the name of Moses’s sister. Here are all of the Marys mentioned in the New Testament:

  • Mary the mother of Jesus
  • Mary Magdalene
  • Mary of Bethany
  • Mary the wife of Clopas
  • Mary the mother of James and Joses
  • Mary the mother of Mark

This multitude of Marys partially explains how Mary Magdalene came to be known as a “sinner” or even a prostitute. The confusion is over an episode that is described three separate times in the gospels, but never exactly in the same way.
In each gospel account, it’s a few days before Passover and Jesus stops in a home to eat. During the meal, a woman anoints Jesus with oil, either on his head or his feet. This woman is only named in one of those accounts, John 12: Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

We know from other gospels that this Mary was not Mary Magdalene; she was Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. But the matter is complicated by the other accounts of this anointing, particularly the one in Luke 7. In this telling, Jesus is eating at the home of a Pharisee named Simon when this happens:[A] woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him — that she is a sinner.

Jesus defends the woman, saying that her actions demonstrate her love for and faith in him. But the imagery in these verses — of a woman weeping at Jesus’ feet, anointing him with perfumed oil and her own tears, while kissing his feet and drying them with her hair — is striking and would have been even more striking back in Jesus‘ day. But confusing, as it is similar to the anoiting by Maria, the sister of Lazarus.

James Carroll, writing in Smithsonian Magazine, says that this scene would have had clear sexual overtones to early Christian readers. Men of Jesus‘ day would never see a woman with her hair down outside of their wife or a prostitute.
And then there’s the kissing of Jesus’ feet, an intimate act if there ever was one. But what does any of this have to do with Mary Magdalene?

At some point Mary Magdalene became confused with these two other women (named Maria as well) in the Bible.

(So I was not the only one confused!)

This confusion was caused in the 6th Century, by Pope Gregory the Great. He made this assumption official by declaring in a sermon that these three characters were actually the same person: Mary Magdalene: “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary [of Bethany], we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark.”
Pope Gregory surmised the seven demons as the seven deadly sins, thus making Mary not only guilty of lust, but pride and greed as well.

Pope Gregorius The Great

It’s important to note that this image is not accepted by Eastern Orthodox religion, which saw Mary Magdalene as only a devoted disciple of Christ. However, Mary as repentant sinner became solidified in Western medieval theology, with its emphasis on penitence, and flourished in Europe over the next fourteen hundred years. Western medieval and Renaissance Christian art usually depicted Mary dressed extravagantly, even suggestively, in stark contrast to the more modestly dressed women of the time. In some paintings, she is shown in the nude (most notably by the artist Titian), discretely covered by long blond hair.

Penitent Magdalene by Ttian created in 1531

Revisionist History of Mary Magdalene

This version of Mary Magdalene was challenged in 1518 by French humanist Jaques Laefevre d’Etaples2, who argued against the conflation of the two Marys and the unnamed female sinner in Luke’s Gospel. This theory received some support but also much opposition, and in 1521 d’Etaples’s views were formally condemned by French theologians.

In 1969, the General Roman Calendar put the matter of the composite Mary to rest when it identified the different dates for Mary Magadalene, Mary of Bethany and the unidentified sinner in Luke’s gospel. Mary Magdalene’s has her feast day on July 22nd (Mary, Martha and Lazarus have their day on July 29th as brother and sisters).
The Eastern Orthodox churches also commemorate her on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers which is the second Sunday after Pascha (Easter). She is also an important figure in the Bahá’í faith3.


1 Gentile is a word that usually means “someone who is not a Jew

2 His De Maria Magdalena et triduo Christi disceptatio of 1517, which argued that Mary the sister of Lazarus, Mary Magdalene and the penitent woman who anointed Christ’s feet were different people, provoked violent controversy and was condemned by the Sorbonne in 1521.

3 The Bahá’í faith is one of the youngest of the world’s major religions. It was founded by Bahá’u’lláh in Iran in 1863.

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