Who Was the Real Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene is shown with Jesus in this painting. Carlotta Silvestrini/Pixabay

As the Christian world prepares for Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus three days after his crucifixion, Christians will read the various accounts of Easter morning found in the New Testament. In each of the four gospels, the first of Christ's closest followers to learn that Jesus had risen wasn't Peter, James or Simon, but Mary Magdalene.

In the first three Easter accounts — Matthew 28, Mark 16 and Luke 24 — Mary Magdalene visits Jesus' tomb with other women to clean and anoint his body, but they find it empty. An angel or angels tell them, "He has risen!" and instructs the women to go tell the rest of the disciples.

But the most remarkable account is found in John, the last of the gospels to be written. In this Easter story, told in John 20, Mary Magdalene not only finds an angel in the empty tomb, but is the first to see and speak with the resurrected Jesus himself.

Jesus said, "Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him." Jesus said, "Mary!" She knew him then and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbuni!" — which means Master. Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go and tell my brothers, 'I am ascending to My Father...' So Mary of Magdala went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had said these things to her.

So, who exactly was this woman called Mary Magdalene? The Bible tells us very little, but centuries of Christian teachings and popular imagination have recast her from the woman chosen to witness the greatest miracle in Christendom to a highly sexualized and controversial figure — from a repentant sinner to a reformed prostitute to even the romantic partner of Jesus Christ.



What the Bible Actually Says About Mary Magdalene

The most the New Testament tells us about Mary Magdalene's biography is found in the first three verses of 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.
Mary Magdalene in the Desert
"Mary Magdalene in the Desert" as painted by José de Ribera in 1637.

Mary's last name wasn't Magdalene; that was a reference to where she was from, a small fishing village called Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. She was Mary of Magdala, just like Jesus of Nazareth was sometimes called the Nazarene.

These verses in Luke are important for several reasons, explains Bruce Chilton, a religion professor at Bard College and author of "Mary Magdalene: A Biography." For starters, it's the only time in the gospels that we learn that Jesus' entourage included women, Mary Magdalene first among them. And here is where we also learn a key detail about Mary Magdalene, that she was exorcised of "seven demons."

"The way she is identified in that passage is really quite fascinating," says Chilton. "She's the only person named within the whole of the New Testament who is involved with Jesus' exorcisms."

Other people have demons cast out in the Bible, but none of them are named. Since Mary Magdalene was included in Jesus' inner circle, she presumably used that firsthand knowledge of being exorcised to testify of this healing experience to others as they traveled and taught.

Chilton also thinks the mention of the "seven demons" might also answer one of the lingering questions about Mary Magdalene: Why was she not married or attached to any family members?

"If she needed to be the recipient of exorcism, that's not surprising," says Chilton. "She might well have been shunned by her family."

Other than this introduction in Luke and the Easter morning accounts at the tomb, the only other time that Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name in the Bible is at Jesus' crucifixion, where three of the four gospels specifically say that Mary Magdalene witnessed Christ's suffering along with other women, including Mary the mother of Jesus in one account. The Twelve, meanwhile, had fled Jerusalem fearing arrest.



More Marys, More Problems

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.

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? She wasn't the one with loosened hair weeping at Jesus' feet. She wasn't a prostitute. Well, not yet.



Gregory the Great Sets the Record 'Straight'

Pope Gregory I was a sixth-century Church leader and an influential theologian of his day. And thanks to Pope Gregory I, known as Gregory the Great, we can put an exact date on the moment when Mary Magdalene went from faithful witness of Christ to a repentant whore.

In a series of sermons on Mary Magdalene written in 591 C.E., Gregory made the following connection that flew in the face of gospel evidence.

"She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?" wrote Gregory, referring to Mary Magdalene.

Then Gregory proceeded to paint Mary Magdalene's alleged anointing of Jesus' feet as an act of penitence for her past life of earthly pleasure:

It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord's feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer's feet.

Everything changed for Mary Magdalene once Gregory the Great equated her with the "sinful woman" in Bethany.

"Poof, she becomes a prostitute," says Chilton. "Once that happens, she really becomes sexually charged within the Western tradition."

In 1969, the Catholic Church corrected its mistake, stating that Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman in Luke were two different people. In 2016, Pope Francis declared June 22 to be a feast day dedicated to her.



The Legacy of Mary Magdalene

In the ensuing centuries, a heretical Christian sect called the Cathars forwarded the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a romantic couple. And others took it a step further, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene got married and had a child, which morphed into the earth-shattering secret at the heart of "The Da Vinci Code."

But scholars like Chilton are able to see through the centuries of sexualization intent on reducing the role of women like Mary Magdalene in the early Church.

"Ultimately, in every gospel, Mary Magdalene sees something and says something in a way that puts the events in motion that lead to the recognition that Jesus was raised from the dead," says Chilton. "That makes it very appropriate for her to be called, 'the apostle to the apostles.' Even those who want to marginalize her can't take that away from her.