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Who was Mary Magdalene? Who was Mary of Bethany?

A sinner? A prostitute? Repentant woman? Patron of wayward women? Wife of Jesus? Recluse living in a cave? The sister of Martha?

None of the above, according to the Bible.

Early Christians were taught that Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, and the sinful woman of Luke 7 were one person. This merging of three women into one composite Mary makes Mary of Bethany invisible and maligns both Marys as sinful prostitutes. The idea of the composite Mary has persisted until recent times. Let's look at how it began, and what it has meant to the church.

Is Mary Magdalene the sister of Martha?

I take a closer look at Mary of Bethany here and I don't see any evidence that Martha's sister was Mary Magdalene. It is widely believed that Martha and Mary had to take their brother Lazarus away from Judea to save his life. Religious leaders of the day knew that as long as Lazarus was alive, witnesses would tell of Jesus' miracle and continued to plan to kill Lazarus. Tradition says the siblings escaped with Maximin (one of the 72 disciples) on a boat with no sails or oars in AD 42. They landed in Marseille and preached about Jesus in Gaul (France). Today, the bones of Lazarus are housed in Notre Dame Cathédrale La Major in Marseille, France, and tourists can visit Martha’s tomb in Tarascon, France. It is said that after preaching about Jesus, Mary (sister of Martha), lived in a cave in the Sainte-Baume mountains.

photo of skill
The skull called Mary Magdalene's on display at Sainte-Maximin-la-Sainte Baume near Marseile. Creative Commons Attribution

In AD 1279 Carlos II, Count of Provence, ordered excavations and found a marble sarcophagus with a tablet that read “Here rests the body of Mary Magdalene”. The tablet was written by people who people believed Mary of Bethany was the same person as Mary Magdalene. Written on a nearby piece of papyrus it says that to prevent ransacking, the tablet and sarcophagus were hidden there in AD 710. Today, the skull from that sarcophagus is in the crypt at Sainte-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume near Marseille. Science has shown that the skull belongs to a woman of a Mediterranean appearance. It is carried in a parade each year on the feast day of Mary Magdalene. Other relics said to have belonged to Mary Magdalene include a foot bone in Italy, a left hand in Greece, and a tooth in New York City. I submit that these stories all relate to Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.

Is Mary Magdalene the sinful woman of Luke 7?

The biblical record shows Mary Magdalene as a wealthy, independent patron, healed of seven demons, devoted disciple, first to witness the risen Jesus, authorized by Jesus as an apostle.

"... She was probably a woman of greater social status, higher social status, a woman of wealth who accompanied Jesus as we see in Luke 8:2, helping Jesus and his disciples with her own resources." - Jennifer Ristine, director of the Magdalena Institute at Magdala.

I provide more details of the biblical record of Mary Magdalene here. The Bible does not identify Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, past prostitute, or sex worker. There is no Biblical or historical evidence that Mary Magdalene was romantically involved with Jesus or married to him. The Western world has re-framed the image of Mary Magdalene as a woman who is sinful and repentant, a saint and model for wayward women. Theology and history combined to show her as a sex object rather than a mature, gifted, and devoted disciple.

Mary Magdalene leads worshp
Mary Magdalene in a priestly role on a church ceiling in Denmark. Wikimedia Commons:

In early art and architecture, Mary Magdalene was portrayed as a leader in worship. The Eastern Orthodox church has always disagreed with the composite Mary and characterizes Mary Magdalene as a virtuous disciple. According to Eastern tradition, Mary Magdalene appears before Emperor Tiberius in Rome to testify about Jesus and submit a report requesting that Jesus be admitted to the Roman pantheon of gods and that followers of Jesus be legally protected. Tiberius tells her that no one could rise from the dead any more than an egg can turn red. Then, Mary picked up an egg and it turned bright red. That is why ancient art often portrays Mary holding a red egg. It is also the origin for the tradition of colouring eggs at Easter.

The Roman Catholic Pope Gregory confirmed the belief in the composite Mary in a sermon in AD 591. The composite Mary portrays her not as the one honoured as the first to see the risen Jesus, but as a penitent sinner. The Western world has run with this idea, which promotes the stereotype of Mary as a prostitute and women as causing sin.

Some Roman Catholics, including the Benedictine Order, opposed the

merging of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman. The Catholic St Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century called Mary Magdalene an ‘apostle to the apostles’ because Jesus authorized her to tell the apostles that he had risen.

In the 13th century, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas affirmed Mary Magdalene as an apostle to the apostles. Aquinas was tried for heresy because some of his teachings were derived from Aristotle and other philosophers. Aquinas used human reason to achieve an understanding of God, and that was against church orthodoxy and made Aquinas's ideas heretical. Aquinas died in 1274, was declared a heretic and was excommunicated posthumously. In 1324, Aquinas was declared a saint in the Catholic church, but the idea of the composite Mary persisted.

In the sixteenth century, Protestant Reformers were divided on the topic. Reformer John Calvin rejected the composite Mary and called ignorant those who ever believed the idea. However, Reformers Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli supported the composite Mary. Reformers confirmed that all believers can approach God directly and associated images of Mary Magdalene with the practice of praying through saints as intercessors. Zwingli demanded that all images of Mary Magdalene be destroyed, including those that showed her as an apostle or liturgical leader. In 1519 Paris theologians of the Sorbonne condemned criticism of the composite Mary as heresy. Artists could not portray Mary Magdalene in a priestly or liturgical role, but only as a reformed sinner. Baroque and Renaissance art depicts Mary as erotic, sensual, and penitent. Theologians who viewed Mary as a sinful woman equated the seven demons who plagued her with seven deadly sins. The focus was on her as a sinner, not as one Jesus forgave and honoured for her faith.

penitent magdalene
The Penitent Magdalene, Guido Reni circa 1635 Wikimedia Commons

Mary Magdalene has unfortunately been remembered as a repentant sinner and forgotten in the Western church as a devoted disciple, patron and apostle.

Finally, in 1896, fragments of the non-canonical Gospel of Mary were found in Upper Egypt. These scrolls show Mary Magdalene as a disciple with special revelations from Jesus. These scrolls were written in Coptic, likely by followers of Mary Magdalene in the second century. The Gospel of Mary is not part of the Bible but is useful as a historical document. It shows Mary Magdalene as an influential preacher in Egypt with many devoted followers. It also shows that women were church leaders from the earliest days of the Christian church.

The Eastern tradition is that after preaching in Egypt, Mary Magdalene travelled to Ephesus, visiting the apostle John and Virgin Mary. According to sixth-century historian Gregory of Tours, Mary Magdalene was buried in Ephesus and Byzantine Emperor Leo VI moved her remains to Constantinople in AD 886.

Mary Magdalene as a Separate Individual

In 1969 Pope Paul VI removed the identification of the three women as one composite Mary in the Roman Catholic calendar. They acknowledge that Mary Magdalene is not the same as Mary of Bethany. Their calendar recognizes Mary of Bethany on the same day as Martha and Lazarus, July 29th.

They further acknowledge that Mary Magdalene is not the same as the sinful woman. The Roman Catholic calendar honours Mary Magdalene on July 22, separate from Mary of Bethany. The liturgical reading for Mary Magdalene was changed from the penitent woman in Luke 7 to the account of Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the risen Jesus (John 20). In 2016, Pope Francis raised the commemoration of Mary Magdalene to a feast day, the same level as the apostles.

While the idea of Mary Magdalene as a penitent, sinful woman came from Catholicism and not from the Bible, Protestants remain divided on Mary Magdalene. Many do not recognize her as a devoted disciple, financial patron and evangelical preacher. She is hidden, along with other women of the Bible who were disciples and apostles, preachers and church planters.

The idea of the composite Mary had held, as many Christians do not honour Mary of Bethany as a separate biblical heroine. She chose the right thing, to sit at Jesus' feet as a disciple rather than worrying about earthly duties. She had an early understanding of Jesus' predictions, taking the role of a male prophet by anointing Jesus as king by pouring oil on his head, and preparing his body for burial while he was still alive. She is one of many leading women of faith who are minimized or forgotten.

Theologians are slowly reversing Mary Magdalene's sinful reputation, as growing numbers realize Mary Magdalene was a follower, eyewitness, patron, supporter, disciple, and apostle. Now it's time for popular culture to remember her as a devoted disciple and honoured evangelical teacher, preacher, and leader.


Elaine Ricker Kelly uses her experiences as a woman in business to inspire and empower women at home, church and society. She was an investment and insurance advisor for thirty years, has three grown daughters, and is passionate about writing to encourage girls and women in leadership. Elaine R. Kelly lives near Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, with her husband and lap dog. She and her husband have hiked the 900 km Bruce Trail and enjoy hiking, nature, tennis, music, history and culture. Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold is on sale at Amazon. If you live local to me, contact me for a special price on a bulk purchase.

Books by Elaine Ricker Kelly:

Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold - biblical fiction offering hope and healing to anyone who feels forgotten, belittled, or out of place.

The Sword: A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role - provides 104 flashcards with an objective, memorable look at the rationale for diverse views on gender roles.

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