Who was Mary Magdalene? Who was Mary of Bethany?
Updated: May 16
A sinner? 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.
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.
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.
Mary Magdalene has unfortunately been remembered as a repentant sinner and forgotten as a devoted disciple, patron and apostle. The Bible does not identify Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, past prostitute, or sex worker, but as a woman healed of seven demons who financially supported Jesus.
The Eastern Orthodox church has always disagreed with the composite Mary and characterizes Mary Magdalene as a virtuous disciple. According to Eastern tradition, when Mary Magdalene appears before Emperor Tiberius in Rome, he 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 Mary is often shown in art holding an egg, and Eastern Christians colour their Easter eggs red.
The fourth-century writer, Saint Augustine of Hippo, called Mary Magdalene an ‘apostle to the apostles’ because Jesus authorized her to tell the apostles that he had risen. In early art and architecture, Mary Magdalene was portrayed as a leader in worship.
Here Mary Magdalene is honoured in a priestly role in a church in Denmark
However, the Roman Catholic Church agreed with the composite Mary and Roman Catholic Pope Gregory confirmed this belief 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.
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.
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 from her biblical role as a patron, apostle, spiritual leader, and first to witness the risen Jesus, to a role as a sinful and repentant, a patron of wayward women. Theology and history combined to show her as a sex object rather than a mature, gifted, and devoted disciple.
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.
The Penitent Magdalene, Guido Reni public domain
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's skull as seen at
Sainte-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume near Marseille
In 1969 Pope Paul VI removed the identification of the three women as one composite Mary in the Roman Catholic calendar. The calendar now remembers Mary of Bethany on the same day as Martha and Lazarus, July 29th. Mary Magdalene is honoured separately on July 22nd. The liturgical reading for July 22nd was changed from the Luke 7 story of the forgiveness of the sinful woman to the John 20 account honouring Mary Magdalene as the first to see the risen Jesus. In 2016, Pope Frances raised the commemoration of Mary Magdalene to a feast day, the same level as the apostles. Protestants remain divided on whether Mary Magdalene was a penitent sinner; many do not recognize her as a devoted disciple, financial patron and evangelical preacher.
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.
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.