Mary Magdalene is one of the most mysterious people mentioned in the Bible. Was she really a prostitute? Was she really married to Jesus of Nazareth?
In this blog post, I’ll cover the 9 New Testament passages that mention Mary Magdalene in first-century sources. That’s right—there are only 9 passages in the entire Bible that mention Mary Magdalene.
Financial Support in Galilee
Luke 8 tells how Jesus walked around Galilee with 12 disciples and a number of women who gave him financial support. The first woman on the list is Mary Magdalene, and Luke tells us Jesus cast 7 demons out of her.
The fact that Mary is first on the list tells us she was memorable in some way. Maybe she was the richest woman of the lot. Maybe she was the oldest. Maybe she had the highest social position.
Some will say Mary was listed first because she was married to Jesus. That would be very interesting if it were true, but saying it doesn’t make it so. There’s no evidence in Luke 8 that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus. We’ll look at this a bit further down, where the evidence is slightly stronger.
The Meaning of “Magdalene”
It’s worth asking what is the meaning of the identifier “Magdalene?” We don’t actually know the answer to that question.
There are two common hypotheses, and either of them might be right, or they might both be wrong:
- “Magdalene” might be a place-identifier, telling where Mary came from.
- “Magdalene” might be a descriptor, telling what kind of person Mary was.
Many scholars believe Mary came from Magdala, on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee, 6 miles from Jesus’s headquarters in Capernaum. Magdala was a largish town in Galilee. It was not the largest, but it was probably in the top five. Take a look at the map of Galilee below to see where Magdala was.
Back in the summer of 2015, I worked briefly on the archaeological dig at Magdala. It has a wonderful first-century synagogue, and I suspect Jesus probably taught there several times. Since that time, another first-century synagogue has been excavated in Magdala. The town had a nice harbor with many fishing boats. Magdala was famous for its fish-salting houses and the fish sauce it exported throughout the Roman Empire.
Some scholars think “Magdalene” is a descriptor. The Hebrew word “migdal” means “tower.” So “Magdalene” might mean Mary was a tower of strength. Certainly, she took charge at a crucial point in the Jesus story—at the cross, at the burial site, and at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.
Mary and Joanna
Nobody knows which of these hypotheses is correct. It’s plausible that they’re both right. And there’s one other fact we can glean from the passage in Luke 8. There, Luke mentions Mary in the same breath as a woman named Joanna.
Who was Joanna? She was quite a big cheese in Galilee. Luke says she was the wife of Huza, a court official for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, who lived in Tiberias. Tiberias was one of the two largest towns in Galilee. Archaeologists estimate it had a population of around 10,000.
Look at the map above. Tiberias is only a few miles from Magdala. If Mary Magdalene really came from Magdala and was a wealthy woman who travelled around Galilee with Jesus, then she knew this woman Joanna well. She must have; they walked all over Galilee together.
Now here’s an interesting fact. Joanna was a rich woman living right in the power center of Galilee, in Herod’s court. But she’s named second, after Mary Magdalene.
Why? My guess is that Mary was more prominent than Joanna. Maybe richer. Maybe higher up the social pyramid. Maybe both.
It’s plausible that Mary was a very rich woman of Magdala, and she socialized with Joanna, a rich woman of Tiberias, before they knew Jesus. We don’t know, but it’s a reasonable guess.
Don’t forget Joanna. She’ll pop up again in our story. But this is already the end of all the mentions of Mary Magdalene in the gospels before Passion Week.
Mary At the Crucifixion
All four gospels give Mary a starring role on Good Friday and Easter. Up till now, she has been mentioned in exactly one passage, but now she’s all over the place.
The gospel of John names several women at the cross with Jesus:
- Mary, the mother of Jesus
- Mary’s sister (or sister-in-law), Mary the wife of Clopas, but it’s not clear if this is one woman or two different women
- Mary Magdalene
The gospel of Mark lists the women at the cross slightly differently:
- Mary Magdalene
- Mary the mother of James and Joses. (This is often thought to be the mother of Jesus, since Mark 6:3 tells us that Jesus had brothers named James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. Nobody knows if this guess is correct, but I suspect it might be.)
- A woman named Salome
Matthew gives a similar list to Mark, replacing Salome with the mother of the disciples James and John. So possibly, this mother was named Salome.
Luke’s Good Friday story mentions only some unnamed “women who followed him from Galilee.” As we’ve seen already, Mary Magdalene and Joanna were women who followed him while in Galilee, and it’s very plausible that Luke is referring to them again here at the cross.
So in the four gospels, Mary Magdalene gets 3 hard mentions and 1 possible mention. Mary the mother of Jesus gets 1 hard mention and 2 possible mentions. That’s very odd, that Mary Magdalene gets better airtime than the mother of Jesus. This is one reason why some people believe Mary Magdalene was part of the family of Jesus, possibly his wife.
Mary at the Burial of Jesus
Mark, Matthew, and Luke continue the story by mentioning women who were at the tomb of Jesus when he was buried by Joseph of Arimathea. They repeat their lists with some variation and some trimming.
Mark mentions the same women in the same order as he names them at the cross. Matthew slims his list down to “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.” Luke again mentions only a set of unnamed women. John doesn’t say anything at all about women at the burial.
Mary and Joanna at the Empty Tomb
When Luke gets to Easter Sunday, he finally names a set of women who found the tomb empty, and his list is extremely interesting: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others.
There’s that wealthy and powerful woman Joanna again! She’s still second behind Mary Magdalene. And both of them come ahead of “Mary the mother of James” who might or might not be the mother of Jesus. This is a very curious order. Why would the mother of Jesus be named third? Why would the wealthy woman Joanna be named second? Why would Mary Magdalene be named first? Nobody knows. We can guess (and we should), but we don’t know.
Mark’s Easter story has three women at the empty tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. These are the same women he listed at the cross, in the same order.
Matthew names Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” which repeats the names and order he used for the women at the burial.
John names only Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. He tells a wrenching story in which Mary is the first witness of the risen Jesus. John says she brought this news to the disciples. That’s quite an honor for her. Was there something special about Mary Magdalene?
As I mentioned above, some have speculated that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus. That’s possible, but I think it’s unlikely. If she was married to Jesus, then there’s been a tremendously successful coverup of that fact. But as I discussed in my post, Jesus and Valentine’s Day, there really wasn’t any reason to cover up a wife of Jesus, if he had one. A rabbi with a wife would not be a scandal in Jewish society in the first century. It would be a scandal in Christian society in the fourth century, but by that time, the cat would be out of the bag 300 years.
My thinking is that cats are really hard to get back in the bag, once they’ve escaped. If you’re going to try, you need to do it right away. If you wait 300 years, you’ve lost before you started.
Why Was Mary Magdalene the Star of the Easter Story?
I think there are three good reasons why Mary Magdalene plays such a starring role in the Easter story.
- She was at the cross and at the burial.
- She was the first to see the risen Jesus.
- She was well-known in the Jesus Movement afterward.
Mary Magdalene was a woman of some wealth. She comes ahead of Joanna on the list of Galilean women. But she is never mentioned again in any first-century source. If I had to guess, I’d say maybe Mary Magdalene was an older woman who died not long after Jesus did.
But we don’t have any data on that. It’s just a guess.
As I said at the beginning of this blog post, there’s a myth that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. This myth originates almost 600 years after Jesus. There’s no reason to believe it’s true.
The reason this myth originated is probably that both Luke and Mark say Jesus cast out demons from Mary. The reasoning seems to have been that a demonized woman is a sinful woman, and a sinful woman must be a prostitute. This is weak soup. The gospels give numerous accounts of exorcisms by Jesus, and none of them are ever linked to a charge of prostitution. So scholars today reject the idea that Mary was a prostitute.
The Bottom Line on Mary Magdalene
Mary Magdalene had money and financially supported Jesus in Galilee. Jesus performed some sort of healing on Mary. She followed him on his final journey to Jerusalem, where she gave him emotional support in his dying hours. She watched his burial and was first to visit his tomb on Easter Sunday. She was the first witness of the risen Jesus.
Anything else is speculation. I have nothing against speculation. In fact, I do my own speculation about Mary Magdalene in my Crown of Thorns series of novels about Jesus. But I make no claim that my guesses are correct.