Mary of Magdala: A Heart Set Free (Part 2)


We have taken a look at what we know about Mary. I want to quickly go over…

What people (tradition) believe(s) about Mary that we can’t know for certain:

Part of the problem we have when trying to find Mary Magdalene in the gospels is that her name was MARY! There are so many Mary’s! It’s no wonder we get confused about which one is which. Not only are there several Mary’s, but the gospel writers don’t always give them the same designations, so it’s difficult to determine which Mary each writer is referring to.

For example here are parallel accounts of the verse listing the women at the cross:

  • John 19:25 “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”
  • Matthew 27:55-56 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”
  • Mark 15:40-41 “…among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome
  • Luke 23:49 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.”

I really thought I could count on Luke giving us the details that he is so often known for! But he doesn’t even give the names!

Another issue we encounter is that the Greek had NO punctuation and no spaces. This was because paper was precious and costly, so they would not waste even one dot or comma in writing the accounts. They wrote in all capital letters, squeezing everything together to get the most use of their space. So our English translations take the words and make them readable in English, adding commas and end marks. This, however, takes some interpretation, which means that each translation may interpret the punctuation differently. Here are two examples of this:

John 19:25 ESV

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.        = 3 women

(I say there are three women listed because the comma after sister is a comma to set off an appositive. It would be like me talking about my sister, Lesley the wife of Bryan. I’m not talking about two different people. I’m giving you more information about who my sister is, just as John is giving us more information about who Mary’s sister is.)

Now compare the same verse to John 19:25 in the NIV

25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.         =4 women

See what I mean? So confusing!! But then you’d think that maybe the scholars would be helpful, right?

If you go to a scholarly sight and type in “Mary Magdalene”, you might be surprised to find how many peer-reviewed, scholarly journals there are today that have NOTHING to do with the biblical Mary of Magdala. You’ll find results for Dan Brown (fiction), the term “prostitute”, and even Mary of Bethany.

The confusion began in the fourth century when some Christian theologians in the Latin West began to identify Mary Magdalene (Lk 8:1-3) with Mary of Bethany (who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus). (From Elizabeth Julian The Mary Mergers)

So as we read Mark 14 when a Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive oil, we should be careful to recognize this Mary as Martha’s sister, and it was in the town of Bethany. In other words, not Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene does not equal Mary, the mother of Jesus OR Mary of Bethany OR Mary, the wife of Clopas. (One obvious reason that we can conclude Mary Magdalene is not the mother of Jesus or the wife of Clopas is simply that those three are often named in the same sentence. So unless they had some multiple personalities going on, we can safely rule out these women.)

And then you have women who are unnamed. Completely anonymous. This is where things get sticky. There are lots of beliefs in tradition concerning the woman caught in adultery and the “sinful” woman who washed Jesus’ feet with perfume and her tears. So here’s the history behind that confusion:

It was in the 6th century, that Pope Gregory began to identify Mary Magdalene as the prostitute whose 7 demons were the 7 cardinal sins. Thus Mary Magdalene is now often the one attributed as the woman in these stories. He made a spurious connection that since Mary Mags had demons cast out of her, those demons must have caused her to do “sinful” things, thus naming her the “sinful” woman mentioned in Luke 7 who washed Jesus’ feet. The other problematic connection is that people believe that the demons drove her to prostitution, thus naming her as the prostitute about to be stoned in John 8.

So I believe that Mary Magdalene is not equal to the sinful woman in Luke 7 or the adulterous woman in John 8. One of the reasons I believe Mary Magdalene was NOT one of these women is that it appears as though the gospel writers are careful to write Mary Magdalene any time she is mentioned. So she would likely not be anonymous.

The only other belief that many teachers held about Mary Mag is that she was intimate with Jesus. (Even Martin Luther in the 16th century believed this!) I can’t even entertain this obviously false belief. Mary was listed among a group of women who helped Jesus in His itinerant ministry. There is no reason to believe that she had some special relationship with Him, least of all an inappropriate one. Mary Mags does not equal Jesus’ wife. Because He didn’t have one!

Though it would be nice to find Mary Mag in more narratives, I hate to break it to you, but she’s just not there! (at least not overtly)   😦   So now you know how to spot Mary Mags. She’s kind of like Where’s Waldo, except I’ll bet she was wearing a toga.

The third area I’d like to address is the social culture in which Mary found herself.

For us women today, it is rather difficult to imagine the conditions for women in 1st century Palestine. All of us are now on the other side of women’s liberation and the feminist movement (for better or worse!). Things that are normal to us today (like women having a platform from which to speak) would have meant social ostracism or worse in Mary’s time. The closest parallel I could think of would be how women in the Middle East are treated today, made to cover every part of themselves, treated as property, dismissed at the slightest infraction of their social laws.

Here are a few examples of the extreme limitations placed on 1st century women.

From Ehrman: “According to the standard stereotype, Jewish women were especially oppressed during the first century, forced to be silent and stay in the home, unable to enter into the public sphere, expected to devote themselves to cooking, cleaning, making and mending clothes, and raising children. Jesus, however, came to liberate women and so accepted them.”

Jewish sayings suggested that:  “So long as a man talks too much with a woman, he (1) brings trouble on himself, (2) wastes time better spent on studying Torah, and (3) ends up an heir of Gehenna.” (Yose ben Yochanan)

“A man could divorce a woman and not have to make payment due to her under the marriage contract if: “she (1) goes out with her hair flowing loose, (2) spins in the marketplace, or (3) talks with just anybody.” !!!!

“Women were first and foremost considered to be the property of a man. They were typically excluded from any formal education, although some rabbis ignored the tradition and taught their daughters in private. Men and women ate separately, as conversations between the sexes were highly discouraged. The presence of women travelling with men was completely unprecedented. Counter to rabbinic tradition, Jesus freely associates with women. Jesus’s ministry clearly transcends the limitations placed on women by the Jewish culture.” (From Ehrman in Priscilla Papers)

Despite the fact that women were generally oppressed by the men in society, they were still actively involved in the society. This may explain why they were often hushed or told to be quiet and why some of them were wealthy! They were thought to have inferior beliefs and to be ignorant on spiritual matters. Part of this was because they were not allowed to be taught the Scriptures like all the Jewish boys were. So of course they were ignorant! No one took the time to teach them. Until Jesus.

Don’t you just love Him? ❤ ❤ 🙂

We’ve gone over what the Scriptures tell us about Mary, what tradition has gotten wrong about her, and what the culture was like for her.

So the question is why was Mary (and the other women) so enthralled with Jesus and His message?

Jesus believed His chief followers were to be men, the 12 disciples. In addition, the Kingdom of God was not set up to be an egalitarian society where everyone had equal say or was on an equal level. He assumed there would be rulers in His kingdom just as there always had been for God’s people. These rulers would be the 12 apostles (and you can find the reference in Matt. 19:28 and Luke 22:28-30). (From Ehrman) So why were these women leaving their homes and following Him, even supporting Him, in His ministry?

Our clue is in what Jesus says about His kingdom. Think about the Sermon on the Mount. Who inherits the Kingdom of heaven? Those who are persecuted. Those who are Poor. (Matt. 5:10; Luke 6:20) Who does it belong to? Children. (Mk 10:14) Who may enter? Prostitutes and Tax Collectors. (Matt 21:31) Jesus ushers in a radical reversal of fortunes.

The message was simply this: “The end was coming soon, and they would in the very near future be exalted to places of prominence in God’s kingdom, where all those who were downtrodden and oppressed would enjoy the pleasures of God’s presence in a world in which there would no longer be any poverty, injustice, or social ostracism.” (Ehrman)

The women were not the only ones who followed Jesus, obviously! There was quite the mixture, in fact, and most of the people were lower class citizens and those who were not involved in the highly “spiritual” Jewish leadership. So in other words, the outcasts, the sinners, and the uneducated. NOT the super spiritual. And so Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom and the Messiah who would be the champion for the down and out was attractive to all of these people! Jesus became the knight in shining armor for Mary and the other women.

They were restricted in their movements and interactions. In the roles they could play in their families, in religious societies, and political worlds. Yes, there were exceptions, but for the most part, a woman with ambition, especially from the lower classes, had nowhere to go. (From Ehrman) The appeal of Jesus was in His teaching of the kingdom of heaven being a place in which God would raise up the humble and vindicate the oppressed.

The second reason why I believe Mary and these women were drawn to Jesus’ message involved how one should live as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. I love how Ehrman describes it:

“Life in the future Kingdom will reflect God’s own values, such as love, justice, and freedom. These values should be reflected in how the followers of Jesus live in the present. In the future kingdom there will be no hatred, and so Jesus’ followers should love one another now. In the future kingdom there will be no loneliness, and so Jesus’ followers should visit the widows and orphans now. In the future kingdom there will be no poverty, and so Jesus’ followers should sell their possessions and give to the poor now. In the future kingdom there will be no hunger, and so Jesus’ followers should feed the hungry now. In the future kingdom there will be no sickness, and so Jesus’ followers should heal the sick now. In the future kingdom there will be no demons, and so Jesus’ followers should cast out demons now. In the future kingdom there will be no war, and so Jesus’ followers should work for peace now. In the future kingdom there will be no injustice, and so Jesus’ followers should fight injustice now.”

For these women to catch sight of their future freedom in God’s kingdom meant hope for them in their present situations. Christ ushered in the kingdom of God when He came, so that it was both present and future. What is more, Jesus would change the climate as His teachings rippled out from the work of His devout followers, making the future kingdom of freedom a present reality.

Karen Thiessen summarizes the revolutionary way Jesus reached out to women:

“John,…portrays women as active, innovative ministers of the Kingdom . . . Jesus affirms them in roles that were unusual and often unacceptable within that culture.  Jesus’s approach to women was in such contrast to that of his culture that we can assume a deliberate modeling of a new way of relating to women. Jesus taught women and allowed them to participate in theological discussions. Jesus allowed women to travel with him and participate fully in his ministry as disciples, ultimately commissioning them as witnesses of his resurrection. Women were acknowledged by Jesus for their examples of servanthood, and Jesus affirmed their place in the kingdom as equal participants. Furthermore, without being demeaning or judgmental, he ministered compassionately to the needs of women. He treated men and women alike with respect to their shortcomings and encouraged them equally in their faith.” [From They Had Followed Him from Galilee: The Female Disciples (Priscilla Papers)]

Again, we have no way of knowing why our Mary of Magdala followed Jesus because she doesn’t tell us!

Being freed from the darkness of demon possession would likely be enough for anyone to want to follow Jesus! Amen?!

While the historical background can give us clues as to how it might have been for Mary, The only thing we can know for certain is that she was an early follower and devout all the way from His early ministry to His resurrection (and thereafter!).

Here are some final thoughts as we wrap up our study: 

Oh to have walked with Jesus! What did Mary Magdalene see?

Though she probably wasn’t with the 12 when Jesus met the woman at the well, did her heart skip a beat when she heard about this woman, knowing that Jesus had also set her heart free?

Did she ask Jesus to tell her the story about the widow of Nain, because its stories like this that never get old?

Or of the story about the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet? Or the one about the woman who touched Him? There were just so many of these stories! All about women!

Was she there for the many times in which Jesus cast out demons? Did it remind her of the 7 tormentors who departed from her body at His command?

Did she look at the Syrophoenician woman with compassion, knowing how it felt to be possessed by demons, and as she cast her gaze to Jesus, did she smile, knowing He was about to perform the very same miracle in their lives that He had done in her’s?

Did she often think to herself I just cannot believe THIS is my life!

Did she witness the multiplying of the bread to feed the multitudes? Did she laugh at the irony of the 12 picking up the “leftovers”, knowing He would supply their needs? Was she aware that He came to give them spiritual food and spiritual life?

Was she listening to the parable of the good Samaritan? Did she feel a kinship with this one, another outcast in the Jewish society? Was she beaming with pride in her Savior as she listened to Him change the social norms, knowing that He gave dignity to all people? Even to her?

Did she immediately become friends with Mary? Or Martha? Was she caught off guard when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, or because maybe she’d seen this happen before, did she simply shake her head in wonder and joy? Did she watch Mary anoint Jesus with oil and think of the sinful woman who had done the same thing?

How many times did she long to hear Him teach on the kingdom of heaven? To hear of the future restoration? To hear Him speak hope into their lives?

What did she think as Jesus entered Jerusalem for His final week? Did she get caught up in all the pomp? Had she remembered that He’d been predicting His own death and was she confused as to how the atmosphere could possibly turn bad for Him? Did it start to make sense as He cleansed the temple? Did she suddenly remember all those times His words inflamed the hatred of the religious leaders who now sought to kill Him?

What about when He broke the bread in the upper room? Was she there? Did she have a flashback to the time He multiplied the bread? Could she have known that Jesus had to die and be raised to usher in the kingdom? That He was the Bread of Life, broken for her? The blood poured out for her?

Did she stare at His lifeless body on the cross, wondering where it all went wrong? Was she too numb to speak? Did she still have hope or did it die on the cross too?

As she took the spices, did the thought occur to her that He might not be there? Did her mind race to find answers when she discovered the tomb was empty? As she sat by the tomb was she able to process any of the events leading up to this point?



When she heard His voice call her name, did all that His words come flooding back? Did she have a hard time getting the words out because she was too excited? Did she break down in tears when she realized that SHE was the one He appeared to first?

At the tomb, Jesus calls Mary by name and THIS is when she recognizes Him. “My sheep hear my voice. I call to them and they answer Me.”

Nowhere in the gospels is there an explanation of Mary’s healing from the demon possession. The only time she is named is in connection with the women who followed Jesus during His ministry, during and after the crucifixion, and finally at the empty tomb. Isn’t it interesting that the thing that she is remembered for is her devotion to Christ? Not the demon possession?

Jesus gave her dignity. She would not be cast out because of the evil that had once been a part of her. He saw her value and gave her value all at the same time. Her life before Christ was one doomed to wander the streets as a mad woman, an outcast by her people and a prisoner to the demonic.

Jesus saved her, gave her a purpose, and made her a prominent woman in society. By her testimony many would hear of Jesus’ resurrection. I’m not sure what is more profound for her. To be a member of His ministry or to be the one to deliver the most important news for Christianity. He is Messiah! He is Risen! Her life was spent on this One man who changed EVERYTHING.

I love that we ended on the account of Jesus’ resurrection! Jesus deals death its final blow and that enemy is vanquished! How appropriate that we should go out from here, celebrating the good news of Jesus Christ!

It is good news for the heart that follows.

For the heart that thirsts. (The woman at the well ~ John 4)

The heart that mourns. (The widow of Nain ~ Luke 7)

The heart forgiven. (The sinful woman ~ Luke 7)

The heart healed. (The woman who touched Jesus’ cloak ~ Luke 8)

The heart that is desperate. (The Syrophoenician woman ~ Mark 7, Matthew 15)

The heart that learns. (Mary of Bethany ~ Luke 10, John 11-12)

The heart distracted. (Martha of Bethany ~ Luke 10, John 11-12)

And for the heart set free. (Mary of Magdala ~ Luke 8, Mark 15, John 20)

I can imagine you have identified with at least ONE of these women if not all of them at some point in your life. Let us go out to the tune of Mary’s song:

“My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, amazing grace.”

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