Who was Mary Magdalene? Because early New Testament manuscripts were more difficult to search than today’s books, Mary M. has at times been confused or combined with other Marys. “Mary” is a form of Miriam, the name of Moses’s sister, whom the Bible describes as a prophet and leader.
Some have conflated Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus (Luke 7). Thus, Mary M. has been described in prose and depicted in art as a reformed prostitute.
Others have suggested she had a romantic relationship with Jesus—or even married him!
But the Scriptures suggest none of these things about her past. The actual details (given in Luke’s Gospel) are that Jesus cast out seven demons from Mary Magdalene, and she was among the healed women who traveled with Jesus and supported him from their own means (Luke 8:2–3). She went on to be an eyewitness to the sufferings of Jesus, the first witness to see the risen Christ, and the first evangelist—announcing the Lord’s resurrection to the apostles with “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18). The latter is why Thomas Aquinas, the great thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian, described Mary Magdalene as “the apostle to the apostles.” The word apostle means “sent one,” and she was sent to relay the best news ever to the “sent ones”—the twelve.
Some say this Mary was from a Galilean fishing village called Migdal, meaning “tower,” thus “Mary from Midgal.” But she could also be “Mary nicknamed ‘Tower.’”
In the New Testament, people often appear with two names: sometimes they have a Hebrew and a Latin name; sometimes they have a Latin and Greek one. There’s John “also called Mark” (Acts 12:12); Dorcas, also Tabitha (9:36); Nathanael, who is probably Bartholomew; Silas, who is also Silvanus; and perhaps Junia is the Latin name for the Jewish Joanna.
Then there were the nicknames. Jesus named James and John the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Our Lord also emphasized the “Peter” in Simon “Peter” (Matt. 16:18), calling him “this rock”—since that’s what “Peter” means. Thomas was “also called Didymus,” or “twin” (John 11:16). The “Iscariot” in “Judas Iscariot” probably means “man of Kerioth” (a place in Palestine), distinguishing this Judas from other men by the same name. And the “Barsabbas” in “Judas Barsabbas” means “Son of the Sabbath” (Acts 15:22). The custom of having more than one name combined with our Lord’s habit of nicknaming people in his inner circle have led some to suppose that “Mary Tower” is a description not of geography but of Mary Magdalene’s personality.
Here we have a word on the subject from the Church Father Jerome (AD 340s–420s): “The unbelieving reader may perhaps laugh at me for dwelling so long on the praises of mere women; yet if he will but remember how holy women followed our Lord and Savior and ministered to Him of their substance, and how the three Marys stood before the cross and especially how Mary Magdalene—called ‘The Tower’ from the earnestness and glow of her faith— was privileged to see the rising Christ first of all before the very apostles, he will convict himself of pride sooner than me of folly” (Letter 127, To Principia).
We don’t know for sure. But here’s what we do know: through the life of Mary Magdalene, we see that Christ has the power to release someone—man or woman—from spiritual bondage. Interestingly, we also learn something about the validity of the New Testament. Anyone trying to fabricate a convincing history surely would have made men the key witnesses at a time when a woman’s testimony counted as little to nothing in a court of law. Yet other than the husband of the Virgin Mary or John the apostle, women were the primary witnesses of Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection. God chose women as witnesses when their word in the legal culture carried as much weight as a dust bunny.
Yet, the best part about Mary is what we learn of Jesus through her. The great British author, Dorothy L. Sayers, summed it up beautifully in a timeless observation piece she penned more than eighty years ago:
“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there has never been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.”
Mary Magdalene speaks across the years, testifying that Jesus the Christ changes lives, setting prisoners free from all kinds of bondage. And after he has taken us from bondage to flourishing, he urges us to go and tell.
For more about Mary M, check out Karla Zazueta’s chapter on her in Vindicating the Vixens. Also, see the work being done on her by Duke scholar Libbie Schrader. The image is of Donatello’s rendering of Mary Magdalene in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy.