What is the life story of Mary Magdalene?

Last updated on September 13, 2021

Historical background

Mary Magdalene is mentioned 12 times in the New Testament, but very little is known about her. She is probably named “Magdalene” to distinguish her from other women, since “Mary” was a very common name at the time. The addition to her personal name probably indicates that she was from Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, in the north of Israel. And the Gospels make clear that this Mary was a contemporary of Jesus, so living in the first century A.D.

Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus

Luke 8:2 mentions that Jesus cleansed Mary of seven demons. That must have changed her life drastically! She was among the group of women who followed Jesus and cared for Him. She was at the cross as Jesus died, and watched as Jesus was buried. On the first day of the week she hurried to anoint Jesus’ body, but as His body was missing from the tomb, she stayed there weeping, and was the first person to see Jesus alive after His resurrection (John 20:1-18). She was also given the responsibility of going to the disciples with the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead (John 20:18 and Mark 16:9-11).

Rumors about Mary Magdalene

Tradition has characterized Mary Magdalene as a prostitute because of the teaching of Pope Gregory 1 in 591 AD. This is based on the belief that the unnamed woman in Luke 7:36-39 who anointed Jesus’ feet, (and who is named “Mary” in the similar account in John 12:1-3) was a prostitute, because in the version given by Luke Simon calls her a sinner. This has led some to believe that this meant that Mary was a prostitute. Additionally, given that Jesus healed Mary Magdalene of seven demons, it is also assumed that before meeting Jesus she must have had a wayward life.
Calling Mary Magdalene a prostitute is now believed to be unfounded, and an unfair judgement on someone who proved to be more of a friend to Jesus in His hour of need than his closest disciples.

There are a lot of other rumors about Mary Magdalene that are not based on reliable historical sources. Some claim she was a visionary and a leader of the early church, others say she had a very close personal relationship to Jesus and even was married to Him, but the Bible does not give any cause to believe these rumors.

Some lessons for us

  • Mary Magdalene is an example of Jesus’ saving power. Being possessed by seven demons seems an ultimately hopeless situation, but Jesus cleansed her.
  • In Jesus’ days, most people taught that women were inferior to men, and were no reliable witnesses. By making Mary Magdalene and other women the first witnesses of the resurrection, Jesus clearly disagrees with this view.
  • The Gospel accounts make clear that Mary deeply loved Jesus. She followed Him, even in the dark moments of his crucifixion. He was of life importance to her. That raises the question: how is your relationship with Jesus? Do you love Him deeply as well?

Thanks to Gospel Images for the painting.

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