Who was Mary Magdalene?
Mary Magdalene was a devoted follower of Jesus who entered the circle of the taught during the Galilean ministry and became prominent during the last days.
The noun "Magdala," from which the adjective "Magdalene" is formed, does not occur in the Gospels (the word in Matthew 15:39, is, of course, "Magadan"). The meaning of this obscure reference is well summarized in the following quotations from Plummer (International Critical Commentary, "Luke," 215):
"'Magdala is only the Greek form of mighdol or watch-tower, one of the many places of the name in Palestine' (Tristram, Bible Places, 260); and is probably represented by the squalid group of hovels which now bears the name of Mejdel near the center of the western shore of the lake."
Mary Not the Sinful Woman in Luke 7As she was the first to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus, it is important that we should get a correct view of her position and character. The idea that she was a penitent, drawn from the life of the street, undoubtedly arose, in the first instance, from a misconception of the nature of her malady, together with an altogether impossible identification of her with the woman who was a sinner of the preceding section of the Gospel. It is not to be forgotten that the malady demon-possession, according to New Testament ideas (see DEMON, DEMONOLOGY), had none of the implications of evil temper and malignant disposi-tion popularly associated with "having a devil." The possessed was, by our Lord and the disciples looked upon as diseased, the victim of an alien and evil power, not an accomplice of it. Had this always been understood and kept in mind, the unfortunate identification of Mary with the career of public prostitution would have been much less easy.
According to New Testament usage, in such cases the name would have been withheld (compare Luke 7:37; John 8:3). At the same time the statement that 7 demons had been cast out of Mary means either that the malady was of exceptional severity, possibly involving several relapses (compare Luke 11:26), or that the mode of her divided and haunted consciousness (compare Mark 5:9) suggested the use of the number 7. Even so, she was a healed invalid, not a rescued social derelict.
The identification of Mary with the sinful woman is, of course, impossible for one who follows carefully the course of the narrative with an eye to the transitions. The woman of Luke 7 is carefully covered with the concealing cloak of namelessness. Undoubtedly known by name to the intimate circle of first disciples, it is extremely doubtful whether she was so known to Luke. Her history is definitely closed at 7:50.
The name of Mary is found at the beginning of a totally new section of the Gospel (see Plummer's analysis, op. cit., xxxvii), where the name of Mary is introduced with a single mark of identification, apart from her former residence, which points away from the preceding narrative and is incompatible with it. If the preceding account of the anointing were Mary's introduction into the circle of Christ's followers, she could not be identified by the phrase of Luke. Jesus did not cast a demon out of the sinful woman of Luke 7, and Mary of Magdala is not represented as having anointed the Lord's feet. The two statements cannot be fitted together.
Mary Not a Nervous Wreck
Mary has been misrepresented in another way, scarcely less serious. She was one of the very first witnesses to the resurrection, and her testimony is of sufficient importance to make it worth while for those who antagonize the narrative to discredit her testimony. This is done, on the basis of her mysterious malady, by making her a paranoiac who was in the habit of "seeing things." Renan is the chief offender in this particular, but others have followed his example.
(1) To begin with, it is to be remarked that Mary had been cured of her malady in such a marked way that, henceforth, throughout her life, she was a monument to the healing power of Christ. What He had done for her became almost a part of her name along with the name of her village. It is not to be supposed that a cure so signal would leave her a nervous wreck, weak of will, wavering in judgment, the victim of hysterical tremors and involuntary hallucinations.
(2) There is more than this a priori consideration against such an interpretation of Mary. She was the first at the tomb (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10). But she was also the last at the cross--she and her companions (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:40). A glance at the whole brief narrative of her life in the Gospels will interpret this combination of statements. Mary first appears near the beginning of the narrative of the Galilean ministry as one of a group consisting of "many" (Luke 8:3), among them Joanna, wife of Chuzas, Herod's steward, who followed with the Twelve and ministered to them of their substance. Mary then disappears from the text to reappear as one of the self-appointed watchers of the cross, thereafter to join the company of witnesses to the resurrection.
The significance of these simple statements for the understanding of Mary's character and position among the followers of Jesus is not far to seek. She came into the circle of believers, marked out from the rest by an exceptional experience of the Lord's healing power. Henceforth, to the very end, with unwearied devotion, with intent and eager willingness, with undaunted courage even in the face of dangers which broke the courage of the chosen Twelve, she followed and served her Lord. It is impossible that such singleness of purpose, such strength of will, and, above all, such courage in danger, should have been exhibited by a weak, hysterical, neurotic incurable. The action of these women of whom Mary was one, in serving their Master's need while in life, and in administering the last rites to His body in death, is characteristic of woman at her best.
The following article is excerpted from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain.
Louis Matthews Sweet
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia