The Gospel According to Mary
By Angel Manuel Rodríguez
Question: Is Mary, the sister of Martha, the same as Mary Magdalene?
I have been asked this question many times, suggesting that it interests many people. It has often been a topic of discussion in the history of the Christian church. Let’s examine the biblical evidence.
1. Mary of Bethany: We know little about this Mary, unless she is identified with Mary Magdalene.
This is what we know: She was the sister of Martha and Lazarus and lived in Bethany, in the region of Judea (Luke 10:38, 39; John 11:1, 2). She used to sit at Jesus’ feet to learn from Him. Since this was the posture assumed by a disciple, we can conclude that she was a disciple of Jesus. She anointed Jesus shortly before His crucifixion, revealing her devotion and love for Him (John 11:2; 12:1-8). This act was her expression of gratitude for the forgiving love of the Savior she experienced (Luke 7:47, 48). Luke implies that she had been forgiven much. After the anointing, no other mention is made of Mary of Bethany.
2. Mary Magdalene: The full name of this woman has traditionally been taken to imply that she was from the city of Magdala, located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. The first time she is mentioned in the Gospels she is specifically included among women who had been healed by Jesus from their sickness or from demonic possession; specifically that she had been freed from seven demons, most probably by Jesus (Luke 8:2). These women were Jesus’ disciples—they accompanied Him during His second Galilean tour—and they provided financial support for His ministry (verses 2, 3). In other words, Mary Magdalene was relatively wealthy.
3. Same Person? Based on the biblical evidence I can only say, “Perhaps” or “Probably so.” Most interpreters believe these are two different persons, because no historical evidence exists to support the position that they are the same person.
Besides, there is the problem of the place of origin. Bethany is in Judea, while Magdala is in Galilee. One could speculate that perhaps early in her life Mary left her home in Bethany, went to live in Magdala, and after she met Jesus she returned to Bethany. This does not contradict any of the biblical evidence, but simply goes beyond it.
Another detail to suggest we are dealing with the same person is that the anointing of Jesus recorded in Luke describes Mary as “a woman who had lived a sinful life” (7:37, NIV). In this case it would be difficult to deny that this refers to Mary of Bethany. Besides, they were both disciples of Jesus, and they appear to have had some financial resources that were placed at the service of the Lord. Based on the Bible I cannot provide a final answer to your question. Please, do not get frustrated; we don’t know everything.
4. What Really Matters: Perhaps what is significant for us in the discussion of the identity of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany is that, whether or not they were the same person, Jesus trained women to proclaim the good news of salvation. He called men and women to the service of the gospel.
Mary Magdalene came to play a significant role in the gospel narrative. She almost became the disciple par excellence. She witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross (Matt. 27:55, 56; John 19:25) and accompanied His body to the tomb (Matt. 27:60, 61). On Sunday morning she was the first to get to Jesus’ tomb, and, seeing that it was empty, went and informed the disciples that someone had taken away Jesus’ body (John 20:1, 2). The other disciples came and found it to be true and went away, but Mary stayed behind and was the first to see the risen Lord (verse 15). He commissioned her to tell the disciples He had been resurrected (verse 17). In obedience, she and the other women went to the disciples and announced that the Lord had risen (John 20:18; Matt. 28:7; Luke 24:9).
If the resurrected Savior used women to proclaim to the male disciples that He was alive, we should also make full room for women in the proclamation of the eternal gospel.
Angel Manuel Rodríguez is director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.