Who Was Mary Magdalene?
In an era when women were often overlooked, marginalized, or even left out of historical records entirely, Mary Magdalene (also known as Mary of Magdala) shines through as one of the most prominent individuals in the New Testament. Mentioned by name twelve different times across the four Gospels — accounting for more verses than most of the individual apostles — Mary is nonetheless something of an enigma among Christians and Bible scholars. In fact, much of what the world thinks it knows about this extraordinary woman comes from extra-biblical sources, legends, and misassumptions.
But who was Mary Magdalene in the Bible? This is what we know from the New Testament:
She had been possessed and had several evil spirits cast out of her. After, she traveled with the disciples of Christ and helped support them (Luke 8: 1– 4).
She was present during the final hours of Jesus’ mortal life as he suffered on the cross (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25), and was also present when he was buried (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47).
All four Gospels attest that she returned to the Savior’s tomb on the morning of his resurrection, and was among the first to see that the tomb was empty (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 20:1, 11).
Finally, from the Gospels of Mark and John, we learn that she was the first living person to see the resurrected Savior (Mark 16:9; John 20:14–18).
In these few verses, we learn very little about Mary’s personal history, experiences, family, or any of the other things that we tend to consider important. But through the fact that the Gospel writers felt compelled to include her, by name, so many times, we can infer a great deal about her character and her relationship with Jesus. She was obviously a devout follower — after the miracle of her healing, she not only changed her life but also her life’s purpose, dedicating herself to serving him who had served her.
And this dedication did not falter, even through the horrific trial, torture, and Crucifixion of the Lord. Here, we can also surmise that Mary must have shown great bravery; it is possible that Christ’s followers may have been in danger of further reprisal (Peter himself denied knowing the Savior three times after Jesus had been arrested), but Mary remained by his side.
Perhaps most importantly, the fact that Jesus chose her to be the first witness of the resurrection tells us that he must have had a great respect for Mary. She had obviously proved her worth, and developed a personal relationship with the Lord throughout his ministry.
The prominence of Mary’s story is adapted in the Chosen. Her initial despair, subsequent redemption, and eventual devotion to Christ and his teaching are explored across several episodes.
Watch The Chosen season 1, Episodes 1 and 2 to see a depiction of Mary’s healing and subsequent testimony.
Who Is Mary Magdalene, Sinner or Disciple?
Understanding the real Mary Magdalene can be difficult, even when pulling only from biblical sources. This may be because there are other accounts of women in the New Testament that could, potentially, also be describing Mary Magdalene. In fact, there are two other prominent women named Mary in the Bible: Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Mary of Bethany.
For example, consider Mary of Bethany, sister to both Martha and Lazarus. Early western Christianity identified this Mary and Mary Magdalene as the same person. And while most biblical scholars now recognize them as separate individuals, there are still many who hold to the more traditional view.
Much more widespread is the belief that Mary is the woman who “lived a sinful life” mentioned in Luke 7: 36-50. In Luke’s account, this woman came to Jesus as he was visiting and dining with Simon the Pharisee. Although uninvited to the meal, she approached the Savior and honored him by washing his feet with her tears and anointing them with perfume. The Savior used this experience to teach the Pharisee about forgiveness, love, and gratitude. He then forgave the sinful woman as a reward for her faith, and told her to go in peace.
Although there is no scriptural evidence that Mary Magdalene was the sinful woman mentioned in Luke (or the woman taken in adultery, described in John, chapter 8), it is likely that she was a sinner prior to her conversion. Why is this? Simply because we are all sinners. The Atonement of Jesus Christ is essential because all of us make mistakes, and all of us fall short of our potential. The loyalty of Mary Magdalene likely stemmed from the fact that the Savior not only healed her soul, but also showed her the reality of true redemption. For that, she devoted her life to help support him and his mission.
Mary at the Tomb
Traveling with the Savior and being his close friend, Mary likely experienced many astounding events. But possibly the most wondrous came at a time when things seemed most bleak. After Jesus had been laid to rest, Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb (either alone, or with a small group) to anoint his body, only to discover it missing.
Specific details differ depending on the account, but it seems clear that she was greeted by an angelic visitor, who bore testimony that the Savior had risen. The Gospel of John adds a more personal narrative. As Mary stood, heartbroken and confused at the sight of the empty tomb, Christ himself came to her. In her distress, she did not immediately recognize him, but he called her by name, and then she knew who he was.
After speaking with the resurrected Savior, Mary did what all of us should do after we have experienced conversion: She bore testimony and sought out others to share her experience with. In this way, she helped prepare the other followers of Christ to recognize and receive Jesus when he would appear to them only a short time later.
After this account, we have no other scriptural records of what finally became of Mary of Magdala, but we can assume that she continued to dedicate herself to the Savior’s ministry through the remainder of her life.
Mary Magdalene: An Exceptional Example
Who was Mary Magdalene? Above all, she was an example. Mary’s redemption — from sinner, to disciple, to evangelist — presents to us a roadmap that we can follow as we strive to more fully center our lives on the Savior. In terms of scriptural accounts, she came from a place of absolute anguish. With no peace, no hope, and no chance of living a normal life, she wallowed in misery and madness. But Jesus found her. He offered her not only healing, but also forgiveness, love, respect, and purpose. He showed her the path to redemption, and made it clear that she didn’t have to try to walk that path alone.
And once she was on that path, she realized that she could help guide others along it as well. Through unknown means, she helped support the Savior and his disciples, and was apparently among those closest to Jesus throughout his mortal life.
Finally, at the entrance to the empty tomb, when Christ returned and called her name, she became an essential witness to the reality of the Savior’s gift. This witness continues to echo through the ages, inspiring new Christians of each generation, as they learn about the woman of Magdala who truly knew the Savior.
Come to know the Savior in your life; watch The Chosen, and see Christ’s life as you never have before.