Was Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany the Same Person?
Rabbi Yehudah ben Shomeyr
I will not be dealing with the speculatory or pseudepigraphal tommyrot and poppycock coming from liberal, reconstructionistic or incognito illuminati theologians that would like us to foolishly believe that Yeshua was secretly married and had a love affair resulting in children with either of these Mary’s.
I will be dealing with the Brit Chadasha (New Testament) passages dealing with these two women… or are they one and the same?
I am a man of truth and I couldn’t care less where the truth comes from, even if it lay within the mouths of those whom I consider my opponents or enemy. No one has a monopoly on truth and all truth is God’s truth and truth can be found in the most unsuspecting of places; after all, are not all lies baited with truth?
Another interesting and inconclusive point to consider is that in the 14 times that Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the Gospels, but never once is she called a prostitute or a sinner. But could Mary of Bethany be her name or known public designation prior to her conversion and Magdalene her name after her life changing encounter with Yeshua and this be the reason Mary Magdalene is not called a sinner? Could Magdala be her home town of childhood innocence and Bethany the town of her innocence lost?
Now to be clear, it really does not matter what one believes on this issue, because belief either way has no pending on critical soteriological doctrine. But can we at least possibly get a hint by the Gospel accounts alone if these women were two separate women or one and the same? There is also the issue of possibly a third Mary, the unnamed sinner of Luke 7 that anointed Yeshua is said to be either a whole other person all together or she is Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene or all three are one and the same person. Is it possible to untangle this tangled ball of yarn that theologians, like cats have toyed with and have tangled at play? We will at least try.
The name Mary in the Hebrew is Miriam, a popular name for women due to it being the name of Moses’ sister, considered a great and revered matriarch in Judaism, so it is no surprise many women in the Gospel accounts bear the name Miriam (Mary). Miriam (Mary) Mother of Yeshua. Miriam (Mary) of Bethany and sister of Martha and Lazarus, Miriam (Mary) of Magdala/Magdalene, Miriam (Mary) of Mother of Yochannon (John) Mark and sister to Barnabas, Miriam (Mary) Mother of Yaakov (James) and Yoseph (Joseph), also being the wife of Clopas and Miriam (Mary) a helper of Rav Sha’ul (Apostle Paul). Yeah, just enough Miriam’s (Mary’s) to make things confusing!
Regarding Mary Magdalene; the surname “Magdalene” has been a source of controversy. Many believe her “last name” to indicate that she was from Magdala a town or former outpost of sorts thought to on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee. Magdalene in Hebrew is Migdal, indicating a high hill or meaning a tower and or fortress which may lend some credence to this Galilean coastal town. Surprisingly enough there is a Talmudic passage that may be speaking of Mary Magdalene. In Hagigah 4b and Shabbat 104b speak of a Miriam "hamegadela se’ar nasha", "Miriam, the plaiter of women’s hair." And if this is so, beauticians then and now can sometimes carry a loose or questionable and sexualized reputation. If Mary Magdalene was indeed a hairdresser or a beautician, she would also have had access to beauty accessories such as perfumes and thus could also have been the unnamed sinner in Luke 7 that anointed Yeshua with the ointment in the box of alabaster and washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair at the house of Simeon the former leper in Bethany. This would also make sense if she was a prostitute too; because perfume was one of the tools of the trade, as Pope Gregory said that she used it in order “to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” Also some prostitutes lived in guilds and if one was good at doing hair the rest of the women in the guild would go to that woman to help fix them up before they went soliciting customers. If this be so, this encounter at the house of Simeon the former leper was prior to Yeshua meeting Martha and Lazarus and could have been his introduction to this family in Bethany which would make Mary Magdalene and Mary sister of Martha and Lazarus the same person. Furthermore if this unnamed sinner of ill repute was Mary of Bethany, which also being possibly being Mary Magdala, this was then also the person whom Yeshua cast seven demons out of (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2). Furthermore could these seven demons represent and be reason for what is known as the “seven deadly sins (Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride)”? This would mark the character of most prostitutes. Also, if this unnamed sinful woman was Mary of Bethany and she was a prostitute, she likely would have been shunned by her Jewish family (Lazarus and Martha) and only accepted back upon her repentance when she met Yeshua. Note that when the Gospels were penned there were no chapter or verse separations and so note the close proximity to this unnamed female sinner in Luke 7 to Mary Magdala of Luke 8. So if this nameless woman of Luke 7 be Mary of Magdala, could the demons left her when Yeshua dismissed this woman after praising her for anointing Him with fragrant oil of the alabaster box and washing His feet with her tears (Luke 7:47-50)? Because we read no record of when this exorcism took place. I think it highly likely. To confuse things all the more Matthew 26, Mark 14 and John 12 speak of Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus anointing Yeshua with spikenard which was kept in an alabaster box! How likely is it then that the unnamed woman in Luke 7 and Mary of Bethany be two separate people? In my humble opinion, not very. It is too much of a coincidence in my book. If Mary of Bethany and this unnamed woman were the same person this would mean Mary anointed Yeshua’s feet twice, the first time with the perfume and her tears at Simeon the former lepers house when she repented and was forgiven by Yeshua, and once with just the ointment at her home where she lived with her siblings (Lazarus and Martha) in Bethany. Also, if this sinful woman was Mary and the same as Mary Magdala, the one who had seven demon cast out of her, then why did not Luke just say so when it seems John made it clear? Possibly because Luke and John wrote at different times; John wrote supposedly after Mary’s death and Luke prior to, and so veils the identity out of respect and reputation of the living.
“John, however, clearly identifies Mary of Bethany with the woman who anointed Christ's feet (12; cf. Pope, H. (1910). St. Mary Magdalen, in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. and ). It is remarkable that already in , John has spoken of Mary as "she that anointed the Lord's feet", he aleipsasa. It is commonly said that he refers to the subsequent anointing which he himself describes in ; but it may be questioned whether he would have used he aleipsasa if another woman, and she a "sinner" in the city, had done the same. It is conceivable that John, just because he is writing so long after the event and at a time when Mary was dead, wishes to point out to us that she was really the same as the "sinner." In the same way Luke may have veiled her identity precisely because he did not wish to defame one who was yet living; he certainly does something similar in the case of St. Matthew whose identity with Levi the publican (5:7) he conceals. If the foregoing argument holds good, Mary of Bethany and the "sinner" are one and the same… An examination of John's Gospel makes it almost impossible to deny the identity of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalen. From John we learn the name of the "woman" who anointed Christ's feet previous to the last supper. We may remark here that it seems unnecessary to hold that because Matthew and Mark say "two days before the Passover", while John says "six days" there were, therefore, two distinct anointings following one another. John does not necessarily mean that the supper and the anointing took place six days before, but only that Christ came to Bethany six days before the Passover. At that supper, then, Mary received the glorious encomium, "she hath wrought a good work upon Me...in pouring this ointment upon My body she hath done it for My burial...wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached...that also which she hath done shall be told for a memory of her." Is it credible, in view of all this, that this Mary should have no place at the foot of the cross, nor at the tomb of Christ? Yet it is Mary Magdalen who, according to all the Evangelists, stood at the foot of the cross and assisted at the entombment and was the first recorded witness of the Resurrection. And while John calls her "Mary Magdalen" in 19:25, 20:1, and 20:18, he calls her simply "Mary" in 20:11 and 20:16.” -
Capurnaum and Magdala on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee in which chapter seven of Luke begins is about 80 some miles from the Bethany where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived and in between them is the city of Nain (Luke 7:11) So we see the progression of Yeshua’s travels within the chapter from place to place. And a journey, especially one business related from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea where Bethany is was a common and well-worn road and not considered a great distance to those who traveled by foot or beast in those days.
We see Mary Magdalene, whom I think is a very good chance as it being the same as Mary of Bethany and sibling of Martha and Lazarus, as well as the unnamed sinful woman in Simeon’s house was also present at the execution of Yeshua and at the tomb of His resurrection. Ironic that Mary Magdalene was among the women to carry perfumes to anoint Yeshua’s body (Mark 16:1), I think this too connects Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the unnamed sinful woman. Again, for me there are just too many similarities and commonalties for them to all be different women. Mark 15:40-41 seems to hint to us that Mary Magdalene resided in Bethany, the same place where Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ sister lived and followed Yeshua and His Talmidim (Disciples) around and ministered unto them with refreshments whenever they were in the Galilean region. So to me, it is clear Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany and the unnamed sinful woman are all the same person. And to have Mary of Bethany sit at Yeshua’s feet (to the chagrin of her sister Martha) to hear Him teach, sounds like Mary Magdalene who followed Yeshua around Bethany and Galilee to help meet their physical and monetary needs while ministering to the people while at the same time being able to hear Yeshua’s teachings. And to top it off, if these Mary’s were two different people and were so devoted to Rabbi Yeshua then why were not both of them there at the cross and tomb? Why, because they both WERE there, they both are the same person! Both Mary of Bethany (assuming she is the sinful woman of Luke 7) who anointed Yeshua’s feet and Mary Magdalene both had the characteristic of clinging to Yeshua, for Mary Magdalene clung to Yeshua’s feet in reverence to her Rebbe after His resurrection and He had to tell her to stop in order for Him to be in Heaven on time before the Father to present Himself as the First Fruit offering.
Some people may question, why the different names then? It wasn’t uncommon for people in Scripture to go by different names. For example, Peter was known as Peter, Simon Peter, The Apostle Peter, The Rock, Simon son of Jonas. It would like someone calling me (by my English name) Kristopher Scott, Kris Shoemaker, Kris from Mansfield and or Kris, Bill’s son. In a story all designations could be used and most people would not think it was speaking of multiple and separate people, but context would make it clear that it was one person. Same holds true I think for the sinful woman, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene.
Again, bottom line is that it doesn’t make a difference one way of another on what one believes on this, for regardless of what ones opinion is, it has no effect on any weighty and or important doctrine of or matters of faith. But as I read and piece together what we have in the Brit Chadasha, I think the evidence leans heavily that these three women discussed above are all the same person.