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Mary Magdalene?
Question from Phyllis Armeli on 7/27/2001:

Father,

Many people, including priests, often refer to Mary Magdalene and Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as the same person. I have heard them also refer to the woman who washes the feet of Jesus at the house of Simon the Leper, as Mary Magdalene. She isn't named, and since Jesus knew her, wouldn't it have been mentioned? One priest even referred to the woman caught in adultery as Mary Magdalene. In the bible, Mary Magdelene is referred to as Mary of Magdala and Mary, the sister of Martha lived in Bethany. Since it isn't explicitly stated that these are all the same woman, why the widespread inference that they are?

God bless, Phyllis Armeli

P.S. Saw you on "Life on the Rock". Great show!

Answer by Fr. John Echert on 7/29/2001:

Given the number of Mary’s who appear in the NT, it is no wonder that there can be confusion. Here is a list of possible total of seven Mary’s mentioned in the NT:

Mary, Mother of Jesus Mary of Magdala Mary, mother of James and Joses Mary, wife of Clopas Mary of Bethany Mary, mother of John Mark Mary, of church at Rome

It is possible that among these seven, two are actually references to the same Mary; namely, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany. While not a popular position with many modern exegetes, there is support for such an association rooted in the Patristic period. More on this later but first let us look at obvious references to Mary Magdalene.

The Synoptic Gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk)describe Mary Magdalene as a woman of Galilee who assisted our Lord and his disciples and who was present at the crucifixion and burial of our Lord. The Gospel of St. John records that Mary Magdalene as the first witness of the Risen Lord Himself. St. Luke records that “seven demons had gone out of her” and just prior to this note is the account of the sinful woman who tenderly anointed our Lord with her tears and dried them with her hair. While Luke does not make an explicit connection between these two figures, from Patristic times until the present there is a strong tradition of associating Mary of Magdalene with the sinful woman who anointed our Lord:

7:36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house, and took his place at table. 7:37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 7:38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. 7:39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." 7:40 And Jesus answering said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And he answered, "What is it, Teacher?" 7:41 "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 7:42 When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?" 7:43 Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more." And he said to him, "You have judged rightly." 7:44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 7:45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 7:46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 7:47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." 7:48 And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." 7:49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?"

The few details told us of the encounter between Mary Magdalene and our Lord in the Garden seen of the Resurrection inclines one to imagine that this may be the same woman, who was so grateful for having been set free of sin and who once again weeping and sought to touch our Lord:

20:11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; 20:12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 20:13 They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." 20:14 Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 20:15 Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." 20:16 Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rab-bo'ni!" (which means Teacher). 20:17 Jesus said to her, "Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." 20:18 Mary Mag'dalene went and said to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John)

Beyond associating Mary Magdalene with the unnamed sinner who anointed Jesus, there is a tradition going back to the Patristics which associates her with Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Such a link is suggested by the other anointing episode which occurred at Bethany by Mary, as described in Mt, Mk, and John:

12:1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Laz'arus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 12:2 There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Laz'arus was one of those at table with him. 12:3 Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. 12:4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, 12:5 "Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" 12:6 This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. 12:7 Jesus said, "Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. 12:8 The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me."

Those who hold that this is Mary Magdalene regard the episode of anointing with tears as an earlier foreshadowing of this more perfect anointing more immediately associated with the burial of Christ, by the same woman. One complication is that Mary of Magdalene appears to be associated with Magdala (NW side of Sea of Galilee) but it is possible that her hometown is Bethany and she later moved to Magdala. If she was a prostitute of sorts at Magdala, such an occupation would tend to associate her more with the place of her adult residence and trade than her home town.

At any rate, Mary Magdalene had a very special relationship with the Lord and if ancient tradition is accurate, she was privileged to have anointed the Lord twice and was the first to speak with the Risen Lord in the Garden.

Thanks, Phyllis. For those who would like to see the "Life on the Rock" show on which I spoke of the Catholics in the military and the military chapaincy, it will air tonight--Sunday--at 10:00 PM central, and 11:00 PM Eastern.

Father Echert

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