Who Was Mary Magdalene?

Although the mother of Jesus looms large in Christian art and cult, she is accorded only fleeting attention in the gospels. Mark mentions the mother of Jesus without giving her name (3:31); John speaks of the mother of Jesus twice without giving any name. The apostles’ epistles ignore her. In The Acts of the Apostles she is mentioned only once (1:14). The evangelists refer to Jesus as “son of Mary,” but they speak of several women named Mary, without indicating which one of them was Mary the mother of Jesus.

      In order to find out who was the mother of Jesus we have to begin by considering the identity of the various women mentioned in the passion narrative. Through the centuries hundreds of minds have used their ingenuity in order to reconcile the statements of the gospels about the women at the cross, at the burial and at the empty tomb. But all these efforts, some of which can be described as clever and some as ludicrous, have not succeeded in formulating a solution that is even barely acceptable, as one can verify by reading recent commentaries. There is no other instance where the gospels appear to contradict each other in such a direct and glaring manner.[1] But on one point the four gospels do agree, namely, that Mary Magdalene was present at all three occasions. If one puts together all the names of women mentioned in the synoptic gospels, disregarding in part the order in which they appear, the following table can be drawn:[2]





First woman

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene

Second woman

Mary mother of Jacob and Joses

Mary mother of Jacob and Joseph

Mary of Jacob

Third woman

The mother of the sons of Zebedee



      There is total agreement on Mary Magdalene: All three gospels mention her first. There is total disagreement on the third woman; further, Mark ignores her on one occasion and Matthew on two of the three occasions. Luke gives names to the women only once.

      There is substantial agreement among the synoptic gospels on the second woman, except that Mark describes her as the mother of Jacob and Joses, and Matthew as the mother of Jacob and Joseph. This discrepancy provides a vital clue, because the same discrepancy occurs also in the names of the brothers of Jesus.[3]  It explains why the gospels introduced “the other Mary”: It would seem that the evangelists were as interested as the later church in denying that those called Jesus’ brothers were his natural brothers, asserting that they were his cousins. Hence, the gospels introduced a second Mary, a sister of Jesus’ mother, as the mother of Jesus’ “brothers.”

      John names the women that witnessed the crucifixion in a passage I have quoted earlier:

His mother and the sister of his mother

Mary of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.

      Traditional interpreters understand that John is referring to four women; but this would mean that four women, all named Mary, came to witness the crucifixion. This is most unlikely. Other interpreters understand that three women are mentioned; they would translate: “his mother, the sister of his mother (Mary of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene.”[4] But this would contradict the other gospels who know of only two women named Mary as present at the cross and at the tomb—Mary Magdalene and another Mary.

      We may presume that John found in the script of Seneca’s play lines attributed to Jesus’ mother and other lines to be pronounced by the chorus. The lines to be sung by the chorus were in the singular, leading John to assume that only one other woman was present. Having merged the chorus of women into a single personality, John inferred from some words in the play that she and Jesus’ mother were sisters, and he identified these sisters, for the benefit of his Christian audience, as “Mary of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.” In order to determine which of these two names designated Jesus’ mother, we must refer to the literary device known as chiasmus, which is found throughout the New Testament,[5] and which was characteristic of ancient poetry and formal prose. Let us compare a verse from Homer’s Iliad (XIV, 323-5), that refers to two famous mortal women with divine or semi-divine offspring:

Semele and Alcmene in Thebes who gave birth to valiant Heracles,

while Semele bore Dionysus.

Here, as in John’s gospel, the description of the second woman is nested within that of the first, in order to stress the relatedness of the two characters. That is the essence of chiasmus. To any educated Greek or Roman the passage could only mean what John intended it to mean, namely, that “the sister of his mother” was Mary of Clopas, and “his mother” Mary Magdalene.[6] Though the John tried to be most emphatic and unambiguous, later commentators became confused because they no longer read the gospels as formal poetic compositions. Seneca had mentioned a single Mary, surnamed Magdalene, but had to some extent merged her with the chorus of “daughters of Jerusalem”; it was John who added Mary of Clopas. Later John mentions only Mary Magdalene as going to the tomb and finding it empty and then witnessing the resurrection (20:10; 20:18). There John also provides an important and specific detail: Jesus addresses the woman as “Mary” (20:16); also in verse 20:11 she is referred to by John simply as “Mary.”

      That Mary Magdalene was the mother of Jesus may strike some readers as shocking, since the figure of Mary Magdalene, as Mary the harlot, is one of the most popular and colorful of Christian hagiography; but the gospels know nothing about Mary Magdalene as Mary the harlot. This figure acquired flesh and bones only in the period that followed the completion of the gospels, being based on interpretations of the gospel of Luke. This gospel mentions an unnamed “sinful woman” who brought to Jesus a flask of ointment and washed his feet with her tears (7:37-38). This unnamed woman came to be identified with the Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus, and Martha, who anointed Jesus’ feet (John 12:3). On the basis of this identification it could be inferred that the “sinful woman” was called Mary. This led to the identification of the “sinful woman” of Luke with Mary Magdalene, whom Luke mentions in the following chapter (8:2). By the time of Pope Gregory the Great (VI century A.D.) it was generally accepted that the “sinful woman,” Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene were one person.

      On the other hand Raymond Brown traces the “elements of a tradition among the Church Fathers, especially those writing in Syriac, that it was Mary the mother of Jesus who came to the tomb.”[106] These Church Fathers recognized that the inner logic of the passion story leads to the conclusion that Jesus’ mother, whom Jesus entrusted to his beloved disciple, and the Mary who witnessed his death and burial and also visited his tomb, were one and the same person, and therefore that the Mary called Magdalene was Jesus’ mother. This is what is clearly indicated by the text of John, unless this text is read with preconceived notions. The reason why the majority of traditional interpreters argue that John mentioned four women is precisely because they do not want to accept the conclusion that Mary Magdalene was the mother of Jesus.

      The synoptic writers had theological reasons, which we shall discuss later, for denying that the mother of Jesus was from Magdala and hence called Magdalene; therefore they left the name Mary Magdalene standing, but omitted to mention that she was Jesus’ mother. Yet they presented Mary Magdalene as accompanied by the sister of Jesus’ mother. They put some stress on the role of this sister, because, for related theological reasons they claimed that the “brothers” of Jesus were the sons of his mother’s sister. By omitting to mention that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ mother, they arrived at the result of assigning a central role in the passion story to a Mary Magdalene who is not mentioned anywhere else by Mark and Matthew, and is mentioned briefly by Luke in a passage that is obviously dependent on the passion narrative. It is not surprising that Christian tradition built around the name of Mary Magdalene a full personality, since the synoptic gospels had left their Mary Magdalene in the status of a ghostly character, albeit an important one.

      In Seneca’s conception the chief mourner at the cross and at the tomb was Mary Magdalene, but she was surrounded by a chorus of mourning women. Seneca had not identified any of the women, except for Jesus’ mother, who played the same role as Alcmene, Hercules’ mother in the Hercules on Oeta, and a role similar to that of Hecuba in The Women of Troy. For him it was a question only of a character, Jesus’ mother, and a supporting chorus, which remained composed of anonymous individuals as in any ancient tragedy. But the identity of the members of the chorus was a matter of extreme importance to the Christian audience, because the women were understood to have been witnesses to the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. For this reason the synoptic writers attached names to the members of the chorus, even though they could not agree with each other.

      In order to explain how the evangelists handled the identification of the women, one must consider the structure and the operation of the chorus in ancient tragedies, in particular in those that Seneca took as his model.

      In Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus the three acts in which the mourning women were the chorus—those that dealt with the crucifixion, the burial and the resurrection—were in great part modeled on The Trojan Women of Euripides and on his own adaptation of this play, The Women of Troy. In Euripides’ play the main character, Hecuba, witnesses the slaying and the burial of her grandson Astyanax; Hecuba is an actor of the play, but she acts in close conjunction with the chorus of mourning Trojan women, who basically shape and echo her bereavement. Near the end of the play Hecuba exclaims,

O dearest women...

and the chorus answer:

Hecuba, speak to us as your own.

The chorus has its own chorus-leader who often engages in lengthy duets with Hecuba, but in other passages, particularly in the final scene, the words of Hecuba are so closely intermingled with those of the chorus that she may be counted as one of its members. In Seneca’s The Women of Troy the character of Hecuba is even more intimately connected with the chorus, which limits itself for the most part to expanding on the words of Hecuba. Several commentators agree that in this play Hecuba acts as the chorus leader. The function of the chorus in this play is made clear by these lines:

Sweet to the mourner is a multitude of sufferers,

sweet when the people echo with lamentations;

sorrow and tears are less bitter

when a similar crowd repeats them with their weeping.

      In Seneca’s Hercules on Oeta the one who is present at the agony, the cremation and the ascension to heaven of Hercules is his mother, Alcmene; but there is also present Iole, the one whom the dying Hercules entrusts to his son, with a chorus of women who have followed her from her native Thessaly. The chorus forms one body with Iole, although she is a separate character of the play.

      From the gospels one can gather that there were several mourning women in Seneca’s play, but that only two stood out prominently. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was an independent actor of the play, but at times she acted as the chorus leader. But the chorus had its own chorus leader who spoke for the chorus, supporting, shadowing, and echoing the first Mary. The rest of the chorus apparently did not have much of an active role. This would explain why John, who relied on the written dialogue, mentions only the presence of two women. Mark and Luke, who saw the tragedy acted, put more emphasis on the women as a group.

      When, as happened at times, the chorus would split into two semi-choruses, the chorus leader led one part of the chorus and another singer led the other half. The practice just mentioned would be enough to explain why the gospel writers concluded that there was more than one Mary among the mourning women. If Mary was, or acted as, the chorus leader—we learn from John (20:16) that she was addressed by Jesus as “Mary”—it must have sounded ambiguous to the Christian audience whether the appellation “Mary” was addressed to one person or to the entire chorus. It is possible that in Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus only Mary Magdalene engaged in dialogue and singing and that the other women supported her role by their gestures and wailing.

      In The Trojan Women of Euripides the chorus addresses Hecuba as “mother” (line 1229). Hecuba was addressed as “mother” because she was older than the Trojan women of the chorus, being the grandmother of the one who was buried and mourned, Astyanax; and, in fact, she addresses the chorus as “young women” (line 1303). It is possible that in Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus the same degree of intimacy and identification between Mary and the chorus was expressed by letting the chorus address Mary as “sister.” In Latin“sister” is commonly used to refer to a close female companion. It is conceivable that if the chorus or the chorus-leader addressed Mary as “sister,” the Christian audience understood that the chorus leader was Mary Magdalene’s sister.

      The name Mary Magdalene means “Mary, a native or a resident of Magdala”— but it must be emphasized that the word Magdalene has a Latin ending. Only in Latin is it possible to derive from the noun Magdala an adjective Magdalena, meaning “woman from Magdala.” This evident fact has not been called to attention by commentators, because for a priori reasons they have not considered the possibility that the gospels drew on a source written in Latin.[8] Seneca referred to Jesus’ mother as Maria Magdalena on the basis of some piece of information that he had received to the effect that Mary was a native or a resident of Magdala. An itinerary for pilgrims written by a certain Theodosius in 530 A.D., lists Magdala “where our lady Mary was born.” It could be that the statement that the women followed Jesus from Galilee was based only on the fact that Mary was from Magdala in Galilee. But the synoptic gospels preferred not to identify with Jesus’ mother the person whose name they render into Greek as Maria Magdalene.

      The evangelists must have had compelling reasons for denying that a Mary of Magdala could be Jesus’ mother. Although only Luke tells us that Mary the mother of Jesus was from Nazareth, the origin of Jesus’ family from Nazareth appears to have been a well-established fact for the evangelists. The evangelists must have had some strong reason for connecting Jesus as closely as possible with Nazareth, so that they had to reject the connection of his mother Mary with Magdala. Even if it were accepted as beyond question that Joseph and Jesus lived in Nazareth, this would not exclude that Joseph’s wife Mary was born or resided in Magdala. Magdala was on the Sea of Galilee, less than three miles north of Tiberias, on the southern limit of the Plain of Gennesaret. At the time of Jesus the road that went east from Nazareth reached the Sea of Galilee at Magdala; therefore a girl of Magdala might well have married a man of Nazareth. But the evangelists considered it so important to emphasize the connection of Jesus with Nazareth that even his mother had to be born there.

      Several critical interpreters have considered the association of Jesus’ family with Nazareth to be a later development; they are inclined to think that Jesus was a native of the area where he began his ministry, the north-west corner of the Sea of Galilee. In his account of Jesus’ travels in Galilee, Matthew writes (9:1):

He got into a boat, went back across the lake,

and came into his own town.

      “His own town” had to be one of the cities along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee—quite possibly Magdala. It could not be Nazareth, since Nazareth is about fifteen miles away in the hill country. A large number of scholars have argued that the epithet Nazarene or Nazorean has nothing to do with the village of Nazareth. In Matthew 2:23 it is stated that the holy family, after returning from Egypt, settled in Nazareth “that what was spoken by the prophets be fulfilled”; but no corresponding prophecy has been found in the Old Testament or any other text. The crux of the problem is that the evangelists were concerned with denying a connection between Jesus and a sect of Nazarenes.

      At the time of Jesus there were in the Holy Land several groups called Nazarene.[9] The Nazarite vow was a Hebrew constitution of ancient origin. Those who took Nazarite vows, either for a given period or for life, had to follow particular rules of purity, abstaining from intoxicants (Num. 6:3) and not cutting their hair (Num. 6:5). In the time of Jesus these vows were used as a sign of distinction by John the Baptist and his followers. For the gospel writers Jesus’s association with the Baptist was a most sensitive issue. Their main concern was to prove to the Romans that only the followers of Jesus could be considered true Jews, because only they recognized the Messiah, or Christ, foretold by the prophets. Although the gospel writers make it clear that Jesus’ baptism by John was the determining factor in the inauguration of his mission, they go to great lengths to minimize Jesus’ debt to John. The Baptist was acceptable as long as he could be made subordinate to Jesus. But there was one piece of evidence about Jesus’ relationship with John that was widely known and hence most difficult to suppress, namely, Jesus’ appellation as “the Nazarene.” In order to explain this title the gospel writers had to tie Jesus as closely as possible to the Galilean village of Nazareth. Since his birthplace had to be Bethlehem, according to prophecy (Micah V. I.), it became essential to link Jesus’ entire family as closely as possible to Nazareth, and by the same token to deny that Jesus’ mother could be from any other place, even nearby Magdala. The matter had to be of vital importance to the gospel writers, for by denying that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ mother, they sacrificed much of the coherence and literary poignancy of the last three acts of Seneca’s play.

[1]  Among all the attempts at reconciliation I may mention the one which consists of breaking the two or three scenes of women at the cross and at the tomb into about a dozen scenes: In each scene different women come forward and then withdraw. In this way the participants at the burial are Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joanaa, and a variable number of other Marys, which may or may not include Mary, the mother of jesus.

[2]  After Brown, op. cit., p. 905.

[3]  According to Mark (6:3)his brothers were:“ Jacob and Joses and Judas and Simon,” whereas according to Matthew (13:55) they were “ Jacob and Joseph and Judas and Simon.”

[4]  The interpretation according to which John mentioned three women appears to be rather forced, but it has a solid justification. Clopas is not mentioned anywhere else in the gospels, so that one would be left wondering who is “Mary of Clopas” (“Mary of Clopas”could mean the mother, the wife, or the daughter of Clopas). But Eusebius of Caesarea ( d. 339 A.D.) quoted (Hist. Eccl. III. 11 ) Hegesippus ( f1. 150 A.D.) to the effect that Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a brother called Clopas, who married the sister of Mary, also called Mary. In other words, Joseph and his brother Clopas would have married two sisters, both called Mary. This view was accepted by St. Jerome (d. 419 A.D.) and became authoritative, although later is found a stumbling block in the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary .(Jerome, Ad Helvidium; In Matthaeum II; Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica IV .2.).

[5]  N.W. Lund, Chiasmus in the New Testament ( Chapel Hill, N.C., 1942).

[6]  Whoever added the annotation was most interested in affirming that the sister of Jesus‘mother was married to someone named Clopas. Early Christian writers identify this Clopas as a brother of Joseph. The clause “ Mary of Clopas and Mary Magdalene” was added because Christians, beginning with the age of the composition of the gospels, were interested in maintaining that Joseph was closely related to his wife Mary.

[7]  Brown, op. cit., p. 981. The earliest evidence of such a tradition is Tatian‘s Diatessaron (2nd century). Also Ephraem, On the Diatessaron XXI.27 in Corpus Christianorum Orientalium 145 ( Armenian 2) : 235-36, “clearly applies John‘s account in 20:1-18 to Mary the mother of Jesus.” Cf.A. Loisy, Le Quatrieme Evangile 2 ed. (Paris, 1921), p. 504. the same tradition appears in The book of the Resurrection, a Coptic manuscript translated by E.A. Wallis Budge.

[8]  There is another important influence of the Latin language on the name of Jesus‘ mother. Our manuscripts of the gospels wavew constantly between spelling her name as Maria and as Mariam. The wavering in the manuscript tradition is so general that most editors do not attempt to decide which is the better spelling.Mariam is the proper term based on Hebrew and Aramaic diction, whereas Maria has definitely the character of a Latin name. It can be inferred that Seneca spoke of a Maria Magdalena and that the gospel writers rendered her name into their Greek text as Maria, many copyists edited this name, which was preposterous for a Hebrew woman, into Mariam.

[9]  Ephiphanius reports that before the time of Jesus there was a Jewish sect of Nasaraeans, which he distinguishes from that of the Christian Nazoraeans (adversus haereses, XXIX). St. Jerome calls Jesus Nazarenus as well as Nazareus (In Matth. III). The names of these groups derived in some cases from the Hebrew root nasar “to observe” and in others from the Hebrew root nazar.“to dedicate, to separate.” These two roots are totally unrelated linguistically, but they may have been confused for religious reasons at the tome of Jesus. They would be easily confused in the Greek rendering.