Mary Magdalene: Sister, Sinner, Saint
April 9, 2024

In John Wenham’s work, Easter Enigma, he devotes an entire chapter to Mary Magdalene, which is rephrased and summarized here.1

One of the interesting things that Wenham said was that Mary Magdalene was the second “most favored woman in the Bible.”2 He adds, “Yet apart from a brief mention by Luke of her healing and of her service to Jesus in Galilee, she appears in the story as suddenly as a meteor, shines brightly for a moment, and then disappears forever. If this is all we know of her, we can form very little idea of her character or of her story.”3

He depends on speculative tradition in a few places, but his basic argument is an appeal to Scripture. His hypothesis is that the woman “who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37) is none other than Mary Magdalene “from whom seven demons had gone out” (Luke 8:2). Moreover, she is the same woman who is most well known as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10:38–42).

The first link in the chain is between the sinful woman of Luke 7:37 and Mary Magdalene of Luke 8:2. Wenham says, “There is, however, an ancient and tenaciously-held tradition that Mary Magdalene was the ‘sinner’ whose repentance is so movingly portrayed in Luke 7:36-50.”4 This does seem reasonable. Consider: in ancient Judea, what kind of public conduct would be associated with a female “sinner”? Certainly not sins of violence. It would have to be sexual immorality, as the sinful Samaritan in John 4 or the woman caught in adultery in John 8.

Then, immediately after we read of the sinful woman in Luke 7, chapter 8 introduces Mary Magdalene (8:2) telling us that she was among the women who had become one of the female followers of Jesus, “who provided for them out of their resources” (8:3), which suggests that though she had been demon possessed, she had access to material support. (Where might her money have come from?)

We should not imagine a female demoniac in Judea like the violent man who so terrified the people he had to be chained (Luke 8:29). Demon possession is also associated with sexual sin and Mary Magdalene seems to have been from a city that was known to be degenerate: “Magdalene means ‘of Magdala,’ Magdala being a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was, and is, a delectable spot, doubtless very attractive to Roman officers and officials on leave. It was famed for its wealth and its moral corruption.”5

Luke 7 and 8 invite us to speculate that the woman from Magdala, from whom seven demons had been expelled, was the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

How do we connect Mary Magdalene with Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who is from Bethany near Jerusalem, not Galilee? Her unconventional deed makes the connection. The sinful woman of Luke 7 did something most unusual, Wenham explains: “For a woman to let her hair down in the presence of men was considered utterly disgraceful and some rabbis considered it a just ground for divorce.”6 Why did she do it? Wenham offers a fuller reconstruction of the scene, but his point is that she showed her deep repentance and devotion—as Jesus says to the Pharisee, because she was forgiven much, she loved much.

If we are reading the Bible carefully, we should find it more than extraordinary that there should be two stories of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet—Luke 7:36-48 and John 12:1-8. Anointing feet does not seem to have been a Judean custom. People anoint the head. The second story as reported in John seems to be specifically linked to the earlier story in Luke, for John tells us in 11:2 that Mary the sister of Martha is the Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair—the exact disgraceful act performed by the sinful woman of Luke 7. John could be referring forward to the story that he will later relate in John 12, but it seems more likely to me that John is referring back to the story in Luke 7—which he certainly knew—and intentionally giving us a hint about the identity of Mary.

That would establish that Mary the sister of Martha was indeed the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and perfume in an act of devotion and repentance because she loved much. If we allow that connection, the story of busy Martha and devoted Mary in Luke 10:38-42 makes deep sense. Mary is rebuked by Martha for her devotion in this story, just as she was later rebuked by the disciples for the devotion she displayed in anointing Jesus with expensive ointment (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; John 12:2–8).

But how can we connect Mary from Bethany with Mary from Magdala? The answer would seem to be that Mary from Bethany became the Prodigal Sister. Possessed by demons, she forsook her godly brother Lazarus and diligent sister Martha and fled to Galilee to a place filled with Gentiles and immorality. Wenham develops this speculation quite fully.

But for the sake of argument here, just suppose with me (and Gregory the Great) that Mary Magdalene is the sister of Martha and is devoted to the teaching of Jesus because of her deep love and devotion to the Lord who forgave her sins and gave her new life. If we accept that, we are not surprised to see her as one of the few devoted ones at Jesus’ cross. We are not surprised to see her among the women who hurry to Jesus’ tomb on resurrection day. And above all: we are not surprised to see that this woman is the very first person to whom Jesus appeared after His resurrection (John 20). She had anointed Him for His burial and her story would be told wherever the Gospel story went. Therefore when He rose again, He appeared first of all to her.

Mary Magdalene’s love and devotion to Christ stands as an example for all Christians, men and women, and an encouragement for sinners to come to Jesus and receive His forgiveness.

  1. John Wenham, Easter Enigma: Are the Resurrection Accounts in Conflict? (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 1996). All references in this article are to this book. Only page numbers will appear in the footnotes. ↩︎
  2. p. 22. ↩︎
  3. Ibid. ↩︎
  4. p. 23. ↩︎
  5. p. 28. ↩︎
  6. pp. 24-25. ↩︎
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