Mary Magdalene is such a prominent woman in Jesus’ ministry that many stories have built up around her! A number of these have to do with her name. Mary is so common in the New Testament that the various scriptural Mary’s have been confused or conflated. The name itself literally means, “The One Who Has Endured Much Pain and Suffering,”1 which the First Nations Version accurately translates to “Strong Tears.” Boaz Johnson explains why this name was so common at the time of Jesus’ birth:
During the time of Jesus, the Sadducees, a political party, were in control of towns and villages. They had tax collectors who would subjug ate common people to debt slavery. They then handed over girls from towns and villages to Roman soldiers as sexual slaves, to curry favor with them. Because of this horrible system, whenever a girl was born the parents would, in all sadness, name the baby Mary. They knew that the life of these girls would be bitter and painful.2
The fact that Mary was delivered from seven demons (Luke 8:2) speaks to the abuse she likely endured.
During the sixth century Roman Catholic church history conflated Mary’s demon possession with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom John attributes to anointing Jesus with oil (John 12:8). This confusion grew until Mary Magdalene became known as a former prostitute who was restored by Jesus even though there is no Mary identified in Scripture as a prostitute! Luke 7:36-50 has been traditionally used to support this story, though it neither mentions a name nor prostitution. Nevertheless, Mary Magdalene was regularly represented in religious art as half-naked with only her hair covering her nudity. Despite this false portrayal, the Holy Spirit was at work using this for redemptive purposes. Mary Magdalene came to represent the abused and prostituted women who Jesus healed, and therefore whom the church should welcome and love. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic communities continue to carry on this false narrative, though they both officially rejected this story in the 16th century. Yet, according to Scripture, Mary Magdalene was delivered from seven demons and became a devoted disciple of Jesus by following and supporting him from the early days, which continued through to his crucifixion (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25), burial (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47) and resurrection (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 20:1-2). In fact, she is the only person that the gospels depict at all these events.
Mary’s second name, Magdalene, speaks to financial independence and capacity to devote herself to Jesus’ ministry. The use of “Magdalene” does not follow the cultural paterfamilia (male-head of family) pattern of naming her through association to the male-head of her tribe or family, such as her father or husband. Thus, she was relationally and financially independent and able to make her own decisions. This is further supported by the fact that Scripture identifies her as one of the financial supporters of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1-3). The Gospels and Paul’s letters regularly highlight women who broke the stereotypical paterfamilia “head of household” pattern, as seen in women, such as Susanna, Phoebe, Joanne, and Lydia. These women were “patrons,” meaning women of considerable independent influence, with political and financial power to protect and promote the churches.
The name Magdalene itself is unique. Many have assumed that it describes where she came from, such as the village of Magdala. This is like saying “Jesus of Nazareth.” Excavations have revealed several villages in Palestine from the first century with a name similar to Magdala. So, her name could just indicate where she came from. In contrast to this, there is no evidence of early church history associating Mary to a region, however, there is historical evidence that associates her name with the Hebrew and Aramaic honorific meaning of magdala, as “tower” or “magnified.” Jerome, an early church leader who worked with Paula translating ancient texts into Latin (the Latin Vulgate), explained the early tradition regarding her name; she was given that name because she was a tower of faith. Therefore, just as Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter (Rock), he gave Mary the name Magdala (Tower).3
The Orthodox tradition has stayed true to the scriptural witness of Mary Magdalene in remembering her as the “Apostle to the Apostles.” She has earned this title because she was the first person whom the risen Christ spoke to, instructing her to return to the disciples to tell them the good news of his resurrection. This raises the question, who qualifies as an apostle? Many churches assume that only The Twelve and Paul were considered true apostles. Although contrary to widely held belief, Paul gave the title of apostle to Junia and her husband. There are two scriptural definitions of an apostle. The first is: “one who has accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry and who has become a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22); the second is: one “who has witnessed an appearance of the risen Christ and who has received a divine call or commission to proclaim Christ’s message” (1 Cor 9:1; 15:3-11; Gal. 1:11-19).4 Mary fulfills the criteria of both definitions, thereby providing evidence that the Orthodox Christians accurately label her as “the Apostle to the Apostles.”
We are struck by the courage of Mary Magdalene’s presence at Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, beside several other women, considering the absence of male disciples. In fact, the male disciples were afraid and hiding behind a locked door (John 20:19). Kenneth Bailey, an expert on Middle Eastern culture, provides important context. The Romans were not naïve to the Jewish unrest under their occupation. During religious festivals, when they expected Jewish nationalism to be heightened, they also boosted their presence. Thus, it is not coincidence that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities during the Jewish Passover. His teachings were thinly veiled (or not veiled at all) claims to a new kingdom and rule, posing a threat to the Romans. His crucifixion on Passover sent a message to his followers suggesting they would be targeted next. However, it was the men whom the Roman authorities expected to be dangerous, not the women! Women and children could move about freely. As a result, the men were hiding while the women and children were witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.5 As the gospel teaches, Jesus revealed himself as the resurrected Christ to the very women the ruling powers judged as insignificant, and even the disciples judged as “idle gossips.” (Luke 24:11). Regardless of the world’s values, Jesus instructed Mary Magdalene to go and ”tell the disciples.” The women’s witness is at the heart of the gospel and human history.
“Frequently Asked Questions about Mary Magdalene,” by Lidija Novakovic in Prisicilla Papers, June 5, 2006.
To learn more about the naming of Mary, see: “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement” by Boaz Johnson.
To learn about the Middle Eastern culture and its impact on the movements of men versus women and children, see: “God’s Word to Middle Eastern Women,” by Kevin Zabihi in Mutuality, October 20, 2021.
“Christ is Risen: The Nonsense of a Hysterical Woman,” by Chesna Hinkley in Mutuality April 15, 2020.
- Boaz Johnson, ”The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality (December 13, 2019).
- Boaz Johnson,” The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality (December 13, 2019).
- Yonat Shimron, ”Was Mary Magdalene really from Magdala? Two Scholars Examine the Evidence,” Religion News Service (January 7, 2022).
- Lidija Novakovic, ”Frequently Asked Questions About Mary Magdalene,” Priscilla Papers, (June 5, 2006).
- John’s presence indicates he was still a youth as compared to the other disciples at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Kevin Zabihi, ”God’s Word to Middle Eastern Women,” Mutuality (October 20,2021).