Mary Magdalene

Many things have been written about this woman, especially based on this one phrase “out of whom went seven devils”. Our purpose with this article is to look at what the Bible has to say about Mary and also to look at what traditionally has been taught about her in comparison to what the Bible reveals.

Magdalene

According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon the term Magdalene was used “identifying her as from Magdala”. Strong’s Concordance, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary, Adam Clarke and Vincent’s Word Studies all agree with this as do many others.

Magdala was on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. Its name is probably taken from the Hebrew word “migdol”, meaning “tower”. It is likely that the town was one of the many that grew up around the established watchtowers that were found inside and outside the land of Israel. The Old Testament speaks of those lining the southern border of the land:

  • Exodus 14:2; Numbers 33:7-8 – On the coast of the Red Sea
  • Jeremiah 44:1; 46:14; Ezekiel 29:10; 30:6 – Another tower bordering Egypt to deep south

The most famous of the watchtowers to be built in the land of Israel is Megiddo.

Jesus in Magdala

In Matthew 15:36 – 16:4 we have the only recorded visit of Jesus to Magdala (it is called Dalmanutha in Mark 8:10). While he was there the record makes it plain that he was quite unwelcome, especially by the religious leaders of the community. Like many others before them these leaders tempted Jesus to do a miracle just to satisfy their curiosity. In response Jesus partially repeated what he had told those in nearby Capernaum (which they had no doubt been aware of):

“A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas”.

If we look at what Jesus had told those in Capernaum in full, we see that Jesus was warning the obdurate among the people (the leaders!) of coming judgment and punishment:

“The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it”; “The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it”. For the full context, see Matthew 12:1-50.

Mary

Out of this town of unwelcoming people came a woman who welcomed Jesus with open arms and heart. We are first introduced to this remarkable woman in Luke 8:1-3.

"And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance."

Mary appears to have been chief among the women who ensured the comfort of the Lord Jesus as he travelled, leaving their own areas and followed him throughout his ministry.

Out of Whom Went Seven Devils

Many things have been written about this phrase, several of which can be dismissed out of hand as they do not conform to Biblical teaching. One particular teaching needs closer examination.

This theory has its origin about 600 years after Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. In 591 AD, Pope Gregory “the Great” introduced the idea to the Roman Church that Mary Magdalene was so sinful that she was possessed by seven literal demons. The idea was that she was a harlot and that the term Magdalene was closely related to a similar word that meant “one with plaited hair”, a symbol of harlotry. This idea became so prominent in the Roman Church “that institutions designed to help fallen women are described as Magdalene Homes” (Guide to the Gospels – H.P. Mansfield).

While officially rejected by the Roman Church in 1969 by the Vatican Council, Magdalene Houses still remain and the current (2011) Catholic Encyclopedia continues to promote this idea.

The teaching that Mary Magdalene was a harlot has even seeped into the thinking of many Protestant writers and is even found in children’s books about the Bible:

“Jesus had another friend called Mary, who came from Magdala on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She had led a life of which people disapproved, but Jesus helped her to make a fresh start” (Children’s Illustrated Bible, pg 207).

Of course, this idea is a popular literary device for Hollywood, authors, and musicians alike, finding its way into movies and musicals such as “The Last Temptation of Christ”, “Jesus Christ: Superstar”, “The Passion of Christ” and “The Da Vinci Code”.

Devils/Demons

As we look at the Bible concerning the concept of demons, a few things become apparent:

  1. The only Old Testament references to “demons” are in the context of the idols of the false gods of the nations around Israel, some of which Israel had brought in to worship.
  2. In the New Testament, specifically in the Gospel records, the terminology is used almost exclusively when Jesus is healing in the Northern areas of the land, specifically in the environs of Galilee.
  3. The idea of “unclean spirits” and “demons” are clearly link and are always used in conjunction with a mental disorder.
  4. The term “demons” is never used for sin or sinful behavior.

Examples

We will look at a couple of Scriptures to support our pattern above.

And they arrived at the country of the Gadarenes, which is over against Galilee. And when he went forth to land, there met him out of the city a certain man, which had devils long time, and ware no clothes, neither abode in any house, but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out, and fell down before him, and with a loud voice said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God most high? I beseech thee, torment me not. (For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. For oftentimes it had caught him: and he was kept bound with chains and in fetters; and he brake the bands, and was driven of the devil into the wilderness.) And Jesus asked him, saying, What is thy name? And he said, Legion: because many devils were entered into him. And they besought him that he would not command them to go out into the deep. And there was there an herd of many swine feeding on the mountain: and they besought him that he would suffer them to enter into them. And he suffered them. Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked. When they that fed them saw what was done, they fled, and went and told it in the city and in the country. Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid. They also which saw it told them by what means he that was possessed of the devils was healed. - Luke 8:26-36

Notice the indicators from the pattern we listed above:

  1. In the north around Galilee.
  2. The clear link between “unclean spirit”, “demons” and mental disorder.
  3. No mention of sin.

The conclusion we can reach is, it is not that demons cause mental illness, but rather that those in the Northern areas around Galilee were influenced by pagan Gentile beliefs and they called mental illness demon possession.

Another example of this is found in the very next chapter.

And it came to pass, that on the next day, when they were come down from the hill, much people met him. And, behold, a man of the company cried out, saying, Master, I beseech thee, look upon my son: for he is mine only child. And, lo, a spirit taketh him, and he suddenly crieth out; and it teareth him that he foameth again, and bruising him hardly departeth from him. And I besought thy disciples to cast him out; and they could not. And Jesus answering said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you, and suffer you? Bring thy son hither. And as he was yet a coming, the devil threw him down, and tare him. And Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and healed the child, and delivered him again to his father. - Luke 9:37-42

Again we see the same pattern. Jesus and his disciples were in the north, just after coming down from mount Hermon after the Transfiguration, probably back at his base of operation in Capernaum when he is met by a local man with a boy with what appears to be epilepsy (which is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain) and the father attributes it to an “unclean spirit” and the record again links it with a “demon” and there’s no mention of sin.

Mary’s Illness

The conclusion we can reach with evidence presented in the Scriptures is that Mary Magdalene, like the Gadarene man, was a person who was completely overcome with her illness, and may have even had several mental disorders, and Jesus healed her of all these.

As a side note, Albert Barnes (Barnes Notes) and Adam Clarke (Clarke’s Commentary) both interpret the word “seven” as “an indefinite number”. This would again suggest that Mary was completely gone in her illness, and humanly speaking, beyond all hope. It was only the power of God manifest in His son, Jesus Christ that could save her from all that.

Joining the Group

Now that we have settled that, let’s look at Mary and her character and life after her healing.

As we read in Luke 8:1-3, Mary Magdalene joined other women whom Jesus had healed and they dedicated their lives to ministering to, or serving the Lord Jesus.

And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance. – Luke 8:1-3

Susanna is only mentioned here and Joanna is mentioned in only one other place (Luke 24:10). Was Joanna the one who had passed the Gospel message to Manaen (Acts 13:1), Herod’s foster brother (see the ASV, RV, Rotherham and YLT)? Was Chuza, her husband and Herod’s steward a believer too? Unfortunately, we are not told, but in this case it is certainly nice to contemplate.

Substance

Notice the phrase that is used at the end of verse 3, “ministered to him of their substance”. Throughout Scripture when the word “substance” is used of a human, it is to refer to their wealth.

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. – Genesis 12:5

And Hezekiah had exceeding much riches and honour: and he made himself treasuries for silver, and for gold, and for precious stones, and for spices, and for shields, and for all manner of pleasant jewels; storehouses also for the increase of corn, and wine, and oil; and stalls for all manner of beasts, and cotes for flocks. Moreover he provided him cities, and possessions of flocks and herds in abundance: for God had given him substance very much. – 2 Chronicles 32:27-29

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. – Luke 15:13

It appears that Mary came from a well-to-do family, and as there is no mention of parents or siblings, it appears that perhaps she was the sole heir of the family’s wealth. Instead of returning to a life of comfort after (possibly) many years living aimlessly on the street, being shunned wherever she went, she continued her nomadic life, but this time with a purpose. The goal, it seems, was to use her substance to attempt to thank the one who had freed her from the prison of her mind.

Her attitude of mind was God had given her wealth for a reason, and this was it; serving the son of God with everything she had. It was pattern that was picked up a few years later by the early believers (Acts 2:45; 4:34; 11:29). Is this not the mind we need to have? God gives us things to use in his service, and we should use them to help our fellow believers (1 John 3:17; James 2:15-16; 1 Timothy 6:17-19).

The Crucifixion

We do not find a record of Mary Magdalene again until the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew 27:55-56 and Mark 15:40-41 both tell us that when Jesus was crucified Mary Magdalene and the other women (Mary the mother of Jesus, her sister Salome the wife of Zebedee and Mary the wife of Alpheus) were standing “afar off”, observing.

And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's children. - Matthew 27:55-56

There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; (who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him;) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem. - Mark 15:40-41

The point in time both these records are referring to is the moment of the Lord’s death, but if we look at the John record we find that this “afar off” was not the only place she was to be found.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. - John 19:25

This must have been quite an emotional experience for her. Here was her Lord, the one who brought back her sanity, the one who she believed was the long promised Messiah, whom she loved with that true self-sacrificing love, nailed to a harsh Roman cross, dying. It is at this point Jesus spots his mother and tells John that she is now his mother.

When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. - John 19:26-27

It is probably at this point the women, along with Mary Magdalene move to position we find them in the Matthew and Mark records, a fulfillment of prophecy.

My lovers and my friends stand aloof from my sore; and my kinsmen stand afar off. - Psalm 38:11

In case we may think badly of her and the others for deserting Jesus at this point we need to keep in mind that all these events were controlled by God.

Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me... - Psalm 88:8

The Tomb

After the Lord Jesus had breathed his last it was the ever watchful Mary who followed Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemous to the sepulchre to see where and how Jesus was buried (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:55-56). It would appear that “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” were going to honour the man they loved with a kingly anointing of spices and oils when the Sabbath was over, forgetting his words “and be raised the third day” (see Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mark 9:31; 10:34; Luke 9:22; 18:33).

One can only imagine what was going through Mary’s mind as she had a High Sabbath and a regular Sabbath to sit through before she could go back to the sepulcher. The words of those travelling to Emmaus would do well as a summary; “we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel” (Luke 24:21).

The Resurrection

True to her character, Mary Magdalene was the first to the tomb. In fact, it seems that she went to the tomb at least three times. The first was just after 6 PM at the end of the Sabbath.

In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: and for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you. And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. - Matthew 28:1-8

With the darkening sky and the rejection of her message to the disciples that Jesus had been raised, she went back. Was her travel back to the tomb fraught with self doubt? Did she start to think that she had imagined it all and her sanity was slipping away now that her healer was gone? Her misgivings would probably been enormous as she approached the tomb the second time.

The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. - John 20:1

This time she specifically seeks out Peter and John who race to the tomb with a now exhausted Mary not even attempting to keep pace.

Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him. Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. Then the disciples went away again unto their own home. - John 20:2-10

While the disciples were looking in the tomb Mary finally caught up to them and remained after they left. The emotion of this event would have run through her creating tears so heavy that she would not have been able to see properly, which would explain what happened next.

But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her. - John 20:11-18

This time she was confident about her message when she returned to the disciples. No doubts, no worries and full of joy. Her Lord was raised and had spoken to her!

Afterwards

This is the last record of Mary Magdalene in the Scriptures, except for a possible allusion to her in Acts 1:14.

These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren. – Acts 1:14

It would seem she falls back into obscurity, but we need to remember that God has designed the Scriptures as a record of His purpose, not a complete record of people’s lives. She had a special place in the life of the Lord Jesus and that is the important part for us because we can learn from her.

Conclusions

What are we to learn from this woman who love the Lord Jesus and was blessed to be the first to see him raised from the dead?

  1. We can be saved from the mental illness of society around us by following Christ.
  2. Like Mary, we need to devote our lives to ministering (serving) Christ by ministering to our brothers and sisters, for “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
  3. No matter how hopeless it seems, how riddled with self-doubt we are, if we seek out Jesus Christ he will comfort us through the words of Scripture, and ultimately give us a place in the Kingdom.
  4. We need to love our Lord who “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrew 4:15), who suffered so that he would be able to comfort us when we are tempted.
  5. We need to return to the tomb of Christ in our minds again and again so that we do not forget what Jesus Christ has done (“offered one sacrifice for sins for ever” – Hebrews 10:12) and that he now lives forever “to make intercession for us” (Hebrews 7:25).
  6. We must proclaim the risen Lord and his coming no matter if people reject our message.
  7. Like Mary Magdalene was always with the disciples following the Lord Jesus, we must always be with our fellow believers, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25).

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