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One Mary, Two or Three? by Theresia Saers

One Mary, Two or Three?

by Theresia Saers

For more than a quarter century I have been intrigued by the puzzle that occupies many a student of the New testament: Is Mary of Magdala the same person as Mary of Bethany, or is she not? Moreover, is either of these two Marys the same person as the anonymous repentant sinner described in Luke 7,36-50? A real teaser. Like one of those questions, called koans, that Buddhist masters ask their disciples to ponder, hoping to lead them in the end to enlightenment.

I will unravel the various aspects of the question in this sequence:

  1. A critical look at the Gospel texts
  2. The discussion in the Church through the ages
  3. Some modern theories
  4. Conclusion

A critical look at the Gospel texts

The evangelist responsible for the linking of the name of the port of Magdala (Mejdel) to Mary is Luke. However, he does this in an unusual way. He does not write ‘Mary of Magdala’ (Luke 8,2) like he will later write ‘Nikolaüs, a proselyte from Antioch’ (Acts 6,5) and ‘ a man from Tarsus, called Saül’ (Acts 9,11). No, he says ‘ Mary, otherwise called the Magdalene’. Or, as others translate his text: ‘Mary, surnamed the Magdalene’. (1)

Normally a woman of those days would be identified by linking her name to that of her husband or of her sons (never her daughters). In Mary’s case that must have been impossible and therefore Luke thought of another way. Maybe this Mary had her own house in Magdala, where she could muster her women. We do not know. What we do know is that Jesus, who calls out his ‘Woe you’ on various towns, never did so on Magdala…

What do we know from the New Testament about Mary of Bethany?

  • She acts in a very remarkable way when on a certain day Jesus and his disciples visit the house of her sister Martha, where she is also present. She does not devote herself to the material care of the illustrious guest and his disciples, no she decides to join the latter and sit as his feet as one of them. It causes Jesus to praise her openly for the choice she has made (Luke 10, 38-42).
  • When her brother Lazarus has died, her sister Martha brings the message that Jesus wishes her to join him at the graveside (John 11).
  • According to the Fourth gospel she was the woman who anointed Jesus ( John 11, 2).
  • Jesus had a special love for Mary of Bethany, her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus. ( John 11, 5).

This is what we read about Mary Magdalen:

  • She was one of a fairly large group of women who followed Jesus from Galilee and served him with their worldly goods (Matthew 27, 55 and Mark 15, 40).
  • She stood watching the Crucifixion ( Matthew 27, 55 ; Mark 15, 40 ; John 19, 25-27).
  • She and ‘the other Mary’ were present when Jesus was laid in the tomb ( Matthew, 27, 61 and Mark 15, 47).
  • She came to visit the tomb with ‘the other Mary’ (Matthew 28, 1).
  • After his resurrection Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalen. It was this Mary that went to tell the mourning disciples that he lived, but they did not believe her words (Mark 16, 9 ; John 20, 1-18 ; Luke 23, 55, 56 and Luke 24, 1-11).
  • Jesus delivered Mary Magdalen from seven devils (Luke 8, 2 and Mark 16,9).
  • Mary Magdalen and the other women saw angels after the resurrection ( Matthew 28, 1-7 ; Mark 16, 5-7 ; Luke 24, 4-8; John 20, 11-13).
  • One of her few spoken words that have been recorded - and also the last - is: ‘Rabboni’, which means ‘Master’.
  • She appears to have had a leading role among the women. Luke, Matthew and Mark mention her before the others (Luke 8, 2 ; Matthew 27, 56 ; Mark 15, 40).

The character description of both women may be compatible. What is contradictory is the way in which Luke deals with Mary Magdalen. Luke sees fit to dress Mary Magdalen and all the other women with her in a cloak of disease and sin, when at the same time he feels constrained to tell that these very women served Jesus and his disciples using their own assets. Could that be because at the time Luke wrote down his gospel this fact was still generally known? Does he use literary means to suggest that Magdalen is the woman that anointed the Lord as the repentant woman (Luke 7). He does not mention the woman's name, but does he insinuate that she was the Magdalen? If so, he even makes the disrespectful Pharisee-host in Bethany say within himself what a ‘hamartolos’ this woman is, how sinful and wrong. (2)

Is it unlikely that more than one anointing has taken place? Was the anointing in Bethany, the same as the anointing by the repentant woman? From the story that Matthew and Mark tell about the anointing it appears that Jesus ordered his disciples to always include the story of what Mary of Bethany did wherever the gospel would be preached in order to keep her memory alive (Matthew 26, 13 and Mark 14, 9). (3) It is one of the strangest verses in the New Testament. If both anointings are one and the same, why did Luke mention Jesus’ wish that the woman’s name should forever be remembered, while at the same time omitting to divulge her name in Luke 7?

It is just as remarkable that within the gospels all four evangelists give prominence to Mary of Magdala but that only Luke mentions Mary of Bethany more than once in a very special role. Was that his way of fulfilling the commandment of the Lord? The Fourth Gospel, written at a later time than those of Matthew and Mark, and according to some Biblical scholars strongly influenced by this Mary Magdalen who seems to have been under some cloud, takes the trouble to tell us that it was Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus. Was there already so much confusion about the identity of these two Maries?

The discussion in the Church through the ages

In the community around Jesus of Nazareth there were two outstanding women whose names sometimes caused confusion, especially when they were not around. They were both called Mary. One, his mother. The other, a constant companion, from the days she had turned over a new leaf in her life and had anointed his feet with precious oil, and he had accepted her amongst his disciples. Either woman was, whenever necessary, referred to as ‘the other Mary’.

Real confusion arose only decades later, when some began to consider it necessary to write an account of the ministry of Christ in Palestine. There were reasons why the people around Jesus were sometimes referred to in a rather roundabout way. Mary, his mother, seems at times to have been indicated by the names of other sons, James and Joseph, and the other Mary as Mary, the Magdalene. The latter might well have been called Mary of Bethany, because that was the small town, where she came from, and where she occurs in more than one of the Bible stories. That surname, however, is not used in any of the four gospels.

People started to wonder if Mary of Magdala was the same as the woman called Mary that they read about in connection with Bethany, and again if these two or either of them could be the anonymous sinner that Luke spoke about. For, wasn’t the former called a sinner in the city, and the latter a woman Jesus had redeemed from the seven demons that had possessed her? Seven demons. She must have been a real sinner, mustn’t she? The Eastern Church held on to the idea of three women, the Church of Rome, especially after the firm statements of St. Augustine, a great Bible scholar, and Pope Gregory, the Great, opted for the unity of the three.

The Gregorian amalgamation of the three Marys into one person became generally accepted in the Middle Ages because of the popularity of his Life of Mary Magdalen, propagated in the 13th-century Legenda Aurea.

In 1517, this Roman idea was challenged by Lefèvre d’Étaples, who pronounced his opinion that Rome was wrong: Mary Magdalen was not the same as the Mary that occurred in Bethany, nor was she the anonymous sinner from Luke!

The Western Church seemed to shake in its foundations. Mary Magdalen was essential to the faith of the Church and anyone that called for a revaluation touched its nerve centre! Great scholars, such as John Fisher in England, and Erasmus in the Netherlands, were asked to comment. John Fisher decided the matter: Lefèvre ‘s arguments were insufficient. According to Fisher, Mary Magdalen had formerly been a sinner and was the same person as the woman called Mary in Bethany. Thereupon Erasmus praised Fisher for his learned reply. Lefèvre, well aware of all the commotion, thought it best to redefine his position: maybe, just maybe, the gospels speak about two persons only, or even one only….

However, the debate had started and would never stop after that. Some books I have recently seen in the library of the Archdiocese of Marseille were evidently written in the context of that ongoing dispute:

  • 1649 Dissertation sur Sainte Marie Magdeleine Pour prouver que Marie Magdeleine, Marie Soeur de Marthe, et la Femme pécheresse, sont trois femmes différentes. Paris, avec privilège du Roi.
  • 1674 La Magdeleine, Pécheresse et Convertie. Traduite de l’Italien de MR. Le Mr. Le Marquis Antoine-Iules Brignolé Salé par le R.P. Pierre de S. André C.D. A AIX Chez Éstienne Roize .... Imprimeurs du Roy et de l’Uniuersité. (The Italian author leans on the Golden Legend, which makes his research appear not exactly scholarly. He dedicates his book – in very solemn words – to Monsieur Louis Henry de Guyon.)
  • 1685 Dissertation pour la Défense des deux Saintes, Marie Madeleine et Marie de Béthanie, Soeur de Saint Lazare. Contre l’ opinion de ceux qui les confondent et les font une seule personne, et la même que la femme pécheresse. A Paris, Chez J.B. Nego, demeurant Court neuve du Palais, sur le grand Escalier ( !)

Most modern scholars, especially scriptural scholars, basing themselves on a comparative study of the Gospel texts, accept at least two different women: Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany. Spiritual writers, however, do not agree.

Some modern theories

In recent times the figure of the Magdalene has again captured people's imagination. Some unusual theories are now being defended. I will give some samples.

Ramon Jusino’s thesis is that Mary Magdalen was the Beloved Disciple and the person who inspired the Fourth Gospel. Esther de Boer follows him, reasoning from a different starting point.(Ramon Jusino, Mary Magdalene Author of the Fourth Gospel? 1998 ; Boer, E. de.Mary Magdalene and the Disciple Jesus Loved. 2000

Tomas Butler maintains that Mary of Bethany was a priest, yes even a bishop as keeper of the tradition. He poses that she may very well have been the Beloved Disciple and that the Fourth Gospel consists of a number of sermons and comments of Mary of Bethany. (Butler,Thomas W. Let her keep it. A New Approach to John’s Gospel Through its Use of Mosaic Oracles. Tracy,California, Quantum Leap Publishers, 1998).

Personally, I am more impressed by a psychological study published by R.L.Bruckberger in 1975 (Marie Madeleine, Albin Michel Paris), in which he defends the hypothesis that the gospels all tell us about one and the same woman. I find his reasoning eminently acceptable.

The picture that arises from Bruckberger’s studies is more or less as follows. Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus, is from a well-to-do family, which is familiar with the court of Tetrarch Herod. Apart from their house in Bethany they own property in Magdala, which is close to the Lake and a great place to be in the summer months. It also happens to be quite near to Tiberias, the new town Herod is building, and where the Hellenistic culture will soon flourish. Mary, a lively and inquisitive young woman, is attracted by its learning, its art and its wealth. She must have known the stories of the great women of her own people, Judith and Esther. She must have dreamt like other young people, of greatness and of learning. She is befriended by the daughter of Herod and by Joanna, the wife of Herod’s major domo Chusa. Her fascination is fed by Hellenistic ideas of beauty as a way to wisdom. Wisdom is the highest ideal of all, and it is reached through a constant search for Beauty and Love. Outward beauty, however, according to Hellenists, should be judged less important than beauty of character and of soul.

So the young and wealthy, Jewish Mary among them, desire to reach Wisdom. Some women even become priestesses to Beauty. Such women, courtesans, were well-known in the city. It is evident that this whole Hellenistic culture prevailing in Galilee was anathema to orthodox Jews. Any self-respecting Jew would try to remain as far as possible removed from this ‘Galilee of the heathens’ (Matth. 4,5) We do not know how far Mary has gone this way, but certain details in Luke are interesting in this respect. Luke’s language was Greek after all and he definitely must have known this culture.

Even if Mary got entangled by Hellenistic ideas, we must not think in terms of prostitution as we see it nowadays. There was a quasi-religious aspect in it. This said, however, Mary cannot have remained unaware of some very evil aspects of this culture. It is impossible to pursue Wisdom and not have one’s eyes opened to evil as well as to Good and Beauty. It may have been around the time of the appearance at court of John the Baptist that Mary got to know real inner beauty, beauty of the soul. The integrity of this prophet must have struck her. Presumably she has gone to find for herself who this Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth was that John referred to. At some moment Mary must have recognised the essential emptiness of her existence compared with that of Jesus. Little by little she turns away from it. It dawns upon her that this Jesus will probably bring her essential Wisdom. The day comes when she leaves the court in all her finery. She carries a precious little jar, a gift fit for kings and gods, the attribute that served her so well in her former life, but she is no longer on her way to the palaces of the wealthy. She will go find Jesus of Nazareth, who, her instinct tells her, will finally fulfil her ideal of Love and Wisdom. He is in the house of one Simon, who has not thought it necessary to welcome Jesus with any honours.

Luke tells us the story of the woman who came to anoint Jesus’ feet with the purest of pure oil, contained in a costly jar. It is the story of Mary’s conversion that has caught the imagination of the faithful down the centuries.

Instinctively she seems to feel that this Jesus has already seen her and has understood the stirrings of her penitent soul. She does not greet the host but makes straight for Jesus. Kneeling down at his feet she gives him all her love as she knows how. Tenderly she pours out the oil on his feet and massages them with her hands and her beautiful hair, the hair that as a Jewish woman she should always have hidden, but which she has so profusely used to charm others in her former life. Her tears flow. Over her head the host’s thoughts seems to create an ugly cloud. But Jesus gently makes it disappear, chiding Simon with his lack of generosity. Jesus tenderly accepts her gift of contrition. He makes of her gesture of love an outstanding example of the gratitude of a human being that knows she has been forgiven.

“You were never like this, Simon. You who think you are so good and so true to the Law. But where is your love? It is love my heart is thirsting for.”

Luke notes it down in these simple words:

‘Simon’, he said, ‘you see this woman? I came into your house, and you poured no water over my feet, but she has poured out her tears over my feet and wiped them away with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but she has been covering my feet with kisses ever since she came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. For this reason I tell you that her sins, her many sins, must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love. It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love. Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’. Those who were with him at table began to say to themselves, ‘Who is this man, that he even forgives sins?’ But he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

However, the story does not end there, for Luke goes on immediately – the division into chapters having been done in later times by others -:

Now after this he made his way through towns and villages preaching, and proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments: Mary, surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and several others who provided for them out of their own resources.

Two things seem clear:

  • Jesus has immediately taken Mary the Magdalene into his close company. Her sin no longer exists for him. He will never again refer to it.
  • Joanna, of Herod’s court, and other well-to-do women accompanied Mary. She must have been a leader from the beginning.

Could it be that this kind of behaviour, when Jesus, without any sort of reproach allowed people like Levi the publican and Mary the courtesan, public sinners, among his close company, was what shocked John so much that he found it necessary to send two messengers to Jesus to reassure himself that he had been right to point out the Man of Nazareth as the coming Messiah? In the context of John’s question Luke registers Jesus’ gentle reply. John should not be shocked. Jesus also makes one more remarkable statement: “Wisdom has been proved right by all its children” (Luke 7,35) .

John the evangelist, very much aware of what the other evangelists have already written about Jesus, for our benefit adds the information that this woman was indeed Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus from Bethany (John 11,2). The author of the fourth gospel also describes a second story of Mary anointing Jesus. He notes it down in a version that is remarkably like the narratives of Mark and Matthew. All three of them note that Jesus sees Mary’s gesture, when she anoints Jesus a second time, referring in a special way to his coming death.


Biblical scholars may well be right in postulating that the traditions about Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany arose from Jesus’ dealings with two different persons. We will never know for certain. It is striking all the same that from these various "Mary" figures a united "Magdalene" personality arose in later Christian consciousness. This was not entirely without justification.

Whether we are dealing with one woman or with two, let us not lose sight of the events described in connection with their deeds. Both figures offer the same kind of of inspiration. Look at their shared character traits:

  • Insight and discernment of the Spirit
  • Courage
  • Enterprise
  • Love and friendship
  • Strong faith
  • Trust
  • Generosity
  • Personality

Moreover both come with oil and balm. And finally :

Both are professed disciples. The woman from Bethany shows it when she sits down with the male disciples. The Magdalen professes her discipleship when, at sight of the risen Lord, she exclaims: “Rabboni”. This is the greatest and most original quality of either woman.

I would say that these characters match each other so perfectly that we may legitimately fuse them into one person, whether we call her Mary Magdalen or Mary of Bethany.

Moreover, when discussing the traditional devotion to Mary Magdalen, we should not forget that this tradition carries its own message. In the hearts of the faithful, Mary Magdalen lived as the woman who anointed Jesus, the Christ. In their view this woman saved the Apostles from defection by preaching the Good News to them. This woman could do and did many things that were routinely forbidden by Church law at the time. The traditional devotion to Mary Magdalen, as understood by the faithful in those centuries, therefore manifested a latent tradition in people’s hearts that attributed to women a far greater role than that allowed by Church authorities.

Theresia Saers

Visit our "honour" page to see a tribute to Theresia.


1.. The passage appears hard to translate. I have found respectively ‘Mary surnamed the Magdalene’ (Jerusalem Bible) , ‘Mary who is called Magdalen’ (Burns Oats and Washbourne, 1914, ‘Mary called Magdalene’ (Authorized King James version, made for the Gideons)

2. Ref. Een albasten kruik by Theresia Saers. Tilburg, Syntax.

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