For all the legend and speculation that have sprung up around Mary Magdalene, the Bible reveals precious little insight into her life. Only about 13 New Testament passages reference her, with all four gospels devoting the most writing to describe Mary Magdalene at the tomb of the risen Christ. Since she was the initial eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection, it’s not surprising that she’s been the object of curiosity for centuries. Being the first to see Jesus alive and speak with Him is an honor. So, what happened with Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and why is it significant?
What Do We know about Mary Magdalene from the Bible?
Despite Mary Magdalene’s prominence in Broadway productions, films, and binge-able TV about the life of Jesus, the only mention of her in the gospels before Holy Week is in Luke 8:1-3.
“After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
This is it. This is all the backstory we receive about Mary Magdalene.
We know she was called Magdalene. This is likely because she came from Magdala, a city on the southwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. Likewise, Jesus was often known as “Jesus of Nazareth” or “The Nazarene.” Mary was known as “The Magdalene.”
Luke tells us Mary was delivered from seven demons. This number is presumably factual, but ironically, seven indicates completeness in the Bible. Before knowing Jesus, she probably lived in torment and may have been an outcast. But even that is conjecture. In the Scriptures, demons could cause people to live immorally and cause diseases, mental illness, seizures, or crippling pain. We don’t receive details on the precise nature of Mary’s demonic affliction.
We know she was a follower of Jesus and even helped support His ministry financially. She is mentioned first in Luke’s list and is one of only three women named in the passage. Still, she is among many women helping the ministry “out of their own means.” The source of their means is not detailed.
It has become common to associate Mary Magdalene with prostitution, but we cannot assume that from the biblical text. Hope Bolinger explains how Pope Gregory the Great identified the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50 as being Mary Magdalene (and also Mary of Bethany), creating a tradition that continues today.
There is also no indication that Jesus had romantic feelings toward Mary. We have a record of them talking alone in the garden after Jesus’ resurrection, and Jesus speaks tenderly toward her. However, Jesus also spoke alone with the woman at the well in Samaria and with Martha after Lazarus’ death.
Why Did Mary Magdalene Go to the Tomb?
Mary Magdalene witnessed the crucifixion as recorded in three of the four gospels.
John records her attendance in John 19:25, standing next to Jesus’ mother Mary along with Clopas’ wife Mary. Matthew 27: 55-56, also records her presence, standing with James’ mother Mary and the mother of Zebedee’s sons (James and John). Mark 15:40 mentions her standing with Salome and with Mary the mother of Joses and “James the younger.”
Mary Magdalene witnessed Joseph of Arimathea placing Jesus in the tomb, so she knew where He lay (Matthew 27:61). Mark 15:47 adds that Joses’ mother Mary was with her at this time.
All four gospels record that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb “when the Sabbath was past” or “on the first day of the week.” John mentions only Mary going (John 20:1). Luke details “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them” (Luke 24:10). Matthew 28:1 mentions Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.
Mark tells us why they went in Mark 16:1: “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”
How Many Angels Did Mary Magdalene See?
Some make a lot about variations in the eyewitness accounts recorded in the four gospels, referring to them as “contradictions.” Many legal experts will caution that variations do not mean eyewitnesses are lying about the event. In fact, if eyewitness accounts do not have variations, that likely indicates the witnesses corroborated their testimony.
It’s common for people to remember some details while others focus on different details. Direct contradictions by eyewitnesses are concerning. However, details appearing in some accounts and not others can add to the account’s reliability. The variations in the gospel accounts contribute to the veracity of their testimony.
Matthew 28 details Mary and the other Mary experiencing an earthquake when “the angel of the Lord descended.” The angel rolled away the stone, creating fear in the guards. When the angel spoke to them, he explained that Jesus had risen, and instructed them that they would see Jesus in Galilee and to tell the disciples about Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28:5-7).
In Mark 16, the account doesn’t mention how the stone was moved, just that the stone was rolled away. The women entered the tomb and found a man in a white robe who told them not to be afraid but to tell the disciples that Jesus had risen and would be in Galilee (Mark 16:2-8).
Luke 24:1-12 describes the women meeting two men “in dazzling apparel” who also told them not to be afraid. They said Jesus had risen and the women should tell the disciples that Jesus had risen.
John spends no time describing the women’s experience. His was the last gospel written, so it could be he felt the other three covered the women’s testimony. He spends more time detailing what he and Peter found when they received word from Mary and ran to the tomb. This makes sense since John was an eyewitness to the empty tomb.
What Did Mary Magdalene Say to Jesus?
Only Mark and John record information about Mary’s exchange with Jesus at the tomb. In Mark’s gospel, verses 9-20 of chapter 16 do not appear in the earliest transcripts. But, Mark 16:9-11 notes that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene, who then told his other followers he was alive, but they didn’t believe her.
John gives us more detail about Jesus with Mary Magdalene at the tomb. In John 20, he first describes that Mary Magdalene discovered the empty tomb. She then alerted Peter and John, who also testified that it was empty. Matthew 20:9-10 explains that they were shocked because they didn’t understand the Scriptures’s prophecies that Jesus would rise from the dead, and went home confused.
Mary, however, as John describes, remained weeping outside the tomb. When the angels asked why she was weeping, she told them that someone had taken away the body of her Lord, and she didn’t know where.
What John describes next is a beautiful exchange between the risen Jesus and the first human to see Him alive. John 20:14-18 says:
“Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’—and that he had said these things to her.”
This is a breathtaking and beautiful exchange between Jesus and a woman who has been a devoted and grateful follower. She then speaks her testimony to the others, “I have seen the Lord.”
Why Is It Important that Mary Magdalene Was the First to See Jesus Resurrected?
Much is made in modern times about “the biblical patriarchy” and the treatment of women in the Bible. It’s important to remember Scripture sometimes records historical events (including moments when women were treated badly) without saying these events were morally right. The Bible mentions many men who treated women poorly.
In contrast, Jesus’ treatment of women was marked by love, respect, and kindness. He told them not to sin, but He welcomed them into His following.
It may be shocking to some that Mary Magdalene was the first eyewitness at the tomb. Still, those who regularly read the gospels will see that Jesus entrusted powerful truths about Himself to other women.
Jesus had a lengthy conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26). He even revealed to her that He was the Messiah (John 4:25-26).
In John 11:17-27, Jesus spoke alone with Martha when she greeted Him on the road when Lazarus died. Jesus told Martha that he was the resurrection and the life, making his identity clear and that her brother would live (John 11:25-27).
So, when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and trusted her to tell the disciples that He was “ascending to the Father, to my God and your God,” it may have been culturally unusual. Still, it was “typically Jesus” to deliver the message to whatever man or woman He chose.
There is a lesson here that is less about Mary Magdalene and more about trusting that Jesus came to die that none should perish. Anyone who puts their faith in Him, no matter what they were before coming to Jesus or what they remain (Jew or Gentile, male or female), enters into relationship with Him and is redeemed, loved, and known by the risen Lord.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/TonyBaggett
Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.
Learn more about the meaning and significance behind the Easter holiday and Holy Week celebrations:
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What is Good Friday?
What is Holy Saturday?
What is Easter?
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