February 3, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: One or two Marys?

I don’t have any Gospel readings to assign this week. Rather, I thought we could explore a question I started last week: Was the Mary who anointed Jesus’ head and feet at Bethany Mary Magdalene? When I wrote about the anointing at Bethany, I said that the tradition grew through the centuries that the penitent sinner who washed Jesus’ feet in Luke’s Gospel was the same one who did something similar at Bethany, and that it was Mary Magdalene.

In other words, were there one or two Marys? Were Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany the same person?

Anyone who has read my columns for a while knows that I’ve written before that there is no evidence anywhere that Mary of Magdala was a repentant sinner. The tradition that she had been a sinner came from Luke’s statement that seven demons had come out of her, but that usually meant some kind of mental illness. Rather, Mary of Magdala (also called the Magdalene) was the leader of the women who traveled with Jesus and his Apostles, and “provided for them out of their resources.”

But could Mary of Magdala also be Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, who lived at Bethany? Those who believe she was offer this argument: It is not improbable that a wealthy Jewish family could have homes in both Judea (where Bethany was located) and Galilee (where Magdala was located). Nothing in the Gospels tells us how Jesus, a Galilean, became friends with this family in Bethany, so perhaps he got to know them in Galilee and was thus invited to their other home in Bethany.

The argument continues: Mary of Bethany was so absorbed in contemplation of Jesus that her sister, Martha, asked Jesus to tell her to help her. She was also the one who anointed Jesus while he was at dinner. It seems improbable that such a woman would not have traveled the few miles to Jerusalem to be with him on Calvary. We know that Mary Magdalene was there. If there were two Marys, where was Mary of Bethany?

Similarly, it would seem likely that it would be Mary of Bethany who would go to the tomb early on the Sunday after the Crucifixion. Mark’s Gospel says that she took spices to anoint the body. Wouldn’t the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany be the type of woman who would want to anoint Jesus in the tomb?

Finally, they ask, if Mary of Magdala wasn’t the one who anointed Jesus at Bethany, where was she during that dinner? That one’s easier to answer: She was probably with all the other women who came from Galilee to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover and who would be watching the Crucifixion from a distance.

Unfortunately, there is no way for us to know definitively whether these two Marys were the same person or two different women. It seems likely, though, that the Gospels would have made some indication that they were the same person if, indeed, they were. †


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