18-1 The Identity of Mary

These studies begin with the assumption that Mary Magdalene is the same as Mary of Bethany, and the same as the woman who anointed the Lord in Lk. 7. The evidence for this has been provided by Harry Whittaker in chapter 74 of his monumental Studies In The Gospels, and it is reproduced below.  

Three Women

After consideration of the very moving story at the end of Luke 7 it is not inappropriate to review the evidence for the attractive idea that this woman who anointed Jesus is to be identified with Mary Magdalene and also with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus. This can hardly be said to be a proven conclusion, but there is certainly a remarkable accumulation of circumstantial evidence pointing in this direction.

There are three sides to this triangle of identity:

  • " The woman in the city" ,

  • Mary Magdalene, and

  • Mary of Bethany.

It will be convenient to deal with each of these equations separately. But before embarking on an examination of the evidence, it needs to be said that the three records of the anointing of

Jesus at Bethany, as recorded in Mt.26:6-13, Mk.14:3-9 and Jn.12:1-8, are taken as describing the same incident and not two separate occasions. For full justification of this assumption reference will have to be made to Study 155.

1. Mary of Bethany the same as the woman of Luke 7.

(a) Jesus spoke a remarkable encomium regarding Mary's action: " Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her"  (Mt.26:13). It is difficult to see how Jesus could have spoken so enthusiastically about this action if it had already been done by another woman in much more trying circumstances. But if this incident was a reminiscence or recapitulation of the earlier occasion, done out of gratitude for all that it meant to Mary, as one redeemed by Jesus from an evil way of life, no difficulty remains. It is almost what might be expected.  The words just quoted from Mt.26:13 have an even stronger force. In effect they '. are an instruction to all who set out to tell the story about Jesus to include in their account the details of this wonderful act of devotion. Accordingly, this has been done by Matthew, Mark and John. But where is it in Luke, if not in his chapter 7? Apart from this identification of the two women, it would appear that Luke has failed to follow his Lord's instruction!

(c) Jn. 13:2  introduces the account of the raising of Lazarus with this allusion to Mary: " It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair" . Is this an anticipation of the record which is to follow in the next chapter?-in which case it reads very strangely (especially those past tenses). Or is it an allusion to an act of service which Mary had already performed on some occasion prior to the raising of her brother, i.e. Luke 7? The latter explanation is not hindered by having to be read as an allusion by John to one of the other gospels, for there are quite a few examples of this in the Fourth Gospel.

(d) Mark 14:3 places that anointing in the home of " Simon the leper" , who presumably was either the father of Lazarus and his sisters or else the husband of Martha. The record of Luke 7 has that anointing taking place in the house of Simon the Pharisee. This coincidence of name, if it stood by itself, would carry little weight as evidence of identification because Simon was a very common name among the Jews, but when set alongside several other lines of evidence it becomes much more cogent. Equating the two Simon's also puts much more point to the Lord's miniparable of the two debtors. If he had been healed of his leprosy and she of her moral leprosy, the fifty and five hundred pence take on much greater relevance.

(e) The astonishing identity of detail between Luke 7 and the records in the other gospels calls for some sort of explanation -Jesus at the meal table, the use of an alabaster container, the anointing of his  feet, and the wiping of them with the woman's hair. Such things-three of them very unusual-are not to be explained by an airy use of the word " coincidence" . They demand some kind of connection between the two incidents. One possible explanation is that Mary was repeating earlier occasion and was deliberately imitating it (but then Mt.26:13 is decidedly difficult). The other explanation that Mary was repeating her earlier action, is much more forceful and much more likely.

(f) The details of Luke 7 pose several problems which the commentators almost invariably slide past. How did Simon know " who and what manner of woman this is" ? She was known to him personally! Also, it is evident from the detailed description given by Jesus himself that this woman was aware precisely what courtesies Simon had studiously neglected to offer to Jesus. How did she know to make good these very omissions? Is the reader not bound to conclude that she had been a witness of the systematic neglect of courtesy as Jesus arrived in the house? Again, how did she get into the house at all? The common slick assumption, with negligible supporting evidence, that in those days it was permissible for onlookers to walk into a home to view the progress of a meal, is just too ridiculous. And is it conceivable that such a man as this Pharisee would readily grant the freedom of his home to such a woman known to be such a woman. Clearly she was there because she had a right to be there. Further, in the expression " she brought an alabaster box of ointment (7:37) the verb strictly means " received" (it is so translated in all its ten other occurrences in the New Testament). She " received" this " when she knew that Jesus sat at meat" . From whom? The most obvious explanation is: from one of the servants in the house. She was in a position to issue instructions there. Does not this considerable combination of details require the conclusion that she was one of the household? This was her home.

(g) There is a strange inconsistency between the Pharisee's issuing of an invitation to Jesus and then carefully snubbing him on arrival by neglecting all signs of welcome. But if indeed Simon had himself been healed by Jesus and if there were three (or maybe four) other members of the family eager to offer hospitality, it is easy to understand how the invitation was grudgingly offered and then, to save face with his Pharisee friends, followed with a cool reception.

(h) Mk.14:3 uses the puzzling description: " pistic nard" about the ointment used by Mary. The phrase has had commentators guessing.   Since  pistikos   is   obviously connected with pistis, faith, the most likely       reading is " faith ointment" . Then is it called by this name in this gospel to recall the earlier warm approval of Jesus: Thy faith hath saved thee" (Lk.7:50)?

(i) A further small detail. Judas was the son of Simon  Iscariot  (Jn.6:71).  This  is  a slender reason for making him the son of the Simon in Luke 7, Simon the leper (Mk.14:3). But if correct, then Judas was a brother of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. It is now more significant that he should lead the criticism of Mary (Jn.12:4,5-where he is specially called Simon's son). If this took place in his own home, and Mary were his own sister, he would be the more ready to voice such criticism. And the line he took was not dissimilar to that taken by Simon in Luke 7:39.

2. Mary of Bethany the same as Mary Magdalene

(a) This identification rests primarily on an argument from omission which, in this particular instance (though by no means always), has special force. The sudden prominence of Mary Magdalene at the     crucifixion and resurrection is given no explanation in the gospels. Before this she is mentioned, with the utmost brevity, only in   Lk.8:2.   Alongside   this   fact   is  the unexplained absence of Mary of Bethany from both crucifixion and resurrection. Yet she was the one who loved Jesus so intensely, and her home was at most only a mile and a half away from all the happenings which were more important to her than anything else in life. These facts have an air of strangeness about them  until  the  equation  of these two Mary's is attempted, and then there is no problem.

(b) The next two points to be mentioned here will be of no value whatever to some readers of the gospels, but for others will be   almost   decisive.   So   much   here depends on one's personal approach to Scripture. Is it just a coincidence that every time these two women are mentioned, they are at the feet of Jesus. Mary of Bethany sat at his feet, hearing his discourse, when Martha wished her to help with the meal (Lk.lO:39-42). On the occasion of the raising of Lazarus, Mary " fell down at his feet" (Jn.l1:32). And, of course, the anointing of Jesus brought her kneeling at his feet (Jn.12:3). Mary Magdalene was at the feet of Jesus at the cross (Jn.19:25). And at the resurrection it was surely because she worshipped him and held him by the feet that he had to say to her: " Do not keep on touching (or, holding) me" (Jn.20:17; Mt.28:9). The same was, of course, true of the woman described in Lk. 7:38.

(c) Also, with perhaps one exception, these women are described as being in tears (or this is fairly clearly implied). Certainly, at the grave-side of Lazarus and at the foot of the cross. Certainly also, at the tomb of Jesus, both at his burial and at his resurrection (Lk.23:55; Jn.20:13). And since in two other instances (Lk.10:40; Jn.12:5,7) she was the object of censure and complaint, tears were very probably the consequence then. Lk.7:38 specifically mentions tears at that anointing of Jesus. Is such remarkable harmony admissible as evidence or not?

3. Mary Magdalene the same as the woman of Luke 7

(a) The only mention of Mary Magdalene before the crucifixion narrative comes immediately offer the record of the anointing of Jesus (Lk.8:2). Is this just accident, or is it Luke's delicate way of suggesting identity?

(b) The name " Magdalene" is often taken as meaning " from Magdala" . But it could just as easily be " the hair-braider" , that is, the harlot. Such a name would have special relevance if at her first meeting with Jesus she wiped his feet with her hair (Lk.7:38).

(c) The phrase: " which ministered to him of their substance" (Lk. 8:3) is specially apposite to the anointing of Jesus, which was lavish in its costliness and was yet the most humble ministry imaginable.

(d) " Out of whom went seven devils" can be  interpreted only by its one other occurrence—the parable of the cleansed house taken over by unclean spirits (Lk. 11:26). This rather grotesque little parable is interpreted by Jesus as a picture of the moral depravity which  would overtake his nation because of a their refusal to receive him as the rightful " tenant" of the " house" (Mt.l2:45). Then does not this indicate indirectly the 10 earlier character of Mary Magdalene?

If this identification be accepted, then it is possible to piece together an impressive story of the family at Bethany.

They were a wealthy and socially important family (Jn.11:31,45). The father Simon, one of the Pharisees, had also been an incurable leper yet he was cured by Jesus. Hence the ensuing tension between his hospitality and his Pharisee prejudices. Mary had evidently given herself over to a profligate life, and she too was rescued by Jesus, to continue thereafter the most devoted of all his disciples. These experiences would provide more than ordinary ground for the later expectation of Martha and Mary that Jesus would hasten to the bedside of their sick brother and restore him. There is also the possibility that Judas, the son of Simon (Jn.6:71), was another member of the family. There is not much point in identifying Judas as " son of Simon" unless this Simon were himself known in the circle of disciples. This suggestion would explain why Judas spoke up so boldly in criticism of Mary's " waste" of precious ointment. In his home he would feel the more ready to speak his mind, and with reference to his own sister! This interpretation concerning Judas is not so well supported as the other ideas in this study. It has nothing intrinsically improbable about it, but the positive evidence is hardly substantial.

Harry Whittaker


Assuming the above identifications are correct, we now have a whole series of incidents in the Gospels to consider which seem to concern this same woman. The description of her as having had seven demons cast out clearly links with the parable of  Lk. 11:14-26. She'd been cleansed once in conversion, but it seems she had lapsed back and yet, been converted yet again. She truly must have been a woman of remarkable spiritual experience by the end of it all.


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