Mary of Magdala: Background

Matthew 27:56, 61 and 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47 and 16:1, 9; Luke 8:2 and 24:10; John 19:25 and 20:1, 11, 16, 18

Mary, from the bustling and wealthy town of Magdala, was also named as a woman of means who helped finance Jesus’ ministry. A significant presence in Jesus’ inner circle, pieces of her story are recorded in all four gospel accounts.

In Aramaic, the word ‘Magdala’ means castle, or tower. It was a prosperous, and populous, sea town nestled in the foothills of the Arbel cliffs, along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Known for its dye works and textiles, Magdala, (called 'Taricheae' in Greek) was strategically located along the ancient road that connected Netufa valley through Gennesareth Valley to the Sea of Galilee.

Magdala, only three miles from Capernaum, was also close to where Jesus spent the majority of His three years in the public eye, healing, teaching, and performing miracles. The Lord had called His first five disciples from the little fishing town of Bethsaida, also on Galilee’s shore, and only about three miles from Peter’s home in Capernaum, where Jesus set up His home base.

The seven hills, all around Galilee, where these and other towns and cities were located, were lush with farmland, stands of trees, and verdant pasture lands. Picture fishermen in their boats, Jewish seaside cities, Roman soldiers, and crowds gathering to hear the words of a humble Rabbi from nearby Nazareth. On just such a day, family members brought a very troubled young woman to see the healer, whose fame was spreading.

What we can glean from that first, unrecorded, meeting is the severity of Mary’s malady—in the grip of no less than seven demons—and the implied affluence of Mary and her family, since she was listed by name among the women who provided for Jesus and His entourage.

As He did with so many, Jesus took compassion on the anguished woman before her, and freed her from the bondage of her infirmity. We can only guess at the astonishment and palpable relief of her family, when Mary emerged from that dark place and entered into the light and life Jesus offered her. Certainly, after this powerful experience, Mary became one of Jesus’ most devoted followers.

Tradition has conflated Mary of Magdala with the unnamed woman in the story which immediately precedes Mary’s introduction. However, there is no actual link between these two women except for the proximity of their accounts in Luke’s gospel. This Mary, the historical Mary, has no hint of sexual impropriety, nor hint of unrequited romantic love for Jesus.

Mary was, instead, a wealthy woman from the prosperous fishing, commerce, and trade center of Magdala, who was miraculously healed of a debilitating infirmity. Out of her profound gratitude, and transformed life, Mary became one of the significant financiers who supported Jesus in His public work. Because she was free to follow Jesus on His tours, it is possible she was not married--or, if she was married and even had children, was wealthy enough to provide for a staff to care for her home while she was away.