What became of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus?

Q. What became of Mary Magdalene and Mary the Virgin Mother of God? I hear some people say that Jesus married Magdalene. And did Jesus take them into heaven?

Let me start with Mary Magdalene. We learn some important things about her in the gospels. Luke tells us that during the Galilean part of Jesus’ ministry, he “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 shows us that, for one thing, Mary must have been wealthy; she may have been a member of the upper class, like the highly-placed Joanna. Her name suggests that she was from Magdala, which in biblical times was a prosperous and influential city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Clearly Jesus delivered her from severe spiritual oppression. The fact that she traveled with him afterwards means that she would have gotten to know him well and heard much of his teaching. The gospels also record that she traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus and the disciples, that she witnessed his crucifixion, and that she was the first person to see him after he rose from the dead and  proclaim his resurrection.

We get no further information about Mary Magdalene from the Bible after the end of the gospels, but early traditions suggest that she was able to use her social position to share the gospel in the highest circles of Roman society, including with the emperor himself. Some traditions also suggest that she went to live in Ephesus for the last part of her life, in one version of the story as a companion to the Virgin Mary. But we can’t be certain about these details.

There is no evidence from the Bible or from history that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ever married. Rather, it’s quite possible that Mary had a wealthy husband back in Magdala who supported her ministry to Jesus, the way Chuza seems to have been supportive of Joanna.

By the way, there is also no evidence that Mary Magdalene was ever a prostitute, even though that is another a popular belief about her. The belief seems to come from a confusion between her and Mary of Bethany, and between that other Mary and the unnamed “sinful woman” whom Luke describes as anointing Jesus. But the biblical text does not even identify this “sinful woman” specifically as a prostitute. The first recorded reference to this notion about Mary Magdalene is in a sermon given by Pope Gregory I towards the end of the sixth century. So we should acknowledge that this is a late and unreliable tradition.

Rather, Mary is honored in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions as “the apostle to the apostles” because she brought the news of Jesus’ resurrection to them. The Eastern churches also refer to her by a title that means “equal to the apostles.” So she should be seen as someone who had a transforming and liberating encounter with Jesus and who consecrated her wealth and position afterwards to advance his cause.

As for Mary the mother of Jesus, we do hear a little bit more about her in the Bible after the gospels. We learn in the gospels themselves that she was from Nazareth in Galilee and that God sent the angel Gabriel to tell her that even though she was a virgin, she was going to become the mother of the Messiah. Some Christians believe that she and Joseph then had other children after Jesus, while other Christians believe that Mary always remained a virgin. I discuss those different perspectives in this post.

Luke tells us that Mary reflected carefully on what the angel told her and on the early events of Jesus’ life, but that during his Galilean ministry, she and his other relatives actually tried to restrain his work because at that time they didn’t understand it. However, Mary must have come to understand better soon afterwards, because she traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus, and she stood at the cross to offer support and sympathy as he was giving his life for the world.

After the end of the gospels, we learn from the book of Acts that Mary was among the followers of Jesus who remained in Jerusalem after his death, resurrection, and ascension and who were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. There are many traditions about her life after that, but most of them come from centuries later and we can’t depend on them. Perhaps one of the most probable ones is the early tradition that she and Mary Magdalene later went to live in Ephesus. This makes sense because at the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother to the care of the apostle John, and we know that John later went to live in Ephesus.

But at least some biblical interpreters would say that we see Mary one more time in the Bible. In the book of Revelation there’s a vision of “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” The woman goes into labor and gives birth to a son. The images in Revelation typically have multiple resonances, and in this case the woman seems to represent both Israel, the source of the Messiah (the image is reminiscent of Joseph’s dream in Genesis about Jacob and the twelve tribes), and the church, since the woman’s “other children” are “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.” But just as biblical typology often begins with Israel, compresses into Jesus, and then expands into the church (for example, the idea that Israel is God’s “firstborn,” then that in Jesus God brought his “firstborn” into the world, and finally that Jesus’ followers are the “church of the firstborn”), so this mother image may begin with Israel, compress into Mary as the mother of Jesus, and then expand into the church.

In that case—to address the final part of your question—when we also hear in Revelation that the woman and her child were “snatched up to God and to his throne,” we may see in this a reference to Mary being taken up into heaven. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that Mary was actually taken up into heaven bodily, without experiencing physical death. But I think that all Christians would agree that, one way or another, after her life on earth she joined Jesus there, and that Mary Magdalene did as well. And they would have both heard as they arrived, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.”

This stained-glass window depicting Mary’s joyful entrance into heaven is reminiscent of the vision in Revelation about the woman and the sun, moon, and stars.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “What became of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.