Since the four gospels were canonized in the fourth century, there has been an ongoing debate among Christians about the identity and character of Mary Magdalene. Was she a prostitute, was she the woman caught in adultery in John 8, or was she the woman with “a sinful past” who washed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7?
In A.D. 591, Pope Gregory I attempted to settle the debate. He announced that Mary Magdalene was in fact the woman caught in adultery in John 8, the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7 and was the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Seventeen centuries later, the debate has resurfaced. Certain Catholics say that on April 3, 1969, Pope Paul VI quietly reversed Pope Gregory’s decision by creating three separate versions of Mary in a papal Missale Romanum.
I have reviewed this missale and I saw nothing about Mary Magdalene. (Perhaps there is an oblique statement in this missale that changes her status and I missed it.) Nevertheless, Mary Magdalene’s identity has become a topic of controversy once again. Some people have claimed that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, but instead was a wealthy woman who was married to Jesus.
Others have suggested that she and Jesus were lovers—and the speculation goes on and on. Given the controversy, I decided to take a look for myself. I find Bible sleuthing fascinating and if a person is willing to dig beneath the surface, it is amazing how many facts percolate to the surface. I hope you will consider the conclusions of my study:
Here Is the Woman, but Where Is the Man?
(Key words have been underlined for the purpose of discussion.)
I will begin this investigation with a review of John 8: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now, what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap to have a basis for accusing him.
“But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
“Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’
‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’” (John 8:3–11, emphasis mine)
This passage presents a number of issues that are important to our quest. To fully appreciate these issues though, we have to take off our Nike’s and stand in the ancient sandals of the accused. The first issue that we need to address concerns the Law of Moses.
To which law are the Pharisees appealing? Is it the law that condemns two married people for committing adultery (Leviticus 20:10), or is it the law that condemns a woman for being promiscuous? (Deuteronomy 22:13–21) Limiting our choices to the evidence stated in John 8, it appears that the teachers and Pharisees appealed to the law that condemns a promiscuous woman. I conclude this because (a) the woman was known for her life of sin, (b) stoning is specifically stated in the law for promiscuous women, and (c) an adulterous man is not present nor mentioned in John 8. Given this legal setting, here are four points that warrant further discussion:
Point 1. – When it comes to sexual immorality, God’s Word indicates there is one difference between fornication and adultery. Fornication occurs between unmarried people, whereas adultery occurs when a married person has a sexual experience with someone other than his or her spouse.
When adultery occurs between two married people, the faithful spouses become plaintiffs (that is, the parties seeking restitution). If a single woman is caught having a sexual relationship with a married man, there are still two plaintiffs – the faithful spouse or the next of kin, and the witnesses who caught the pair in the act. This woman was caught in the act of adultery and there was no husband seeking justice. Since there was no mention of an adulterous man in John 8, it appears the witnesses were her plaintiffs.
So, on the face of what is reported in Scripture, it appears the woman was likely an unmarried prostitute, and it is quite possible that the teachers and Pharisees knew of her promiscuous life (her past life of sin) prior to this event. If this is indeed true, the teachers and Pharisees had an airtight case for testing Jesus on the Law of Moses because at the time of this test, stoning a prostitute was legally defensible in Israel. The teachers and Pharisees concocted this test because they wanted to see if Jesus would uphold or subvert the Law of Moses. If Jesus said the woman should not be stoned, then Jesus would be found guilty of blasphemy (diminishing the Law of Moses). How clever of them!
Point 2. – How did Jesus silence His adversaries? The answer to this question becomes obvious as we investigate the story. Jesus wrote the names of His adversaries in the dust and beside their names, He itemized their sins. The list started with Israel’s elders (men of rank and position).
This is why they walked away first. Self-righteous, externally pious and esteemed elders of Israel could not condemn a common prostitute when their own sins were exposed for others to see. The teachers and Pharisees were speechless. How did Jesus know their sins?
Then, when Jesus stood up and said: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her,” Jesus terminated their trap without saying one word about the demands of the law. Embarrassed and humiliated, the teachers and Pharisees slipped away because they knew they could not condemn this woman without embarrassing themselves. How clever of Jesus!
Point 3. – As I calculate it, this test occurred about six months before Jesus was crucified. Even then, the teachers and Pharisees were already scheming to put Jesus to death because they thought Jesus was undermining their religious and national interests.
The easiest way to condemn Jesus to death (they thought) was through a charge of blasphemy. They wanted to force Jesus into a controlled setting where they could catch Him subverting the Law of Moses. So, they carefully planned this incident to entrap Jesus.
It was not necessary for the teachers and Pharisees to sneak around Jerusalem peering into bedrooms to find someone having unlawful sex. Hiring a prostitute and positioning witnesses so that she could be caught in the act was all they needed to put Jesus to the test. They were so determined to entrap Jesus that they did not care that this prostitute would have to die in the process. To make this a case of “adultery,” I suspect a married man was found and granted immunity for his cooperation. This could explain why no adulterous man was mentioned in John 8.
Point 4. – Finally, we come to a substantial issue that might help us move from the unnamed woman to a specific person. Consider this: When confronted with the guilty woman and the witnesses, why didn’t Jesus just agree with the Pharisees?
If Jesus had agreed, He would have terminated the Pharisees’ trap and silenced them because it would have proved that He supported the Law of Moses! After all, Jesus knew this woman had lived a life of sin and that she had been caught in sin again. So, again I ask, “Why did Jesus refuse to condemn her?” This is not a rhetorical question.
Consider that Jesus was not above the law of Moses. (Galatians 4:4; 1 Peter 2:22) His actions had to stay within the bounds of the law at all times or He would have sinned. Jesus Himself had crafted and delivered the law concerning promiscuous women to Moses at Mount Sinai, so why didn’t Jesus uphold the demands of His own law? This is a thorny question, but the answer produces an important clue in our search for the identity of the woman caught in adultery.
There is only one loophole that I can find that lawfully justifies Jesus’ actions. As God, Jesus did not condemn the woman to death because she was demon possessed. Yes, she was guilty of sin. Yes, she had broken the law. Yes, she was caught in the act of committing adultery, and according to the law, the penalty for promiscuous behavior was death by stoning.
However, Jesus knew about her demonic possession and He could not condemn the woman to death because her life of sin was involuntary. The Bible teaches that God does not condemn a person to death for involuntary sin! (Leviticus 4:13–14; Numbers 15:22–28; 35:22–25; Romans 7:14–19; 1 John 5:16–17)
In today’s justice system, this is similar to an insanity defense. If it can demonstrated in court that a man is impaired to the point that he cannot tell right from wrong when he breaks the law, he can be found “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
For another example, consider a person with an addiction. Can an addict “just say no” to their addiction? Of course, not. Without external help, an addict cannot stop doing the very thing that controls him. Do not confuse addiction with the unpardonable sin. They are not the same. Given genetic and hereditary weaknesses, it is possible to become addicted to a substance or obsessed with something without committing the unpardonable sin.
So, what does demon possession have to do with the woman’s identity? We know from Scripture that seven demons controlled a woman named Mary Magdalene. The number seven indicates totality and completeness. In other words, Mary Magdalene could not control herself because she was totally possessed.
Let us assume, for a moment, that the woman caught in adultery proves to be Mary Magdalene. If so, consider her dilemma: (a) Mary knew that she was guilty of sin and worthy of death, (b) Mary also knew that she could not sexually control herself, and (c) Mary heard Jesus say that she must leave her sinful life behind. Given these parameters and her gratitude to Jesus for saving her life from stoning, what else could a prisoner of Satan do but ask Jesus to set her free of “her demons” so that she could live a life pleasing to God?
I believe the woman caught in adultery asked for deliverance and Jesus granted her wish—even though John’s account does not mention this. However, Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2 tells us that Jesus did cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene.
Summary on John 8: The evidence presented in John 8 suggests the woman caught in adultery was an unmarried prostitute, since the plaintiffs were witnesses instead of a spouse and she had a history of sinful living. The woman was unwittingly caught up in a sting operation that was designed to kill her and condemn Jesus.
When she was “caught in the act” by the religious police and turned over to the authorities, she must have had a sickening realization that she had been duped and that she was about to be stoned to death. Given the sudden gravity of her situation, it would be reasonable to conclude that she was overwhelmed with gratitude when Jesus saved her from death by silencing her accusers.
Staying within the bounds of the Law of Moses, Jesus did not condemn the woman for her past life of sin because He knew that she was demon possessed—she was not guilty of sin by reason of demonic possession. After saving her from physical death, Jesus told her to leave her sinful life behind, but how could she possibly do this on her own?
Jesus Gets Acquainted with Martha
(Note: In an effort to keep this investigation as simple and straightforward as possible, let us continue this investigation as though the woman caught in adultery was Mary Magdalene, even though the supporting evidence has not been completely presented. By using this approach, maybe the details in this investigation will prove to be easier to synthesize.)
Unbeknown to the Pharisees, they chose the wrong prostitute to condemn Jesus. The woman caught in adultery had a legal defense that permitted Jesus to lawfully spare the woman from death. Jesus did not usurp the Laws of Moses or the Law of God—in fact, He brilliantly demonstrated how the laws should work! In God’s order, mercy does not negate the demands of the law. This loophole indicates that Mary Magdalene could have been the woman caught in adultery because Mary Magdalene was totally evil.
I have no doubt that when divine joy displaced demonic depravity within her body, Mary worshiped at the feet of Jesus. Furthermore, consider the behavior of Mary Magdalene. After Mary became a free woman, she reciprocated in three ways. First, Mary Magdalene anointed the feet of Jesus with the most expensive perfume money could buy. Second, Mary Magdalene bravely stood at Jesus’ feet as He hung on the cross. And finally, Mary Magdalene was at the tomb Sunday morning when Jesus arose.
I think Mary’s gratitude toward Jesus was displayed by her actions. On the very day that Jesus cast out the demons, I am sure that she invited Jesus to come to her home and meet her sister. It makes sense that Mary’s gratitude to Jesus and her miraculous transformation paved the way for Martha to also become a devout believer in Jesus. Martha’s faith and devotion is revealed in John 11:20–27.
The next question we need to address is this: Could Mary Magdalene have been a sister of Lazarus? I think the Bible affirms this, but the evidence comes in small steps. First, review this passage: “Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’ “ (John 11:1–3)
John wrote this account many years after the fact and even then, John makes it clear that Mary, the sister of Lazarus, was the same Mary who poured perfume on the Lord’s feet. But, was she Mary Magdalene?
Prior to his death from leprosy, Lazarus did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. I make this assertion based on four reasons. First, as a leper (Matthew 26:6) Lazarus was forced to live in isolation (Leviticus 13:45–46), and therefore, he could not live with his family. So, it seems reasonable to conclude that most of the knowledge Lazarus obtained about Jesus came through hearsay. Second, the Bible does not indicate that Lazarus was acquainted with Jesus prior to his resurrection.
When Martha called for Jesus to come to Bethany because Lazarus was near death, she referred to Lazarus as “the one you love.” Many commentators have interpreted this expression to mean “your very close friend.” However, I think there is a more poignant explanation. First, there is no indication in the Bible that Lazarus and Jesus were close friends unless we treat Martha’s invitation to mean such. Second, Mary and Martha knew that Jesus came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. (Luke 19:10; Matthew 18:12–14)
In other words, Jesus came to love the unlovely—the prostitutes, tax collectors and lepers. Therefore, we should understand the phrase, “the one you love” as meaning the one lost sheep whom Jesus came to save. Mary and Martha wanted their brother to accept Jesus. In this light, Martha’s request for Jesus was directed at Christ’s mission, not His friendship with Lazarus. (Smart woman.) Third, since Lazarus was a Pharisee (Luke 7:36), it is quite likely that his religious beliefs blinded him to the divinity and mission of Jesus.
Fourth, Lazarus must have been a leper for some period of time before he died. If they had been such good friends, why didn’t Jesus heal Lazarus of his disease earlier? We know that the disease eventually killed Lazarus and we also know that leprosy is not a short term illness. When these four considerations are harmonized, I conclude that Lazarus and Jesus probably knew of each other, but I do not think Lazarus became a believer until Jesus resurrected him.
After Jesus resurrected Lazarus, Lazarus held a feast at his house to publicly honor and thank Jesus for healing him and restoring him to life. This feast was particularly offensive to the teachers and Pharisees because Lazarus was a Pharisee. This made the Pharisees so angry that they schemed to kill Lazarus, too. (John 12:10)
According to Matthew 26:6 and Mark 14:3, Lazarus had a surname. He was called Simon and “Simon the leper.” (See Matthew 26:6; Luke 16, also The Wake Up Report!, May, 2007 titled, “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”) When Simon Lazarus held this feast, he did not know that Jesus had set Mary free of seven demons some months earlier. This ignorance could be due to several reasons such as his isolation while suffering from leprosy, the final months of illness, and/or his refusal as a Pharisee to tolerate anything said about Jesus. With these things in mind, consider this passage from Luke 7:
“Now one of the Pharisees [Simon Lazarus] invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears.
Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.’ “
Even after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, did you notice the skepticism that remained in Lazarus’ heart? Lazarus said to himself, “If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, He would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” Simon’s skepticism affirmed two points. First, Lazarus and Jesus had not been the best of friends as many people claim. Second, Lazarus had evidently not been close to his sisters, perhaps due to illness or religious views, because during the past six months they began to believe that Jesus was the Son of God.
The Bible discusses this feast in four places—Matthew 26, Luke 7, Mark 14 and John 12. Because there are differences in the details, some people conclude there are two or more feasts. I am convinced the verses refer to one event. Four different writers wrote the gospels years later and this is why their perspectives are somewhat different.
According to John 11:1–3, the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus was Mary, the sister of Lazarus. According to Luke 7:37, the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus had lived a sinful life in that town and Simon Lazarus was well acquainted with her past. According to Mark 14:3, Mary anointed the head of Jesus instead of His feet. I do not believe Jesus was anointed several times with very expensive perfume by different women. Jesus was anointed one time with the most expensive perfume money could buy.
“Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’
‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said.
‘Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’
“Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.’
‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.’ Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ “
At the feast, Jesus assured Mary that her sinful past has been forgiven. Why did He need to assure her of this? After Jesus set Mary free of demonic possession, she felt the heavy burden of guilt and worthlessness. Her sense of unworthiness overwhelmed her every time she thought about her sordid past.
Mary’s past could not be changed, but her soul had been freed of demonic control. Consequently, Mary was full of sorrow realizing that Jesus had come to die for her – one of the lost sheep in Israel. She loved Jesus as she loved God – in the highest and holiest sense. As a healed prostitute, her love for Jesus had nothing to do with sexual attraction. As she anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, her tears and the great sorrow she felt flowed from a genuinely repentant heart.
On the basis of her genuine sorrow for her sins, Jesus lawfully forgave her! [Ephesians 2:8–9; 1 John 1:9] Meanwhile, a resurrected but self-righteous Pharisee named Simon Lazarus was talking with Jesus, but he did not really love Jesus as Mary did. At this time, Lazarus did not yet realize his need for a Savior. He was happy to be alive again, and he was happy to be freed of leprosy, but Lazarus had not come face to face with the condemnation which God’s law imposes on sinners. This is why Jesus said to Lazarus, “But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Pharisee paradigms die hard.
When the day of the feast for Jesus drew near, I am sure the Holy Spirit inspired Mary to do something that would never be forgotten. Mary purchased the most expensive perfume that money could buy. Three gospel writers agree that the perfume came in an alabaster bottle.
She bought the perfume to “anoint” Jesus before His death, even though it was Jewish custom to anoint the bodies of people after they had died. (John 19:40) In this case, the Holy Spirit prompted Mary to anoint her sacrificial lamb before He died. As the magnificent scent wafted through the crowd at Simon’s house, the fragrance caused everyone to stop and notice that Jesus was being anointed by a woman who had lived a very sinful past. One of Jesus’ disciples expressed disgust at Mary’s extravagant actions and complained about the money wasted, but Mary did not notice.
Her own soul had been set free from guilt. She was forgiven and she wanted the world to know that God Himself was in their midst. Obviously, Mary’s actions had touched Jesus and He promised her that whenever this story was told, she would be remembered for what she had so generously done. (I have often wondered if the scent from the perfume remained on Jesus for a few days and if the fragrance was detected as He prayed for all of His disciples in the garden. – John 17)
“The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ 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 Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.” (Luke 7:36–8:3)
Contrary to what some people may say, whether or not the woman caught in adultery is Mary Magdalene is not a “serious” theological matter. I base this on what the Bible teaches; that it is wrong to worship dead people. The Bible declares, “Worship God!” (Exodus 20:3; Revelation 19:10)
So, I would include this study in the category of “interesting topics.” Nevertheless, I will close with four conclusions. First, I am 95% convinced that Mary Magdalene and the unmarried prostitute caught in adultery were one and the same person. I say this for the following four reasons. 1) The only way that Jesus could have upheld the Law of Moses and saved the woman caught in adultery from certain death was because she was demon possessed. We know that Mary Magdalene had seven devils cast out of her, even though there is no record of Jesus doing so. 2) I also believe that Mary Magdalene was a sister of Lazarus and she was the woman with a sinful past. Because Jesus set Mary free and forgave her, out of gratitude she spent a fortune on perfume. 3) Mary Magdalene became a very bold woman for Christ and she stood bravely with the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross. She was also the first person to see Jesus after His resurrection because she no longer feared the religious police after she saw Jesus deliver her from their schemes. 4) The Bible is clear that Mary and other women who loved the gospel supported Jesus and His disciples out of their own means because they wanted everyone to know the joy and freedom that comes through Christ.
Mary Magdalene’s story is a beautiful one illuminating the love of Jesus and the power of His gospel. This story is important because it continues, even today, to mirror two types of people. Mary Magdalene was in bondage to seven demons. Her soul was dead until Jesus gave her life and set her free.
She was condemned to die as a prostitute, but Jesus lawfully extended grace. Similarly, Lazarus was also in bondage. His body was covered with leprosy and his mind was corrupted by the ideas of the Pharisees until he died from the disease. Then, Jesus called him forth to life and I am sure that Lazarus eventually received Christ as His Savior.
As interesting as all this is, remember that our Heavenly Father also called Jesus to life so that Jesus might continue to implement the magnificent plan of salvation. All this so that one day, all of God’s children can sit together under the Tree of Life and ask Mary Magdalene, in person, if she was the woman caught in adultery who Jesus set free!