St. Mary of Bethany
There is some ambiguity in the Western tradition about whether St. Mary Magdalene is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, or whether they are two different women.
- The Greek Fathers, as a whole, distinguish the three persons:
- In the New Testament she is mentioned among the women who accompanied Christ and ministered to Him (Luke 8:2-3), where it is also said that seven devils had been cast out of her (Mark 16:9). She is next named as standing at the foot of the cross (Mark 15:40; Matthew 27:56; John 19:25; Luke 23:49). She saw Christ laid in the tomb, and she was the first recorded witness of the Resurrection.
- On the other hand most of the Latins hold that these three were one and the same. Protestant critics, however, believe there were two, if not three, distinct persons. It is impossible to demonstrate the identity of the three; but those commentators undoubtedly go too far who assert, as does Westcott (on John 11:1), "that the identity of Mary with Mary Magdalene is a mere conjecture supported by no direct evidence, and opposed to the general tenor of the gospels." It is the identification of Mary of Bethany with the "sinner" of Luke 7:37, which is most combated by Protestants. It almost seems as if this reluctance to identify the "sinner" with the sister of Martha were due to a failure to grasp the full significance of the forgiveness of sin. The harmonizing tendencies of so many modern critics, too, are responsible for much of the existing confusion. ...
- St. John, however, clearly identifies Mary of Bethany with the woman who anointed Christ's feet (12; cf. Matthew 26 and [Mark 14). It is remarkable that already in 11:2, St. John has spoken of Mary as "she that anointed the Lord's feet", he aleipsasa; It is commonly said that he refers to the subsequent anointing which he himself describes in 12:3-8; but it may be questioned whether he would have used he aleipsasa if another woman, and she a "sinner" in the city, had done the same. It is conceivable that St. John, just because he is writing so long after the event and at a time when Mary was dead, wishes to point out to us that she was really the same as the "sinner." In the same way St. Luke may have veiled her identity precisely because he did not wish to defame one who was yet living; he certainly does something similar in the case of St. Matthew whose identity with Levi the publican (5:7) he conceals.
- If the foregoing argument holds good, Mary of Bethany and the "sinner" are one and the same. But an examination of St. John's Gospel makes it almost impossible to deny the identity of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalen. ...
- At that supper, then, Mary received the glorious encomium, "she hath wrought a good work upon Me ... in pouring this ointment upon My body she hath done it for My burial ... wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached ... that also which she hath done shall be told for a memory of her." Is it credible, in view of all this, that this Mary should have no place at the foot of the cross, nor at the tomb of Christ? Yet it is Mary Magdalen who, according to all the Evangelists, stood at the foot of the cross and assisted at the entombment and was the first recorded witness of the Resurrection. And while St. John calls her "Mary Magdalen" in 19:25, 20:1, and 20:18, he calls her simply "Mary" in 20:11 and [20:16.
- In the view we have advocated the series of events forms a consistent whole; the "sinner" comes early in the ministry to seek for pardon; she is described immediately afterwards as Mary Magdalen "out of whom seven devils were gone forth"; shortly after, we find her "sitting at the Lord's feet and hearing His words." To the Catholic mind it all seems fitting and natural. At a later period Mary and Martha turn to "the Christ, the Son of the Living God", and He restores to them their brother Lazarus; a short time afterwards they make Him a supper and Mary once more repeats the act she had performed when a penitent. At the Passion she stands near by; she sees Him laid in the tomb; and she is the first witness of His Resurrection--excepting always His Mother, to whom He must needs have appeared first, though the New Testament is silent on this point. In our view, then, there were two anointings of Christ's feet--it should surely be no difficulty that St. Matthew and St. Mark speak of His head--the first (Luke 7) took place at a comparatively early date; the second, two days before the last Passover. But it was one and the same woman who performed this pious act on each occasion. ...
- French scholar Victor Saxer dates the identification of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, and as Mary of Bethany, to a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great on September 21, 591 A.D., where he seemed to combine the actions of three women mentioned in the New Testament and also identified an unnamed woman as Mary Magdalene. In another sermon, Gregory specifically identified Mary Magdalene as the sister of Martha mentioned in Luke 10.
In the Catholic Church, we intend to honor the sister of Martha and Lazarus when we celebrate the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. If we are mistaken in this identification, God will have to forgive us for misunderstanding the Scriptures. I trust that St. Mary of Bethany will forgive us, too, along with the unnamed but thoroughly repentant sinner, if she is neither Mary Magdalene nor Mary of Bethany.
If there is only one woman whose life story is told from three different perspectives (the unnamed "sinner," Mary of Bethany, and Mary of Magdala), then we have to imagine that the disparity in names and descriptions is to be attributed to the normal workings of the human mind and the vagueries of story-telling. In this case, even though they are all stories of the same person who loved Jesus so greatly, the way in which her story was handed on by different groups at different times obscured the fact that all three stories are about the very same woman.
Just as I hope that St. Mary of Bethany will forgive us if we approach her as St. Mary of Magdala, I hope that St. Mary of Magdala will forgive us if we call on her as St. Mary of Bethany. If there is only one woman whose story is told three different ways, it is not our fault that we are confused, and I trust that she who loved Jesus with her whole heart will love us, too, even if we mistakenly think that her two names imply two different people.