Was Martha’s sister Mary a prostitute?

Was Martha’s sister Mary a prostitute? What about Mary Magdalene? Was Martha’s sister Mary the same person as Mary Magdalene, from whom seven demons were cast?

I hear these questions surprisingly often. Here’s why.

Stained glass of Martha and Mary: Was Mary a prostitute?

Stained glass of Martha and Mary in St. Nicholas Church, Orebro, Sweden. Public domain photo by David Castor.

The gospels have an account of Mary of Bethany—the sister of Martha and Lazarus—anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair, and an account of a sinful woman doing the same. Many people wonder if both accounts are of the same event.

Additionally, popular culture often identifies the sinful woman as Mary Magdalene and depicts her as a prostitute. For example, medieval paintings, the musical Jesus Christ: Superstar, and Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ all show Mary Magdalene as a prostitute.

Thus it’s no wonder people ask if Mary of Bethany was a demon-possessed prostitute.

But was she?

The short answer: Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were different women and neither Mary was a prostitute. Let’s break this into separate issues.

Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were different women

The New Testament differentiates between about eight women named Mary by noting to whom they’re related or from where they come. The siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus lived in Bethany, a village in Judea. “Magdalene” means “of Magdala,” so Mary Magdalene came from the town of Magdala in Galilee.

  • Mary of Bethany: This Mary sat at Jesus’ feet while her sister Martha took care of guests. She watched Jesus raise her brother Lazarus from the dead. She anointed Jesus’ head and feet with expensive perfume. (See Luke 10:38-42; John 11; and John 12:1-7 for passages about this Mary.)
  • Mary Magdalene: Jesus cast seven demons from her. She traveled with Jesus and the disciples, taking care of their needs. Mary Magdalene was at the cross and was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. (Passages about Mary Magdalene include Luke 8:2; Mark 15:40; and John 20:11-18.)

Mary of Bethany and Luke’s sinful woman were different women

The gospels recount similar events in which a woman wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair at the house of someone named Simon. John’s account speaks of Mary of Bethany and Luke talks of an unnamed sinful woman. This is why people sometimes think Mary of Bethany is the sinful woman. But Luke’s account differs significantly from the others and must be a separate event:

 

Mary of Bethany
Unnamed “woman of the city who was a sinner”
wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair
after anointing his feet and head with expensive nard after anointing his feet with her tears and an unnamed ointment
at the house of Simon the leper at the house of Simon the Pharisee
in Bethany in Judea in Galilee
offending Judas Iscariot because of wastefulness offending Simon the Pharisee who wouldn’t let a sinful woman touch him
at the end of Jesus’ ministry at the start of Jesus’ ministry
in preparation for his burial as an illustration of Jesus’ ability to forgive sins
Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8 Luke 7:36-50

 

Additionally, Simon the leper and Simon the Pharisee cannot be the same person because a leper could not be a Pharisee.[1] While it might seem odd that both foot perfumings happened in the house of someone named Simon, that name was extremely popular in Jesus’ day: The New Testament lists about nine men named Simon, including two of Jesus’ disciples and one of his brothers.

The Bible calls neither Mary a prostitute

No Scripture portrays Mary of Bethany as a prostitute. It’s only when people confuse her with Luke’s sinful woman that this becomes a question.

Luke’s account does not name the forgiven sinful woman’s sin, but the possibilities include prostitution, adultery, debt, and being married to someone with a dishonorable occupation (such as tax collecting).[2]

It’s popular to identify this unnamed woman as Mary Magdalene and to see her as a prostitute. But the Bible nowhere links Mary Magdalene to her. In fact, there is no Scripture anywhere suggesting Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.

What drove calling Mary a prostitute?

How did the idea become so prevalent? One reason, according to AmericanCatholic.org, is this: “Pope Gregory, who became pope in 590 A.D., clinched Mary’s mistaken reputation as sinner when he delivered a powerful homily in which he combined Luke’s anonymous sinful woman (Lk 7:36-50) with Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene.” Vatican II corrected this notion and confirmed Mary Magdalene was neither the forgiven sinner of Luke 7 nor Mary of Bethany.[3]

Bottom line: neither Mary a prostitute

So there we have it: The Bible depicts neither Mary as a prostitute, but all three women as forgiven of their sins and followers of Jesus the Christ.

  1. [1]Darrell L. Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50, BEC (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 690.
  2. [2]Bock, 695.
  3. [3]Carol Ann Morrow, “St. Mary Magdalene: Redeeming Her Gospel Reputation,” The Catholic Update, AmericanCatholic.org, May 2006,http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac0506.asp [accessed 2/15/2014].
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