Most Bible students and readers are familiar with notable Bible figures, especially those of whom there is only “one.” For example, there is only one Apostle Peter, one Apostle Paul, and one Apostle Thomas. We know of the sole Moses, Abraham, Samson, Delilah, Deborah, Gideon, and Bathsheba…but things start to get complicated when people share names. When we see shared names, we start to write in characters within a story, and before you know it…we’ve got that specific Bible experience all wrong.
Perhaps there is no more confusing task than sorting out the “Marys” of the New Testament. In keeping with Jewish custom, most Jews were known only by their first names in Biblical times. On occasion, we may know a Biblical figure by who their family members were (such as the person’s name, followed by a comma and “son of” whoever). It does not help that history has amended the biographies of some of the Marys and started assigning this Mary to that story, and vice versa. In order to help defray some of the confusion, I am going to explain who is who as Mary in the New Testament. In the New Testament, there are at least six women who were named Mary, possibly eight – and those are six to eight different women, not the same woman mentioned six to eight times. Helping to understand who all these women help us not to only understand their role, but also understand better our own place in living the Gospel today. Someone might cast these women off as irrelevant or unimportant, but they are in the Word and that, therefore, makes them important. We too may have a name that many other people have or was common when we were born, but that doesn’t mean we are irrelevant – or that our lives should be misconstrued or our importance mistaken for someone else. Learning who these women are shows respect for them, and respect for both ourselves and those who believe and labor for the Gospel today.
Mary, mother of Jesus – Most know who Mary, the mother of Jesus is…or do they? Most of us think of Mary as the incredible glowing woman pictured on Christmas cards with the baby Jesus. I grew up in a church that made her a co-redemptrix and gave her the power to answer petitions and prayers. In many ways, Mary was the female counterpart of God, akin to a goddess image. They taught her to be the “Immaculate Conception,” conceived without original sin and preserved from personal sin throughout her life. If we look deeply at the Word, we can see none of these attributes are found within Mary. Mary was just an ordinary girl, as I have often said, a “nobody and a nothing from nowhere.” She was probably somewhere between twelve and fourteen years old, who was asked by God to do something extraordinary: become the mother of the Son of God. We don’t often consider that Mary risked her life to obey God and bring forth the Word made flesh, Who dwelt among us in grace and truth. We see Mary as a consistent feature throughout the Gospels and even in Acts, where she is specifically mentioned as being among the believers at Pentecost. Tradition cites she was the daughter of Joachim and Anna (or Anne), and was also a Levite, left in the temple to prophesy and praise God at the age of four. Mary was never intended to be a goddess, co-redemptrix, or female counterpart to God – she was intended to be exactly who she was. In her very life, God makes us aware of His presence in ours, and His power to do the extraordinary in the ordinary. Mary also shows us the monumental task of loving those who are chosen for God’s service, and the sacrifices required for those who are they themselves chosen for the extraordinary in their lives. (Matthew 1:16-23; Matthew 12:46, Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 2:4-7, Luke 3:23-38, Luke 24:10, John 2:3, John 19:25, Acts 1:14)
Mary Magdalene – Mary Magdalene is a unique figure in Bible and early church history. Throughout the course of time, Mary Magdalene has been branded as everything from a prostitute to the mother of Christ’s bloodline. The Bible doesn’t give us an indication of either, but it does let us know that Mary Magdalene was a special woman. Mary was from the town of Magdala, and was known for that, rather than her family line. This automatically lets us know she was a different kind of woman, most likely unmarried, and also known in her hometown. The Word tells us that Jesus cast seven demons out of her – what those demons were, however, we don’t know. All we know is they were cast out and she went on to have prominence and importance in the ministry of Christ and work of the Lord. She was a close associate of Christ’s, following Him throughout His ministry. As the first to see the resurrected Christ and go forth with the message to the male apostles, Mary Magdalene was also the first apostle of the resurrection. We learn from history that she was an apostle over a large portion of the early church, possibly influencing or authoring the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which affirms her position as a church apostle. (Matthew 27:55-56, 61, Mark 15:41, Luke 8:1-2, John 20:14-18)
Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus – Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, was commended by Jesus for her true heart and love for the Lord. We don’t know much of this Mary, beyond what the Word provides. As a result, various religious traditions have assigned all sorts of myths about her, my favorite being the Mormon version of her life – that Martha and Mary were both married to Jesus, thereby conforming Him to the Mormon doctrines on polygamy. We know Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to His teaching, while her sister, Martha, was preoccupied with hospitality customs. Mary was commended for her intense devotion, rendering that more relevant than customary service. According to the Gospel of John, it was also Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet for burial, the one of whom Jesus told the disciples to “let her alone.” (Luke 10:41-42, John 12:3-7)
Mary, wife of Cleophas – This Mary is mentioned by name only one time, in John 19:25. She was a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus. Some believe she is the woman referred to as the sister of Jesus’ mother, but this is unlikely (why would two sisters have the same name?). She is called “Mary the wife of Cleophas” or, more literally, “Mary of Cleophas.” This indicates Mary was known by her family identity, and that somehow Cleophas was relevant, either culturally or religiously. She is called “Mary the wife of Cleophas” or, more literally, “Mary of Cleophas.” This indicates Mary was known by her family identity, and that somehow Cleophas was relevant, either culturally or religiously.
Mary, mother of James and Joses – Mary, mother of James and Joses, is an interesting figure. She was clearly a woman who followed Jesus throughout His ministry and may very well have been a Mary mentioned in the accounts of the resurrection. We know from the Word that two of Jesus’ brothers were James and Joses, and it is possible that this Mary was also a reference to Mary, mother of Jesus. This would be affirmed by Mark, who states Mary was mother of “James the less,” a nickname for Jesus’ younger brother. (Matthew 27:55-56, Mark 6:3, Mark 15:40-41)
The “other Mary” – A reference to the “other Mary” present at the empty tomb in Matthew 27:61. Nobody knows for certain who this Mary was – it may have been a reference to Mary, mother of James and Joses, or another woman all together.
Mary, mother of John Mark – A woman mentioned in the New Testament who was the mother of the Apostle Paul’s associate, John Mark. She was described as being a woman of means, and was thereby able to open up her home to the Christians living in Jerusalem. (Acts 12:12-14)
Mary, mentioned in Romans 16:6 – We don’t know much of Mary mentioned in Romans 16, although it would appear, given the Apostle Paul’s commendations to church leaders and workers, that Mary was, most likely, a leader in the church in Rome. She is spoken of as being a great blessing, and worked hard in the work of ministry. (Romans 16:6)
(c) 2012 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.