The name Mary Magdalene has a ring of familiarity in the modern era, even among people who are unfamiliar with the Bible. Fiction writers, conspiracy theorists, and religious revisionists have all managed to put their own spin on her story. But all of those extrabiblical inventions pale in comparison to the biblical truth about Mary Magdalene.
A Seven-Fold Demonization
Mary Magdalene did have a dark past. Nothing indicates that her conduct was ever lewd or sordid in any way that would justify the common association of her name with sins of immorality. But Mary was indeed a woman whom Christ had liberated from demonic bondage. Luke introduced her as “Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out” (Luke 8:2). It’s the only detail we know about Mary Magdalene’s past, except for a clue that we derive from her surname.
Actually, “Magdalene” is not a surname in the modern sense. She wasn’t from a family that went by that name; she was from the village of Magdala. She was called “Magdalene” in order to distinguish her from the other women named Mary in the New Testament, including Mary of Bethany and Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The tiny fishing village of Magdala (cf. Matthew 15:39) was located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, about five and a half miles southwest from Capernaum. Jesus’ ministry involved a number of exorcisms in that region. It seems to have been a hotbed of demonic activity.
The symptoms of demonic possession in the New Testament were varied. Demoniacs were sometimes insane, as in the case of the two demon-possessed men who lived in a graveyard and behaved so fiercely that no one dared approach them (Matthew 8:28–34; Mark 5:1–5). More frequently, demonic possession was manifest in physical infirmities such as blindness (Matthew 12:22), deafness (Mark 9:25), muteness (Matthew 9:32–33), seizures (Mark 1:26; Luke 9:38–40), and general infirmity (Luke 13:11–13).
Don’t imagine (as many do) that the biblical descriptions of demon possession are merely crude, superstitious accommodations to purely psychological and physiological afflictions such as epilepsy and dementia. Scripture does make a clear distinction between demon possession and diseases, including epilepsy and paralysis (Matthew 4:24).
Demon possession involves bondage to an evil spirit—a real, personal, fallen spirit-creature that indwells the afflicted individual. In several cases, Scripture describes how evil spirits spoke through the lips of those whom they tormented (Mark 1:23–24; Luke 4:33–35). Jesus sometimes forced the demonic personality to reveal itself in that way, perhaps to give clear proof of His power over evil spirits (Mark 5:8–14).
In every case, however, demon possession is portrayed as an affliction, not a sin. Lawlessness, superstition, and idolatry undoubtedly have a major role in opening a person’s heart to demonic possession, but none of the demonized individuals in the New Testament is explicitly associated with immoral behavior. They are always portrayed as tormented people, not willful malefactors. They suffered wretched indignities at the hands of evil spirits. Scripture invariably presents them to us as victims with utterly ruined lives.
Such was Mary Magdalene, we can be certain. Satan tormented her with seven demons. There was nothing any mere man or woman could do for her. She was a veritable prisoner of demonic afflictions. These undoubtedly included depression, anxiety, unhappiness, loneliness, self-loathing, shame, fear, and a host of other similar miseries. In all probability, she suffered even worse torments, too, such as blindness, deafness, insanity, or any of the other disorders commonly associated with victims of demonic possession described in the New Testament.
Scripture deliberately and mercifully omits the macabre details of her dreadful demon-possession. But we are given enough information to know that at the very best, she must have been a gloomy, morose, and tortured soul. She was probably regarded by most people as an unrecoverable lunatic.
A Spectacular Deliverance
Miraculously, Christ had delivered her from all of that. The biblical accounts of her demonization only serve to magnify Christ’s goodness and grace toward her. Without dredging up any squalid details from her past, they record the fact of her bondage to demons in a way that magnifies the gracious power of Christ.
One intriguing fact stands out about all the demonic deliverances that are recorded in Scripture: demon-possessed people never came to Christ to be delivered. Usually they were brought to Him (Matthew 8:16; Matthew 9:32; Matthew 12:22; Mark 9:20). Sometimes He called them to Himself (Luke 13:12) or He went to them (Matthew 8:28–29). On occasions when demons were already present upon His arrival, they would sometimes speak out with surprise and dread (Mark 1:23–24; Luke 8:28).
Evil spirits never voluntarily entered the presence of Christ. Nor did they ever knowingly allow one whom they possessed to come close to Him. They often cried against Him (Luke 4:34). They sometimes caused violent convulsions in a last-gasp effort to keep the wretched souls they possessed away from Him (Mark 9:20), but Christ sovereignly drew and delivered multitudes who were possessed by demons (Mark 1:34, 39). Their emancipation from demonic bondage was always instantaneous and complete.
Mary Magdalene was one of them. How and when she was delivered is never spelled out for us, but Christ set her free, and she was free indeed. Having been set free from demons and from sin, she became a slave of righteousness (Romans 6:18). Her life was not merely reformed; it was utterly transformed.
Mary owed everything to Christ. She knew it too. Her subsequent love for Him reflected the profound depth of her gratitude. And that is how it should be for all who come to true saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. The deeper the pit they’ve been saved out of, the greater the love they’ll have for Him (cf. Luke 7:36–47).
A Special Disciple
Mary Magdalene joined the close circle of disciples who traveled with Jesus on His long journeys. Notice the context in which she is named:
Soon afterwards, He began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means. (Luke 8:1–3)
It is true that most rabbis in that culture did not normally allow women to be their disciples. But Christ encouraged men and women alike to take His yoke and learn from Him. This is yet another evidence of how women are honored in Scripture. And the fact that Mary’s name appears at the head of the list of this band of women seems to indicate that she had a special place of respect among them.
Mary Magdalene remained Jesus’ faithful disciple even when others forsook Him. In fact, she first appeared in Luke’s gospel at a time when opposition to Jesus had grown to the point that He began to teach in parables (Matthew 13:10–11). When others became offended with His sayings, she stayed by His side. When others walked no longer with Him, she remained faithful. She followed Him all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem for that final Passover celebration. As we will see next time, Mary Magdalene ended up loyally following her Savior to the cross, and even beyond.