The name Mary was the given name of at least six women cited in the New Testament. So it is not surprising that their stories get confused. Some we see only briefly as a name on a list, others had a larger role, but all are included in God's word as women who gladly served the Lord Jesus during his stay on the planet.
It is easy to confuse the many women named Mary in the New Testament. We all know Mary the Mother of Jesus. Mary Magdalene has had quite a revival these last few years, thanks to Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code. But there were at least three other women named Mary among the friends and followers of Jesus. Here is a Biblical account of the many Marys of the New Testament.
Mary the Mother of Jesus
Most people know Mary and Joseph from the Christmas story. Mary was probably quite young when she was visited by the angel Gabriel and received the news that she had been chosen by God to bear the Christ child. Since she was betrothed to Joseph, but not married yet, she was likely about thirteen or fourteen years old.
Mary the Mother of Jesus is often called the Virgin Mary. And she was stiil a virgin when she gave birth to God's own son. That was an incredible task that God chose for her to accomplish. Mary's womb was the staging ground for God the Son to put on human flesh to become one of us and to dwell among us for a little while.
After the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph had at least four other children. In Matthew chapter 13 and Luke 4, we read that Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth after he had made a bit of a name for himself, traveling to the towns, teaching, preaching, and healing the sick. On the Sabbath, he went into the synagogue where he had grown up. He read a passage from the scroll of Isaiah and announced, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." The people started to ask each other, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?" and, "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren't his sisters with us?" (Mt 13:54-57)
Mary of Bethany
Mary lived with her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus in the small village of Bethany. This was the Mary who sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to what he said, while her sister Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. Martha came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" Jesus said something very noteworthy in response, to show the value that he placed on women. Instead of telling Mary to get to the kitchen and do women's work, while the men listened to his teaching, he told Martha, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42) When this story is referred to in devotional literature or sermons, the point often made is that we should not be like Martha - frazzled with elaborate preparations in the kitchen and missing out on the opportunity to listen to Jesus in her own home. Instead, we should be like Mary, calmly listening to Jesus. That is certainly a good lesson to take from this passage. But a point that is often overlooked is that Mary of Bethany could be considered one of the first "liberated women." Jesus liberated her from kitchen duty and gave her the same status as the men.
Mary of Bethany is mentioned again in John chapter 11, where Jesus comes to Bethany to raise her brother Lazarus from the grave. This is also the Mary who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. It is a common mistake that the one who did this was Mary Magdalene, but these are two different Marys.
Mary Magdalene or Mary of Magdela
Mary Magdalene first shows up as part of the crowd who gathered when Jesus told the parable of the sower. In Luke 8 we read that the Twelve were with Jesus, "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."
Mary Magdalene is not mentioned again until almost the end of the gospel accounts. She is named as one of at least four women who were watching from a distance at the crucifixion of Christ.
After he rose from the dead, Jesus once again elevated the status of women by making them the first witnesses to tell the good news that Jesus was alive. In that day, women were not permitted to give testimony in a court of law, so it is very interesting that Jesus chose a group of women to have this honor in history for future generations. The greatest honor was bestowed on Mary Magdelene - she was the very first to see the risen Christ.
There is no mention in the Biblical account of Mary Magdelene being a prostitute, nor is there any evidence that she was married to Jesus or had any kind of romantic relationship with the Lord.
The Other Marys
Among the women who gathered to watch the crucifixion from a distance, Matthew 27:56 lists two Marys: Mary Madgalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses. Mary the mother of James and Joses could refer to the mother of Jesus, as these are the names of two of his brothers, or it could refer to another Mary. Mark 15 lists Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses. John 19 says, "Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. In the original Greek text, there were no punctuation marks, so it is possible that there were only two Marys, the mother of Jesus and her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas. According to commentary on this passage in John Gill's Exposition of the Bible, it is unlikely that Jesus' mother's sister is the wife of Clopas, as that would mean that Mary's sister is also named Mary, so he concludes that John is listing three women named Mary plus the unnamed sister.
In the book of Acts, which was written by Luke as a part two of his gospel, yet another Mary is introduced: Mary the mother of John, also called Mark. We know from the history books of the early church fathers that John also known as Mark was a disciple of the Apostle Peter, and also the author of the New Testament book of Mark.
The Apostle Paul, in his personal greetings at the end of the letter (epistle) to the Romans, mentions a Mary, but gives no other identification except that she "worked very hard for you." If this Mary was the mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany, or Mary Magdalene, it would be odd for Paul not to say more about her. So this very likely refers to another woman named Mary who lived in Rome, and worked very hard to serve the people of the church in Rome.
So we have at least six, possibly seven women named Mary in the New Testament: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses (who could be also the mother of Jesus), Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, and a Mary in Rome cited by the Apostle Paul as a hard worker. The Biblical records tell us more about some of them, others were only named briefly, but God thought them all worthy of being memorialized forever in His word.