Mary is the English name of the Greek Μαρία (Maria), from the Hebrew מִרְיָם (Miryam), a name borne by the sister of Moses in the OT (Ex 2:4) and one that appears over fifty times in the NT. Behind this one name, we find multiple women with significantly different realities and roles in God’s kingdom, who are often confused and conflated. In this blog, we seek to briefly identify and outline six Marys in the NT and to highlight how they each participated in God’s mission in a unique and essential way.
Mary, the mother of Jesus
This Mary is the most well-known. Both Luke (1:26) and Matthew (2:23) identify her as living in Nazareth, a virgin at the time of Jesus’s birth, and betrothed and later married to Joseph (Mt 1:18–25; Lk 1:27–34; 2:4–5). Mary stands among other women who have mothered sons due to miraculous intervention, including Sarah (Gn 18), Minoah’s wife (Jdg 13), Hannah (1 Sam 1), and her (Mary’s) cousin, Elizabeth (Lk 1:36). The fact that Mary and Joseph offer turtledoves after Jesus’s birth, indicates that they were of lower economic class (Lk 2:24; cf. Lv 12:8). Mary holds a marginal role in the Gospel of Mark (see Mk 3:31–35; 6:3). Foregrounding her mothering role, Matthew includes her in Jesus’s genealogy (1:16), the annunciation (Mt 1:18, 20), visit of the Magi (Mt 2:11), and the rejection of Jesus by the Nazarenes (Mt 13:55). Luke further colours in the portrait by detailing Mary’s faith-filled response to the news of her pregnancy (Lk 1:38) and recording her praise hymn (Lk 1:46–55) and inner reflections about the events that she was part of (Lk 2:19, 51). Luke also refers to the faithfulness of Joseph and Mary, who have Jesus circumcized (Lk 2:21–35) and travel to Jerusalem for the annual Passover (Lk 2:41–52). Mary appears in Acts 1:14 (without her husband) as one of those praying before Pentecost. In John, she is referred to as “the mother of Jesus.” She appears at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1–12) and then again at the crucifixion, where Jesus appoints her as mother for the beloved disciple (Jn 19:25–27).
This Mary is consistently identified by her place of origin (Magdala), as opposed to her relationship with a husband or son. Such appellation indicates that she was unmarried and that she had full ownership of her own property (Gaventa 2000). Her role in providing for Jesus (even after his death—Mk 16:1) affirms that she was a woman of means (Mk 15:40–41; Lk 8:2–3). Mary Magdalene was one of the women who had been cured of evil spirits and sickness, having had seven demons exercised from her (Mk 16:9; Lk 8:2). While some take her former demon possession to imply that she is the sinful, unnamed woman anointing Jesus’s feet in Luke 7:36–50, there is no textual evidence for this. According to all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene was present both at Jesus’s death and burial (see Mt 27:56, 61; Mk 15:40, 15:47–16:11; implied in Lk 23:49, 55; Jn 19:25), and empty tomb (Mt 28:1–10; Mk 16:1; Lk 24:1–11; Jn 20:1–18). Mark explains that these women “used to follow him and provided for him,” and that they had followed him to Jerusalem (Mk 15:41), signalling their faithfulness. In John 20:11–18, Mary is the first to meet the resurrected Jesus and proclaims this tiding (cf. Mt 28:1–8; Lk 24:1–11). Because of this, she is often called the first evangelist (Morris 2016).
Mary of Bethany
This Mary is only mentioned in Luke and John. She is identified by John (11:1) as the sister of Martha and Lazarus, is one of the witnesses to the resurrection of Lazarus, and also the one anointing Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume in John 12:1–8 (not to be confused with the unnamed woman in Lk 7). Luke 10:38–42 also describes her as sitting at Jesus’s feet, listening to his teachings; she is honoured by Jesus for choosing this good portion.
Mary, the mother of James and Joses
There is very little information about this Mary. She is not mentioned in John’s Gospel and only briefly appears in the Synoptics. What we do know is that she was among the women from Gallilee, had sufficient wealth, and followed and supported Jesus (Mt 27:56; Mk 15:40; cf. Lk 8:2,3). She also witnessed the crucifixion and empty tomb (Mt 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mk 15:40, 47; 16:1; Lk 24:10). She is the mother of Joseph (Joses) and James (the little), who became an apostle. From Matthew 27, it seems probable that this is also “the other Mary”—who is paired with Mary Magdalene in a similar fashion as the mother of James and Joses in Mark 15:40. Some also argue that she is the wife of Clopas (see below) for similar reasons (see John 19:25). While there is no consensus about this, we do know that she followed Jesus and gave generously.
Mary, the wife of Clopas
John places this Mary at the crucifixion scene (Jn 19:25), alongside others like Jesus’s mother, her sister, and Mary Magdalene. As mentioned above, some argue that she is Mary, the mother of James and Joses, and “the other Mary.” While she has no recorded words, her presence at the cross and at the tomb testifies of a dedication and care.
Mary, the mother of John Mark
This Mary is named in Acts 12:12, where her house functions as a meeting place for the believers in Jerusalem. The fact that her house belongs to her and that she is identified according to a son (not a husband), suggests that she was a widow. She was a wealthy woman—one who followed Jesus and supported the early church. As with Mary, the mother of James and Joses, her role in her son’s ministry ought not to be underestimated.
Mary of Rome
This Mary is greeted in Romans 16:6. Paul describes her as one who toiled among the believers in Rome, implying that she was a co-labourer in the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 15:10; Gal 4:11).
God’s Generous Use of the Marys
With so many Marys, one is bound to be confused. In an extensive survey of Palestinian names, Bauckham (2006) found that 28,6% of women living in the first century were named Mary. Sadly, these Marys are often conflated and confused, which downplays the unique contributions each of them made to the ministry of Jesus and beyond. Whether is was through the act of mothering (the messiah or one of the apostles), providing financially, testifying to the resurrection, treating Jesus’s body with dignity, ministering within the early church, showing hospitality to the saints, or being present at the saviour’s darkest hour, their inclusion is a demonstration of God’s generous and diverse use of women. It affirms the validity and necessity of our various expressions of obedience as sisters in God’s household. May the testimonies of the many Marys evoke in God’s daughters a zeal to serve our Lord and his church in whatever capacity he desires. May we give of ourselves, generously empowered by the God of the many Marys.
Cornelia obtained her PhD in New Testament from the University of Stellenbosch in 2018. She is currently the Associate Editor of Conspectus and works for the South African Theological Seminary as a lecturer and postgraduate supervisor. Her research interests lie primarily in the Letters and Gospel of John.
Catherine Falconer completed her masters in theology at the South African Theological Seminary(SATS) in 2019. She was a missionary in various parts of Africa for more than ten years. She served in Sierra Leone with Mercy Ships and later with African Inland Mission for more than 6 years in South Sudan, in a tribal Lopit village in the mountains. During that time she studied her Bth with SATS. She has particular interests in missions and eschatology. Catherine is married to Robert and they have 2 boys named Ezekiel aged 4 and Gabriel aged 2.
Bauckham R. 2006. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitnesses Testimony. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Gaventa B.R. 2000. ed. DN Freedman. A. Myers and AB Beck, Mary:Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI, 863–865.
MJ Morris 2016 , “Mary Magdalene,” ed. JD Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.