Thoughts on Mary as We Thought we Knew her…



If raised Christian or if one’s pursuit of the Historical Mary has been primarily from Christian sources , we have become so used to the stories about the women in the New Testament, that we seldom ask ourselves the obvious first question that should be asked about them: Why so many women named Mary? We know them as distinct individuals with their own familiar stories; and rarely notice anymore that they all have the same name. This list, then, innocently sitting under “M” in Harper’s Bible Dictionary, might come as a shock:

Mary, mother of Jesus

Mary Magdalene

Mary of Bethany

Mary mother of James the Less and Joses and Salome

Mary the mother of Joses

Mary the mother of James and Salome

Mary wife of Clophas

The other Mary

Mary mother of Mark

Mary, a Christian woman

Ten! Why, one now wonders, in a group close enough to Jesus’ inner circle to be mentioned and as small a group as the original Jesus party seemed to have been, would there be that many women with the same name, even if you take off the last woman as not part of the original group of Jewish women?

Obvious Answer Number One

The first reason always given for the sheer number of women named Mary is that “Mary” was a popular name at the time. Mary is still a popular name today because of Mary mother of Jesus but would you find nine or ten Mary’s even in an orthodox family group today—at the same time. (Except for a Catholic order centered on Mary where all the sister’s first names are deliberately “Mary.”) And, if the name Mary was even more popular in first century Palestine than today, then who were they all named after?

Obvious Answer Number Two

The second reason given for the number of Mary’s is that at least three of the Mary’s seem to be variations of the same woman: Mary mother of James the Less, Joses, and Salome, Mary mother of Joses, and Mary mother of James and Salome. So we should combine or conflate those women into one woman. It is odd, though, because of this passage:

Isn’t this the carpenter’s son. Isn’t Mary known to be his mother and James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? Aren’t his sisters our neighbors?  Matthew 13:55-56

When you compare the list of Mary’s in the gospels with the passage from Matthew above and you consider that Joses was a nickname for Joseph, you could be talking about Mary, herself, as the mother of the James, Jose, and Salome. Matthew did not give Jesus’ sister’s names, so one could easily be a Salome (as some traditions say). Or were there actually two or three Mary’s with sons with the same names, also, in the same small group?

Or—as the Catholic Church prefers it, Joseph was a widower and the first wife bore the other children in order to satisfy the later Ever Virgin doctrine. Which may be why Mark and Matthew were amended to include a woman named Mary who is the mother of Jesus AND another contemporary woman named Mary was assigned to be the mother of a James, Joses, and Salome…which means that Joseph must have been married to two wives named Mary at the same time who were both living during Jesus’ mission—giving Jesus a mother and a step-mother named Mary. Luke and John do not mention this “other Mary” but do mention Mary the wife of Cleophas who was the sister (or sister-in-law) of Mary. So far we have Jesus with a mother, a step-mother, and an aunt named Mary.

The Most Popular Name

The most popular men’s names were Judas, Simon, Matthew, Eleazar, and John in all their variations but here we know where the popularity came from—the national heroes, the Hasmoneans—Mattathias Hasmon and his five sons who led the war against Antiochus Epiphanes in the 160s B.C. The three sons who survived the war and were leaders of the nation afterwards were Judas, Jonathan and Simon. John will be a fairly popular name in the New Testament era. (James/Jacob and Joseph/Jose do not fit.)  The most popular Hasmonean was the holy warrior Judas the Hammer or Judas Maccabee. Today, the Hasmonean dynasty is still called the “Maccabees” because of Judas. Judas is so important to understanding Judean history that I am going to include some quotes about him taken from the Books of the Maccabees:

And when the fighting had become fierce, there appeared to the enemy from heaven five splendid figures on horses with gold bridles, leading the Jews, and they surrounded Maccabeus and protected him with their armor and kept him unhurt, while they shot arrows and hurled thunderbolts at the enemy, so that, confused and blinded, they were thrown into disorder and cut to pieces. Twenty thousand five hundred were slaughtered, and six hundred horsemen…I Maccabees 10:29-31

And Judas fell and the rest fled. And Jonathan and Simon took their brother Judas and buried him in the tombs of his forefathers in Modin. And they wept over him, and all Israel lamented him greatly and mourned for a long time, saying, ‘What a hero is fallen, the Savior of Israel!’ The rest of the deeds of Judas, and his wars, and the exploits that he performed, and his greatness are unrecorded, for they were very many. I Maccabees: 18-22

“Women, children, and cattle”

We will come back to Judas Maccabee many times as we go along but for now we can note that “Judas” was also a popular name in the gospels as represented by a brother of Jesus being named Jude/Judas, Judas Iscariot, and Judas son of James (or one of several variations under consideration).  Acts mentions Judas the Galilean, active about the time that Jesus was born (according to Luke only…6 A.D.) and a prominent revolutionary during his lifetime, and Judas Barsabas who followed Paul. (Harper’s Bible Dictionary) But that was only five men with the same name and some of them were not “with” Jesus while he was alive.

Women in those days were rarely named in the records, though, and often referred to in phrases like “women, children, and cattle,” so we don’t know if there was a Mary among those early heroes—though my guess is, there was…

The Art of Combining Mary’s

Next note that women actually within the gospels are combined in various ways to reduce their number. John, the last written gospel, for instance, trying to clear up loose ends, insists that the sinning woman who anointed Jesus was Mary of Bethany. The Mary Magdalene was-married-to-Jesus advocates go a step further and combine Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the sinning woman to get one woman everyone later felt was strong enough to be the wife of Jesus, the anointed king (which is what “Messiah” means). There are no end of books and theories since then that have tried to make sense of that particular set of combinations.

The mothers of James, Jose, and Salome  in all variations are the most obvious to be combined—which I will do, also, leaving us with a possible seven or eight Mary’s and keeping Mary Magdalene  and Mary of Bethany and the unnamed anointing woman separate for now.

Horns of a Dilemma

So right away we are on the horns of a dilemma. If Mary was separated into different women for doctrinal reasons, then the easiest thing to do now is combine them again as scholars through the centuries have tried to do. Marina Warner in, Alone of All Her Sex, devoted an appendix to the thankless task she called, A Muddle of Marys. She ends with these words:

The only text to deal satisfactorily with the problem is the Twentieth Discourse, a spurious Coptic work attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem in which the Virgin introduces herself as all possible Marys: “I am Mary Magdalene, because the name of the village wherein I was born was Magdalia. My name is Mary of Cleopa. I am Mary of James the son of Joseph the carpenter.”


Another thorny issue for making sense of all the Mary’s is this passage:

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. John 19:25

5704810244_4ece702d5a_b3 mariesA quiet controversy is raging among scholars over the placement of the commas in the sentence above. Commas were added by later copyist, editors, and translators to try to make sense of a passage in a language that contained no punctuation. The above comma placements represent the traditional version found in the King James translation. The commas and where they are placed in this sentence, however, determines the number of women at the cross and the number of women at the cross named Mary. Look again at the traditional view with attention to commas:

his mother–,–

and his mother’s sister, Mary of Cleophas –,–

and Mary Magdalene.

Three women: and the three Marys at the cross so popular in religious art.  But the commas in this placement leaves the same question unanswered of whether Mary had a sister named Mary which leads directly to the notion that Mary of Cleophas was actually Mary’s sister-in-law because it would be just too odd to have two sisters named Mary.

That point and others have caused some scholars, along with James Charlesworth in The Beloved Disciple, to feel that the passage should read:

his mother–,–

his mother’s sister–,–

Mary of Cleophas–,–

and Mary Magdalene.

Four women: that, of course, leaves another question unanswered: If “his mother’s sister” wasn’t the “sister-in-law wife of Cleophas, then who was she? After stating that “the presence of perhaps four women is impressive,” Charlesworth footnotes to say: “The text is ambiguous. The Evangelist may be referring to two, three, or four women.”

My Personal Favorite

To read two women only into the line, a reading I haven‘t seen taken seriously but my own personal favorite, the commas would be placed like this:

his mother and his mother’s sister–,–

Mary of Cleophas and Mary Magdalene.

Finding this placement of commas led me through a maze to my own theory…as this blog explores…

Was Mary at the Cross or Not?

We are not through with this sentence, though. There is a further controversy. Some scholars think that the original version started with: “his mother’s sister.” They say that “his mother” was inserted later into John—the gospel thought to have been written last—I think, because the other three gospels did not say that Mary the mother of Jesus was at the cross at all and John’s author felt that she would most certainly have been there.

Either the source material that “John” used said that Mary was there—he does have many stories different from the three synoptic gospels, including stories of women named Mary—or the author was simply tying up a loose end by inserting Mary at the cross. The John material or John, personally, however, though putting Mary at the cross and at the wedding in Cana, does not name her in his gospel. Of course, she might have been at the cross in the other gospels but disguised as one of the other Mary’s like Mary mother of James (a brother of Jesus) from Mark and Matthew.

Was Mary at the Tomb or Not?

If John was concerned that Mary wasn’t at the cross, he doesn’t seem to care that she wasn’t at the tomb. None of the gospels specifically say that Mary was at the tomb, though it would have been a parent’s duty to bury a son, especially a mother since it was women’s work. Instead, all four gospels have Mary Magdalene at the tomb, a reason to believe, as some say, that Jesus was married to the Magdalene. As his wife she would also have been responsible for preparing his body for burial. We will talk about her later, of course, but for now we should look at who was at the tomb and notice what happened to Mary Magdalene because she was there.

Mark 16:19-21 He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demonsShe went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping.  But when they heard that he was alive, and had been seen by her, they would not believe it…

Matthew 28:1-10 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb…they left the tomb quickly with great fear and great joy

Luke 24:1-12 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the Mother of James and the other women with them…terrified and bowed their faces to the ground…They then went to tell the eleven and Peter got up and ran to the tomb…

John 20:1-18 Mary Magdalene…who, as soon as she sees the stone moved, runs directly to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb…’ Then Peter and the other disciple went toward the tomb…But Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her,Woman, why are you weeping?’

I’ve shortened the passages to just Mary Magdalene and the women and the weeping and Peter. Clearly Mary Magdalene was in all four versions of the account and the fact that she was there gave her a position of power among the disciples, which later became unacceptable for those who followed Peter. You can see him becoming more important to the story as Mary dissolves into a hysterical female. In fact the English word “maudlin” comes from “Magdalene.” She has become so identified with weeping that you may not notice that the first version says that it was the disciples who were weeping. For now, just notice that the story got altered as time passed. (For a book on the conflict between Mark and John over Peter usurping Mary Magdalene read The Unfinished Gospel by Evan Powell, for one.)

A “son of Mary”

I am going to return to this passage in Mark over and over, but for right now, we are just noting again the process we saw with Mary at the cross or not and with Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb. Again, the subtle changing of what was being said as time went on.

Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, a brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not his sisters our neighbors here? Mark 6:3

Isn’t this the carpenter’s son. Isn’t Mary known to be his mother and James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? Aren’t his sisters our neighbors? Matthew 13:55

They also asked, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” Luke 4:22

Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? John 6:42 

Even if we consider that Mary was a widow and so was named as the parent instead of Joseph, why then change it? Why inch away from Jesus’ earliest designation of “son of Mary?” Was there something about the term that was problematic?

For one thing, when a man was named as son of a woman, it meant, in the world-view of that era, that the man was illegitimate, because even if the father was deceased, he was still his son and you were ranked in the world view by whose son you were. As we shall see, later rabbis took the position that either Mary had been raped and/or that the father was unknown as in the case of a prostitute, probably in part, to refute or to give a realistic rebuttal to the virgin birth stories. (Read: The Illegitimacy of Jesus by Jane Schaberg)

I came to think, as have others, that the virgin-birth episodes were added to the gospels to “spin” the fact that Mary was already pregnant when she was betrothed to Joseph. Ironically, Matthew and Luke, the two gospels with virgin-birth stories, also change the parental designation for Jesus to “son of Joseph,” even though the genealogies are altered to side-step Joseph. (Read: The Birth of the Messiah by Raymond E. Brown

Matthew 1:16: And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. (We knew that the son of Mary named Joseph was her husband’s name but here also is James/Jacob)

Luke 3:23: And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli.

It was the earliest written gospel, Mark, which used the term “son of Mary” designation for Jesus and does not give a genealogy or include much of Joseph at all.  It is believed that his gospel was written immediately after the Jews war with Rome in about 68-70 A.D. and it was written in Rome. It is the “earliest surviving written record of Jesus’ life and virtually the only record.” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary) Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as the basis for theirs, which they altered in different ways, which is why they are called “Synoptic” gospels—they had the same base. John has other sources altogether.

Mark originally ended abruptly at 16:8 with “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome” finding the empty tomb and being amazed. There was an empty tomb but no real resurrection story. Either Mark’s resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene was later reconstructed from an original damaged scroll or simply added later to match Matthew and Luke’s. (Harper’s) One would think, though, that if the early followers of Jesus wanted to omit the women or downplay the role of the women, this would have been a good time to do it. But “Mark” kept “Mary” Magdalene as the first and only witness to the resurrection story.

I think that the phrase “son of Mary” was Mark’s cryptic way of giving us the earliest version of the virgin birth story and her son’s genealogy “for those with eyes to see.” It would have immediate resonance for those early followers in Rome—they would have known what was meant without having to spell it out. Remember that it was written right after the disastrous war. Many of those awaiting the “good news” were slaves or in prisons or in hiding and in constant danger of being suspected of being Jewish insurgents. The “gospels” or letters of encouragement were subversive documents  written after that war about a man who had been executed by Rome. To flaunt a genealogy claiming a Davidic descent or to be known as a follower of one crucified by Rome for claiming to be the King of the Jews, wasn’t a good thing. To a dispossessed people, the “good news” was that the kingdom would be restored and it would be the son of Mary that did it come the resurrection. At a time when maybe a million “saints” and warriors had died in the holy war or jihad against Rome, retribution and vengeance and the rebuilding of their Holy City and Temple would have been both longed for by many, and expected by a few.

You might be thinking here that I am making much ado about nothing over these three words probably penned in haste by someone thirty-forty years after the death of Jesus but you will see shortly why the phrase was so important outside the gospel story.

Not so Obvious Answer No. 3

All that work…which Mary was which…commas, who to combine to make a more realistic “Mary”…and then, I asked myself, Did Josephus name any women named Mary? He did.  This whole blog on Mary is the product of years of work and what I came up with by the women named Mary/Mariamne that I ferreted out of the pages of Josephus. Once you see this list of Mariamne’s…there was no going back.

A list I later compiled of “Mary’s” from Josephus reads:

Mariamne or Miriam, sister of Moses

Mariamne granddaughter of King Aristobulus

Mariamne daughter of the High Priest

Mariamne daughter of King Antigonus (my theory)

Mariamne wife of Archelaus

Mariamne daughter of Aristobulus son of Mariamne I

Mariamne daughter of Joseph and Olympias

Mariamne daughter of Agrippa I

Mary daughter of Eleazar, a noble woman

Nine! Josephus’ book, Antiquities of the Jews, covered all of Jewish history closely following the Old Testament. The Jewish War, covered the years of Herod’s reign (37 B.C. to 4 B.C.) through the end of the devastating war with Rome ending in 70 A.D.; more than a hundred years. All those Mariamne’s could have been scattered over a thousand years and been any number of Mariamnes/Mariams/Miriams/Marys—except for Miriam the sister of Moses, they were not just anywhere—the other seven or eight are from the same section of Josephus’ that deals specifically with the New Testament era. Or, to put it more personally, the Mariamne’s all appear in the time spanning the lives of our Mary’s grandmother to her granddaughter….

When I put the lists of Marys side by side and leave out Miriam sister of Moses, a few things stood out:

Mary mother of Jesus                                Mariamne daughter of Alexander

Mary Magdalene                                        Mariamne daughter of the High Priest

Mary of Bethany                                        Mariamne daughter of Antigonus

Mary mother, James, Joses, Salome       Mariamne. wife of Archelaus

Mary wife of Clophas                                Mariamne daughter of Aristobulus

The other Mary                                           Mariamne daughter of Olympias

Mary mother of Mark                                Mariamne daughter of Agrippa I

Mary a Christian woman                          Mary, daughter of Eleazar

First thing to notice is just the sheer fact of all the women called Mariamne in like number with the women called Mary and to realize that they are roughly contemporaries.  I am not suggesting that these were exactly the same women in both lists, only that the two groups of women may be from the same dynastic pool. But if there is any combining to be done…this list is a good place to start.


Stepping back a pace and trying to see the forest for the trees, the most obvious reason for all the above flutter is that the traditions that led to the four gospels are, one way or another, trying to obscure Mary’s presence or importance at her son’s side and at crucial events in his life and death—the gospel writers, apparently, couldn’t just get rid of her, she had been such a well-known part of the story; so they colored her as a meddling mother who totally didn’t understand her son. She may have been split off into different women and wasn’t allowed to be at the tomb of her son. Even the best-case scenario indicates that some fooling around with the text occurred regarding women named Mary, especially regarding Mary mother of Jesus.