Was St. Mary Magdalene the biological sister of Lazarus who Christ raised from the dead?
Most of the early Fathers believe so. In fact, the 16th century Jesuit, Fr. Lapide, reveals the ancient dispute of the Fathers. Ultimately, however, he comes down on the side of the affirmative to that question. Here, we will just copy-and-paste that great scholar’s clear and profound words without any commentary, except Lapide’s own commentary on Sacred Scripture and the early Fathers:
Ver. 36.—And one of the Pharisees desired that he would eat with him, and He went into the Pharisee’s house and sat down to meat. Ver. 37.—And behold a woman in the city. Behold, a wonderful thing, and a wonderful example of penitence. A woman called Mary Magdalene.—S. Luke viii.
It is questioned whether this is the same woman who is mentioned by the two other Evangelists. St. Chrysostom thinks there were two; Origen, Theophylact, and Euthymius, three who thus anointed our Lord, and that each Evangelist wrote of a different person. S. Matt. xxvi. 7; S. John xii. 3.
But I hold that it was one and the same woman—Mary Magdalene, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus, who anointed our Lord, as we read in the Gospels, on two but not three occasions; and this is clear,—
1. Because this is the general interpretation of the Church, who in her Offices accepts what is here written by St. Luke as referring to the Magdalene alone.
2. Because St. John (xi. 2) writes, “It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick,” thus plainly alluding to this passage of S. Luke, and signifying that only one woman anointed the Lord. For if there had been more than one, the words just quoted would have insufficiently described her. But the meaning is, “when I say Mary, I mean the penitent who anointed the feet of the Lord, as recounted by St. Luke, whom all know to be Mary Magdalene.”
3. Because the Mary mentioned by St. John (xii. 2, 3) is clearly the same Mary Magdalene, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus, who anointed Christ here, as described by St. Luke, and again at Bethany, six days before the passover. For St. Matthew (xxvi. 6) and S. John (xii. i) both refer to the same event, as is evident if the two accounts are compared together. Therefore it was Mary Magdalene who anointed Christ, not three times, as Origen would have us believe, but twice only, once as is recorded by St. Luke, and again six days before His death.
4 The same thing is testified to by Church history and tradition, and also by the inscription on the tomb of the Magdalene, which Maximus, one of the seventy disciples, is said to have built.
5. And this is also the opinion of St. Augustine, St. Cyprian, and many other interpreters of scripture.
But it may be objected that this Magdalene followed Jesus from Galilee (S. Matt. xxvii. 55), and was a Galilean, and cannot have been the same as Mary the sister of Martha, who lived at Bethany, and was therefore of Judæa. I answer that she was of Judæa by descent, but seems to have lived in Galilee, it may be in the castle called Magdala, either because she had married the lord of that place, or because it had been allotted her as her share of the family property. Hence she was called Magdalene from the name of the place, Magdala. So say Jansenius and others.
In the city. Some think in Jerusalem. But Jerusalem was in Judæa, and these things seem to have been done in Galilee where Christ was preaching. Hence it is very probable that the city was Nain, the scene of Christ’s miracle, as Toletus and others conjecture; but some think that it was the town of Magdala in which she lived, an idea which Adricomius on the word Magdalum supports.
A sinner. Some recent writers, to honour the Magdalene, think that she was not unchaste, but only conceited and vain, and for this reason called a sinner. But in proportion as they thus honour the Magdalene, they detract from the grace of God and that penitence which enabled her to live a holy life. For by the word sinner we generally understand one who not only sins, but leads others also to sin. The word sinner therefore here signifies a harlot, i.e. one who has many lovers although she may not make a public market of her charms, and this interpretation is accepted by St. Augustine, St. Jerome, Isidore of Pelusium, St. Ambrose, Gregory, Bede, and St. Chrysostom, who holds (Hom. 62 ad Pop.) that to her refer the words of our Lord, “Verily, I say unto you, that the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” S. Matt. xxii. 31.
Hence the Church hymn:—
So she, who hath so many sins committed,
Now from the very jaws of hell returns;
E’en to the threshold of a Life eternal,
After her fitful life of guilt and shame.
She, from a seething caldron of offences,
A fair and perfumed vase is now become;
From an uncomely vessel of dishonour
Translated to a vessel full of grace.
Doubtlessly Christ permitted her to be entangled in all the filth of a wanton life, that He might show the power of His grace in winning her back to purity again, for the worse the disease the greater the skill of the physician in curing it. Nor does this detract from the honour due to the Magdalene, for the greater her sins, the more admirable her penitence, and the stronger her resolution to forsake them.
God willed that she should be an example of penitence, that none should despair of pardon because or the heinousness of their offences, but trust to the infinite compassion of God, mindful of the saying of St. Paul, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting.”—1 Tim. i. 15, 16.
“Truly,” says Pope St. Gregory, “a life anxious to atone for faults committed is oftentimes more pleasing to God than that innocence which rests in a torpid security.”