Two things of note are implied in this passage. First, these women “provided for” Jesus and the Twelve, which suggests that the women were well-to-do, respectable figures. (It is possible this was an attribution, to Jesus’ time, of a role prosperous women played some years later.) Second, they all had been cured of something, including Mary Magdalene. The “seven demons,” as applied to her, indicates an ailment (not necessarily possession) of a certain severity. Soon enough, as the blurring work of memory continued, and then as the written Gospel was read by Gentiles unfamiliar with such coded language, those “demons” would be taken as a sign of a moral infirmity.
This otherwise innocuous reference to Mary Magdalene takes on a kind of radioactive narrative energy because of what immediately precedes it at the end of the seventh chapter, an anecdote of stupendous power:
One of the Pharisees invited [Jesus] to a meal. When he arrived at the Pharisee’s house and took his place at table, a woman came in, who had a bad name in the town. She had heard he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. She waited behind him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who this woman is that is touching him and what a bad name she has.”
But Jesus refuses to condemn her, or even to deflect her gesture. Indeed, he recognizes it as a sign that “her many sins must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love.” “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus tells her. “Go in peace.”
This story of the woman with the bad name, the alabaster jar, the loose hair, the “many sins,” the stricken conscience, the ointment, the rubbing of feet and the kissing would, over time, become the dramatic high point of the story of Mary Magdalene. The scene would be explicitly attached to her, and rendered again and again by the greatest Christian artists. But even a casual reading of this text, however charged its juxtaposition with the subsequent verses, suggests that the two women have nothing to do with each other—that the weeping anointer is no more connected to Mary of Magdala than she is to Joanna or Susanna.
Other verses in other Gospels only add to the complexity. Matthew gives an account of the same incident, for example, but to make a different point and with a crucial detail added:
Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, when a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of the most expensive ointment, and poured it on his head as he was at table. When they saw this, the disciples were indignant. “Why this waste?” they said. “This could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Jesus noticed this. “Why are you upsetting the woman?” he said to them.... “When she poured this ointment on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you solemnly, wherever in all the world this Good News is proclaimed, what she has done will be told also, in remembrance of her.”