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Mary Magdalene and the case of missing Magdala

May 2014

Mary Magdalene and the case of missing Magdala

A fascinating discourse from an expert in both biblical texts and the archaeology of the Holy Land that answers some questions but poses others.

According to traditions that can be dated back to the Byzantine Empire (6th Century), Mary Magdalene came from a town called Magdala, meaning “Tower” north of Tiberias on the shores of Lake Galilee. From the 8th-9th Century this was an established pilgrimage site and is associated with a pre-1948 Palestinian fishing village (al-Majdal) near to the modern Israeli town of Migdal. Professor Taylor questioned this identification as neither Eusebius nor Jerome mention Magdala and it would be strange for it to be passed down orally for centuries without being written down by church historians. Also, if we look at the original Greek text (Nestle-Aland), the word between Mary and Magdalene is the Greek letter eta with an aspirated breathing mark over it, which means the, not of. So the reference to her is Mary the Magdalene (or as we might say, Mary the Tower). Now why did Jesus call her this? She might have been particularly tall; she might have been far-sighted (in the sense of a tower as a watch-tower q.v. Habakkuk 2:1), she might have been a source of strength to the other apostles (in the sense of a tower as a place of refuge). Jesus certainly gave nicknames to many of his disciples: Andrew’s brother Simon became Peter (the rock), James and John became “sons of Thunder” (or noisy men), iscariot meant “choked up”, while zealot meant “striving man”, not necessarily a member of the group called the Zealots. Furthermore, “tower” is a symbol in inter-testamental Judaism and also occurs in early Christian writings; the Shepherd of Hermas uses the word for the Church, strengthening the interpretation of it as a place of refuge.

But if Mary was not from Magdala, where did she come from. Certainly, if we look at Mt 15:39 we see that after the feeding of the 4000, Jesus crossed Lake Galilee to the vicinity of Magadan (Mark 8:10 has the region of Dalmanutha) and there are Byzantine variants of the text where Magadan has become Magdala. Often this is linked to the small city of Tarichaea, but Josephus identifies Tarichaea as south of Tiberias, rather than north, where the city of Homonoia is on the civil boundary between lower and upper Galilee. It is possible that Mary came from Migdal Nuniya (‘Tower of fish”) about 1 mile north of Tiberias, but as this has not been excavated we do not know if it was populated in Jesus’ time, so the question of where Mary Magdalene came from remains open. But even if we cannot say where she came from, we can identify one highly significant fact: she is always referred to as Mary Magdalene, never defined through her relationship to a man, such as Mary mother of Joses (Mk 15:47).


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  2. Laurence Cox says:

    The information comes from a public lecture by Joan Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London.

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