Have We Really Found Mary Magdalene’s Birthplace?
Over the holidays, numerous outlets proclaimed that archaeologists excavating in “Magdala” may have identified her birthplace.
It is a rare thing indeed that being mistaken for a sex worker brings someone fame and eternal renown. And yet this is exactly what has happened to Mary Magdalene, the financial backer of Jesus, whose misidentification as a prostitute has followed her for 1,500 years. In a society that is increasingly areligious, Mary has cemented her place as a cultural icon.
Now, she sells digital newspapers: numerous outlets proclaimed over the Christmas season that archaeologists excavating in “Magdala” may well have identified her birthplace. But have they?
According to initial reports in the Jerusalem Post, a “salvage excavation” (the kind of excavation performed ahead of construction in culturally rich areas) co-organized by the University of Haifa and the Israel Antiquities Association, unearthed the remains of a 2000-year-old synagogue in Migdal, Israel. Migdal is located on the Sea of Galilee and has traditionally been identified as Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene. In a statement, excavation director Dina Avshalom-Gorni said “We can imagine Mary Magdalene and her family coming to the synagogue here, along with other residents of Migdal, to participate in religious and communal events.”
The unearthing of the synagogue is, in fact, the second such discovery in the town. In 2009 a larger, more ornate synagogue was unearthed complete with an elaborately carved stone that featured a seven-branched menorah. Both synagogues date to the Second Temple period, when Jesus lived and preached in the area. The smaller synagogue consisted of a main hall and two other smaller rooms (one of which may well have housed Torah scrolls). The remnants of the accoutrements of ancient ritual life were present at the site. Pottery lamps, molded glass bowls, rings and some stone utensils were all round among the remains.
But does any of this get us to Mary Magdalene?
Mere days after the news story broke, biblical scholars and Mary Magdalene experts Professor Joan Taylor, of King’s College London, and Duke University doctoral student Elizabeth Schrader published an important survey of the early evidence for “The Meaning of ‘Magdalene’” in the Journal of Biblical Literature. Three years in the making, this article reviews the literary data for much of what we know about Mary and comes to some persuasive and eye-opening conclusions about the meaning of her name.
When it comes down to it, the association of Mary Magdalene, the apostle of Jesus, with this town on the Sea of Galilee rests on two assumptions. First, that Magdalene is a kind of surname that gestures to her geographical origins as ancient names often did. Second, that this city by the sea was called “Magdala” in the first century CE. Once you drill into the historical foundations of the argument, Schrader and Taylor show, cracks start to emerge.
There was, Schrader told me, considerable disagreement about the meaning of Mary’s name. The fifth-century translator St. Jerome thought that it was a nickname, meaning “tower.” Nicknames like this were common in antiquity, especially among Jesus followers. Just as Peter was the “rock,” and James was the “just” so too Mary was the “tower of faith.” Some ancient authors did think it referred to her birthplace, but no two ancient writers thought the same thing. The prolific third-century theologian Origen did identify Magdala as Mary’s hometown, but never specified where it was located. This is especially strange as Origen spent much of his life in Caesarea and travelled around the Sea of Galilee. How well known could the city have been if Origen didn’t know where it was? In fact, he spends more time emphasizing that her name meant “Magnification” and was a fitting title for a “prominent” witness of the resurrection. Taylor told me that “Since ‘Magdala’ means ‘the tower’ (as well as ‘magnified’) in Aramaic and there were numerous places which were called ‘the tower of something’, Origen… and others could choose different identifications.” Given all these differences of opinion, Schraeder said, we certainly shouldn’t be rushing to geographically based conclusions: “Since there was no consensus in antiquity on the meaning of her name, modern assumptions that she came from a place by the Sea of Galilee are highly suspect.”
Her name aside, ancient opinion about where Mary was from also varied. Several of the earliest commentators on the Gospels—for example, the third-century writer Hippolytus of Rome—assumed that Mary Magdalene was the sister of Martha and Lazarus mentioned in the Gospel of John. If true, this would mean that Mary, like her siblings, was from Bethany and is the woman who anoints Jesus in John 12. (This woman, Schrader and Taylor argue, is distinct from the anonymous sex worker who also anoints Jesus in Luke 7. It’s worth noting that anointing was not a once-in-a-lifetime affair in antiquity). To make things even stranger, the early fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea thought there were two Mary Magdalenes. Eusebius had actually visited a “Magdala” himself but, according to him the town was in Judea, in the south. We are clearly way off course. Schrader and Taylor conclude that “the ancient position that Mary Magdalene hailed from Bethany remains within the realm of sensible exegetical possibility” but her name is more about her religious character than anything else.
Archaeological evidence shows that the town on the Sea of Galilee known today as Magdala was certainly a first-century fishing village. And it was just the sort of place from which Jesus recruited followers. The geography and chronology, however, is a little off. Taylor told The Daily Beast: “In the time of Jesus, there was a village named Migdal Nuniyya (the ‘fish-tower’) located very close by, just one ‘mil’ (about 1 km.) beyond the northern boundary of Tiberias, a city which lay further south than the present town. The Christian pilgrim site of Magdala lies about 6 km from Roman Tiberias on the other side of Mount Arbel, and the archaeology increasingly indicates it was a separate, sizeable town.” There’s no evidence from Christian sources that the pilgrimage site was called “Magdala” until the sixth century, when the site started to become a destination for religious tourists.
That the traditions associated with the archaeological site developed and grew over time parallels the broader phenomenon of the explosion in Mary traditions in general. Several early Christian documents that do not make it into the New Testament—including the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, and the Pistis Sophia—portray Mary as one of Jesus’ closest disciples, whose authority was challenged in orthodox circles. Several generations of important archaeological and historical work by Taylor have pushed back against erroneous yet cherished historical assumptions. While others, like Karen King, have explored the ways in which Mary’s importance was contested in the early church because it served as a cipher for questions of women’s authority in general. The ecclesiastical tug-of-war over her memory and significance meant that even as some traditions and details of her story gained traction and developed, others were contested and erased.
This contestation, Schrader has argued, spilled over into the copying and editing of manuscripts of the New Testament. “There are also some major textual problems around the word ‘Mary’ in crucial manuscripts of the Gospel of John (particularly throughout John 11 and John 20:16). The fact that there were ancient controversies around Mary’s legacy—as well as meaningful inconsistencies in important manuscripts of John’s Gospel—alerts us to the possibility that her story may have been changed along the way.”
The preservation of evidence of textual alterations together with the discovery of new Christian documents, said Schrader, open up new possibilities for how we see the Magdalene’s legacy. It dovetails with the recent work of art historian Ally Kateusz, the author of Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, who argues that Christian artwork was augmented in order to conceal women’s leadership in the early church.
Beginning with Gregory the Great’s influential misidentification of Mary as a sex worker, Mary Magdalene came to be identified with the anonymous woman from Nain who anointed Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. As nature abhors a vacuum, patriarchal history despises an excess of women. The fact that Mary Magdalene was not from Magdala on the Sea of Galilee—a city that does not seem to have existed by this name in the first century—should not mean that we reflexively collapse into our interpretive bad habits. As Taylor writes in the piece, “the central exegetical mistake of Western Christendom that needs correcting is not the idea that Mary Magdalene might be from Bethany; rather, it is the notion, following Gregory the Great, that all the gospels’ anointing women can be elided into one. As an alternative, we suggest that biblical scholars can celebrate the liberation of Mary Magdalene from inaccurate portrayals while simultaneously acknowledging that Mary’s provenance need not be ‘Magdala’ to maintain this hard-won position.”
This does not mean that the excavations on the Sea of Galilee are somehow meaningless. It’s not always about Christianity, after all. These discoveries give us a richer picture of the varieties of ancient Jewish religious life in the Roman period. More importantly, they displace an assumption that is common to histories of Judaism; namely, that synagogues rose to prominence only in the aftermath of and as compensation for the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70. The existence of not one but two synagogues a mere 650 feet apart, said Avshalom-Gorni, is a testament to the vibrancy of first-century Torah study, social gatherings, and religious life outside of Jerusalem.