BNTC 2014: The Magdalene Mystery image

BNTC 2014: The Magdalene Mystery

Why is Mary called "Magdalene"? The answer is obvious, presumably: she was from a place called Magdala. After all, we had a place called Al-Mijdal until 1948, just north of Tiberias, which would originally have been Magdala (if you believe the archaeologists). And we have a place called Migdal Tsebaya, near Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans when they crushed the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 - and this would make Mary a city girl who, like the city she came from, was known for prostitution and then came good (if you believe the paperback pop-historians). Mary Magdalene just means "Mary of Magdala," surely. Case closed.

Well: not really, argued Professor Joan Taylor of King’s College London, in the opening session of the British New Testament Conference. For a start, we have no evidence of a place called Magdala until some rabbinic texts in the fourth or fifth century. That doesn’t mean the place didn’t exist, of course, but it does seem strange to name someone after a place that absolutely nobody had heard of. Migdal in Aramaic simply means “tower”, and rather than being a place name on its own, it usually functioned as a prefix - Migdal Senna, Migdal Eder, Migdal Gad, Migdal El, Migdal Tsebaya, Migdal Nuniya - much like Bet-el, Bet-lehem, Bet-saida, or English suffixes like -combe, -hill or -port. (If you came across a place called simply “Combe” or “Hill” or “Port”, you’d be surprised, right? The same goes for Migdal in Aramaic.) So it is very unlikely that Mary came from a place simply called Magdala.

There is also substantial disagreement about where exactly “Magdala” is supposed to have been. Nobody mentions it until the rabbis in the fourth or fifth centuries, and no Christian mentions it until Theodosius in the sixth, when all of a sudden it starts popping up everywhere as a site of Byzantine pilgrimage. The village from which Mary probably came, a tiny settlement called Migdal Nuniya (“fish tower”), probably isn’t the site we currently know as Magdala; the chances are that later Christians ignored the little village for a more substantial town about two miles north, which was then known as Homonoia (“concord”), and sat in the borders of Magadan (cf. Matthew 15:39). Confusion led to Magadan becoming Magdalan and then eventually Magdala. This, in fact, is exactly what happened to the Byzantine textual tradition for Matthew 15:39.

So we have a puzzle. If “Mary Magdalene” doesn’t mean simply “Mary of Magdala” - since we have no evidence of there ever being such a place name, and the village she apparently came from was a tiny fish-spotting settlement that nobody outside of that part of Galilee would ever have heard of - then what does it mean?

Joan argues that although the name originated with the village Mary came from, which was itself named after its fish tower, it became a nickname for her, given to her by Jesus: “Mary the toweress.” Two factors point this way. Firstly, it is extremely unusual to have a woman named after a place at all (only two examples survive from Palestine in antiquity); almost all women are named after men. Secondly, the way her name is introduced, especially in Luke, is strikingly like the way other nicknames are introduced: “Mary called Magdalene” (Luke 8:2) obviously echoes “Simon called Zealot” (6:15), “Simon named Rock” (6:14), “Thomas called Twin” (John 21:2), James and John “to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), and “Judas called Iscariot” (Luke 22:3). The latter, Joan argues, comes from Iskarioutha and means “choked up”. Jesus was evidently fond of playful, pun-based nicknames - and his giving of a nickname to Mary may even indicate that she was, in a number of ways, one of the boys.

What was it about Mary that got her this nickname, then (if indeed that is what it was)? It is obviously impossible to be certain. The Shepherd of Hermas presents the church as a woman and a tower (Sim 9:12-13), and it may be that, just as Peter is the “rock” on which the church is built, so Mary is the “tower”. The discussion at the end of the lecture spawned some other suggestions: it could be sexual guardedness (as in Song of Songs), or her appearance (perhaps she was simply tall), or perhaps it means nothing at all. But it probably doesn’t mean simply that she came from a town called Magdala.

All of which is (to my mind) fascinating, if a little inconclusive. But as the lecture was closing, Loveday Alexander raised the important point that, whereas the names of the men are explained in Greek as well as Aramaic (Cephas/Peter, Didymus/Twin, Boanerges/Sons of Thunder), “Magdalene” is left without an equivalent. This doesn’t mean that it can’t have been a nickname - if it did, I’m sure I would be legitimately accused of having led you up the garden path - but it does pour a bit of cold water over the suggestion that Mary the Tower should be placed alongside Peter the Rock as a key, church-defining nickname. It may have been that Jesus, seeing that she came from Migdal Nuniya and possessed a tower-like feature of some sort (physically, perhaps), gave her the nickname without attributing any theological significance to it. But it remains, at best, an interesting possibility.

And if nothing else, it means that everyone who has been shown around Magdala and told that it was Mary’s hometown should probably ask for a refund.

← Prev article
Next article →