Have we really found the birthplace of Mary Magdalene?
IIt is a rare thing indeed that being mistaken for a sex worker brings someone fame and everlasting fame. And yet, this is exactly what happened to Mary Magdalene, the financier of Jesus, whose mistaken identification as a prostitute has followed her for 1,500 years. In an increasingly religious society, Mary has consolidated her place as a cultural icon.
Now she sells digital newspapers: Numerous media have proclaimed over Christmas time that archaeologists excavating “Magdala” may well have identified her birthplace. But do they have?
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According to the first reports in the Jerusalem Post, a “salvage excavation” (the kind of excavation carried out before construction in culturally rich areas) co-organized by the University of Haifa and the Israel Antiquities Association, unearthed the remains of a 2,000-year-old synagogue in Migdal, Israel. Migdal is located on the Sea of Galilee and has traditionally been identified as Magdala, the birthplace 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 community events. “
The unearthed synagogue is in fact the second such find in the city. In 2009, a larger and more ornate synagogue was unearthed along with an intricately carved stone that featured a seven-branched menorah. Both synagogues date from 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 remains of the accoutrements of ancient ritual life were present at the site. Pottery lamps, molded glass bowls, rings and a few stone utensils surrounded the remains.
But does all of this bring us to Mary Magdalene?
Only a few days after the publication of the news, specialists of the Bible and experts of Marie-Madeleine Professeur Joan taylor, from King’s College London, and doctoral student at Duke University Elizabeth schrader published a major investigation into the first evidence of “The Meaning of ‘Magdalen'” in the Biblical Literature Journal. Three years of preparation, this article reviews the literary data for much of what we know about Mary and comes to compelling and revealing conclusions about the meaning of her name.
Basically, the association of Mary Magdalene, the apostle of Jesus, with this city on the Sea of Galilee is based on two hypotheses. First, that Madeleine is a sort of surname that recalls her geographic origins as old names often did. Second, that this seaside town was called “Magdala” in the first century AD. Once you’ve broken into the historical foundations of the argument, Schrader and Taylor show, cracks start to appear.
There was, Schrader told me, considerable disagreement over the meaning of Mary’s name. The 5th century translator, Saint Jerome, thought it was a nickname meaning “tower”. Nicknames like this were common in ancient times, especially among followers of Jesus. Just as Peter was the “rock” and James was the “righteous”, so Mary was the “tower of faith”. Some ancient writers thought it referred to his birthplace, but no ancient writers thought the same. The prolific 3rd-century theologian Origen identified Magdala as Mary’s hometown, but never specified where it was. This is all the stranger since Origen spent much of his life in Caesarea and traveled 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 pointing out that his name meant “magnification” and was an appropriate title for a “prominent” witness to the resurrection. Taylor told me that “Since ‘Magdala’ means ‘the tower’ (as well as ‘magnified’) in Aramaic and there were many places that were called ‘the tower of something’, Origen … and others could choose different identifications. Given all these differences of opinion, Schraeder said, we should certainly not rush to conclusions based on geography: “Since there was no consensus in antiquity about the meaning of her name, modern assumptions that she came from a place on the Sea of Galilee are highly suspect.
Her name aside, the ancient opinion about Mary’s origin also varied. Several of the early commentators on the Gospels, for example the 3rd century writer Hippolyte of Rome, assumed that Mary Magdalene was the sister of Martha and Lazarus mentioned in the Gospel of John. If this is true, it would mean that Mary, like her siblings, was from Bethany and is the woman who anoints Jesus in John 12. (This woman, according to Schrader and Taylor, is distinct from the anonymous sex worker who also anoints Jesus in Luke 7 It should be noted that the anointing was not a unique matter in antiquity). To make matters even stranger, the early 4th century historian Eusebius of Caesarea believed there were two Mary Magdalene. Eusebius had in fact visited a “Magdala himself” but, according to him, the city was in Judea, in the south. We are clearly irrelevant. Schrader and Taylor conclude that “the old position that Mary Magdalene was from Bethany remains within the realm of sensible exegetical possibility”, but her name relates more to her religious character than anything else.
Archaeological evidence shows that the city on the Sea of Galilee known today as Magdala was certainly a first century fishing village. And that was exactly the kind of place that Jesus recruited disciples from. The geography and timeline, however, are a bit off. Taylor told the Daily Beast: “In Jesus’ day there was a village called Migdal Nuniyya (the ‘fish tower’) located nearby, only a ‘mil’ (about 1 km) beyond. the northern limit of Tiberias. , a city located further south than the current city. The Christian pilgrimage site of Magdala is about 6 km from Roman Tiberias on the other side of Mount Arbel, and archeology increasingly indicates that it was a separate and important city. There is no evidence from Christian sources that the pilgrimage site was called “Magdala” until the 6th century when the site began to become a destination for religious tourists.
The fact that the traditions associated with the archaeological site have developed and developed over time parallels the larger phenomenon of the explosion of traditions of Mary in general. Several early Christian documents that do not appear in the New Testament, including the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, and the Pistis-Sophie– portray Mary as one of the closest disciples of Jesus, whose authority has been challenged in Orthodox circles. Several generations of Taylor’s significant archaeological and historical work have rejected mistaken but dear historical assumptions. While others, like Karen King, have explored the ways in which the importance of Mary was contested in the early church because she served as a code for issues of female authority in general. The ecclesiastical tussle over its memory and importance meant that while some traditions and details of its history were gaining ground and developing, others were contested and erased.
This contestation, Schrader argued, has spread to the copying and editing of New Testament manuscripts. “There are also some major textual issues surrounding the word ‘Mary’ in the crucial manuscripts of the Gospel of John (especially throughout John 11 and John 20:16). The fact that there have been ancient controversies surrounding Mary’s legacy, as well as significant inconsistencies in important manuscripts of the Gospel of John, alerts us to the possibility that her story may have been altered by course.
The preservation of evidence of textual alterations as well as the discovery of new Christian documents, Schrader said, open up new possibilities for how we view the Magdalen’s legacy. It joins the recent work of art historian Ally Kateusz, author of Mary and the First Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, who argues that Christian artwork was augmented in order to disguise the leadership of women in the early church.
Beginning with the influential misidentification of Mary as a sex worker by Gregory the Great, Mary Magdalene was identified with the anonymous wife of Dwarf who anointed Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. As nature abhors a vacuum, patriarchal history despises excess of women. The fact that Mary Magdalene is not from Magdala on the Sea of Galilee – a city that does not seem to have existed under that name in the first century – should not mean that we reflexively collapse into our bad habits of interpretation. As Taylor writes in the article, “Western Christendom’s central exegetical error that must be corrected is not the idea that Mary Magdalene could be from Bethany; it is rather the idea, following Gregory the Great, that all the anointing women of the Gospels can be elected into one. As an alternative, we suggest that Biblical scholars can celebrate Mary Magdalene’s release from inaccurate portrayals while simultaneously recognizing 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 findings give us a richer picture of the varieties of ancient Jewish religious life in Roman times. More importantly, they displace an assumption that is common to the stories of Judaism; namely that the synagogues only gained importance following and in compensation for the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The existence of not one but two synagogues barely 200 meters apart, said Avshalom-Gorni, of the vibrancy of first-century Torah study, social gatherings and religious life outside Jerusalem.