Was Marie-Madeleine really from Magdala? Two scholars examine the evidence

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(RNS) – The results were announced with bold headlines. Archaeologists excavating near the Israeli town of Migdal, also known as Magdala, have found remains of a first-century synagogue.

“We found a synagogue from the 2nd Temple period where Mary Magdalene of Gospel was born,” the Jerusalem Post headline said on December 12. Newsweek, Express UK and Smithsonian magazine followed with similar headlines.

The discovery of the ancient synagogue in the city on the western edge of the Sea of ​​Galilee is certainly significant and adds tangible evidence of Jewish life in first century Palestine to the time of Jesus’ ministry.

But two academics from the US and UK are questioning the rapid assumption that the city is the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ first disciples and the first witness to his resurrection.

In an article published last month, Elizabeth Schrader, a Ph.D. student at Duke University, and Joan Taylor, a professor at King’s College London, argue that the hypothesis that Magdala refers to Mary’s place of origin is entirely speculative. .

Instead, they say, Madeleine may well be an honorary title from Hebrew and Aramaic roots for “tour” or “magnified.”

Just as the apostle Peter receives the epithet of “rock” (“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church”), Mary could very well have acquired a title “Madeleine” meaning “tower of faith” or “Mary magnified her.

“Although there were various ways of understanding his name, no author before the 6th century identified him as coming from a place beside the Sea of ​​Galilee,” the authors write in the December issue of the Journal. of Biblical Literature. “Several ancient writers actually understood that Mary’s nickname was rooted in her character rather than where she came from.”

Migdal, red pin, located along the Sea of ​​Galilee in northeastern Israel. Maps courtesy of Creative Commons

The article is part of a re-examination of Mary Magdalene, long mistaken for a prostitute and marginalized by the early church fathers. Scholars are re-examining the gospels and early Christian writings with the aim of retrieving the true Mary from the diminished figure that emerged from the pen of the early church fathers.

Schrader, a former singer-songwriter of the New York pop scene, has been in this task for some time. In an article published in 2017, she examined the story of the resurrection of Lazarus in the Gospel of John. Examining hundreds of hand-copied ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts of the gospel, Schrader discovered that the name of Martha, another New Testament woman identified as Lazaurus’s sister, had occasionally shown signs of tampering. . The scribes crossed out one letter and replaced it with another, changing the original name “Mary” to read “Martha”, in a possible deliberate downplay of Mary’s role in the story.


RELATED: The scribes tried to erase it. Now a scholar is trying to find the real Mary Magdalene.


Mary’s decrease took place slowly as Christianity became more patriarchal. Perhaps the greatest blow to his reputation came in the 6th century, when Pope Gregory the Great confused Mary Magdalene with the “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume in Luke 7. This woman is never mentioned by name by the author of Luke. Gospel. But for the next 1,500 years, Marie-Madeleine was often equated with a prostitute or, in modern parlance, a sex worker.

As Schrader and Taylor demonstrate, there was no consensus about Mary or her origins in ancient times. In fact, there were several places named Migdal all over Judea and Galilee. The 4th century Christian historian, Eusebius, believed that Magdala was a city in Judea, not Galilee.

Saint Jerome, best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin (a version called the Vulgate), said he believed Mary was given the name Magdalene because she was a tower of faith – a “tower -” esse “as he says in a letter of the year 412.

Painting from 1835 by artist Alexander Ivanov "Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection ”.  Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Painting from 1835 by the artist Alexander Ivanov “Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Later, in Byzantine times and especially during the period of the Crusades from the 11th to the 13th centuries, a town near the Sea of ​​Galilee initially known as el-Mejdal became a Christian pilgrimage site known as from Magdala. It’s always like that.

“What we’re saying is it was not a site in Jesus’ day,” Taylor said. “At that time there was a town called Tarichaea, which is mentioned by Josephus and Pliny. But she was never called Magdala in Roman times.

Journalists weren’t the only ones claiming Mary was from Magdala. In a statement announcing the synagogue excavation, University of Haifa excavation director Dina Avshalom-Gorni said: “We can imagine Mary Magdalene and her family coming to the synagogue here, along with other residents. de Migdal, to participate in religious and community events. . “

For some, the rooting of Mary in the city of Magdala is important. Archaeologists need funding for their excavations. If they can relate their work to a Biblical figure or event, private and institutional funding will begin to flow in, Taylor said.

Evangelicals in particular, eager to find material evidence that the Bible is historically true, are attached to the idea that Mary came from the city of Magdala. The same is true of certain feminist scholars who want to dissociate Mary Magdalene from the sinful woman of Luke 7.

But locating Mary in Magdala also closes the door to Mary’s heritage.

“If you say she is from Magdala, that eliminates the possibility that ‘Magdalen’ indicates the title of a more eminent disciple,” said Schrader.

Viewing “Madeleine” as an honorary title also gives her dignity back, Taylor added. “It creates a clean slate for it to be recovered in a new way.”


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