Discoveries in Mary Magdalene’s Hometown

Four ritual baths unearthed in the Magdala excavations

Mary Magdalene is arguably the best known and most popular sinner of the New Testament. A great deal of the romantic portrayal of Mary, however, has no foundation in the Scripture, but is the product of a later Christian tradition, which ultimately inspired contemporary cinematic depictions of her. Take her name and her hometown as an example. The name Mary (Miryam, in Hebrew) was so common that the Gospels always had to specify which Mary from within the inner circle of Jesus’ followers: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James, Mary the wife of Clopas, and “Mary called Magdalene” (Maria hē kaloumenē Magdalēnē; Luke 8:2).


The Magdala synagogue with the Torah reading table in the center of this image. Photo: Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

But what does the epithet Magdalene mean? A later tradition took it to mean “from Magdala.” The only possible Gospel reference to a place of that name is Matthew 15:39, where we see Jesus coming “to the region of Magdala,” rendered, however, in some manuscripts as Magadan. And it isn’t until the sixth century that literary sources inform us about pilgrimage to Mary Magdalene’s alleged hometown on the shores of the Sea of Galilee called Magdala.

The place-name Magdala is very likely preserved in the name of Qarīyat al-Majdal, an Arab village, which existed by the Sea of Galilee until 1948. Ancient sources, for their turn, speak of a place called Taricheae, which is a derivation of the Greek “factories for salting fish,” or more precisely, “the vats used for salting fish.”

From these same ancient sources—written in Greek and Latin—it is apparent that Taricheae was a considerable city, likely the most important center on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee until the foundation of Tiberias, in 19 C.E. It is also apparent that the source of the fame and wealth of this former fishermen’s village was fish trade. The population of Taricheae grew to approximately 30,000 by the mid-first century, as a prominent Jewish historian Flavius Josephus implies in his account of the Roman suppression of the First Jewish Revolt in 66–70 C.E.

The Galilee is one of the most evocative locales in the New Testament—the area where Jesus was raised and where many of the Apostles came from. Our free eBook The Galilee Jesus Knew focuses on several aspects of Galilee: how Jewish the area was in Jesus’ time, the ports and the fishing industry that were so central to the region, and several sites where Jesus likely stayed and preached.

Josephus also recorded the abrupt end of the city in the year 67:

“Titus leapt on his horse and led his troops to the lake [the Sea of Galilee], rode through the waterfront and entered the town first, followed by his men. […] Abandoning their posts, [the rebel leader] Jesus and his supporters fled across the country, while the rest rushed down to the lake. There they ran into the enemy advancing to meet them; some were killed as they boarded their boats, others as they tried to swim to those who had put out before. In the town there was a massacre, the same fate befalling the strangers who had not succeeded in escaping—and who tried to resist—and the residents who offered no resistance at all. […] Those who had taken refuge on the lake, when they saw the city had fallen, sailed off and kept as far out of range of the enemy as they could.” (Jewish War 3.10.5; trans. by Gaalya Cornfeld)

Modern archaeological excavations at Taricheae/al-Majdal/Magdala on the shore of the Sea of Galilee confirm the testimonies of ancient authors about the affluence and prosperity of this Galilean city and give more credence to the identification of Taricheae with Magdala.


The Magdala Stone most likely served as a Torah reading table. Photo: Courtesy of Magdala (@experience_magdala).

Following the uncovering of a well-preserved ancient boat near Magdala in 1986, the most exciting discovery took place in 2009, when archaeologists of the IAA—ahead of the development of the local tourist center—discovered a synagogue. One of perhaps only eight synagogues identified so far in Israel as dating from the first century C.E., it provided one splendid find—the so-called Magdala Stone, a Torah reading table sculpted in stone with reliefs depicting a seven-branched menorah and possibly the Jerusalem Temple.

The most recent excavations at Magdala, by the Magdala Archaeological Project under the direction of Marcela Zapata-Meza of the Anahuac University of Mexico, revealed four ritual baths, or mikva’ot. These baths and the synagogue further strengthen the image of a Jewish city bursting with religious life. But on-going excavations also reveal tangible signs of the reported destruction, indicating that the Jewish population of the city took measures to protect their sacred sites from desecration by the approaching Roman army in 67 C.E.


Mikva’ot, or ritual purification baths, at Magdala. Photo: Marcela Zapata-Meza.

For a full description and discussion of the newly discovered mikva’ot in Magdala and what the Magdala excavations tell us about the moments preceding the Roman conquest of the city on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee, read Marcela Zapata-Meza and Rosaura Sanz-Rincón’s article “Excavating Mary Magdalene’s Hometown” in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Excavating Mary Magdalene’s Hometown” by Marcela Zapata-Meza and Rosaura Sanz-Rincón in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Excavating the Hometown of Mary Magdalene by Marcela Zapata-Meza

The Fishy Secret to Ancient Magdala’s Economic Growth by Marcela Zapata-Meza

Ancient Bronze Marvels at Magdala

The Magdala Stone: The Jerusalem Temple Embodied


4 Responses

  1. Ray says:

    Why is Miriam Mother of Jesus called Mary .She was Named after Miriam Moses sister that raised Him and protected him Miriam is Hebrew/and she was Jewish Not Mary?

  2. mark henzler says:

    Absolutely loved this place, was there last month. Highlight of the trip to “discover” it behind a grocery store. Do not miss going into the new church, and seeing the very moving painting downstairs.

  3. Avinoam Ben Dor says:

    Your reference to Josephus about the war between the Jews and Romans in Taricheae also mentions a leader by the name of Jesus. That may be a translation mistake. Yeshua = Jesus. Yehoshua = Joshua and Yehosha = Josh. So please make up your mind who was the actual Jewish leader of Taricheae.

  4. Jan van Puffelen says:

    Magdalen is not a name, it is a nickname. See Luke 8:2 (Nestlé Aland 26):
    καὶ γυναῖκές τινες αἳ ἦσαν τεθεραπευμέναι ἀπὸ πνευμάτων πονηρῶν καὶ ἀσθενειῶν, Μαρία ἡ καλουμένη μαγδαληνή, ἀϕ’ ἧς δαιμόνια ἑπτὰ ἐξεληλύθει,
    Μαρία ἡ καλουμένη μαγδαληνή = Mary who is called magdalene
    Just like Simon Peter, Judas Iscariot, John and James, the sons of Zebedee as Boanerges en not to forget Jesus Christ.
    But what does it mean? Not imho that Mary came from Migdal, since Mary Magdalene, Martha and Lazarus lived in Bethany, near Jerusalem.
    ‘Migdal’ means ‘tower’ in Hebrew. And the village of Migdal was so called because it had a tower. The Babylonian Talmud (b. Pesah 46b) called it Migdal Nunaiya, which means “tower of the fish”. The Jerusalem Talmud (y. Ta’an 4.8) called the village Migdal Seb’iya (“tower of the dyers”).
    The prophecy of the coming of Jesus can be found in Micha 5:2-4 (Contemporary English Version):
    2Bethlehem Ephrath, you are one of the smallest towns in the nation of Judah. But the [Lord] will choose one of your people to rule the nation— someone whose family goes back to ancient times. 3The [Lord] will abandon Israel only until this ruler is born, and the rest of his family returns to Israel. 4Like a shepherd taking care of his sheep, this ruler will lead and care for his people by the power and glorious name of the [Lord] his God. His people will live securely, and the whole earth will know his true greatness, 5because he will bring peace.
    Micha 4:8 (Septuagint) refers clearly to Mary Magdalene:
    8 καὶ σύ, πύργος ποιμνίου αὐχμώδης, θύγατερ Σιων, ἐπὶ σὲ ἥξει καὶ εἰσελεύσεται ἡ ἀρχὴ ἡ πρώτη, βασιλεία ἐκ Βαβυλῶνος τῇ θυγατρὶ Ιερουσαλημ.
    And you, tower of the herd, the fort of the daughter of Zion, you will get the reign of the past, kingship belongs to the daughter of Jerusalem. (my translation)
    ldgm migdal (tower) is derived from ldg gadal and that means great, greater, mighty, powerful etc. migdal-eder, ‘tower of the herd’ is also the name of a watchtower of shepherds near Bethlehem.
    But here, migdal-eder is used as a name for Bethlehem. Therefore Bethlehem is symbolically indicated as daughter of Jerusalem. This refers of course to David who was born in Bethlehem en anointed as king (i.e. messias = christos) by Samuel (see 1 Sam 16:1-13).
    The new messias must therefore be from the house of David en be born in Bethlehem.
    Micha 4 is imho about a daughter of Jerusalem, who is named ‘tower of the herd (migdal eder in Hebrew), ”the fort of the daughter of Sion’, who will inherit the kingship. That must imho refer to Mary Magdalene, Mary h magdalene, Mary migdal, Mary the tower, Mary the great.

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