A case of mistaken identity
Where was Mary Magdalene from? According to early Christian tradition, the famous disciple of Jesus was from a town called Magdala, hence her name, Mary of Magdala. However, a place known as Magdala is never explicitly associated with Mary Magdalene in the Bible. Furthermore, the archaeological site known today as Magdala, about 4 miles north of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, was actually called Taricheae in the time of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. How then do we reconcile the archaeological and textual evidence with early Christian tradition?
In the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Joan E. Taylor looks for answers to the seemingly trivial question: Where was Mary Magdalene from? Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at the King’s College London, Taylor reviews the ancient literary and archaeological evidence for the location of Magdala. Her article, “Magdala’s Mistaken Identity,” also clarifies the historical identity of the archaeological site that many associate with Mary Magdalene in the Bible.
Indeed, many scholars argue that it is not at all clear that Mary’s biblical nickname (“the Magdalene”) means that she was from a place named Magdala. And although some early Christian authors claimed that Mary’s nickname indicated she was from a village called Magdala, they did not know where it was located.
It was only in the sixth century that Christian pilgrims began visiting the site north of Tiberias that we know today as Magdala (Migdal, in Hebrew). An expansive monastic complex developed around the site, and European pilgrims from the Byzantine to medieval periods describe visiting the site that included a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene.
The problem, however, is that archaeology and ancient texts show that today’s Magdala, which has recently been developed as a hotel and pilgrimage resort, was a prosperous trade center called Taricheae during the first centuries BCE and CE. It had a busy harbor, warehouses, extensive baths, and other public buildings. It also had at least two synagogues that served its 40,000 inhabitants.
Intriguingly, there were multiple towns or villages in Roman Palestine called Magdala, or Migdal. Meaning simply “the tower,” such names were typically given to places associated with towers or fortifications. “Both in the Bible and in later Christian and rabbinic literature, we find many towns and locations named for towers: Migdal Eder (“Tower of the Flock”), Migdal Tsebayya (“Tower of the Dyers), and Migdal El (“Tower of God”), to name a few,” writes Taylor. She then goes on to argue that Migdal Nunayya, a small Jewish village on the immediate outskirts of ancient Tiberias (and about 3 miles south of today’s Magdala) seems to fit the profile. It was the only Magdala along the shores of the Sea of Galilee that would have been known in the first few centuries CE, and its name means “Tower of the Fish,” a possible reference to its fishing industry.
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So was Mary Magdalene of the Bible from this village just north of Tiberias? We may never know. Neither is it clear exactly why and how the ancient city of Taricheae came to be called Magdala in the Byzantine period.
To explore the possible meanings of Mary Magdalene’s name and to review the historical evidence for her biblical hometown and the Galilean site of Magdala, read Joan E. Taylor’s article “Magdala’s Mistaken Identity,” published in the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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