Magdala’s Mistaken Identity

The synagogue discovered at Magdala in 2009 is a rather modest hall lined with stone benches. Unlike other first-century synagogues, however, it has floors paved with mosaics. The rectangular block, found in the center of the hall and known as the Magdala Stone, is decorated with beautifully carved reliefs, which some believe are representations of features from the Jerusalem Temple. Photo Companion to the Bible, Matthew.

Visitors to Israel today regularly make a stop at Magdala, a site located about 4 miles north of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Excavations in recent decades have revealed an ancient port city with remarkable remains from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, including two of the earliest and best-preserved synagogues ever uncovered in Israel. Many have even suggested that this impressive Jewish city was the hometown of Mary Magdalene,a Jesus’s famous disciple, and that Jesus may have first encountered Mary at one of the site’s synagogues.

Many scholars agree, however, that in the first century, the Galilean port city now under excavation was actually called Taricheae, a city best known from the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, who was frequently based at the port while serving as a general during the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.).1

So how did Taricheae, one of the largest Jewish cities on the shores of the Galilee, come to be called Magdala? Before answering this question, let’s first examine what we know of both Taricheae and places called Magdala in Roman Galilee.

Taricheae is mentioned by several Roman authors of the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E., as well as by Josephus.2 According to Josephus, the city, which had a population of about 40,000, was protected by walls and secure gates and even had a hippodrome. He gives its location as 30 stadia (about 4 mi) from Tiberias (Life 157). As such, we can almost certainly locate Taricheae 4 miles north of Tiberias at the archaeological site known today as Magdala.3

And, indeed, what we know of Taricheae does correspond with what has been uncovered during the recent excavations.4 It was a large and wealthy city, with two synagogues, significant commercial operations, and a large harbor. The harbor appears to have been established in the second century B.C.E. and thrived for several hundred years until the site was largely abandoned by c. 270 C.E. The earthquake of 363 C.E. further devastated what remained of the town, and, as we will see, its fortunes revived only a century or more later when Christian pilgrims began flocking to Galilee in search of holy places.

But while history and archaeology tell us a great deal about Taricheae, we know very little about a Galilean town or village that would have been known as Magdala in the first century. Indeed, Magdala (Hebrew: Migdal), which simply means “the tower” in Aramaic, was a common place name in the lands of the Bible, typically given to places that local tradition 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. Given that such names were often shortened to Magdala (or Mugdal or Mogdala, depending on local pronunciation), there was understandably much confusion when it came to identifying and differentiating between them in ancient writings.

Magdala map

No contemporary early Roman sources mention a town called Magdala on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee. However, both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds—the two major collections of Jewish oral law and commentary written down between the third and sixth centuries—do reference the existence of one Magdala—Migdal Nunayya, or “Tower of the Fish”—in very close proximity to Tiberias. In the Babylonian Talmud, for example, Migdal Nunayya is located precisely one mil (2,000 cubits, or the allowable distance of a Sabbath day’s journey, just over half a mile) from Tiberias (b.Pesahim 46a). In the Jerusalem Talmud, this village, shortened to Magdala, is similarly located on the immediate outskirts of Tiberias. In one story, the second-century rabbi Shimon bar Yohai is said to have “passed in front of the synagogue of Magdala” immediately after his departure from Tiberias (Pesiqta of Rab Kahana 11.16), while a story in the Jerusalem Talmud notes that the two locations were so close that their courtyards were even connected (y.Ma‘aserot. 3.1 [50c]).

What do we take from all this? During the first few centuries C.E., the only “Magdala” recorded along the shores of the Sea of Galilee was Migdal Nunayya, a village located about half a mile from ancient Tiberias. This village was clearly not Taricheae, a significant port city situated 4 miles north of present-day Tiberias at the site we know today as Magdala.

Founded by Herod Antipas in 19 C.E., Tiberias was an important cosmopolitan center only 4 miles south of Taricheae. Its Roman-style theater, located at the foot of Mt. Berenice, was discovered in 1990, and subsequent excavation revealed it could seat more than 7,000 spectators. The city also included a royal palace, bathhouses, and synagogues. According to early Jewish sources, just beyond the gates of Tiberias was the small village of Migdal Nunayya, the only place on the Sea of Galilee that may have been called Magdala in the first few centuries C.E. A.D. Photo Companion to the Bible, Matthew.

To return to our initial question, when and how did ancient Taricheae come to be known as Magdala?

In the fourth century, Roman Palestine came under the dominion of the Christian emperors of Byzantium who identified and developed the region’s holy sites for pilgrimage.b Numerous tourists came to Palestine looking for places where they could pray and remember biblical people and events. Pilgrimage routes were established and many churches built.

At about this time, we see a curious shift in some early copies of the Gospel of Matthew, where a place called “Magadan” along the shores of the Sea of Galilee (see Matthew 15:39) gets changed to “Magdala.” This shift seems to have been fueled by a growing acceptance among some early Christians that Mary Magdalene must have come from a place called Magdala (see “Mary’s Towering Nickname,” sidebar). By the sixth century, this “Magdala” had been identified and developed as a pilgrimage destination. A German pilgrim named Theodosius, for example, indicates that Magdala was equidistant between Tiberias and Heptapegon (identified in the fourth century as the site of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, known today as At-Tabgha). This is where the modern site of Magdala is located. Indeed, this Magdala is frequently mentioned in Christian pilgrimage accounts from the Byzantine through Crusader periods.

This literary testimony of the site as a pilgrimage destination correlates well with Magdala’s archaeology and later history. Excavations have revealed the remains of a Byzantine monastery and associated bathhouse, an eighth-century church with mosaic floors, and a later Crusader church dated by an inscription to 1389. The site’s harbor was also rebuilt during the Byzantine period and subsequently reused and refurbished in the early Islamic and Crusader periods. The site eventually became known by the Arabic name Al-Majdal and continued to exist as a small fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee into the 20th century.

The site we know today as Magdala, therefore, surely traces its name to the fifth or sixth century, when the site was resettled and developed as a Byzantine monastery and destination for Christian pilgrims seeking the birthplace of Mary Magdalene. Exactly how and why ancient Taricheae came to be known as Magdala remains unclear. It seems plausible that early Christians borrowed the name Magdala from the Jewish village of Migdal Nunayya just north of Tiberias, perhaps in an effort to link their newly established monastic community to a well-known and revered figure from the life of Jesus.


Mary’s Towering Nickname

Mary Magdalene is captured in this painting by Constantin Tzanes (1633–1685) sitting by the empty tomb with her attribute, a vessel of ointment. Public Domain

Despite many claims to the contrary, it is not at all clear that Mary’s nickname, “the Magdalene,” indicates that she was from a place called Magdala, which simply means “the tower” in Aramaic. In a recent article I wrote with Elizabeth Schrader, we looked at how the name “Magdalene” was understood in early Christian writings.5 We discovered that some authors indeed thought the term indicated Mary’s provenance from a village called Magdala or Magdalene (see, e.g., Origen, Series Commentary on Matthew 141; Eusebius, Ad Marinum 2.9), but they did not seem to know where it was, while others thought of it as a nickname indicating that Mary was a “tower” of faith (see Jerome, Epistles 127).

Debate about the name continued through the centuries, even as some Western pilgrims began to visit the Galilean site of Magdala. But even for those early Christian writers like Origen and Eusebius who considered “Magdala” as Mary’s place of origin, none associated it with an important city on the shores of the Sea of Galilee—and certainly not with Taricheae. Mary was identified as a simple, village woman from some obscure location, a notion that would fit Migdal Nunayya on the outskirts of Tiberias, but other places as well. As such, while we might well stop, pause, and remember her at modern Magdala, we must also remember that ancient Taricheae was almost certainly not her birthplace.



1. Some scholars think Taricheae was also known as Magdala already in Roman times, but there is no evidence for this. The identification relies on conflating different rabbinic “Magdalas” and suggesting Taricheae had an unattested different name. See, e.g., Richard Bauckham, ed., Magdala of Galilee: A Jewish City in the Hellenistic and Roman Period (Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press, 2018), pp. 345–361; Uzi Leibner, Settlements and History in Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Galilee, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 127 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), pp. 214–237.

2. See, e.g., Strabo, Geography 16.2.45; Cicero, Letters 12.11; Pliny, Natural History 5.71; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Titus 4:3; Josephus, Antiquities 14.20; 20.159; War 1.180; 2.252; Life 32.

3. Although most scholars argue for Taricheae’s location north of Tiberias, others place it south of Tiberias. See, e.g., Nikos Kokkinos, “The Location of Tarichaea: North or South of Tiberias?” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 142 (2010), pp. 7–23.

4. See Marcela Zapata-Meza et al., “The Magdala Archaeological Project (2010–2012): A Preliminary Report of the Excavations at Migdal,” ’Atiqot 90 (2018), pp. 83–125; Richard Bauckham and Stefano De Luca, “Magdala As We Now Know It,” Early Christianity 6 (2015), pp. 91–118.

5. Elizabeth Schrader and Joan E. Taylor, “The Meaning of ‘Magdalene’: A Review of Literary Evidence,” Journal of Biblical Literature 140 (2021), pp. 751–773.

a. See Marcela Zapata-Meza and Rosaura Sanz-Rincón, “Excavating Mary Magdalene’s Hometown,BAR, May/June 2017.

b. See, e.g., Benyamin Storchan, “A Glorious Church for a Mysterious Martyr,” BAR, Fall 2021.