Mary Magdalene

This article looks at what the Bible says about Mary Magdalene, and especially at what “Magdalene” might mean. Does it refer to Mary’s hometown? Was it her nickname? Or does it somehow imply that Mary was a prostitute?

Mary from Magdala

Mary Magdalene was a wealthy woman and one of Jesus’ closest and most faithful disciples. She is mentioned by name over a dozen times in the New Testament—only in the four gospels—where she is referred to with remarkable consistency as “Mary the Magdalene” (Maria, or Mariam, hē Magdalēnē in the Greek.)[1] The word Magdalēnē functions in a similar way as, for example, Nazarēnē in “Jesus the Nazarene”,[2] and so it has been widely assumed that Mary was from a town in Israel with the name Magdala (Aramaic) or Migdol (Hebrew).

Mary’s hometown may have been Migdol Nûnîya, a busy and fairly Hellenized port town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, three kilometres north of Tiberias.[3] Migdol Nûnîya (“the Fish Tower”) is known in Greek sources as Tarichea (“Centre of Fish Salting”). Or perhaps Mary’s hometown was the “Tower of Dyers”, also near Tiberias, and Mary had made her wealth by dying cloth (cf. Lydia in Acts 16:14-15). Many places in Israel were (and are) called Migdol, Magdal, or Magdala, etc. So it is impossible to determine which town is Mary’s hometown with any degree of certainty, assuming that “Magdalene” does, in fact, refer to her place of origin. There are, however, a few other interpretive possibilities for “the Magdalene”.

Mary the Tower

It is possible that Mary Magdalene was not necessarily from a town called Magdala but that “Magdalene” was a nick-name. Jesus gave the descriptive nicknames “Rock” and “Sons of Thunder” to his three closest disciples: Simon Peter, and the brothers John and James. Perhaps he gave Mary the nickname “the Magdalene”. Mary was a very common name and Jesus had other female followers and relatives called Mary. So a distinguishing nickname would have been—and continues to be—useful in identifying Mary Magdalene.

Magdala means “tower”, “watch-tower”, or “fortress” in Aramaic.[4]  If “Magdalene” is a nickname meaning “tower”, then Mary may have been a particularly tall or strong woman. Mary was with Jesus in many critical moments of his life and ministry, and she may have been a strong support for him and his followers, especially his female followers from Galilee. Mary, and many other women from Galilee, travelled with Jesus and the Twelve, and they financed Jesus’ ministry out of their own resources (Luke 8:2; Matt. 27:55-56 cf. Mark 16:1). Mary is named first in lists of these women from Galilee, with the exception of the list in John 19:25.

The idea that “Magdalene” was a nickname fits with what it says in Luke 8:2: that Mary was called “Magdalene” (Maria hē kaloumenē Magdalēnē.) Luke uses an identical construction for “Judas who is called Iscariot” in Luke 22:3: Ioudan ton kaloumenon Iskariōtēn,[5] and for “Simeon who is called Niger” in Acts 13:1: Simeōn ho kaloumenos niger. (Niger is a Latin word meaning “dark” or “black”.)

I think it is possible that Mary, as a close, valued, and loved disciple, was given a nickname with a strong meaning, like the nicknames of Peter, John and James, but there is at least one other possibility that may account for the appellation “the Magdalene”.

Mary who Plaited Hair

Thomas McDaniel (2007:339–340) quotes others who state that an almost identical word to magdala can mean “hairdresser,” from gadal which means “to weave, to twine, to plait, to dress hair” (Jastrow 213, 218); and that in the Arabic-Syriac lexicon of Bar-Bahlul (c. 953 C.E.) it was stated that Mary was called “Magdalene” because her hair was braided (J. Payne Smith 60–61).[6]

McDaniel goes on to quote from John Lightfoot’s A Commentary of the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica (1658: 3:87, 375) where Lightfoot equates plaited hair with prostitution.

Whence she was called Magdalene, doth not so plainly appear; whether from Magdala, a town on the lake of Gennesaret, or from the word mgdla which signifies a plaiting or curling of the hair, a thing usual with harlots. . . . The title which they [the Talmudists] gave their Mary [mgdla] is so like this of ours, that you may with good reason doubt whether she was called Magdalene from the town of Magdala, or from that word of the Talmudist mgdla, a plaiter of hair. We leave it to the learned to decide.

Lightfoot was not the first to link Mary Magdalene with prostitution. Pope Gregory the Great gave a sermon in Rome on September the 14th, 591, in which he incorrectly identified Mary Magdalene as the unnamed sinner in Luke 7:37, and he asserted that she was a penitent prostitute. Pope Gregory’s assertion stuck and for well over a thousand years most Christians have assumed that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute.[7]

Furthermore, the chance similarity of a Greek word magdalia, which can mean “dirt washed off”,[8] with the completely unrelated Aramaic word magdala “became intertwined in Western traditions about Mary Magdalene, soiling her name and her reputation.” (McDaniel 2007:348) Subsequently, “Magdalene” entered dictionaries as a word which means “reformed prostitute”. There is nothing in the gospels, however, which hints at Mary having been a prostitute. What we do know of Mary’s past is that she had been afflicted by seven demons which Jesus cast out of her, after which time she became a devoted disciple of Jesus (Luke 8:2).[9]

Mary Magdalene and the Resurrection

In the Bible, Mary Magdalene is especially connected with the resurrection of Jesus. Mary, with a few other women, was the first person to learn that Jesus had been resurrected from death. Mark and John record that she was the very first person to see Jesus alive after his resurrection (Mark 16:9; John 20:1ff, cf. Luke 24:1ff). My favourite Bible passage about Mary and the resurrection is in John’s gospel where we get to hear her speak (John 20:11-18). John 20:16 is especially moving when Jesus simply calls her “Mary”, and she responds with “Rabboni” which means “my master-teacher”.[10] I am certain that the strong affection between the two was mutual.[11]

We should not downplay Mary’s ministry and significance as one of Jesus’ foremost disciples. We should be especially careful that we do not downplay the significance that Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus alive at the beginning of a new era and that she was commissioned by Jesus to proclaim the message of his resurrection. We do not know for sure whether Mary was from a town called Magdala, or if she plaited hair, but the gospels do show that she was a faithful tower of strength and support among Jesus’ disciples.


Endnotes

[1] Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name in the following Bible verses: Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1, 9; Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1, 11, 16, 18. In most of these verses she is called Maria hē Magdalēnē in the Greek (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1, 9; Luke 8:2; 24: 10; John 19:25; 20:1).  (N.B. Mark 16:9 may not have been part of the original gospel of Mark.  The oldest manuscripts of Mark end at Mark 16:8.)
In Matthew 27:61; 28:1 and John 20:18 she is called Mariam hē Magdalēnē.  (Mary the mother of Jesus is likewise sometimes called Maria and at other times called Mariam. I see no significance in the variation of essentially the same name.)
In Luke 24:10 Mary Magdalene’s name appears as hē Magdalēnē Maria, but in Luke 8:2 we have the only difference of note where Luke has Maria hē kaloumenē Magdalēnē: “Mary the one called “Magdalene”.
In John 20:1ff where she is mentioned several times, once she is simply called “Maria”(John 20:11), and, a few verses later, Jesus simply calls her “Mariam” to which she responds in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (John 20:16).

[2] The grammatical construction of “Jesus” with “Nazarene” in the Greek New Testament is not nearly as consistent and neat as the construction of “Mary the Magdalene” (Maria hē Magdalēnē) (cf. Matt. 2:23; Mark 14:67; 16:6).

[3] Thomas F. McDaniel in Chapter 32 “The Meaning of ‘Mary,’ ‘Magdalene,’ and other Names: Luke 8:2 and Related Texts”, from his book Clarifying Baffling Biblical Passages (2007) 338-339. (Source)  

[4] There is also a Greek word magdōlos which means “tower”, but it is a loan word from the Hebrew and Aramaic.

[5] The meaning of “Iscariot” is unclear. It may refer to a place; however, the word is very similar to two Hebrew words one meaning “false one” and another meaning “stop up”. Joan Taylor discusses the meaning of Iscariot in her paper “The name ‘Iskarioth’ (Iscariot)’, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 129 No. 2 (2010) 367-383. Taylor “supports the very early definition made by Origen—that [Iscariot] derives from the Hebrew/Aramaic root scr, ‘stop up’, ‘block’.” “Iscariot” may have been a nickname given to Judas posthumously to indicate that he was a false disciple or, as Taylor suggests, it may refer to how he died (Matt. 27:5; Acts 1:18; and Papias, Exposition 3).

[6] McDaniel also gives a few other possible meanings for Magdala in his book. (See endnote 3.)

[7] Mary Magdalene has also been confused with Mary of Bethany and with the unnamed woman caught in adultery. Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11 NRSV, my italics). Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, did not go her own way after being delivered from seven demons but accompanied Jesus throughout Galilee and went all the way to Jerusalem with him for his crucifixion.

[8] The Greek word magdalia (and the later word apomagdalia) has as one of its meanings “dirt washed off”. LSJ (1996) 209 & 1070.

[9] Ben Witherington writes, “Seven was the number of completion or perfection [and so w]e are meant to understand that [Mary] was particularly captivated by the dark presence in her life and required deliverance by an external power. Demonic possession controls the personality and leads to voices speaking through the person, fits, and acts of unusual power. Jesus delivered Miriam [or Mary] from this condition, which apparently prompted her to drop everything and follow him around Galilee.” (Source) 

[10] Rabboni (or rabbouni) is rabbon with a suffix which mean “my”. Rabbon is the highest title of honour for a teacher in the Jewish schools. Wesley Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990) 361.

[11] There is nothing in the Bible which indicates that Jesus and Mary were married, or had children together. Considering Jesus’ ministry, including his redemptive death and return to the Father forty days later, I think it is unlikely that he would have chosen to marry and have a family.

Image Credit: Lightstock ID 79908


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