Mary Called Magdalene

Interest in the Mary "called Magdalene" in the canonical Christian Gospels of the Greek New Testament has blossomed in the last decades. Who was this Mary, this "other Mary" who was so devoted to Jesus that her presence is reported in all four Gospels at the cross and at the tomb. Who was she, and why was she called "the Magdalene" (h Magdalhnh in Greek). This distinctive epithet of Mary Magdalene is found in all four of the canonical Gospels and in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945.

Until recently the traditional reply asserts that this "other Mary" was a prostitute from Magdala, a small fishing town located on the western shore to the Sea of Galilee, a town that the Hebrew Talmud says was "destroyed for prostitution." It seems incredible that the most beloved and loyal disciple of Jesus should be said to be from a town with a reputation for loose morals! I would like to discuss here the actual source of Mary Magdalene's extraordinary epithet.

The Aramaic word Magdala means "tower" or "fortress." In Hebrew, the word is spelled mgdl and migdol.  The title "Magdalene" implies greatness, exaltation, elevation, and pre-eminence. And in fact, on seven of the eight lists in the New Testament that mention women who followed Jesus, Mary "the Magdalene" is mentioned first.  In Matthew 28 we read that on the morning after the Sabbath Mary Magdalene and the "other Mary" went to see the sepulcher. Who is "First Lady" here? Clearly it is Mary Magdalene who has pre-eminence in the early community whose stories are recorded in the Gospels.

For several historical reasons, I do not believe that Mary was from the town of Magdala. In the period of Greek and Roman hegemony in Galilee, the town now known as "Magdala" was called "Taricheae," a Greek name meaning "place of dried fish." According to Josephus, writing in his books about Jewish history, the town was strongly influenced by Hellenistic culture and mores and even sported a hippodrome for chariot races during Biblical times, until its total destruction by the Romans in AD 67. A new town was later built over the ruins of Taricheae, and was called "Magdala Nunnayah," a name mean "Tower of the Fishes" in Aramaic. But during the lifetime of the woman named Mary who anointed Jesus at a banquet and Bethany and later met him resurrected in the Garden on Easter morning, the town was called Taricheae. This is attested in numerous Roman and Jewish records, including several mentions in Josephus.

It appears probable that in trying to discover the source of Mary's distinctive epithet, enthusiastic converts went looking for a town for Mary to have been born in. Not realizing the first century history of the town of Magdala Nunnayah, they decided that she must have come from this town in Galilee which was destroyed for "prostitution." In Jewish tradition, "prostitution" was often ascribed to communities that worshipped foreign gods and was synonymous with "idolatry." But Greek and Latin speaking converts would not have understood that the town they knew as "Magdala" had a history of adopting Hellenistic mores during the period of Greek hegemony over the region, beginning in about 300 BC, prompting the Jews to attribute "prostitution" to the town's reputation prior to its destruction.

Adding to the confusion of the meaning of Magdalene's title is the conflation of Mary Magdalene with the Mary who anointed Jesus at the banquet at the house of Simon in Bethany, just a few days before the Crucifixion. All four Gospels of the New Testament tell the story of the anointing of Jesus by a woman, a literal re-enactment of nuptial rites of ancient pagan fertility cults of "Sacred Marriage" celebrated throughout the Mediterranean Basin. Only Luke transplants this story from Bethany, located on the prophetically significant Mount of Olives, to an unnamed town in Galilee, calling the woman who anointed Jesus "a sinner from the town." Luke does not use the word for prostitute in his indictment of the woman, but her loose hair, with which she dries her tears from his feet, implied that her sin was one of loose behavior. Ignoring the testimony of the other three Gospels, the Church has allowed Mary Magdalene to be slandered as a prostitute for nearly two millennia, thereby stealing her power and silencing her voice. In 1969 the Roman Catholic calendar of Saints' feast days was revised, separating Mary of Bethany from Mary "Magdalene"--thereby splitting the role of the anointing woman in two. 

It is my personal conviction that the woman who anointed Jesus at the banquet at Bethany and "wiped his feet with her hair"--Mary of Bethany in John 12--was the same woman who went to anoint his corpse on Easter morning and met him resurrected--Mary Magdalene in John 20. In ancient mythologies of the hieros gamos, it is the Bride who anoints the Bridegroom King, and it is again the Bride who meets him three days later resurrected in the garden. A similar archetypal story celebrating the eternal return of the Life Force is ubiquitous throughout the Middle East in the cults of Inanna, Ishtar, Isis, Aphrodite, Cybele. In the Gospels, Jesus and Mary Magdalene incarnate this "never-ending story" on the physical/historical plane.

Ignoring for a moment the syncretism of these pagan cults, I suggest we look to the Hebrew Bible for the source of Mary Magdalene's distinctive honorific. In about 700 BC, the Hebrew prophet Micah recorded an amazing prophecy for the "Magdal-eder" (Micah 4:8-11).

The Hebrew word Magdal-eder literally means "Tower of the Flock" and refers to a hill near Bethlehem often used as a vantage point by shepherds to survey the surrounding fields. In this prophecy of Micah, the "Magdal-eder" is equated with the Daughter of Sion, the people of Israel, personified as "Jerusalem." This prophecy sums up the fate of Mary Magdalene in four short lines and was, I am convinced, the passage that inspired the person who coined her epithet.

           "And you, O Magdal-eder ("Watchtower of the Flock")

             Stronghold of the Daughter of Sion,

             Unto you shall the former dominion be restored,

             the kingdom of Daughter Jerusalem.

             Now why do you cry?

             Have you no king? Has your counselor perished,

             that you cry aloud like a woman in labor?....

             For now you shall go out and dwell in the open fields.

             To Babylon shall you go,

             and from there you shall be rescued....

             Now also many nations are gathered against you.

             They defile you (call you "unclean").

This prophecy of the "Magdal-eder" provides the image of a woman, the personification of the nation of Israel, crying over her deceased king and counselor (rabbi, teacher), and then sent, defiled and defamed, into foreign exile, eventually to be rescued. Perhaps that time is now! The scenario is repeated in John's Gospel, chapter 20, when Mary is crying at the tomb and Jesus asks her, "Woman, why are you crying." The Greek word gune can mean either "woman" or "wife." Was Jesus actually addressing his WIFE in this familiar passage? When she finally recognizes him, Mary calls him "Rabboni"--a term that expresses greater intimacy and tenderness than the traditional "Rabbi," and then she embraces him.  Saint Jerome's translation of the Greek sentence, "Do not touch me," does not convey the true meaning of the the original text. It actually says something closer to, "Do not keep clinging to me" or "embracing me." The Greek word haptou can mean anything from barely touching someone to having sexual relations. Why could Jerome not have chosen a Latin verb that would have conveyed the greater intimacy implied by the Greek. Instead, we've received a tradition of an untouchable "phantom" Jesus rather than that of Jesus who was a husband and lover.

One further argument supports Mary Magdalene as Bride of the Archetypal Bridegroom. In Hebrew and in Greek, each alphabet letter has a numeric value. In coining the Greek phrase "H Magdalhnh," the architects of the New Testament gave this "other Mary" a title whose numeric value (153) reflects powerful associations with the Feminine principle and the Goddesses of the ancient world. The subject of symbolic numbers encoded by gematria into the Christian Gospels is discussed at length in my 2003 book Magdalene's Lost Legacy.  Magdalene's sacred number 153 is associated with the vesica piscis -- () or yoni--a symbol universally associated with the Feminine. Ancient Greeks called the vesica piscis the "matrix," the "doorway to life," the "bridal chamber" and even the "Holy of Holies." There is no mistaking the sexual associations of this shape and its feminine nature, deliberately coined into the significant epithet of the Mary called "the Magdalene."

How can we fail to recognize the Lost Bride of the Christian revelation, crying over her deceased Bridegroom and sent, defiled and defamed, into foreign exile? How can we fail to do all in our power to reclaim her true story? Justice and chivalry require that we honor this woman in the role to which the canonical Gospels themselves attest--as the beloved Queen of the messianic King of Israel.

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