A Woman Called Magdalene
Mary Magdalene is referred to by name only twelve times in our New Testament gospels and never again in any of the other New Testament writings. As we have seen she appears at the death scene of Jesus, his burial, and the empty tomb, and then disappears totally from the record. If the New Testament writings were all we had we would be hard pressed to say anything more about her. Before I move to an alternative world of early Christian texts outside the New Testament that present an entirely different picture of her status and relationship to Jesus and the Twelve apostles, I want to briefly examine why she might be called Magdalene, distinguishing her from the other Marys in the gospel narratives—including Jesus’ mother and particularly, Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom she has often been confused.
In the Greek texts of the gospels she is known by three slightly differing descriptions: Maria the Magdalene, Miriam the Magdalene, and Maria the one called Magdalene.[i] The majority of scholars understand the designation “Magdalene” to refer to the city of Magdala (or Migdal in Hebrew) located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee about seven miles north of Tiberius. The Greeks called the city Taricheia, referring to the pickling of salted fish from the Sea of Galilee, exported throughout the Roman Empire. According to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, Migdal was walled on the west side and it had a large aqueduct system, a theater, hippodrome, and a market. Josephus describes it in some detail.[ii]
Josephus fortified the city as his headquarters when he became commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee in the 1st Jewish revolt against Rome (66-73 CE). It was culturally and commercially diverse, opulent, and fully exposed to Greco-Roman culture. Shortly after the first Jewish revolt against Rome broke out in 66 CE, the Roman military commander Vespasian, who was later to become emperor, surrounded the city with three Roman legions and laid siege. He stationed 2000 archers on the mountain to the west overlooking the city. There was a great naval battle at its port and thousands of Jews, defenseless in small boats were slaughtered. Josephus, an eyewitness, reports that the Sea of Galilee was red with blood, with stinking corpses filling its shoreline for days to follow. The city finally surrendered and opened its gates while thousands of inhabitants who had fled south toward Tiberius were slaughtered or exiled.[iii] 1200 older people were executed, 6000 of the strongest sent as a gift to the emperor Nero, and 34,400 were sent off as slaves.
The city was apparently more Romanized than the nearby Jewish cities of Capernaum or Chorazin with a cosmopolitan atmosphere more akin to a Greek polis.[iv] Ongoing excavations at Migdal, including the 2009 discovery of an ancient 1st century CE synagogue at Migdal, will likely reveal much more as to what this important city was like.[v] I visited the excavation site last fall and one of my graduate students excavated there this summer. It is clear that only a small part of this extensive city has begun to be uncovered. If Mary’s designation as “Magdalene” refers to her city of origin, placing her in that context, growing up in Magdala, gives us a glimpse into her possible background. One is tempted to take Luke’s tradition at face value and imagine her as a cosmopolitan woman of independent means and wealth who was able, with her connections reaching even into Herod Antipas’s household, to head a sizeable entourage of woman who followed Jesus in Galilee and thus to wield considerable influence in the Jesus movement (Luke 8:1-3).
Even though the identification of Mary’s name with the city of Magdala seems to carry the most weight there are two alternative suggestions.
It is possible that the designation “Magdalene” is a nickname, perhaps even given to Mary by Jesus. We know in the gospels that Jesus often gave his closest followers descriptive nicknames to characterize either their role in his movement or in some cases their personalities. For example, Simon son of Jonah, that most people know as “Peter,” was given the nickname Cephas or Petros (Peter) in Aramaic and Hebrew respectively—“the Rock,” or “Rocky” (Matthew 16:18). The two fisherman brothers, James and John, sons of Zebedee, were nicknamed Boanerges, meaning “sons of Thunder,” apparently based on their aggressive personalities (Mark 3:17; 10:35-41; Luke 9:54). The apostle James was nicknamed “James the Less,” or “James the Younger,” either referring to his shortness of stature or his young age, and distinguishing him from the other James, son of Zebedee (Mark 15:40). Simon, another of the Twelve apostles was called “Simon the Zealot,” either referring to his militant bent or to his zeal for a cause (Luke 16:15). Since the name Magdalene comes from the Hebrew or Aramaic word migdal—meaning tower, perhaps she was given this surname meaning “Mary the Tower,” as a description of her status or her strong personality.
Finally there is a third option, less well known but interesting to consider in the light of the Talpiot tombs. It is found tucked away in the Talmud, the ancient written collection of rabbinic oral tradition that was put together between the 5th and sixth centuries CE. There is a strange story about two women named Miriam—one is a hairdresser, presumably referring to Jesus’ mother, the other is called Miriam the Megadla—meaning the “baby tender,” or the one who “grows” the child.[vi] It is generally recognized that these are veiled cryptic references to Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
One of the most fruitful new aspects of the study of the early development of Judaism and Christianity is the realization that Jews and Christians were living side by side both in the Land of Israel and in the major urban centers of the Roman world between the 2nd century CE into the early Byzantine period (4th century CE). Both religions were thriving and both were seen by the dominant culture as strange and foreign due to their adherence to monotheism and their refusal to worship the emperor and participate in mainstream Greco-Roman religious and civic rites. The Jews and the Christians lived side by side and were in dialogue and debate with one another. For that reason there are many cryptic passages in the rabbinic literature of this period that refer to Jesus, his disputed paternity, his mother, his disciples, his teachings, and even his execution. These sharply polemical passages can seldom be taken as history per se, but they do reflect genuine debates and polemics between Jews and Christian in this time.[vii] This material has often been dismissed or ignored because of its complexity. It is also very difficult to date. It is an area that should not be overlooked since most of the other sources we have on Christianity come from its adherents, written for the purpose of promoting the Christian faith. For example, the late 2nd century philosopher Celsus, mentioned above, says that he based his primary knowledge of the Christians by listening to a Jew who knew the “inside” story that the Christians were trying to repress. What we can begin to construct from the rabbinic materials is an alternative side of the story by those who rubbed shoulders with Christians daily but strongly disputed their claims.
For this reason I believe that this possible interpretation of a more cryptic, coded, meaning of Magdalene should be brought into the discussion and considered. Based on this tradition there were two Marys in Jesus’ life—his mother and the one who “grew” the baby. Since this appears to be what we might have in our 1st century Talpiot Jewish tomb, as I argue below, perhaps this understanding of “Magdalene” should be given some serious consideration.
Finally, as with the possibility that the surname means “the Tower,” all three could be true. Nicknames often can have variant meanings and that is one reason they are so popular.
Is Mary Magdalene called “Mariamene Mara”
As many of my readers know the name Mariamene Mara is inscribed on one of the ossuaries or bone boxes in the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb. This ossuary, as well as the one inscribed “Judah son of Jesus,” is elaborately ornamented and the inscriptions are elegant and more formal in appearance than the graffiti like name tags that many ossuaries exhibit. The inscription Mariamene Mara is even more fascinating with regard to the mistaken assertion that the names in the Jesus tomb are exceptionally common. Clearly it is some form of the common name Mary or Mariam/Mariame in Hebrew—but what about its strange ending? And what is the significance of Mara?
Of the six inscriptions from the tomb this is the only one in Greek. In contrast to the ossuaries of Jesus, Maria, and Yoseh, which are plain, this woman was buried in a beautifully decorated ossuary. The venerable expert, Levi Rahmani had first deciphered her inscription in his Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries published in 1994. For most of us Rahmani has become the “Bible” for the study of ossuaries and their inscriptions. His keen eye and uncanny ability to decipher some of the most obscure inscriptions is legendary.
Rahmani read the inscription as Mariamene Mara. No one questioned his judgment for thirteen years—until the publicity about the Talpiot “Jesus tomb” hit the headlines. Suddenly everyone was scrambling, it seemed, to come up with arguments against those that Simcha Jacobovici had put forth for the first time in his 2007 Discovery Channel documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” There he had suggested, based on Rahmani’s reading, which no one had disputed at the time, that Mariamene was a unique form of the name Mary that was used by Jesus’ first followers when referring to Mary Magdalene.
Several scholars have subsequently suggested that Rahmani misread the Greek, and that it should read Mariame kai Mara—Mary and Martha, referring to two individuals, perhaps even two sisters buried together in this one ossuary.[viii] Since Mariame (without the final stem ending “n”) is the most common form of the name Mary in Greek, any argument about uniqueness would thus evaporate. The Mary in the tomb might have been any Mary of the time and she would be impossible to identify further. And her sister Martha would be equally unknown.[ix]
I find this new reading unconvincing and remain impressed with Rahmani’s original transcription. The inscription itself appears to be from a single hand, written in a smooth flowing style, with a decorative flourish around both names—pointing to a single individual who died and was placed in this inscribed ossuary. According to Rahmani, Mariamene is a diminutive or endearing variant of the common name Mariame or Mary.[x] Mariamene—spelled with the letter “n” or nu in Greek, is quite rare—only one other example is found on an ossuary.[xi] There are no other examples from this period—or as I have now discovered, in the entirely of Greek literature down through the late Middle Ages.
A couple of years ago I ran an exhaustive computer search of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a comprehensive digital database of Greek literature from Homer through 1453 CE. To my surprise I only found two ancient works that use Mariamn—with this rare “n” stem ending and both texts specifically referred to Mary Magdalene!
The first text is a quotation from Hippolytus, a third century Christian writer who records that James, the brother of Jesus, passed on secret teachings of Jesus to “Mariamene,” i.e., Mary Magdalene.[xii] There it was, in plain Greek—this unusual spelling of the name Miriame or Mary—precisely like the spelling on the ossuary. How could this be, since the ossuary was from the 1st century and Hippolytus was writing at least 150 hundred years later? According to tradition Hippolytus was a disciple of Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John—who of course knew both Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Perhaps it is this link of oral teaching, through three generations, that somehow had preserved this special name for Mary Magdalene. Its diminutive ending makes it a term of endearment—like calling someone named James “Jimmy,” or an Elizabeth “Betty.”
The second text that had uses the name Mariamene was a rare 4th century CE Greek manuscript of the Acts of Philip, dated to the 3rd or 4th century CE. Throughout the text Mary Magdalene is called Mariamene—again the precise form of the name found on the Talpiot tomb ossuary.
Some critics have argued that one has to jump to the third or fourth century to find a parallel to a 1st century name on an ossuary in order to try and argue it belongs to Mary Magdalene. Quite the opposite is the case. What the ossuary preserves is a rare endearing form of the common name Mariame. What should surprise us is that it shows up, out of the blue, in Hippolytus and the Acts of Philip—two centuries later, when referring to Mary Magdalene. They could not know anything about the ossuary or these inscriptions—so where did they get this tradition of the rare form of the name? That this rare form appears in these later sources strengthens rather than diminishes the argument here. If Mariamene is a late form of the name, only found in these 3rd and 4th century texts, as some have asserted—what is it doing on the Talpiot tomb ossuary?
It strains any credibility to imagine that Rahmani, who was unaware of any association whatsoever between his transcription of this ossuary inscription and identifications with Mary Magdalene in these later texts, would have mistakenly and accidently come up with this exceedingly rare form of the common name Mary. It seems clear to us that Rahmani’s keen eye and years of experience have unwittingly provided us with one of the most important correlations between the names in this tomb and those we might expect, hypothetically, to be included in a Jesus family tomb—a name uniquely appropriate for Mary Magdalene. Does it make any sense to think a misreading of the name in this inscription would end up producing two hits for Mary Magdalene? The force and implications of this evidence is so strong that a few scholars have even suggested that the text in Hippolytus somehow got corrupted. Again, it strains all credulity to maintain that mistakes, misreadings, and scribal areas would just happen to produce a match for an ossuary inscription in a 1st century Jerusalem tomb. What are the chances?
What about the second word in the inscription—Mara? Rahmani understood this as an alternative form of the more common name Martha and many scholars apparently agree.[xiii] He translated the full inscription:
[the ossuary] of Mariamne also known as Mara
His understanding was that this Mariamne was also called Mara—a kind of nickname equivalent to the more popular form Martha.
Readers will recall that one of the inscriptions we found on one of the ossuaries in the nearby Patio tomb also read Mara. Is it just another form of the name Martha? In looking through all 650 ossuary inscriptions that are extant we discover that Mara is also quite rare, with only five examples other than the two in the Talpiot tombs.[xiv]
I am convinced that Mara is an honorific title not a proper name per se.[xv] Mara and Martha are related; they both come from the Aramaic masculine word Mar, which means “Master” or “Lord” in English.[xvi] This is true still in Modern Hebrew today. One can address a man formally as “Mar,” meaning “Sir” or “Mister.” It is a title not a name. If you add the feminine ending to Mar you get Mara—it is that simple. The problem is we have no good word in English to translate the feminine. If we try “Mistress” there are negative connotations. “Lordess” sounds awkward, and “Madame” surely will not work. English simply has no good alternative for the feminine, while we use the masculine constantly. The followers of Jesus called him “Lord” or “Master,” but how would we translate that title for a woman in English—perhaps one they also honored as his companion, partner, and wife? Probably our best equivalent in English is “the Lady,” which is the formal feminine form of the masculine Lord. When Catholics speak of “Our Lady,” referring to Mary the mother of Jesus, they are preserving and echoing this very honorific title—they just don’t use it for Mary Magdalene. As we shall see she was vilified as a whore or as mentally unstable, or both, and was finally written out of any dominant version of the rise and development of Christianity. Fortunately we can pick up her muted and forgotten story as we will see subsequently in this series of posts.
There are two other ossuary inscriptions that are relevant to a proper understanding of the Mariamene Mara inscription. The first refers to two males, a Matthew and a Simon, who are called “masters” of their tomb—meaning they own it. The word there for master is the plural of Mar. It is obvious that when it comes to males there is no hesitation to read Mar as a title. Even Jesus was referred to as Mar in the New Testament, in the early Christian Aramaic prayer—Mar-na-tha—meaning “our Lord come (1 Corinthians 16:22).”[xvii] The second inscription names a woman named Alexa, who is called Mara—just as in the Mariamene inscription. Rather than a second name, I take it as a title, so the inscription would read: “this is the ossuary of Alexa, [the] Lady.” It is a title of honor. Her name is given in the possessive case—showing the ossuary belongs to her, but her title is nominative—indicating it is not part of her proper name.
Continue here: “There’s Something About Mary…Magdalene (Part 3)”
For a complete treatment of Mary Magdalene, especially understood in the context of the two Talpiot tombs and their latest findings, see our book, The Jesus Discovery.
[i] Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1, 18.
[ii] Josephus, Wars, 3:462ff.
[iii] Josephus, Wars, 3:462–505, 532–542.
[iv] Rami Arav and John.J. Rousseau, Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1995), p. 189.
[v]See: https://www.antiquities.org.il/article_Item_eng.asp?sec_id=25&subj_id=240&id=1601&module_id=#as and https://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/09/11/jerusalem.synagogue/index.html.
[vi] b. Chagiga 4b. In another story in the Talmud Jesus’ mother is referred to as the “hairdresser,” who was seduced by a gentile named “Pandeira” (b. Shabbat 104b). There is a play on words here, likely referring to two Miriams, one who “grows” the hair, the other who “grows” the child. In they story the angel of death strikes the wrong Mary—in this case Miriam the Megdala, getting the names confused. See Burton Visotzky, “Mary Maudlin among the Rabbis,” in Fathers of the World: Essays in Rabbinic and Patristic Literature, ed. (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1995), pp. 85-92.
[vii] See Peter Schaeffer’s comprehensive study of all the major passages, Jesus in the Talmud, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
[viii] See S. J. Pfann, “Mary Magdalene Has Left the Room. A Suggested New Reading of Ossuary CJO 701,” Near Eastern Archaeology 69: 3-4 (2006): 130-131. Pfann’s reading is accepted by Jonathan Price and others, see Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 447.
[ix] Even though we do not accept the reading “Mariam and Martha” it is worth pointing out that those two names come up in the gospels for two sisters who live in Bethany, near Jerusalem, along with their brother Lazarus (John 11:1). According to our records Jesus is quite close to this family, so ironically, the names “Mary and Martha” are not alien to the Jesus tradition of intimates. Some have even suggested that the Mary of Bethany is Mary Magdalene.
[x] See Rahmani, COJO, no. 701 as well as his introductory comments, p. 14. The Greek is in the genitive case, a diminutive form of Mariamhnh. This form of the name is rare and is found also on one other ossuary, Rachmani #108. Di Segni supports Rahmani’s reading (as per private e-mail correspondence with the author in 2007).
[xi] See Rahmani, COJO, no. 108. It is interesting to note that Jonathan Price, who disputes Rahmani’s reading of the Talpiot tomb as Mariamene, accepts tentatively his reading of this second ossuary as Mariamene—and yet the inscriptions are almost identical, see Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 133 as well as the representations in Rahmani of the inscriptions themselves.
[xii] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 5.7.1.
[xiii] See Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 97.
[xiv] Cotton, et. al., CIIP, nos. 97, 200, 262, 517 and 563. We do not accept that no. 543 is using Mara for a male named Joseph. A close examination shows a line break that would indicate this man is being called Mar—the son of Benaya, son of Yehuda. See the limited examples of the use of Mar/Mara in Aramaic and Greek in Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in late Antiquity, pp. 422-423.
[xv] See Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 262 where Jonathan Price writes that although Mara is short for Martha it can be a title.
[xvi] Mara, which comes from the Aramaic masculine word Mar is the absolute feminine, whereas “Marta” (Martha) is the emphatic feminine. They both come from the same masculine noun and mean the same thing, but Martha evolved more into a name and is common (18 examples on ossuaries), whereas Mara functions more as a title and is rare.
[xvii] Paul translates the Aramaic into Greek as maranatha.