“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God. And the twelve who were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out…” Luke 8: 1-2
Where was Mary Magdalene from? There isn’t much to go on, but if we look we can trace her.
The Gospels vaguely mention Mary Magdalene 12 times, and while it appears she has been all but written out of the record, we can find her if we look. We can trace her back to Magdala, the town she is associated with through her name, the same town thought to have played an important part in the ministry of Jesus.
Magdala, from which the name Magdalene apparently evolved, means ‘great place’ in Aramaic and refers to a tower. In all the long eras before surnames, a person could easily be known by their first name, in this case Mary, and to distinguish themselves from others of the same first name, their place of origin, in this case Magdala, or Magdalene.
So we are seeking a woman named Mary from Magdala.
We know she was first among the apostles, the only apostle to witness the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
We know her reputation has changed over the years as interpretations of her role have evolved. She has been regarded both a prostitute and the wife of Jesus, a sinner and a saint, and we can speculate that her casting off of the seven demons refers to a healing of some kind.
While scripture tells us little about Mary Magdalene, and does not specifically identify her home, her name implies origins or residence in the town of Magdala. In ancient times Magdala stood alone on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee until it was joined by Tiberias, the new city of Herod Antipas, founded around the year 20 CE.
Known as Magdala Nunayya, or Magdala of the Fishes, Magdala dates to c. 40 BCE and was a major first century port known for the production of salted fish. According to Flavius Josephus, the historian of the Jewish war writing in the first century, salted fish from Magdala were available for sale in the streets of Rome. Thirty years after the death of Jesus, Josephus describes Magdala as inhabited by 40,000 people with a fleet of 230 boats.
“And sending away the crowds, he got into a boat and went into the region of Mag’adan.” Matthew 15:39
In 1986 a drought revealed the bed of the Sea of Galilee near Magdala, and in it a fantastic find: a fishing boat contemporary to the time of Jesus capable of carrying 15 people. While it is impossible to link the boat directly to Biblical figures at our great remove, we can wonder, did Mary Magdalene ever tread the hold of this vessel? Did she enjoy fish caught by the fishermen who plied it?
The city associated with Mary Magdalene was in all probability the thriving fishing community of the disciples, fishermen themselves.
Mag’adan as a place name is troubling, perhaps, as it is not an exact match for Magdala, but over so many centuries and translations, single words can be misspelled, mistaken, misinterpreted, and even misplaced altogether. Generally it is assumed that Jesus went to Magdala, thought to be a central location of his ministry along the shores of Galilee.
“Mary called Magdalene….and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” Luke 8:3
Luke pins Mary down as a resident of Magdala who followed Jesus and had the means to provide for him.
In 67 CE, Flavius Josephus tells us Magdala was destroyed by the Roman General Vespasian during the Great Jewish War. Josephus himself was governor of Galilee during this time of the Great Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE), and he erected a defensive wall around Magdala, his headquarters, which he reports had become a stronghold for rebels against Rome.
After its destruction by Rome, the city associated with Mary and Jesus was forgotten for 2,000 years until its initial resettlement in 1908.
In 2009 during the construction of a spiritual retreat meant to grace Mary’s ancient hometown and the place of Jesus’ ministry, an entire first century town was discovered beneath the surface. To date 10% of the site has been excavated, and already an extremely rare first century synagogue has been uncovered.
Did Mary Magdalene ever rest upon the benches still flanking the synagogue’s front entrance?
Did she engage there in conversation as intense as the times she lived in?
Researchers at Magdala say they are certain Jesus taught here. They claim you can walk where he walked, and if you can follow his footsteps at Magdala, you can also follow Mary’s.
Today you can go to Magdala on a modern pilgrimage.
You can help excavate the site, revealing scenes perhaps once familiar to Mary Magdalene. Modern Magdala (near present day Migdal) is located on the western coastline of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) and at the eastern foothills of Mount Arbel.
Suddenly the elusive Biblical figure, the mysterious woman of many reputations, becomes almost tangible as the places she may have trod are revealed, and the buildings she may have known become known to us.
Researchers at Magdala state: “Because of its unique nature, Magdala will actively contribute to building positive relationships with the diverse community of Christian believers and between Christians and Jews. In the coming days, Magdala will feature excellent accommodations and an outstanding restaurant, in addition to an expanded archaeological park. Magdala is truly the crossroads of Jewish and Christian history.”
To find out more go to: http://www.magdala.org/
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 1973, Oxford University Press