What Archaeology Reveals about Mary Magdalene (Part I)

June 25th, 2024
Rosaura Sanz
What Archaeology Reveals about Mary Magdalene (Part I)

"The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee" (Luke 23:55)

Those who have had the opportunity to pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or those who faithfully follow the virtual pilgrimages and these publications, are used to the phrase: "Magdala, the birthplace of Mary Magdalene." But what does archaeology tell us about this?

A few times I have encountered the desire, from some pilgrims, to verify Mary Magdalene's birthplace at the archaeological site we excavate. While we would love to discover inscriptions bearing the names of gospel characters, such archaeological finds are exceptional or, rather, rare and scarce. We live in an era where information is verifiable, immediate, and highly accessible, but archaeology teaches us to be patient in verifying facts and recognizes the need to collaborate with other sciences and studies to reach accurate conclusions.

To learn more about the character of Mary Magdalene, we need the correct reading and interpretation of the Gospels, which are the primary source of information about this woman. So, what can archaeology really tell us about her? It helps us verify the ethnicity that inhabited the archaeological site of Magdala, but it can also help determine the lifestyle, religious customs, and other details about the inhabitants of this site.

Mary Magdalene, the name by which this exceptional woman who followed Jesus of Nazareth is known, was a Jewish woman who lived in 1st-century Galilee, specifically in the town of Magdala. We know about her thanks to mentions in the Gospels: Luke provides us with the key to her toponymy (that is, her name in relation to her birthplace or the place where she lives or owns land): "Mary, called Magdalene" (Luke 8:2). We also know that Jesus cast out seven demons from her (Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9). Although this account is quite popular, it is not described in either of the two Gospels; rather, we know it because this fact is mentioned as an addition to the name of Mary Magdalene: "Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils" (Mark 16:9).

All four evangelists mention her at the foot of the cross of Jesus (Matthew 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 23:49; John 19:25), and also as a witness to the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 24:1-3; John 20:1-2). Among them, the Gospel of John is probably the most vivid, as it presents a dialogue between Jesus and Mary.

If we pause to think a bit, there are many mentions of this woman, and in all of them, reference is made to her toponymy or her origins from Galilee. Her name, Mary, in Greek (Μαρία) or Miriam in Hebrew (מִרְיָם), was a very common name among Jewish women of the 1st century, and her toponymy, Magdalene, in Greek (Μαγδαληνή), refers to the town of Magdala, which in Hebrew (מִגְדַּל) and Aramaic (מגדלא) means "tower." It is thanks to Luke that we know the site referring to is the Magdala located in Galilee, as he describes: "The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee" (Luke 23:55), and it is not related to other archaeological sites that preserve the same Hebrew root (as some scholars have suggested).

The evidence of Mary Magdalene rests on the reading and correct interpretation of the Gospel and the relationship with the excavated and identified archaeological sites so far. In the next publication, I will try to explain how archaeology helps us identify the archaeological site as Mary's "Magdala," and also, if possible, the reasons why a woman like Mary might be known by her toponymy rather than another name. But for now, I can only say that archaeology is an auxiliary science for understanding this character, and what we know so far is not definitive.