Mary Magdalene was, based on the etymology of her name, from the city of Magdala on the western shore of Lake Galilee. The word 'Magdala' comes from the Hebrew word migdal meaning "tower".

Both historical writings from the period and recent archaeological excavations have helped us understand what Mary’s home town was like during her lifetime, perhaps even providing us with a greater understanding of who Mary Magdalene was.

Lake Galilee 

Map showing the location of Magdala. PICTURE: Biblemapper. 

Writing towards the end of the 1st century, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus said that Magdala was quite a large city and walled. It was known then by the Greek name Taricheae. This word means "the places where the fish are prepared" and it is thought that the name referred to the salting of small fish taking place there.

According to the Greek geographer and historian Strabo, "At the place called Taricheae the lake supplies excellent fish for pickling [that is, salting]". He says that these fish were then sold across the Roman Empire and were even found as far away as the markets of Rome. In the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 men, the two "small fish" that were provided by the young boy in John 6:4-11 were most likely Kinneret sardines which would have most likely been salted at Magdala. All this trade would have brought great wealth to the city.

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Magdala excavations from the air. PICTURE AVRAMGR (licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Renewed excavations which began in 2009 at Magdala have uncovered a large port area along with what is believed to be a warehouse, salting pools, shops, large homes and a synagogue in the town.

The finds reveal that Magdala was an important port at the time of Jesus. Remains of a breakwater six metres wide and 69 metres long were uncovered. This breakwater provided a large safe harbour for the fishing boats on the lake. The actual port area may have been up to 700 metres long. About 40 small freshwater pools, lined with plaster, were also found. It is thought this was where the salting of fish like the Kinneret sardine, took place.

A large structure, identified as a warehouse, was uncovered adjacent to the port. It was partitioned in many halls and in the cellar some pottery storage vessels were discovered. Because the salting of fish was an important industry in Magdala, it is likely that the fishermen such as the disciples would have brought their catch to Magdala to be sold.

A synagogue, along with three Jewish ritual immersion pools called mikva’ot, were also discovered there. An earlier structure also identified as a synagogue was found in the 1970’s excavations just to the north of the recent excavations.

Based on ancient coins found in the recently uncovered synagogue foundations, the synagogue has been dated to the early 1st century. It is speculated that this may have been the synagogue that Mary Magdalene and her family attended.

The chief archaeologist at Magdala, Marcela Zapata-Meza said of this synagogue and the nearby mikva’ot, "Magdala’s income sources could allow the residents to afford expensive and well-constructed buildings, such as the first-century CE synagogue and Jewish ritual baths discovered in excavations. Magdala is the only town in Galilee, so far, that has found a first-century synagogue with frescoes, mosaics and a unique Second Temple model carved in stone."

Evidence of glass production were also found in Magdala. According to the official Magdala website, "One of the most impressive discoveries in the marketplace was the technologically advanced plumbing system which connected the shops with individual access to fresh groundwater. This system, which would have been a marvel two thousand years ago, is even more astonishing because it still functions today."

The foundations of large homes were found not far from the port area. These homes which have been described as ‘mansions’, were ‘paved with colorful and intricate mosaic floors’. They probably belonged to the wealthy merchants of Magdala.

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The fish pans uncovered at Magdala. PICTURE: Ori~

Did Jesus visit Magdala? The town of Magdala is not explicitly referred to in the New Testament. However, Matthew 11:59 records Jesus visiting the region of Magadan and this is thought to be a variant of the name Magdala. In the parallel passage in Mark 8:10 is it called the "region of Dalmanutha". Carl Laney, in his essay 'Geographical Aspects of the Gospel' makes the observation that Dalmanutha may be a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word dalmynyth, which means "of the harbor" (although others such as Ken Dark and the late fisherman and writer Mendel Nun suggest that Dalmanutha was another location, but approximately only 200 metres north of Magdala. See here for more.) This would then most likely be a reference to the large harbor which has been discovered at Magdala.

What have these discoveries to do with Mary Magdalene?

As we have read in Dorothy Ann Lee’s excellent article 'Who was Mary Magdalene? Debunking the Myth of the Penitent Prostitute', we find, from the Gospel accounts, that Mary Magdalene was a very devoted follower of Jesus. She, along with some other women, occasionally travelled around Galilee with Jesus and His 12 disciples (see Luke 8:1). In addition, she is mentioned as being at the crucifixion at the end of Jesus’ life. We are also told that she followed Joseph of Arimathea as they took Jesus’ body to His tomb. She then sat with another Mary "opposite the tombfor some time (Matthew 27: 61). She was also among the first to go to the tomb early on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1), and John’s Gospel reveals that Mary was the first person who the resurrected Lord appeared to. Jesus then gave her the important task of declaring to the others that He had indeed risen -  "Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (John 20: 14-18).

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The Synagogue at Magdala showing the mosaics and carved stone object, possibly used for placing the Torah scrolls when being read. PICTURE: עמוס גל (licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0)

While most are aware that Jesus cast out the seven demons from her, what is perhaps less well known that she was part of a small number of women that financially supported Jesus and His disciples. Matthew tells us that Mary Magdalene was among a number of women that "had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs" (Matthew 27:55). Luke is clearer regarding what caring for Jesus’ needs meant: "After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means"(Luke 8:1-3; italics added). So, Mary was among a small group of wealthy and generous women who played a pivotal role in Jesus’ ministry through their financial assistance.

There are three women who are specifically mentioned as being financial supporters: Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna. Unfortunately, we do not know if Luke’s list was in order of their financial support. What we do know is that Joanna‘s husband Chuza was a "manager of Herod’s household". This was Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee who had his capital at Tiberias only a few kilometres south of Magdala. Chuza and Joanna probably also resided at Tiberias. The word 'manager' is in Greek epitropos. While the exact nature of Chuza’s role in not clear, a hint comes from Matthew 20:8. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the owner of the vineyard tells the epitropos to pay the vineyard workers their day’s wage. So, from this example an epitropos had an important responsibility; it was a position of trust, especially when he had to handle the owner’s money. In addition to manager, it is thought that the word epitropos suggests the role of a steward or even a guardian which included the responsibility of the care or the teaching of children. Whatever the precise role, Chuza’s responsibility was very important and very likely well-paid. His wife Joanna would have had the financial means to support Jesus and His disciples.

Luke also mentions Joanna and Mary Magdalene being together in Jerusalem after the crucifixion. Together, with another Mary, Luke says they went to Jesus’ tomb early on resurrection morning (Luke 24:10).

Whether Mary and Joanna knew each either prior to becoming financial supporters of Jesus, we don’t know. They were from nearby towns and their financial status may have led them to be in contact with each other; But if not, very likely since they had become supporters and followers of Jesus, they would have been through a lot together. Possibly over time they had become close friends and their visit to the tomb together strongly suggests this.

Unfortunately, we do not have any further information regarding Susanna, the third woman who is listed as financial supporter of Jesus and his disciples, so we are not able to reveal anything of her financial status. However, concerning Mary Magdalene we have established that she came from a town of trade and wealth. While we cannot be certain, it is possible that Mary’s ability to provide financial support to Jesus and his disciples came from the wealth generated in Magdala.

Unlike Joanna, no husband is mentioned with Mary. Some have suggested that this shows that she was independently wealthy. Whether this wealth had come because she had come from a wealthy family or because she was a widow of a wealthy man, we do not know.

Finally, Mary may have been older than she is typically portrayed. As Dorothy Ann Lee says there is no evidence in the Gospels that supports the later tradition that she was a prostitute. Rather, the evidence suggests as Dorothy points out that Mary was "an independent woman of some means". From this, and other Gospel passages, we see in Mary a generous, loyal and committed follower of Jesus. This woman who bore the name of ‘tower’ was indeed a tower of support to Jesus and His disciples. In addition, her character reveals that during the most testing of times when the other disciples had fled she remained showing that she was also tower of strength.

For more on Magdala see:
• https://biblewalks.com/sites/magdala.html
• www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-places/the-fishy-secret-to-ancient-magdalas-economic-growth/
• www.magdala.org/visit/archaeological-park/market-and-shops/


Alvin Johnson is the co-author of the iBook The Fifth Gospel (as well as a teacher edition) and teaches a short course on 'The Life and Ministry of Jesus' at the Reformed Theological College in Geelong, Australia.