Quite Contrary: 21 Derivations for Magdalene

Quite Contrary:

Twenty-One New Proposed Derivations for the Cognomen “Magdalene”

James David Audlin

 From The Gospel of John Restored and Translated, Volume I,

as published by Editores Volcán Barú.

Copyright © 2013,2014 by James David Audlin. All worldwide rights reserved.

Reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Editores Volcán Barú.




The cognomen “Magdalene” only appears thrice in the gospel of John, once at the crucifixion (19:25) and twice at the resurrection (20:1,18). As discussed in the commentaries, both appear to be insertions by the redactor to bring this gospel more into line with the Synoptics. Therefore the cognomen is removed from the restored text in this work, and relegated to the appendix. Nevertheless, it is so commonly associated GOJ-front 2vol Iwith her still today that its origin and meaning must be considered. One of the following four explanations is usually offered, that the cognomen:

a: Says she came originally from Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.

b: Comes from the Hebrew לדגמ (migdal, “tower”, related to μαγδωλος in Greek, “watchtower”).

c: Comes from the related word in Aramaic, the language then commonly spoken by Jews and Samaritans, ܡܓܕܠܝܐ (magdala, “tower” but also suggesting “elegant” or “great”, likewise related to μαγδωλος). This could be simply a reference to a tower in Mary’s personal history, perhaps in Shechem or on Mount Gerizim, where as the “woman at the well” she served as a priestess; Even more likely, it refers to the Temple at Leontopolis, where Mary probably served earlier as a priestess; this Temple was built in the form of a tower. Or it could refer to Song of Songs 4:4, and other similar verses; this one compares the Shulammite’s neck to the Tower of David (cf. Nehemiah 3:25). Similarly, her breasts are likened to towers at 8:10. Her “dance of Mahanaim” (Song 6:13; see option e) is an indirect reference to a tower as well.

d: Comes from megaddelá, an Aramaic word for a woman with ܓܕܠܐ (g’dalw; “plaited or braided hair”), ܡܓܕܠܐ (mgdl’ being the word for “braid”) and later, by extension, a word for a hairdresser. The term carried, later in time, an aroma of “harlot” about it, and some passages in the Talmud appear to associate it with Temple priestesses.

Before evaluating the four above, I also propose:

e: Comes from Mahanaim (מַחֲנָ֫יִם in Hebrew), literally meaning “Two Camps”,a place so called by Jacob because he and God both camped there. The “h” would have shifted in the Greek transliteration into a “g” (since the “h” does not appear in Greek words except at the beginning) and a Greek-style suffix added. At this place Jacob erected a watchtower (Genesis 31:48-52; see b, c, and h). The “dance of Mahanaim” is mentioned at Song of Songs 6:13 in reference to the Shulammite (who is discussed in relation to the Magdalene below).

f: Comes from Song of Songs 4:15, the same verse discussed on page 338, where the Hebrew for the “spring of water” in the garden is מעין גנים (mayan gannim). This could have gotten garbled by Greek ears into “Magdalene” the same way pretty much all of the proper names in the New Testament mutated when shifting from Hebrew or Aramaic into Greek. Through this verse she would be associated with living waters, mentioned in the same verse of the Song, of which Jesus spoke to her in their first conversation (John 4:10); also, the waters of spiritual purification, as in the mikvah, and in John’s immersion.

g: Comes from ܩܕܠܐ (’qda:la), “neck” in Aramaic, should Mary have had a long, beautiful neck. This is a near-homonym withܡܓܕܠܝܐ (magdala, “tower”), lacking only the initial ܡܰ (ma-), and also with ܡܓܕܠܝܬܐ (magdalayta, Magdalene), lacking the ma– and the suffix –ta. But the final “m” (ܡ) in her Aramaic name, ܡܪܝܡ (Maryam), could very well have elided over onto ܩܕܠܐ (’qda:la), creating ܡܩܕܠܐ (Maqdala). This could possibly a reference to, or for the amanuensis reminiscent of, several references in the Song of Songs, especially at 4:4, to the Shulammite’s neck, though a different word for neck (ܝܟܪܘܨ; sawara) is used there.

h: Comes from the Tower of Eder (מִגְדַּל־עֵ֫דֶר, Migdal Eder, literally “the Tower of the Flock [of Sheep]”) beyond which Jacob (then renamed “Israel”) pitched his tent after the death of his wife Rachel (Genesis 35:21). Jesus and Mary are implicitly associated with Jacob and Rachel at Jacob’s Spring in chapter 4 of John. The only other Tanakh reference to this tower is at Micah 4:8, where it is mentioned in a messianic prophecy that the greatness of Judah and Jerusalem will return, a very meaningful reference should this be the cognomen of Jesus’s consort. Rachel died on the way to Ephrath (Bethlehem); Josephus writes that the tower site was about a Roman mile (4,860 feet) beyond Bethlehem. But in which direction Israel was going is unclear. The original Hebrew text has him going south, toward Hebron, but the Septuagint transposes Genesis 35:16 and 21, likely correcting a mistake, which would have him going north, toward Bethel; this would put the Tower very close to Bethany, which was Mary’s home town.

i: Comes from the Greek μαγδαλια, a late contraction of the classical word απομαγδαλια, which appears in Aristophanes and Plutarch as a term for the inside of a loaf of bread, used by Greeks as a kind of napkin for their hands, which they then threw to the dogs; hence, “dog’s meat”.

j: Comes from the Aramaic ܡܓܕܐܐܠܗܬܐ (maqd’ alaht’a; “precious to the Goddess” or “gift of/to the Goddess”), which is very close to the Aramaic original of the cognomen “Magdalene”, ܡܓܕܠܝܬܐ (magdalayta).

k: Comes originally from μάγος δαλος (a magic torch or lamp or thunderbolt), which would have been contracted to μάγαδαλος and then to μαγδαλος. Many oil lamps from the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim and Samaritan synagogues in the region have been found. They were probably used ceremonially, perhaps tended by priestesses, and are customarily decorated with spiritual imagery. One common motif is a ladder; this was probably a representation of Jacob’s ladder, since the Samaritans believed and still believe that Bethel, where Jacob had his famous dream (Genesis 28:12-15) was on Mount Gerizim (A Companion to Samaritan Studies, by Alan David Crown, Reinhard Pummer, and Abraham Tal).

l: Comes from “Magdalu in Egypt”, as it is called in the letters of Šuta in the1340s B.C.E. On the northeastern frontier of Egypt, this ancient town was near the last encampment of the Israelites before they crossed the Red Sea during the Exodus. The name probably comes from גָּדַל (gadal), meaning “to increase in size or importance”. Jeremiah 44:1 says Migdol (as he and Ezekiel call it) and other nearby Egyptian communities had significant colonies of Diaspora Jews. There was a significant presence of Samaritans in Egypt as well, from the second century B.C.E. well into the Christian period, according to Reinhard Pummer (“The Samaritans in Egypt”); they largely lived harmoniously with their Jewish neighbors according to Aryeh Kasher (The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt), though according to Josephus there were quarrels in the same century over whether Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim was the true Temple site.Both Jews and Samaritans worshipped at a temple in Elephantine built as a replica of the one in Jerusalem, supported by the family of Sanballat with whom Jesus identified (see pages 605-06 and 727); James D. Purvis and Eric Meyers say the cultus at Elephantine was a mix of Yahwistic and Canaanite ways, and (as suggested by the Elephantine Papyrii) much influenced by Egyptian religion. Indeed, Jeremiah 44 describes the cultus at Migdol in detail, including worship of “the Queen of Heaven”, whom K. van der Toorn (Numen 39:1) says was similar to the Ugaritic goddess Anat and called Anath-Yahu. This temple was destroyed by theEgyptiansin410 B.C.E., but another was built by Onias (or Honiah) IV in the first century B.C.E. in Leontopolis, near Magdalu, north of Heliopolis. Leontopolis was already the center of veneration of Sekhmet, a lion-headed war goddess of Upper Egypt, the fierce aspect of the cat goddess Bast, representing the incendiary heat of Ra’s gaze when it punishes evildoers. According to Josephus (Ant. 13:3:2,14:8:2), Onias built the temple after Judah Maccabee denied him the high priesthood in Jerusalem. It was demolished by Rome in 73 C.E., shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem, to prevent it from harboring insurrectionists.Hanan Eshel (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hasmonean State) suggests Onias IV may have been the Teacher of Righteousness often referred to in the Qumran texts, and some classical Jewish literature (such as Yuhasin, Me’or ’Enayim, and Seder ha-Dorot) associates his temple with the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim; indeed, Rabbi Ben Abrahamson says Samaria often ratified alliances with Egypt.All this points to the good possibility that Jesus and Mary had some connections with an anti-Rome, anti-Jerusalem Samaria/Leontopolis alliance perhaps affiliated with the Notzrim. In any case, the several passages in this gospel, especially the resurrection, suggest both Jesus and Mary were reasonably familiar with the Egyptian language and Jewish-Samaritan Egyptian spiritual community.

m: Comes from the Aramaic ܝܘܢܐܡܓܕܠܝ (magdal’ yawna; “dove tower”). Ancient columbaria, also called dovecotes in English, have been found throughout the Levant, and indeed the entire Mediterranean region; they were known in Greek as περιστερεῶνα (peristereōna). For Jews and Samaritans they would provide not only food and crop fertilizer, but Temple sacrifices, as required in the Torah. Sometimes they were made in caves, but, where caves were not available towers were constructed: at the famous Masada site, for instance, three towers served as columbaria. There had to be columbaria in Mary’s day atop Mount Gerizim to provide sacrificial birds as well as to feed the priests, priestesses, and staff. Mary may have had duties associated with the columbaria. It is known that an image of a dove had been the ostensible pretext for the Temple’s destruction in 110 B.C.E., and a similar image probably had been specially recreated before Mary’s day. This explanation would also amplify the theory outlined on pages 546-57 that the “dove” at Jesus’s immersion was Mary.

n: Comes from the Aramaic ܢܐܕܘܠܐܡܓܕܗ(magdh-dawla-na). The first two words mean “to draw-up-to-oneself a-bucket-of-water”, and the imperative/cohortative suffix ܢܐ (na) signifies that this request for a bucket of water is deeply yearning and implored for). Alternatively, it could be ܢܐܕܘܠܐܡܓܕ (mgd-dawla-na), to-bestow a-bucket-of-water, with the same suffix attached. Either would have contracted to ܕܘܠܐ ܢܐܡܓ (mag-dawla-na), and the accent would fall on –la, giving just about exactly the sound of μαγδαληνη (magdalēnē), her cognomen in the Greek text; it is not quite as close to ܡܰܓ݂ܕ݁ܠܳܝܬ݁ܳܐ (magdalata), her cognomen in the Aramaic text of the Peshitta, though that may only be a transliteration of the Greek. The origin of this cognomen would be the event at the Samaritan spring, wherein Mary, in a memorable statement recorded at John 4:11, suddenly refers not to the spring in front of them but to a well, saying the well is deep and Jesus, unfortunately, doesn’t have a bucket. As noted in the commentary to that verse, she is making an oblique reference to Moses’s first encounter with his wife Zipporah by a well (Exodus 2:16), and to the deep, dry well of her heart/vagina

o: Comes from the Aramaic ܡܓܕܠܝܐ (magd’lya). The verb can mean “to tie”, “to make round”, or “to roll around”. This word appears in 20:1 as ܕܡܓܕܠܝܐ (d’magd’lya), with a prefix meaning “which” and the meaning determined from context “was rolled”. This word lacks only the ܬ (“t”) to be identical to the Aramaic version of Mary’s cognomen, ܡܓܕܠܝܬܐ (Magd’layta). With the suffix ܢܐ(na) mentioned just above in m, the meaning could be that she implored/prayed for the stone to be rolled away (and it was); the addition of this suffix would make the name virtually identical to the sound of μαγδαληνη in Greek. It is curious that 20:1 is one of only three verses in the Textus Receptus (the text as it has come down to us, with all its changes deliberate and accidental) of the Gospel of John where Mary is called “Magdalene”, and that in the same verse there is this homonym. Could the cognomen have referred to Mary being the discoverer of the rolled-away tombstone? Could it mean that she became aware of, witness to a miracle, that Jesus not only was alive but lifted away this stone like Jacob himself (Genesis 29:10)? At any rate, this conjunction of homonyms makes ܡܓܕܠܝܐan intriguing possibility.See further discussion of these matters in the commentary to 20:1.

p: Comes from the Aramaic ܢܐܕܠܗܝܡܓܗܐ (magāh dlhy na), “this/that particular dawn”, with the same suffix mentioned in m, signifying her intense desire for the memorable dawn in which she encountered her risen husband.

q: Includes ܕܠܛ (dalet), the fourth letter in the Aramaic and Hebrew alphabets, which mystically signifies a door because the letter originated in the Egyptian hieroglyph for “door”, perhaps the door into the “father’s house” (14:2) which is reached by the “ladder” (“Jacob’s ladder”) that unites earth and heaven. Remember that Mary’s cognomen in the Peshitta ends with a -ta, not a -na.

r: Comes from the Aramaic ܕܠܝܛܐܡܓܕ (magd dālīṯā), “the choice fruit (magd) of the vine shoot (dālīṯā)”, Mary as the first and best fruit of the vine (15:5), chosen by Jesus as the first person to reveal himself to as Messiah, his spouse and co-chosen (I Peter 5:13; see page 564).

s: Comes from the Aramaic ܠܘܬܐܡܓܕܗ (mgdh lwta), the attractive power (mgdh) that makes someone a partner/companion, that joins one to another (lwta).

t: Comes from the Aramaic ܢܐ ܡܕܠܐ (madly na), “a draft of water deeply yearned/implored for”. The word ܡܕܠܐ appears in Exodus 2:19, where Moses is meeting and romancing his wife-to-be Zipporah. The suffix ܢܐ is explained in n above.

u: Comes from the Aramaic ܡܕܠܝܢ (madalyānā), “to bring/draw up/out, to extract as from a hole/well”. This derivation would point to Jesus’s request that Mary draw him water to drink in chapter 4 – the related word ܕ݁ܳܠܝܳܐ (dalya), “to draw (water)” appears in 4:15 – and to Jesus being drawn forth from the tomb by God, and then his drawing Mary forth from the same tomb by saying mary, in 20:16.

v: Comes from Hebrew מָ֫ (ma; “water”), גְּדֹלָה (gadol; “great”), and אָנָה (anah; “seeks or enables oneself to meet”). This might refer to the opening scene, when Mary draws Jesus forth from the Jordan River to which he came to be immersed by John the Immerser, and/or to Jesus as the source of living water (4:10,14).

w: Comes from Aramaic ܡܕܠܐ (madla; “draft of water”) and ܠܬܐ(leta; “fellowship”), which would refer to the meeting by the spring in chapter 4. This would go back to the Aramaic spelling of the name “Magdalene” as “Magd’layta”.

x: Comes from the Sanskrit महाध्यान (Maha-Dhyāna), literally meaning “Great Path”; the word Dhyāna in origin refers to the channel in which flows a stream or river, but in current usage in both Hinduism and Buddhism it refers to the practice of stilling the mind so it reflects the universe perfectly without judging or craving or fearing.(Though they are often confused ,this is not quite the same thing as the Western practice of meditation.) If this is the source of “Magdalene”, then it would have been given her by Jesus, through his contacts with Eastern religion discussed several times in this work. As it got transliterated into Aramaic and Greek, it would have been given an “l” to make it easier for Westerners to pronounce; thus it would sound like Magdalena, “Magdalene” in Greek.

y: Comes from the Aramaic ܡܓܗܐ ܕܝ ܠܘܬܐ (magāh d’ lwta), “that particular dawn of making someone a partner/companion / joining one to another”. The word for “dawn” in the Syriac texts of chapter 20 is a synonym, ܫܦܪܐ (šap̄rā). But Mary’s cognomen could still remember that particular dawn when she and Jesus were joined as one together.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and some entries are quite unlikely; it is merely meant to be suggestive. Certainly there are many possibilities for explaining this cognomen, more than I have listed, since there are more possible combinations of some of the words and particles given above that are not mentioned. If nothing else, I hope this list encourages scholars to reopen the question as to the derivation of “Magdalene”, and not just to assume, but to do some more homework.

Option a, the most frequent explanation of Mary’s cognomen, is straightforward, and should be adopted if it can be proven that Mary came from Magdala. But, alas, there is nothing connecting her to that village. Her family home is in Bethany, her father probably originally came from Ramathaim (Arimathæa) in Kohath (in northern Judæa just south of Samaria), and she herself had lived in Samaria proper. She wasn’t even a Galilean, let alone a resident of Magdala. Therefore option a is to be rejected.

The pronunciation of the Aramaic word magdala is closer to the text’s Greek version of Mary’s cognomen than the Hebrew migdal, and these were Aramaic speakers, so option b is rejected.

Option d is also rejected; the textual evidence is flimsy, and there is no reason to assume that the Talmudic writers were merely recalling in a subsequent generation how this word was used in the first century: these comments may have been no more than unfounded anti-Christian polemical aspersions, of which in subsequent generations there was quite a bit. They may even have been based on the persistent later Christian legend that described Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute.

Option i is rejected too, lacking a solid rationale for adoption.

Options e, f, and h, and probably c, g,and t as well, find their origin in the Tanakh. All of these except h and t could refer to the Song of Songs; e comes indirectly and h directly from the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis, and t from the story of Moses and Zipporah both of which stories the gospel implicitly associates Jesus and Mary. Options c, e, h, and m all suggest a watchtower, with c carrying the indirect meaning of “elegant” or “great”, and e referring to the Shulammite’s dance.

Options f and v are fascinating but unlikely possibilities, and options e, h,and q are logical but abstruse, therefore weak as explanations for why Mary’s friends and family would call her “Magdalene”. Still, the erudite amanuensis could well have had e and h and especially in his own mind as he composed the gospel, in particular as he sought appropriate imagery for describing the nearly indescribable scene of Jesus’s resurrection. In the process of borrowing Song of Songs 4:15 in his composition of that episode he could well have read mayan gannim, in the same verse, been struck by the phonetic resemblance to Magdalena, and borne in mind a poetic association between the “wellspring of water” (which is what mayan gannim means) and Mary’s overflowing tears.

That leaves either c, g, j, k, l, or m through y as the reason that she was generally known as “Magdalene”. Either c or g or some combination would be a sensible if cautious conclusion, especially if Mary had a beautiful neck or breasts; certainly we learn from 20:17 that she was sexually attractive. Options j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, and u are relatively risky conclusions and only time and scholarly debate will serve to see if any of them can prove themselves; but the ground has long been prepared for them by such scholars as Raphael Patai (The Hebrew Goddess) and Merlin Stone (When God was a Woman).

I myself believe the best solution is one or more of l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u, or y. The first two would succinctly denote the fact about Mary that most stood out to those who knew her: her having been a Temple priestess; m also would further clarify who is the “dove” that comes to Jesus at his immersion (1:32). The others would directly relate her cognomen to her relationship with Jesus, amply explaining why it caught on in the Christian community and is well remembered to this day; n and t center on her first encounter with Jesus, o, p, and y on her encounter with Jesus at the resurrection, u on both the first encounter and the resurrection, and r and s on her relationship with Jesus. So good are all of these explanations that it could have been a combination of any two or three or more that provided reason for her to gain this cognomen. Because they are more sweeping, hence more likely to lead to a cognomen, I lean most strongly toward l, r, and y; and, much as I find many others fascinating, if I had to choose a single one it would be y.

Any of this last group of explanations would also answer a very good point made by Karen L. King (as quoted in “The Inside Story of a ControversialNew Text About Jesus”, by Ariel Sabar, Smithsonian.com, 18 September 2012). She notes that in the first century “women’s status was determined by the men to whom they were attached,” citing as an example “Mary, Mother of Jesus, Wife of Joseph” (and later, I add, “Wife of Clopas”). If Mary Magdalene had been Jesus’s wife, King insists, she would have been known as that, and the fact that she isn’t King calls the strongest argument against the contention that she was Jesus’s wife. But if for instance “Magdalene” means “sacred of/to the goddess” or refers to a dove tower on Gerizim, then that was her “marital status” as a priestess in the Samaritan religion, and she would have been already well known by that cognomen before wedding Jesus.

And if her cognomen refers to Jesus going into the well of her spirit and drawing forth water, or to the stone drawn away from the tomb such that Jesus and Mary may embrace, or if it means “a draft of water deeply yearned for”, “the choice fruit of the vine shoot” or “the attractive power that makes someone a partner/companion” – in short, to Mary as one with Jesus such that they, together, embody the very image and likeness of Elohim (God understood as comprising male and female as one), returning to the state of the perfect hermaphroditic Adam, before the female nature was removed from the male’s side – then the cognomen does, as King would wish, refer to her marital status with Jesus. Indeed, this gospel strongly suggests that what made Mary so appropriate a spouse to Jesus’s thinking was that she was a κοινωνος, his spiritual equal, and all of these latter interpretations of her cognomen emphasizes this central fact about Mary.

All this said, the cognomen “Magdalene” only appears in John thrice, once in the crucifixion episode and twice in the resurrection episode. But this is enough to lead many scholars to conclude that she is a different woman from the Mary who lives in Bethany, and whose name is always just Mary, without any cognomen. As discussed in the commentaries to the two episodes where “Magdalene” appears, I believe it was added therein by the redactor, and that the Beloved Disciple and amanuensis in the original text referred to her simply as “Mary”, without cognomen. Thus, in this translation, “Magdalene” is excised.

Her given name, Μαριαμ (Mariam), has two origin explanations: the traditional one and the actual one. Both would have been commonly known to reasonably well-educated Jews in the first century. The actual derivation of her name is from the Egyptian Meri-Amen, “Beloved Amen”, the name of Moses’s elder sister, referring to the Egyptian deity who was so pervasive by the time of the Middle Kingdom, in the last centuries B.C.E., that Egypt was essentially monotheistic. Meri-Amen becomes Μαριαμνη (Mariamne) in the Gospel of Philip, by the Presbyter’s friend Philip the Evangelist. See the discussion on pages 969-70.

I reject Madan Mohan Shukla’s idea, in an article published by the Oriental Institute at Baroda in 1979, that the name may go back to the Sanskrit मातृ (matri; the “t” is very gently pronounced), meaning “wife” and “mother”, which evolved into the latter English word, as well as the first half of “matrimony”. Shukla’s reference to an Indian goddess named Mari is likelier since she might be etymologically associated with the Egyptian Meri (Beloved).

The traditional explanation is that “Mary” comes from the Hebrew word הרמ (mara, “bitter”), referring to tears; it is the name that Naomi (which means “sweet” or “pleasant”) gave herself when she was weeping bitter tears for the death of her sons and her husband (Ruth 1:13). The traditional name has a deeper root meaning in מָר (mar, “drop”), as in a teardrop, but going even farther back to מֹר (mor, “myrrh”), which is the resin of a thorny tree, harvested by wounding the tree until it bleeds out, drop by drop, its bitter lifeblood, hence the name. Myrrh was associated with death, being an embalming compound. It was also a component in ketoret, the consecrated incense used in the First and Second Temples at Jerusalem, according to the Tanakh and Talmud – and thus would then have been very much in the nostrils of Mary and the disciples during the commemoration of Passover at the Temple.

How ironic that, before Jesus’s death, a thorny wreath, very possibly from the myrrh tree, was placed on his head (19:2), and that he was whipped and stabbed like the tree until his blood came forth as does the liquid myrrh (19:1,34). How ironic that after his death Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathæa prepared his body with myrrh and aloes (19:39-40). How ironic it is that Mary Magdalene, with such a name as that, but recently weeping bitter tears for her son (John 11:31,33), now again had drops of tears falling like drops of myrrh from her eyes for her husband (20:11).


James David Audlin (91 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge