Jesus and Mary Magdalene: The Image of God


What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. You will find ordering information here.

This excerpt discusses how not Jesus alone but Jesus with Mary Magdalene is in the image and likeness of Elohim, God.

The Gospel of John begins by saying that those who believe in the Word of God, as put into the man Jesus, “who received it and believed in his name”, gain “the right to become children of God, … begotten (as such) not out of racial ancestries, nor out of a natural will, nor out of a man’s desire, but out of God” (1:12-13). To be a child of God is therefore not a oneness of identity with God, on the part of Jesus or anyone, but a oneness of unity and commitment. This is the oneness Jesus speaks of in his culminating pastoral prayer before his execution: he and the father are one (17:22), but the goal is for all humanity also to be one with God (17:20-23). This is the very Jewish concept of covenant, and marriage is the central example given thereof in the Bible. God creates in Genesis 1 by separating complements: light from darkness, sky from earth, land from sea, male from female – but then God brings one of these pairs together again, husband and wife (Genesis 2:24), in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). So, Jesus here and in chapter 20 is one with his wife in unity and commitment, jointly with her a sacred being that reflects God’s nature, and so we must be, and will be, if we heed his voice. Why this splitting apart of the nature of Elohim into male and female only to put them together again if it is not to teach us that the nature of God is love (I John 4:8)?

Indeed, Jesus is not alone in not just speaking the Word of God but delivering it also in his way of life, including his marital status: Jeremiah’s unusual, frowned-upon bachelorhood to say thus God feels no longer “married” to the Israelites; Ezekiel’s being forbidden to mourn his wife’s death to say thus God will not mourn the fall of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 24); and of course Hosea’s “ho”, his prostitute wife, whom he wedded to say the Israelites were likewise whoring after other gods (Hosea 1).

In the most ancient strata from which emerged the Samaritan and Jewish religions, God was a single deity comprising male and female aspects. In Genesis 1:27, for instance, Elohim created male and female human beings in the image and likeness of Elohim. Rod Borghese writes: “The word Elohim is a plural formed from the feminine singular ALH (Eloh), by adding IM to the word.” I add that the word Eloah appears to mean “Power”. Borghese continues:

But inasmuch as IM is usually the termination of the masculine plural, and is here added to a feminine noun, it gives to the word Elohim the sense of a female potency united to a masculine idea, and thereby capable of producing an offspring. Now we hear much of the Father and the Son, but we hear nothing of the Mother in the ordinary religions of the day. But in the Kabbalah we find that the Ancient of Days conforms himself simultaneously into the Father and the Mother, and thus begets the Son. Now this Mother is Elohim.

John J. Parsons ( makes a similar point about “El Shaddai”, a common term for God in the Tanakh, which modern translators usually render as “the Almighty”, following the lead of the scholars who created the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Tanakh), who believed that it was derived from shadad, which means “to vanquish” or “to destroy”. However, Parsons points out that the blessing Jacob gives in Genesis 49:25 includes both masculine and feminine imagery, the latter being the “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” (בִּרְכת שָׁדַיִם וָרָחַם), a phrase that suggests “El Shaddai” may come from shadaim (“breasts”), as an indication of God’s all-sufficiency and ability to nourish, to care for, all creation.

Thus, in the very first episode in Jesus’s ministry, following his baptism by John, he encounters a woman at a spring in Samaria. There is much in this scene [discussed elsewhere in the book and in this blog] to suggest a romantic, erotic subtext. Even the water of the spring itself implies a sense of courtship.

The first premise is that water was in the Mediterranean cultures of this time largely associated with women, since it was used mainly for cleaning and cooking. Wine, symbolically associated with blood, the blood of life, the “blood” of one’s ancestry (1:13), was associated with men, as being fiery in temperament and conducive of manly qualities such as courage and thought. According to several classical writers, including Plutarch, women were forbidden from drinking wine.

The second premise is that it was almost universal throughout the Mediterranean region, including the Levant, to drink water and wine mixed together. Water alone was considered too cooling to the spirit, and wine alone was too elevating of the passions (there are many stories from antiquity of men driven to madness and violence by drinking undiluted wine, which, so it was said, was only done by barbarians). Revelation 14:10 speaks of God’s wrath in terms of undiluted wine, suggesting that the wrath was unmixed with any “cooling water” emotions, such as mercy or forgiveness. Proverbs 9:2, II Maccabees 15:39, and I Timothy 3:8 have references to wine and water mixed together for drinking. Justin Martyr, in chapter 45 of his first Apology, gives very early evidence of wine and water being mixed together sacramentally, as is still done today in the more “catholic” denominations of Christianity. Finally, the Gospel of Philip says in logion 106:

The chalice of prayer has in it wine and water. It is designated as the symbol of the blood, over which they make their thanksgiving. And it is filled with the Holy Spirit, and it belongs to the one who is perfect and whole/complete. Whenever we drink this, we shall receive into us the perfect person.

That is to say for the Valentinian school that composed this gospel, and was mainly devoted to this Gospel of John, the sacramental mixture of wine and water represents the blood (mixed with water; John 19:34) of Jesus, who is the “perfect person”. Jesus is perfect, the text says, because he is whole/complete. Other passages in Philip (see pages 570-72) make it clear that this is because, united with Mary, he is androgynous, as was Adam before Eve was removed from him: he is male-and-female-as-one in the image and likeness (Genesis 1:27) of the male-and-female-as-one understanding of God, called Elohim in Hebrew.

Therefore, when Jesus asks this young, attractive, unmarried woman for water, he is at least subliminally suggesting she mix her feminine “water” with his masculine “wine”: that they marry. Bear in mind that in every subsequent scene in this gospel in which Mary appears there is water and wine mixed: at the wedding, where Jesus makes the feminine water into masculine wine; even if not mentioned water and wine mixed was served at the supper in chapter 12 and at the Last Supper; at the crucifixion a sword thrust brings forth “blood and water” from Jesus’s body; and at the resurrection, Jesus the wine and Mary the water are reborn and mixed together into “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) that is the very image and likeness (Genesis 1:27) of the male-female-as-one understanding of God, called Elohim in Hebrew.

Certainly the author of the gospel intended this combination of eroticism and spiritual profundity in the story. For the modern reader, as a child of Western philosophy with its unbridgeable divide between the physical and the spiritual realms and the latent repressiveness of the Puritans, this will come across as very strange, even distasteful. But it was not to first-century Jews, whose Tanakh often conjoins eroticism and spiritual profundity, nowhere more so than in the exquisite Song of Songs. The gospel’s writer (and Jesus through him) is telling us that love and marriage are also part of the Λογος, perhaps the most significant part, since the story of Jesus’s ministry begins with love and marriage. The first chapter of Genesis describes the creation of the universe by אֱלֹהִים (Elohim) – a term for God that is plural (the -im is a Hebrew plural suffix), speaks of Godself with plural pronouns (“Let us make… in our own…”), but takes the singular form of the verb. The reason for this is simple: Elohim is male and female as one, which is why Elohim says השענ נתומדכ ונמלצב םדא (“Let us make humanity in our image and after our likeness”), and creates at once both male and female. And therefore, neither man nor woman alone perfectly images God, but rather man and woman together. What is more, only male and female together can imitate Elohim’s ability to create life. This is why there are a number of comments in the Talmud to this effect: “Rabbi Eleazar said, ‘Any man who has no wife is no proper man; for it is written, “Male and female created He them and called their name Adam”’” (Yebamoth 63). Hence, it was spiritually essential for Jesus to have a wife before beginning on his ministry.

Water and wine figure in the wedding at Cana, which in the restored original gospel immediately follows the scene at the Samaritan spring. At his own wedding to the woman at the spring Jesus turns water (feminine) into wine (masculine).

This act brings back to mind the final logion, 114, in the Gospel of Thomas, in which he says, in part, “Look, I will draw her into myself so I may make her male, so she may also be a living spirit resembling you males: for any woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Here, by marrying her, Jesus is undoing the separation of Eve from (the originally androgynous) Adam, drawing Mary into himself. Since, as discussed above (page 291), water represents the feminine and wine the masculine, here the turning of feminine water into masculine wine symbolizes the union of Jesus and Mary into, in sacred terms, a single being that is like the original Adam in the image and likeness of Elohim, God understood as comprising both male and female as one.

At the resurrection, Jesus and Mary meet each other again-for-the-first-time. They are both naked and in a garden, with the obvious Edenic overtones.

In logion 36 of the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, “Do not worry from dawn to dusk, or from dusk to dawn, about what you shall wear” (cf. Matthew 6:25-30). In the following logion the disciples ask Jesus, “When will you appear to us, and when will we see you?”, and he replies, “When you can take off your clothes without feeling ashamed, and you take your clothes and throw them beneath your feet like little children and trample them; then you will see the Son of the Living One, and you will not be afraid.” The (Greek) Gospel of the Egyptians has Jesus reply similarly, but adds a further thought: “When you have trampled on the garment of shame, and when the two become one, and the male with the female is neither male nor female.” This is an eschatology in which the two genders become one, in which they become again the image and likeness of their Creator, Elohim, in which male and female are one.

This eschatology is found also in the Gospel of Thomas, particularly in the last logion in the book (114), which, unfortunately, is widely misunderstood. Here the complete logion:

Simon the Rock said this to them: “Let Mariam [Mary] go away from us, for women are not worthy of the [Æonian] life.”

Jesus said this: “Look, I will draw her into myself so I may make her male, so she may also be a living spirit resembling you males: for any woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This verse is often put down as an example of first-century misogyny, as Jesus insisting that only males are welcome in the Æon, the Kingdom of Heaven. But Jesus is actually referring to the Hebrew myth of the creation of male and female. In the first creation story God creates by separating complementary opposites: day from night, above from below, land from sea; finally, God takes the androgynous human who was made male-and-female in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) and separates it into two humans, the primordial couple. The second creation story likewise has womankind, in the person of Eve, drawn forth from the side of the prototypical androgynous human, Adam. Jesus thus is saying in the above logion that women, in order to enter into the Æon, the Kingdom of Heaven, must again become one with the male. Mary, as is made clear in this resurrection scene, is reborn to a new life along with her husband Jesus: they experience in this scene a hierogamy, a spiritual marriage, which renders them truly one, hence truly reflecting the image and likeness of Elohim, and fully capable of entering into the Æon.

F. F. Bruce (Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament) is the only scholar who to my knowledge interprets this logion correctly; he nicely summarizes Jesus’s point thus: “Jesus’s promise that she will become a man, so as to gain admittance to the kingdom of heaven, envisages the reintegration of the original order, when Adam was created male and female (Genesis 1.27). Adam was ‘the man’ as much before the removal of Eve from his side as after (Genesis 2.18-25). Therefore, when the primal unity is restored and death is abolished, man will still be man (albeit more perfectly so), but woman will no longer be woman; she will be reabsorbed into man.”

This interpretation of logion 114 is supported by logion 22, in which Jesus says in part, “When you make the two one … when you make the male and the female a single one, such that the male is not male nor the female female … then you shall enter into [the Kingdom of Heaven].” Likewise he says in logion 75, “There are many standing at the door, but the united/whole/single ones (are) the ones who will go in to the bridal chamber.”

We find the exact same theology in the Gospel of Philip, for instance in logion 76:

In the days (when) Eve was within Adam, death did not exist. (When) she was separated from him, death came into being. If again she goes into (him), and he takes her into himself, death shall not exist.

Paul seems to be quite aware of this uniting-of-the-sexes to be in the image and likeness of God at Galatians 3:28, though he puts on it his usual spin, saying that all human differences are eliminated if we become one with Jesus-as-God.

While the sexual element is not clearly prominent in the garden of Eden story, it certainly is in the Song of Songs, and very much so here as well. There had to be some sexual energy in their embrace (and no doubt a kiss, as the implications of the Odyssey suggest; see below) in the next verse; most emphatically, Jerome’s “Noli me tangere” (“Do not touch me”) is repugnant as a translation. This is Jesus’s and Mary’s hierogamy, their spiritual (re)marriage, and so it has to be erotic. The eroticism is further discussed below.

This sexual element is related to the previous point that their Edenic nakedness has spiritual meaning. In the act of coïtus the couple become physically one, and their conscious minds are set aside, allowing them a moment of sheer ecstasy, which is a harbinger of the joy of living in the Æon. (This wakan aspect to lovemaking is explored in detail in The Circle of Life.) Further, the act of coïtus can result in the creation of new life, in the form of a child. Thus, Elohim appears in Genesis as a Creator, as Father-Mother to all life, and the man and woman, when they are truly one (including physically, during coïtus), are in the image and likeness of Elohim also creating life. This points to the deep meanings of the “bridal chamber” theology found in several early gospels, especially Philip, and also Thomas. Logion 86, quoted on page 586, says that when male and female are mated together again in the bridal chamber they gain eternal life; death is overcome for them. It is beyond the scope of this work to speculate in detail on what physical manifestation, if anything, the “bridal chamber” references pointed to. Generally, the strand of spirituality leading from the early Gnostics (especially Valentinius and Marcus) to the Cathars eschewed the panoply of ritual, ceremony-as-sacrament, and preferred inner, spiritual transcendence. The suggestion in Philip is that a bride and groom entered into the “bridal chamber” privately.

Karen L. King dates the recently published “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” fragment to the fourth century, but says the text, in view of its nature, seems originally written in the first or second century. It is clearly to me closely related to the Gospel of Thomas, because it includes phrases similar to logia 101 and 114 in that “sayings gospel”. A big difference, however, is that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife appears to weave these separate logia (sayings of Jesus) into a continuing narrative, that is, an extended discussion with the disciples. It may be somewhat later than Thomas, representing an editor’s attempt to create such a continuing narrative by weaving together unrelated sayings in Thomas, or it may be earlier, and Thomas is simply a collection of sayings lifted from the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife and perhaps other sources.

The latter gospel’s most notable feature is that it has Jesus specifically call Mary his wife: (“Jesus said to them, “my wife/woman…”). The prefix ta serves as the possessive pronoun “my”, and hime, just like נָשִׁים in Hebrew, ܐܢܬܬܐ in Aramaic, and γυνη in Greek, means “wife” or “woman” depending on context, and the context provided by the possessive prefix forces the meaning here to be “wife”. Jesus adds that she is “worthy of it”. King guesses the text said she was worthy of being a disciple; my guess is that it said she was worthy of being his wife, since the phrase (“she will be able to be my disciple”) follows the reference to her as wife and her worthiness. Jesus also says, “As for me, I dwell/exist/live with her in order to […] an image […]”. The verb implies cohabitation, spiritual union, and the vitality that vivifies life. I add that the phrase also implies eroticism, even sexuality, as part of their marital relationship. The last word is found in another line after a brief section of badly degraded manuscript, in my view too brief to fit in the ending of one sentence/thought and beginning of a new sentence/thought. I believe it is part of the previous phrase, and that this is Jesus saying that his union with Mary is intended to embody the very image and likeness of God, which male and female reflect (Genesis 1:27) as part of the Messianic image that he hoped to convey.

While – if it is eventually accepted as genuine – this is the first known early manuscript specifically to call Mary the wife of Jesus, it is far from unique in suggesting a very close relationship between them. The Magdalene is described as elevated to a special status as disciple in the Pistis Sophia and the Gospel of Mary (noncanonical texts probably composed in the second century). Most prominent among these texts is the Gospel of Philip, which calls Mary his κοινωνος (his companion, consort, coworker, the word also implying an erotic connection), and says the disciples were envious of how Jesus often kissed her often on the mouth. Kissing in this context does not, or does not merely, suggest romance but (as Philip says itself) it is an exchange of breaths (the breath representing the spirit) between spiritual companions in which spiritual truth is transferred – the πνευμα and hence the Λογος.

Mary Magdalene: What’s in a Name?


What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. You will find ordering information here.

Mary’s cognomen “Magdalene” is only associated with the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Other than two highly doubtful references, it never appears in the Gospel of John. Its author must have known her, since she had to be a primary source for chapters 4 and 20, and was besides the mother of his eyewitness, Lazarus. And Mary clearly wished to distance herself from her priestess life, which “Magdalene” implies. Nevertheless, it is so commonly associated with her still today that its origin and meaning must be considered. One of the following 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 the Samaritan Temple high on Mount Gerizim, where as the “woman at the well” Mary served as a priestess. Coins minted in Nablus (Shechem) portray an architectural complex that appears to include 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), 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 614, 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 baptism.

g: Comes from ܩܕܠܐ (’qda:la), “neck” in Aramaic, should Mary have had a long, beautiful neck. This is a near-homonym with ܡܓܕܠܝܐ (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 ܡܓܕܐ ܐܠܗܬܐ (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 μάγα-δαλος 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 the 1340s B.C.E. On the northeastern frontier of Egypt, this ancient town was near the last encampment of the Israelites before they crossed the Reed 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. These Jews worshipped at a temple in Elephantine built on the same scale as the one in Jerusalem; James D. Purvis and Eric Meyers say scholars generally agree that the cultus at Elephantine was a mix of Yahwistic and Canaanite ways, and (as strongly suggested by the Elephantine Papyrii) heavily influenced by Egyptian religion. Indeed, Jeremiah 44 describes the cultus at Migdol in some detail, including worship of “the Queen of Heaven”. This temple was destroyed by the Egyptians in 410 B.C.E., but another was built by Onias IV in the first century B.C.E. in Leontopolis, near Magdalu, after Judah Maccabee denied him the high priesthood in Jerusalem. Some classical Jewish literature, such as the Yuhasin, associates it with the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim. What makes the possibility interesting that Jesus and/or Mary were at one time connected with it is the number of passages in this gospel, especially the resurrection, that suggest they were both more than passingly familiar with the Egyptian language.

m: Comes from the Aramaic ܝܘܢܐ ܡܓܕܠܝ (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. This explanation would also amplify the theory outlined that the “dove” at Jesus’s baptism was Mary.

n: Comes from the Aramaic ܢܐ ܕܘܠܐ ܡܓܕܗ (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). This would have contracted to ܕܘܠܐ ܢܐ ܡܓ (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 is probably 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.

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 (Arimathea) 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 and g as well, are Biblical in origin. All of these except h could refer to the Song of Songs; e comes indirectly and h directly from the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis, with whom the gospel often 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.

Option f is a fascinating but unlikely possibility, and options e and h 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 f 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, m, or n 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, and n are risky conclusions and would have to prove themselves through time and scholarly debate, 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 lean toward j, m, or n as the best solution. 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. The third, which is the one that by a hair’s breadth I favor most of all, would directly relate her cognomen to her first encounter with Jesus, amply explaining why it caught on in the Christian community and is well remembered to this day.

Any of these three would also answer a very good point made by Karen L. King (as quoted in “The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text About Jesus”, by Ariel Sabar,, 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 “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 Temple, 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 – in short, becoming one with her such that they, together, embody the very image and likeness of Elohim (God understood as comprising male and female as one), returning the state of perfect, androgynous Adam, before the disobedience and before Eve had been removed from his side – then the cognomen does, as King would wish, refer (albeit cryptically) to her marital status. In deed, 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 this interpretation of her cognomen emphasizes this central fact about Mary.

All this said, the cognomen “Magdalene” only appears in John twice, in the crucifixion and resurrection episodes. 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 this cognomen was added therein by the redactor, and that the Beloved Disciple and amanuensis in the original text referred to her as “Mary”, without cognomen. Thus, in this translation, “Magdalene” is excised. My belief is that the eyewitness’s mother told him she wanted no more to be known by a cognomen referring to her time as a priestess.

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 Mari-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. (I reject Madan Mohan Shukla’s idea, in an article published by the Oriental Institute at Baroda in 1979, that the name Mari may go back to Sanskrit मातृ [matri; the “t” is very gently pronounced], meaning “wife” and “mother”, which evolved into that 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 Mari [Beloved].)

The traditional explanation is that it 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 Arimathea 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).

How could a woman so clearly central to Jesus’s life, central enough to grieve for him at the very thought of his impending death (Luke 7:38) and to come by night with spices to anoint his body, only be mentioned at the very end? Without a doubt, she does appear previously in the gospel, and my contention is that Mary Magdalene, Mary “of Bethany”, the unnamed woman in Mark 14, and “the woman at the well” are one and the same.

This perspective is underscored in the noncanonical Gospel of Philip, which calls Mary Jesus’s κοινωνος (companion, partner, or consort), and also lifts up the spiritual eroticism between them, saying for instance that “he used to kiss her often on the mouth”, implying not only romance but the sharing of sacred breath, πνευμα. The recently published Gospel of Jesus’s Wife also appears to back this perspective.

What is more, the beautiful woman in the Song of Songs is called (in Song 6:13) the Shulammite. For centuries it has been said that this cognomen deliberately fuses the Hebrew word for peace (shalom) with the cognomen of the Shunammite woman introduced in II Kings 4:8, a wealthy woman who the passages that follow strongly imply was Elisha’s lover despite having a husband, and whose dead son Elisha brought back to life. There are obvious similarities to Mary Magdalene, a wealthy woman (Luke 8:3) who was surely Jesus’s wife, who had previously had “husbands” (John 4:16-18), and who was probably the mother of Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to life.

This scene with Elisha in its turn bears a strong resemblance to the story (I Kings 17:8-24) of Elijah his teacher. This tale begins with Elijah asking the woman for a drink of water from her water pot (verse 10); she has some shame on her conscience (verse 18). Both of those details mirror the “woman at the well”. And Elijah raises her son from death (verse 22), as Jesus does Mary’s son Lazarus. Again, the similarities between the two lives are striking. Since every detail in this gospel is clearly carefully chosen, these connections to Elijah and Elisha must be taken very seriously, and certainly they draw more sharply the nature of the connection between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.