🔼The name Magdalene: Summary
- Of The Tower
- From the noun מגדל (migdal), tower, from the verb גדל (gadel), to be strong or great.
🔼The name Magdalene in the Bible
There is only one Magdalene mentioned in the Bible and that is Mary Magdalene. She's mentioned a mere twelve times — see full concordance — but her character is so enticing that she enjoys her own spinoffs in popular culture. The most persistent one of these is of course that she was Jesus' wife, or at least his lover, and while the actual meaning of this assumption eludes many, it's surprisingly Biblical. We'll have a look at the Magdalene's romantic interest in Jesus below.
🔼Etymology and meaning of the name Magdalene
The Bible writers don't directly explain where the name Magdalena might have been drawn from and the theories run far and wild. What most commentators agree on, though, is that it ultimately derives from the noun מגדל (migdal), meaning tower, which in turn comes from the verb גדל (gadel) meaning to grow strong or great:
The verb גדל (gadel) means to become strong or great, particularly by combining many ordinary elements into a big strong strand or collection of some sort.
The noun מגדל (migdal) or מגדול (migdol) literally describes a place or agent for greatness. It's the word for tower, and a tower is not only a big strong thing consisting of many bricks, it also formed the center of a community around which all houses and all activity unfolded. From their tower people kept lookout over the community's territories, and launched offensives when the community was attacked. A tower could carry a fire and from it folks trumpeted signals. Towers drew its people from wherever they might roam. Over time they developed into central storage houses, banks and seats of government. Towers are buildings around which the greatness of a people forms and in which it becomes manifested.
Participle or adjective גדל (gadel) means a becoming great or growing up. Noun גדל (godel) means greatness or pride. Plural noun גדלים (gedilim) refers to tassels or festoons made from twisted strands. The very common adjectives גדול (gadol) and גדולה (gadola) mean great. Noun גדולה (gedulla) means greatness or great one.
The name Magdalene means Of The Tower, and is probably an ethnonym rather than a name; the term Mary Magdalene is rather like Mary from Oklahoma than Mary Smith. But it goes obviously beyond that.
🔼The Tower that wept and saw the Lord
The gospels were written in sequence and the Magdalene character clearly evolves over time but also stays remarkable stable. In fact, the four crucifixion accounts vary so widely that sometimes even the internal continuity is abandoned for effect (most notably in the epithets of Mark's "other" Mary), but the Magdalene is like a rock; an obvious fixed point of reference upon which all gospels agree.
When in the 50s AD Paul wrote, neither the Magdalene had been named nor the nativity story developed. When Mark wrote, Jesus still simply came from Nazareth (Mark 1:9) and the nativity cycle hadn't demonstrably crystallized. But the Magdalene already had her place among "the women under the cross" (and see for an exhaustive discussion on this our article on the name Mary). In Mark, the women don't stand under the cross or even anywhere near it but were "looking on from a distance" (15:40).
Mark names Mary Magdalene, and Mary "of-James-Mikron-and-of-Joses-the-mother," and Salome, and these were part of a much larger contingent of Galilean women (15:41). Mary Magdalene and Mary of Joses spied where Jesus' body was laid (15:47) and after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene, Mary of James, and Salome brought spices to the tomb (16:1). They never got to speak to the resurrected Christ, but to a "young man" (Mark 16:5). In an added gloss according to the later tradition we are told that Jesus indeed appeared first to the Magdalene but his words are not recorded (Mark 16:9).
Matthew and Luke, who appear to have been contemporaries, both worked off Mark and added their own perspectives from the vantage points of the demographic group they were part of (Persic-Jews and Greco-Romans respectively). Matthew stays relatively close to the Marcan account and still has the women looking from afar (27:55). He names Mary Magdalene, and Mary "of-James-and-of-Joses-the-mother," and the mother of Zebedee's children (27:56). Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" watch the burial but now confidently seated opposite the grave (27:61). After the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" venture to the grave, where they are addressed by a descending angel first (28:2) and then by Jesus himself (28:9). He tells them to not be afraid and take word to the brethren (28:9).
Luke's deviation from the Marcan story introduces a telling anonymity. His women remain nameless as they look on from a distance (23:49), as they watch the burial (23:55) and even when they visit the grave after the Sabbath (24:1). There they are met, not by Jesus but by two men in dazzling apparel (24:1). Only after the women had returned and reported these things to the eleven we are told that they were Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary of James and others (24:10).
John's gospel is the youngest, and when John wrote, Paul's letters and the synoptic gospels had been viral for years if not decades. The resurrection of Jesus had been discussed and celebrated equally long and John wrote his gospel not to rehash it but to comment on it. The synoptics had told their story just prior and just after the maddening holocaust and wholesale destruction of the Jewish world in 70 AD. John wrote his for an audience that realized that despite the horrors inflicted, the Roman empire had not succeeded and the kingdom of God was still forcefully advancing. Hence John's gospel is a comedy bordering on slapstick, riddled with quips and tongue in cheek glee (see our article on the name Nicodemus for a closer look at this).
John's version of Mary Magdalene is consequently the most mature. He places the women not at a distance but by the cross. He calls them: "his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene" (19:25), and although this may seem like four women, they are really two: his mother and his mother's sister, namely Mary of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.
None of John's women are present at the burial, but after the Sabbath only Mary Magdalene goes to the grave (20:1). She finds the stone removed, runs back for Peter and the "beloved disciple," but they peer into the tomb, see nothing and go home. Mary stands outside the tomb and weeps, and then sees within two angels in accordance to the Lucan account. She turns (Exodus 3:3) and sees the Lord, not knowing it is he (John 20:14). Only when he calls her name, she knows (Isaiah 43:1).
Human experience is a blend of scientific certainty and artistic inspiration, really quite like complex numbers in which only a "real" element combined with an "imaginary" element wholly describe reality. The Magdalene represents the world's formal wisdom tradition (that is: science and technology). She is the foundational seven pillars (Proverbs 9:1, Exodus 2:16, Acts 6:3) that support the upper room with the twelve (Mark 14:15, Acts 1:13), which in turn uphold the love that surpasses all knowledge (Ephesians 3:19).
The evangelists only submit one detail of the Magdalene's character, namely that Jesus had cleaned her of seven daimons (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2). Despite the daimon's modern day movie star status, it merely describes a faulty belief that bleeds off a lot of social energy and yields little but chaos. The healing of the Magdalene corresponds to what David exclaimed: "The words of the Lord are pure words; As silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times" (Psalm 12:6). and the Magdalene's demonic infestation is obviously dabbled with in Jesus' familiar story of the man who rids his "house" of an unclean spirit, sweeps the floor and puts everything in order, only the have the original fallacy return but with seven variant buddies that are even worse (Matthew 12:43-45, Luke 11:24-26).
🔼The Tower and the Lady
When the evangelists wrote, the Roman Empire had existed for about a century and humanity's overall intellectual capacity was on a steep decline that was ultimately only halted at the dawn of the Renaissance, fifteen centuries later. Since smart people are hard to enslave, it was in the Roman interest to destroy the world's wisdom, and in order for the gospel to survive the impending trek across the chasm of darkness, its insights had to be draped in folkloristic imagery. And that's where the tower of mankind's collective wisdom became a whimpering lady.
She was called the Magdalene and was suggested to have originated in Magdala or Migdal-El. This town was Naphtalian, as was the father of Hiram, the Phoenician builder of Solomon's temple, and the Magdalene even more broadly refers to the legacy of the Phoenician wisdom tradition. The Phoenicians had invented the consonantal alphabet to which the Hebrews around the time of David and Solomon added their brilliant invention of vowel notation. Data preservation had always been the duty of the specially trained priestly elite, but vowel notation gave script its modern efficiency and allowed every common person to easily learn how to read and write and thus to acquaint himself with information (Exodus 19:6).
Script allowed knowledge to be stored in media other than a perishable human brain, which made David exclaim: "You will not let your Holy One (the Word) to see decay" (Psalm 16:10, Acts 2:27). The symbols that the Hebrews selected to represent vowels were the letters י, ו and ה and the story of how יהוה or YHWH came to dwell in the temple built by Hiram and Solomon also tells the story of how vowel notation made the Hebrew wisdom tradition the most fruitful in the world.
John the Revelator envisioned the New Jerusalem to have no temple but to be centralized on the Creator himself. He also likened the city to descend from the heavens (which is not outer space but the human mental realm) adorned as a bride for her husband, which is probably where the legend of Mary Magdalene being Jesus' lover comes from.
🔼The People of the Tower
Equally exotic is a possible reference to the amazing nuraghes of the Nuragic civilization of Sardinia. In recent antiquity it was believed that Sardinia was named after a lady named Sardo, whose name in turn derived from Sardis, the capital of Lydia, which in the verbal universe of the New Testament ties it securely to the mission of Paul (Acts 16:14). Paul's Lydia was a seller of purple, and the production of Tyrian purple from a creature named murex was where the Phoenicians' initial commercial success came from. The word murex probably has to do with the adjective μυριος (murios), which means great or many, which is right on par with our Hebrew verb גדל (gadel), from whence come the noun מגדל (migdal) and the name Magdalene. The costly oil with which the women anointed Jesus' body was called μυρον (muron) and comes from this same root.
The mysterious Nuragic culture had originated in the Bronze Age, had been somewhat diffused by Phoenician invaders but as a sheer miracle and testament of human persistence managed to resist Roman rule until well into the second century AD. The name Nuragic stems from the nuraghe, which is a tower-like structure of unclear purpose. Up to today, the Sardinian highlands are literally strewn with about 7,000 of these buildings still standing, and particularly in the highlands, the original Bronze Age way of life remained intact until well into the modern age.
Some scholars believe that the Nuragic civilization was in essence theocratic and that the priesthood consisted of women.
A major element of Nuragic religion was water worship and the building of so-called holy wells in a fashion similar to the nuraghe, which brings to mind the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:6). They were excellent seafarers, which would explain a relation to the wisdom culture of Judea. In northern Israel ruins have recently been found that bear a striking resemblance to the architectural style of the Nuragic civilization. This strongly suggests that the Nuragics had outposts in the Levant. The archeologist Adam Zertal even felt quite certain that the ruins belonged to Harosheth-hagoyim in the region of Naphtali.