Miriam of Magdala
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 18 April 2012; Revised 13 April 2020
Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found here. Other resources consulted may be found at the end of the article. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic writings and message I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament) and incorporate other appropriate Hebrew and Jewish terms. (See the glossary.)
Grammar: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009), and the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB." Explanation of grammatical abbreviations and a pronunciation guide for New Testament Greek may be found here.
Abstract: This article joins my series on godly Bible personalities who have been maligned by Christian interpreters across the centuries. Like the others (Jacob, Jephthah and Zacchaeus) my intention is to set the record straight and present a biblically faithful analysis.
Miriam: Grk. Maria, fem. name, an attempt at transliterating the Heb. Miryam, which occurs consistently in the CJB, HNV and OJB ("Miriam" in TLV, but "Mary" in Christian Bibles). The meaning of the name is not known for certain, but there are several theories, including "sea of bitterness," "sorrow," "rising waters," and "mistress of the sea" ("Miriam," HebrewBabyNames.com). These suggested meanings, based on etymology, seem more appropriate to an adult, rather than a name parents would have given their daughter at birth. The first Miriam in Scripture was the daughter of Amram and Jochebed, and older sister of Aaron and Moses (Ex 2:4; 6:20; 15:20; Num 26:59). She was born in Egypt and in that context her name was most likely originally an Egyptian name, perhaps derived in part from mry "beloved" or mr "love" ("Mary," BehindtheName.com). Miriam was a popular name among Jews of the first century, as reflected in the seven women with the name "Miriam" listed in the Besekh.
Magdalene: Grk. hē Μαgdalēnē, with the feminine pronoun hē functioning as a definite article the name serves as a label, not a surname. Consistently in the four apostolic histories of Yeshua's ministry, this Miriam is distinguished from other women named Miriam by the addition of "hē Μαgdalēnē," which Luke emphasizes by saying that she was "called hē Μαgdalēnē" (Luke 8:2). Most scholars interpret the appellation to mean that she was from Magdala, a fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, just a few miles north of Tiberias, the capital of Herod Antipas. The Greek name Magdala (identified as Magadan, Matt 15:39) translates the Heb. Migdol, which means tower, watch-tower or fortress.
The area of Magdala is identified as Taricheae in Josephus (Ant. XX, 8:4; Wars, I, 8:9; II, 13:2; 20:6; 21:3-4; III, 10:1). Taricheae comes from the verb 'taricheuein' to smoke or preserve fish. The Greek historian Strabo (c. 64 BC - AD 23) mentions that this place had excellent pickling places. Pickled fish was a major export industry of Galilee (Bible-History.com).
Plummer suggests that since Μαgdalēnē functions as an adjective, it may be translated as "of Magdala" (215). The naming convention of identifying persons by place of origin distinguished them from other persons with the same name, just as Yeshua was called ho Nazarēnos (Mark 10:47), "the Nazarene," or more accurately "of Nazareth." It should be noted that in both cases of Magdala and Nazareth the last letter was dropped and an adjectival suffix added to form the label, the feminine nē for Magdala, resulting in Μαgdalēnē, and the masculine nos for Nazareth, resulting in Nazarēnos. The same Greek construction may be found in other names, such as Judas of Galilee (Acts 5:37), Lucius of Cyrene (Acts 13:1), Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34), and "the Egyptian" (Acts 21:38).
Miriam's name is given in Christian Bible versions as "Mary Magdalene" ("Magdalen" in the Catholic Bible), but Messianic Jewish versions (CJB, HNV, MW, OJB and TLV) give the name as "Miryam of Magdala," or "Miryam from Magdala," although the TLV uses the English "Miriam." The name of this special woman appears fourteen times in the Besekh, all in the apostolic narratives (Matt 27:56; 27:61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1, 9; Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1, 11, 16, 18). Of the women named in the Besekh, Miriam of Magdala is one of the most frequently mentioned, second only to the mother of Yeshua. In the Synoptic Narratives whenever Miriam of Magdala's name appears in a list of other women, her name is given first.
"Miriam of Magdala, from whom He had driven out seven demons." (Mark 16:9 TLV)
The only information known of Miriam of Magdala before she became a disciple of Yeshua was that she had been delivered of seven demons by Yeshua (also mentioned in Luke 8:2). The word "demon" (Grk. daimonion) refers generally to a deity of subordinate rank and in Scripture identifies an evil or hostile spirit (Danker). Daimonion was historically derived from daiomai, to divide or apportion and may be connected with the idea of the god of the dead as a divider of corpses (DNTT 1:450). Scripture offers no explanation of how Miriam of Magdala came to be under the inward control of a hostile spirit, but such omission is common to all the stories of demon possession. In these stories Yeshua never blames the individual for being afflicted with a demon. They were victims, not offenders. There is NO evidence that the demonic oppression resulted from personal misconduct.
The many mentions of demons and demon-possessed people in the apostolic narratives indicate a Satanic invasion coincidental with the revelation of the Messiah. The demonic activity was unprecedented in Israelite history, and the evidence indicates that the victims were random targets. Many scholars attribute the accounts of demons to ancient superstition and it is true that ancient people attributed some misfortune and suffering to unseen spirits. After all, they had the story of Job and a few other accounts in the Tanakh of adversarial spirit activity (Jdg 9:23; 1Sam 16:14-16, 23; 18:10; 19:9; 1Kgs 22:21-24). However, the apostles clearly present all the stories of demon-afflicted people as true life accounts. Yeshua did not cast out superstitions, but actual demons.
"It happened soon afterwards, that he went about through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God, and with him the twelve, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Miryam who was called Magdala, from whom seven demons had gone out; and Yochanah, the wife of Kusa, Herod's steward; Shoshanah; and many others; who ministered to them from their possessions." (Luke 8:1-3 HNV)
Yeshua said to her, "Miryam!" Turning, she cried out to him in Hebrew, "Rabbani!" (that is, "Teacher!") (John 20:16 CJB)
Having been healed of her affliction Miriam of Magdala became an ardent disciple. In the first mention of Miriam's name she is included with other women who had also been healed, particularly two notable women. Yochana ("Joanna") was married to Kusa ("Chuza"), the superintendent of royal properties for Herod Antipas. Nothing is known of Shoshanah ("Susanna"), but in context she likely originated from Galilee and was a woman of means. The three named women, along with other unnamed women, traveled with Yeshua and his male disciples and provided financial support to Yeshua. These two facts indicate that Miriam was both free to travel, most likely single and no longer under her father's authority, and she had a measure of wealth to draw on. She may well have come from a prosperous family in Magdala.
The fact that Miriam and other women traveled with Yeshua as disciples would not have been unusual. They weren't there to provide domestic services. Even the Pharisees accepted women into their ranks (Moseley 112). The financial support of the women may well reflect the tithing expectation of first degree Pharisees. There is a well established biblical principle that those who provide ministry be supported by those who benefit from their ministry (Ex 20:15; 25:2; Jer 22:13; Matt 10:10; Mark 9:41; 1Cor 9:4, 7, 10-11; Gal 6:6).
The fact of Miriam's discipleship is reinforced for her calling Yeshua "Rabbi" (lit. "my teacher," John 20:16). John notes that Miriam addresses Yeshua in Hebrew, which many modern scholars believe was only spoken in rabbinical circles. A rabbi in Judaism of the first century had the task of expounding the Torah and giving rulings in matters of the law. He had pupils (Heb. talmidim) who studied his expositions and were duty bound to obey his instructions. The actual title rabbi occurs 15 times in the apostolic narratives and when used in direct address is always on the lips of a disciple (e.g., John 1:49; 3:2; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8).
To be a talmid of a rabbi required sacrifice, commitment and obedience. A disciple had to leave family, friends and security to be with his rabbi (Luke 9:57-58). Peter alluded to this sacrifice when he spoke of leaving everything to follow Yeshua (Matt 19:27). In Jewish culture studying Torah was as important as honoring one’s parents, but leaving home to study Torah with a rabbi was even more important. The rabbi became like a father to the disciple. The Mishnah emphasizes this priority by pointing out that a father only brought the individual into this world, whereas his rabbi brought him into the life of the world to come (Baba Metzia 2:13). Loyalty to the rabbi must be more important than possessions or family affection (Luke 14:26-33). The only authority greater in the disciple’s life would be God. The disciples of Yeshua, including Miriam, demonstrated this kind of commitment and loyalty.
After her introduction as a faithful disciple, Miriam of Magdala does not appear again until the narrative of Yeshua's death and resurrection. Uniquely among the followers of Yeshua, she is specified by name as a witness to four key events: Yeshua's crucifixion, his burial, the discovery of the empty tomb and the first revelation of the resurrected Messiah. Concerning her presence at the crucifixion of Yeshua, Miriam is listed along with a few other women (Matt 27:56, 61; Mark 15:40, 47; John 19:25). Luke does not name any witnesses, but mentions "women who had followed him from Galilee" standing at a distance (Luke 23:49). The only male supporter identified at the cross was Yochanan ("John"), the beloved disciple. Miriam and the other women, unlike the boastful Peter (Matt 26:35), were faithful until the end.
In listing witnesses who saw where Yeshua was buried by Joseph of Arimathea with the assistance of Nicodemus (John 19:38-39), only two others are identified: Miriam of Magdala and "the other Miriam," the mother of Jacob (Matt 27:61; Mark 15:47). Luke again simply describes the women as the ones who had come with Yeshua from Galilee (Luke 23:55). The discovery of the empty tomb occurred at dawn on the first day of the week when Miriam of Magdala came with Miriam, the mother of Jacob, and Salome to anoint the body of Yeshua (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:1; John 20:1). There were also other women who soon saw the empty tomb and shared in the report to the apostles (Luke 24:10).
The fourth event is the most significant. The record is clear that Miriam of Magdala was the very first person to see Yeshua after he was resurrected from death (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-18). The account of their meeting is especially poignant, because it reveals the depth of her devotion as a disciple. After gently informing Miriam that she had to let him go he gave her a special commission to tell the apostles of his resurrection, which she gladly and quickly did (Mark 16:10; John 20:18). What is really unfortunate is that Miriam was not included in Paul's catalog of resurrection appearances (1Cor 15:5-8).
The apostles, however, did not believe her, nor the other reports from women who saw the empty tomb (Luke 24:11). While there was no biblical prohibition of women giving testimony Jewish authorities found ways to disqualify them as witnesses, such as being related to an accused person and parties in a lawsuit could object to witnesses offered by the other side (Sanhedrin 3:1). Another Mishnah rule states that "the law about an oath of witness applies to men but not to women" (Shevuoth 4:1). Josephus reports the Jewish law as enunciated by the scribes, attributed to Moses, as saying "But let not a single witness be credited, but three, or two at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex" (Ant. IV, 8:15). In reality Jewish attitudes about female testimony contributes to the reliability of the resurrection report, because no Jewish male would invent such a story.
Christian tradition has long described Miriam of Magdala's former life as that of a prostitute, even though she was elevated to saint status by the Catholic Church. This unfortunate tradition began in 591 with the publication of Pope Gregory the Great's Homily XXXIII. (See the article Mary Magdalene, Wikipedia.) In it he allegorized the seven demons as seven cardinal vices. He then associated Miriam with the "sinful woman" of Luke 7:37-39 who anointed Yeshua's feet with perfume and declared that "the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts." However, such a statement demonstrates an ignorance of Torah, because it would have been highly offensive for a repentant Jewish harlot to make a gift of something associated with her sinful life (Deut 23:18).
Contrary to Gregory's interpretation of the "sinful woman," Luke does not label her as a prostitute. (Apparently, in the Christian lexicon a "sinful" woman can only be a prostitute.) My NASB has a marginal note for Luke 7:37 and 39, explaining "sinner" as "immoral woman." The Greek word hamartōlos actually refers to someone who fails to meet religious or legal expectations, an outsider relative to the religious "in-group" (Danker). To the Pharisee accusers the "sinner" label had a broad usage (cf. Luke 19:7). Any repetitive behavior that violated not just Torah but the traditions and customs could warrant the label. Eventually the Pharisees labeled Yeshua a sinner because he healed on the Sabbath (John 9:16). When one begins to call light dark, then the meaning of "sinner" loses its force.
Maybe the "sinner" woman in Luke 7:37-39 flaunted the traditions of cleanliness. Maybe she had violated festival regulations. Maybe she had been divorced for failing to fulfill her seven wifely duties prescribed by tradition. Maybe she had been married five times like the Samaritan woman (twice more than considered decent). She could have been an assertive woman who refused to submit to male authority. The fact that the woman wiped Yeshua's feet with her hair might hint at her "sinful" conduct. It was considered shameful for a married woman to wear her hair loose and uncovered, and this would be grounds for divorce. While Yeshua states that her sins were many (Luke 7:47), which could have been a satirical statement mocking the Pharisee's criticism, he claims that she had been forgiven and Luke does not satisfy prurient curiosity about her background. Christian interpreters have NO evidence to convict her of harlotry.
Some interpreters have associated the "sinner" woman of Luke's anointing story with the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Miriam of Bethany, who anointed Yeshua's feet just a few days before his Passion (Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8). The imagined story is that after the earlier deliverance from a life of sin, Miriam of Magdala ("Mary the harlot" among Christians) was restored to her family in Bethany. Even a cursory reading of these stories reveals that Luke's anointing story occurs early in Yeshua's ministry in Galilee, whereas the later anointing story occurs in Bethany of Judea. Luke is a careful historian and when he knows the names of people he provides them, often with specific detail.
What should be noticed is that when Luke first introduces Miriam of Magdala in 8:2 he makes no connection with the "sinful woman" of the anointing story in chapter seven. Then, when Yeshua goes to a "certain village" (i.e., Bethany) and meets Martha and Miriam (Luke 10:38-42) Luke makes no connection between Miriam of Bethany with the sinful woman of his earlier anointing story or with Miriam of Magdala. The three stories are too disparate to be woven into a whole. Indeed, the only time Miriam of Magdala is associated with anointing Yeshua is after his death (Mark 16:1).
Because of Pope Gregory's smear of a good woman, passion plays in the Middle Ages often identified Miriam of Magdala with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), as well. It was because of this association of Miriam as a prostitute that she became the patroness of "wayward women", and "Magdalene houses" became established all over Europe to help save women from prostitution. Some modern films, such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, have perpetuated this slander of her character. Various well-known artists beginning in the 16th century have debased Miriam's character even further by producing nude portraits of her in both seductive and penitent poses.
Defamation of Miriam also stems from a faulty definition of Magdalene. Many web articles repeat the claim that the Talmud uses the term Magdalene ("curling women’s hair") to refer to an adulteress, the idea being that women who curl their hair and otherwise make themselves attractive, do so in order to engage in adultery. The apparent source of this mistaken belief is J.B. Lightfoot (1602-1675) who wrote:
"Whence she was called Magdalene, doth not so plainly appear; whether from Magdala, a town on the lake of Gennesaret, or from the word which signifies a plaiting or curling of the hair, a thing usual with harlots." Exercitations upon the Gospel of St. Matthew, from A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica (1658), on Matthew 27:56.
Lightfoot then quotes from the Talmud:
"They stoned the son of Stada in Lydda, and they hanged him up on the evening of the Passover. Now this son of Stada was son of Pandira. Indeed, Rabh Chasda said, 'The husband [of his mother] was Stada; her husband was Pandira; her husband was Papus the son of Juda: but yet I say his mother was Stada, namely, Mary, the plaiter of women's hair; as they say in Pombeditha, she departed from her husband.'" (See Sanhedrin 67a, fn. 12, of the online version.)
Lightfoot's assumption was based on a passage found in a few manuscripts of the Talmud (cf. Shabbath 104b, fn. 19). However, this passage was not retained in the published Soncino Babylonian Talmud. The Soncino editor explains that Christian interpreters assumed Ben Stada to be a reference to Yeshua and confused Miriam, the mother of Yeshua, with Miriam of Magdala. The editor insists that the story is of a false prophet in the second century. This passage from the Gemara of the Talmud, which dates from the fourth century A.D., provides no evidence of a prevailing use of "Magdalene" as a euphemism for "harlot" in first century Jewish culture. Lightfoot’s assertion is not accepted by reputable scholars today.
Of interest is the fact that Rabbinic authorities approved of efforts by women to adorn their appearance, especially during times of festival observance:
"Our Rabbis taught: These are permitted in woman's adornment. She plaits her hair, treats her eyes with kohl [a cosmetic]; fixes a parting, trims her hair and nails and puts rouge on her face." (Katan 9b)
If "Magdalene" had such a pejorative meaning among Jews, as assumed by Lightfoot and other Christian interpreters since then, it seems too incredible to believe that the apostles would have repeatedly used it as a nickname for Miriam after her deliverance from demons. Our Bible versions would have to say "Miriam, the adulteress," or "Miriam, the hooker." Scripture does not keep calling key apostles, "Peter the Coward" or "Paul the Persecutor." As ISBE says, "she was a healed invalid, not a rescued social derelict."
Nothing is known of Miriam after the resurrection of Yeshua, although it is reasonable to suppose that she was at Pentecost with the other women disciples. Although there are late traditions in Christianity regarding the remainder of Miriam's life, some of which are fanciful in the extreme, nothing is known for certain. What the apostles emphasize is that Miriam of Magdala was a devoted disciple and the first to see the resurrected Yeshua (Mark 16:9).
Like the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31, let Miriam's works "praise her in the gates" (Prov 31:31). No summing up could be better than the eulogy found in the ISBE:
"She came into the circle of believers, marked out from the rest by an exceptional experience of the Lord's healing power. Henceforth, to the very end, with unwearied devotion, with intent and eager willingness, with undaunted courage even in the face of dangers which broke the courage of the chosen Twelve, she followed and served her Lord. It is impossible that such singleness of purpose, such strength of will, and, above all, such courage in danger, should have been exhibited by a weak, hysterical, neurotic incurable. The action of these women of whom Mary was one, in serving their Master's need while in life, and in administering the last rites to His body in death, is characteristic of woman at her best." (Louis Matthews Sweet)
Danker: F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
ISBE: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Edited by James Orr, published in 1939 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Website HTML, 2011.
DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology. 3 Vols., ed. Colin Brown, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975.
Moseley: Ron Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Yeshua and the Original Church. Lederer Books, 1996.
Plummer: Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920. Online.
Other Research Sources
William P. Barker, Everyone In the Bible. Fleming H. Revell Co., 1966.
Kevin Knight, St. Mary Magdalen, Catholic Encyclopedia, 2009. New Advent.org, accessed 12 April 2012.
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