Is Mary Magdalene a Tower that we have sidelined?

Diana Butler Bass preached a sermon in July that was widely circulated and listened to. The title is simply ‘Mary the Tower’, but the subtitle is more indicative of the thrust of her argument: ‘What would Christianity be like if Mary Magdalene hadn’t been hidden from view?’ This points to two main claims that she proposes: first, the Mary Magdalene was edited out of John 11, where she makes a key Christological claim; and that, if we ‘recover’ this true text, then it puts the Christian faith standing on the two ‘pillars’ of Mary and Peter, the two who rightly identified who Jesus was, and so makes the Christian movement rightly ‘egalitarian’ in its attitude to men and women.

The detailed argument takes a little more teasing out, and rests on some very technical debates in the area of textual criticism, which is the study of manuscripts and their differences in relation to what we think the writers of the New Testament actually wrote. The argument goes like this:

a. Readers of the New Testament have consistently identified the Mary and Martha of Luke 10.38–42 with the Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, in John 11.

b. However, Luke does not mention their home as Bethany, and Bethany would be in the wrong location within Luke’s central ‘travelogue’ of Jesus’ ministry (from Luke 9.52 to Luke 19), so this identification is problematic.

c. The text of John 11 is ‘confused’, and there are quite a number of manuscript variations around the names of Mary and Martha, which in Greek differ in only one letter in the genitive form Μαρίας καὶ Μάρθας (they also differ by only one letter in the nominative too; note that the early manuscripts were also all written in capital letters).

d. P66, one of the oldest NT manuscripts, and the oldest nearly complete copy of the Fourth Gospel, at first writes this verse as ‘Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, at the village of Mary and his sister, Mary’, that is, with the name Mary repeated. It has then been corrected. Here Butler Bass is dependant on the work of scholar Elizabeth Schrader, who is doing PhD work in this area, and has had her theories published in peer-reviewed journals.

e. The writer of the gospel had emphasised that Mary was Lazarus’ sister, but a later editor had changed this to create two sisters, Mary and Martha, in order to harmonise with the story in Luke 10.

f. The ‘Martha’ in the story makes a vital Christological confession: ‘Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah. The one who’s come into the world’ (John 11.27).

g. The only other character in the Fourth Gospel who comes close to saying such a thing is Mary Magdalene in John 20.18 when she says ‘I have seen the Lord!’

h. Therefore, the Mary in John 11 is Mary Magdalene. Her name is not a reference to the place Magdala (which didn’t exist in the first century) but an appellation meaning ‘Towering One’ since, migdal in Hebrew and Aramaic means ‘tower’.

So she concludes:

Mary is indeed the tower of faith. That our faith is the faith of that woman who would become the first person to announce the resurrection. Mary the Witness, Mary the Tower, Mary the Great, and she has been obscured from us. She has been hidden from us and she been taken away from us for nearly 2,000 years. This is not a Dan Brown novel. This is the Nestle-Aland Translation Committee of the Greek New Testament. This is the Harvard Theological Review. This is some of the best, most cutting edge historical research in the world. And we are living in the moment of most radical transformation in the understanding of the Gospel accounts, of who Jesus Christ is, and who holds authority.

What are we to make of all this? The argument appears to hinge on two quite technical discussions, mostly beyond the reach of ordinary readers or listeners: whether P66 records this name in the way that Butler Bass and Shrader claim; and whether Mary Magdalene is named after a place or because of her character. But it turns out there are plenty of common sense objections to this argument, which anyone who reads the New Testament reasonably carefully can spot.

First, let’s deal with the technical argument about P66. You can in fact read Schrader’s own case in a series of guest blog posts Evangelical Textual Criticism, here, here, and here. Although there has been a lot of discussion about this theory, it suffers from some serious problems.

First, if we have two texts, one of which says Μαρίας καὶ Μάρθας and another which says Μαρίας καὶ Μαρίας, and this second one does not actually make grammatical sense (as even Butler Bass acknowledges) then the most obvious explanation is that the scribe of the second made an error called ‘dittography‘, by which he repeats the same thing twice by mistake.

Secondly, the text of P66 at this point has been corrected—not by a later hand some 200 years later, but by the scribe of P66 himself. In other words, it appears as though the scribe has made an error, and then very quickly realised this error and corrected it.

Thirdly, this is actually characteristic of this scribe and his manuscript. It is well known that P66 is full of errors, some leading to nonsense, some involving harmonisation across the different gospels, and some being omissions, either by accident or design. Some of these are clearly corrected by his own hand, whilst there is evidence of two other people also making corrections.

The original scribe was quite free in his interaction with the text. He produced several singular readings that reveal his independent interpretation of the text. While the numerous scribal mistakes would seem to indicate that the scribe was inattentive, many of the singular readings—prior to correction—reveal that he was not detached from the narrative of the text. Rather, he became so absorbed in his reading that he often forgot the exact words he was copying. His task as a copyist was to duplicate the exemplar word for word, but this was frustrated by the fact that he was reading the text in logical semantic chunks. As a result, he continually had to stop his reading and make many in-process corrections. But he left several places uncorrected, which were later corrected by the diorthōtēs

It seems relatively certain that the manuscript was produced in three stages.

a. The original scribe copied the entire text of John, making corrections as he wrote—primarily to emend any transcriptional mistakes he noticed. Most of these corrections involved fixing nonsense readings.

b. The paginator of the first part of the manuscript (pages 1–99) made many corrections, both grammatical and substantive. These corrections often brought the manuscript into line with an Alexandrian-type text. Most likely, this corrector used a different exemplar for his emendations. This corrector can properly be called the diorthōtēs.

c. Another corrector, probably the same person as the second paginator, made a few changes, especially in chapter 13, for the purpose of preparing the text for a lectionary reading. This scribe or lector marked up this portion with extensive breathing marks and punctuation in preparation for oral reading.

All this suggests that the manuscript was produced in a scriptorium, with corrections being made at the time of first copying.

There is a good, detailed exploration of the textual issues by Margaret Mowczko here, looking at all the evidence. She concludes:

There’s no doubt that there are anomalies in several early and Byzantine, and even medieval, manuscripts of John 11, as well as in early quotations from John 11. But I can’t see a significance behind these anomalies other than there was at least one corrupted(?) early version of John 11 that may have influenced other versions, and that some church fathers got a few of the women in the Gospels mixed up.

But there is a fourth, major, problem with this whole theory, which neither Schrader or Butler Bass appear to have spotted or dealt with: both Mary and Martha continue to appear as the chapter unfolds, and even have a conversation! I am not aware of P66 making any changes to these later mentions of Martha! I thought I was the first person to note this, but in fact someone does raise the question in the third of Schrader’s posts on ETC.

Elizabeth, doesn’t your theory require much more drastic changes to verses 17-36? It seems to me that what you’ve done with vv. 1-5 is the easy part.

Schrader replies:

There is indeed textual and patristic instability around the sisters in verses 11:20, 11:21, 11:24, 11:27, and 11:32 (if you wish to request access to my data table to see for yourself, the link is in the first post). Egeria’s fourth-century journal says at 5.1: “And as they go from Jerusalem to the Lazarium, there is, about five hundred paces from the latter place, a church in the street on that spot where Mary the sister of Lazarus met with the Lord…” However at this point I am not able to reconstruct that portion of John 11 with the data I’ve examined. That said, I’ve only looked at about 200 manuscripts, and there are thousands out there. Perhaps some manuscript has preserved a one-sister text in those verses? It’s a pipe dream of mine to look at EVERY extant Greek manuscript of John 11….

The idea that we will find a new manuscript which omits the narrative interaction between Mary and Martha is, well, a pipe-dream! And this is a very obvious objection to the whole theory.

The problems with this reading don’t stop there. Butler Bass begins her exploration by noting that Bethany is not in the right place in Luke’s travelogue. True—but neither is any place! That is why Luke repeatedly uses the phrase ‘in a certain town’ or ‘on certain day’. The travelogue is about the meaning of discipleship, and he appears to have organised his material with this concern in mind, and is clearly not setting things out in chronological or geographical order.

Nor is the story in Luke 10 ‘A lovely, charming tale about Jesus and his encounter with two sisters: busy Martha and contemplative Mary’ as Butler Bass claims, even though that is the popular appropriation of it. Rather (as I have explored more than once by reading the text carefully):

The contrast is commonly inferred between Mary’s listening and Martha’s activity in offering practical hospitality, but that is not really the contrast that Luke is pointing us to. After all, in the preceding parable, Jesus has emphasised the importance of practical care as the test of love of God and neighbour. And in the text, the issue is not the activity so much as the focus. Luke tells us that Martha is ‘distracted’ and Jesus observes that she is ‘anxious and troubled’, and we can begin to see why in her request. Her concern is with ‘me’—’Mary has left me…tell her to help me‘—rather than her focus being in attending to her guest, Jesus. The real contrast here is between distraction caused by the ‘many’ rather than focus on the ‘one’.

I don’t think there is particular significance in the mention of Martha and Mary without Lazarus, though it is a question worth raising; in John 11 Mary is mentioned before Martha, even though Martha’s name means ‘chief one’ (related to the Aramaic ‘Mar’ meaning ‘Lord’).

And, as Richard Bauckham has demonstrated, the very way that Mary and Martha are introduced, with the parenthetical aside about the anointing of Jesus, indicates that the writer of the Fourth Gospel expects his readers to be familiar with the Synoptic mentions of Mary and Martha. So we are following the clues of the Fourth Gospel itself in linking John 11 with Luke 10.

Moreover, if the Fourth Gospel is coy about mentioning Mary Magdalene by her name here in John 11, why is there no coyness in John 20? Claiming that the situation has changed nine chapters on isn’t very convincing.

And Mary Magdalene does not in fact make the kind of Christological confession that we find on Martha’s lips as Butler Bass claims; she has confused two texts (ironically!). To Jesus, she simply addresses him as ‘Rabbouni’, ‘my teacher’, and only later does she refer to him as Lord, when speaking to the disciples.

And in being the ‘apostle to the apostles’, the first witness to the resurrection, she is indeed foundational. If the later commentators have missed this or ignored it, that is not because it was buried in some manuscript variant; it is right there in the text. We don’t need any more conspiracy theories about John 11 in order to put her in the place of honour that she deserves.

So the question then arises: why has Butler Bass’ sermon gained such interest? And why the interest in Schrader’s unlikely hypothesis which, even were it true, adds little to the important role of women in the early Jesus movement?

It is rather ironic that Butler Bass claims ‘This is not a Dan Brown novel’, because that is precisely what it resembles. She introduces Schrader as someone who has a word from God, and after many years of digging and exploration, unearths a secret that the powerful enclave of male scholars has kept hidden all this time! In case we missed it, she helps us by describing the initially sceptical text committee as ‘the guardians of the Greek New Testament. They are as stuffy as you can imagine. They are basically a whole bunch of very old German men…’ and this young woman comes along and surprises them with something that, despite all their learning, they had never spotted before!

Now, don’t get me wrong; it is possible to spot things that other people have not seen before. I have done it myself. And it is important to critique our traditions of interpretation against what the text actually says. I have also done this before—pointing out, for example, that Jesus was not born in a stable as most people suppose.

But critiquing the tradition of interpretation in the light of the text is very different from critiquing the text as we have it in the light of the text as someone, through an unconvincing theory, tries to tell us that text is really saying, if only there had not been a grand conspiracy to cover it up!

What is strange here is Butler Bass’ relationship to the text of the Bible. She sits in the ‘progressive’ tradition of those who have left the evangelical tradition, and this leads to a paradox: she is uncomfortable with reading the text as it is; but unlike those who are dyed-in-the-wool liberals, she cannot quite let go of the text, and won’t simply say ‘the text is wrong’. So she seems to have to find a way of redeeming the text from what it actually says.

And in doing so, she sets herself up as the person with the inside knowledge which, if we will only believe her, will allow us to have the text say what we really want it to. She is in a position of power, exercising the priesthood of the interpreter, who deigns to ‘let us in on’ her scholarly secrets. And most hearers will not have the knowledge to question her claims.

The final irony is that this simply isn’t necessary. The text as we have it already places women in a distinctively prominent position—and in fact Luke goes out of his way to pair women and men in the story so that we get the point.

The net result is an unconvincing argument, a poor use of power, and a distorted reading of the text of Scripture. We can do a lot better by reading carefully what the text itself says!

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98 thoughts on “Is Mary Magdalene a Tower that we have sidelined?”

  1. Very interesting article. Will you get into the “whether Mary Magdalene is named after a place or because of her character” question?

    • I could have, but the article was already long enough, I didn’t want to bother to do the research (I don’t think it is convincing from what I know) and in the end I don’t think that question makes a jot of difference!

      • Thank you Ian, very interesting.

        Is the remark about Magdala (“Magdala (which didn’t exist in the first century)”) yours or Butler Bass’?

        It’s certainly not the most important question but I was surprised to read that as I’ve seen first-hand the Second Temple-era synagogues discovered there in 2009 and 2021, and I understand the archaeological evidence is clear that Magdala was destroyed in the First Jewish-Roman War in about 66AD.

        • The comment about Magdala is part of my summary of Butler Bass’ argument. I haven’t had room in this piece to scrutinise these claims about Magdelene as a tower—in part because I am not sure what difference it makes, and in part because if (as I think I demonstrate) the idea that Mary M was in John 11.1 is really unpersuasive, then discussion of her name becomes pointless.

          Richard Fellows gives the link to an article about the name.

  2. Have I got this right?
    One document that is out of kilter with all known others, and internally out of kilter with itself -contradictory – is to be deemed evidentially reliable for the promulgation of new earth shattering Christian doctrine fetched up through presuppositional ideology and supposition, and which was knowingly kept top secret from the masses of Christendom for centuries by the church and scholars, serving their own cultural purposes!

    • It does sound a tad like Dan Brown, put like that!!! I must admit, as the total ignoramus that I am, I am left wondering if it is likely that tradition, the early church fathers, the scholarship of the last 2000 years have had it so wrong all this time. Or have I missed something, Ian?

      • Well, as I say, I think that in principle this is possible. I think I have noted both minor and failure major things in the book of Revelation that have not been commented on previously.

        And I think in arguing that Jesus was not born in a cave, I am going against the major witnesses.

        But if one is going to do that, one has to recognise that the bar for an innovative reading is set very high.

  3. Thanks for this. Part of Butler Bass’ case is that Luke 10:38 would not state that Martha ‘opened her home’ to Jesus if there had been a brother (Lazarus). But the explanation of ‘protective anonymity’ may apply here: the (earlier) Synoptic Gospels do not mention Lazarus at all, because he had been, after Jesus had raised him, a ‘marked man’ (John 12:9-11). After his earthly life had ended the (later) Fourth Gospel could name him and tell his story.

    • That’s an interesting thought, Jonathan. Another possibility is that Lazarus was a child. In any case, John’s gospel seems to give higher status to the sisters than to their brother. We should not be surprised that Lazarus is not mentioned in Luke’s gospel.

    • Richard Bauckham has made that point and I find it rather convincing. I think the earlier Gospel writers, writing at a time when particularly the Jewish authorities and the High Priest family still had significant authority and were doing most of the persecuting of followers of Jesus, chose not to name certain individuals either for fear of reprisal or in the case of the High Priest so as not to stir up even more persecution. John, writing later, had no reason to not name said individuals.

  4. Migdol…
    For a contribution to OT references – it- as a place name could include the whole of Egypt!
    I doubt that God’s warning to Migdol against Idolatry in Jeremiah 44:1 and following form any part of the sermon and a potential heritage that promoted God’s warning of Mary (the Idolator?) This understanding would certainly return the focus onto Jesus and an Exodus motif of redemption of Mary from Migdol.

  5. I do not find this sermon compelling but theories that communities existed in the first church that were more including of women generally and in which Mary Magdalene was a prominent leader – but which were subsequently written out of the public record – are not new. One thing that at least raises suspicions is how Mary, the first, lead witness to the resurrection, with an apostolic calling from Jesus to tell the other disciples he is risen, comes to be completely absent from Paul’s list of witnesses, is by-passed as a suitable candidate to replace Judas as apostle despite meeting the agreed criteria, and otherwise simply vanishes from the record. If nothing else her absence anticipates the historic exclusion of women generally from the visible, male-led church through so much of Christian history.

    • …by-passed as a suitable candidate to replace Judas as apostle despite meeting the agreed criteria,

      I’m not sure this is true.

      “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men [anēr] who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” Acts 1:21-22

      If Mary M was the one “freed from seven demons”, presumably this means she was not “living among us,beginning from John’s baptism.” This means that Paul was also not qualified to be Judas’ replacement.

      Remember that the term ‘apostle’ is not reserved to the twelve. Junia was (probably) among the apostles, but not one of the twelve. These twelve had a particular symbolic role and stand in relation to the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel. Thus, Judas’ replacement had to be male, as Peter states.

      • Excellent points. And just because Jesus told her to tell the other disciples that He had risen does not make her an ‘apostle’ at least in the formal sense. He simply told her to tell them!

    • ‘the historic exclusion of women generally from the visible, male-led church through so much of Christian history.’ It may well testify to his – biblical patriarchy, still a force for good,

      • Did God institute Patriarchy with a promise of a blessing? No. It’s what men have done with marriage. The church is simply being salt in the world of men and some of the good stuff rubs off on society. As usual, the world takes the liberties offered to extreme. But this is off topic.

        Hi John, What do you think? If Proverbs paints a picture of the ideal woman (bride of Christ) , and Song of Songs paints a physical ideal ; do the Gospels give another way of describing the nascent church in the given names? Is Magdalene an attribute of redemption?

    • David (Runcorn), thanks for this interesting question—but you raise something significant, which I think is pertinent.

      If you are suggesting that Mary was unfairly marginalised *within the biblical narrative*, are you then saying that, if not in John 11, then in Acts, we do still need to rescue Scripture from not being true to its message?

      • Greetings Ian. ‘ … are you saying we do still need to rescue Scripture from not being true to its message?’ An intriguing question but I am honestly not sure what it means. Who is ‘we’? What does ‘rescuing scripture’ mean? If ‘we’ is ‘us’, today’s church, don’t we need rescuing too? Actually I don’t think it is scripture that needs rescuing. What needs rescuing, at least at times, is how we read and interpret it.
        So as to Mary M and possible prejudice against her found in the texts … When Jesus reveals himself to Mary and commissions her with an apostolic witness she is, for a period of time, the confessing church on earth. What a calling! But only a few verses later the testimony becomes ‘It is true he has appeared to Peter’. Mary is already excluded. OK. We know this would be, at least in part, because a woman’s testimony was not trusted in law in that world. But we do not believe that any more and the risen Jesus had already completely subverted this view in trusting her to bear the message. Is this not significant? The male disciples had yet to even begin to take this on board. The exclusion continues when Paul omits her (and any other women) from his list of witnesses. Why do you think he does this? ‘Unconscious bias’ is a debate today. Is this an example from scripture? Would it be a problem to accept that possibility?
        Actually the NT never reveals what a full partnership of men and women in Christ looks like – because it never reached it. Like slavery and Jews/Gentile relations the texts record churches on an uneven journey towards that transforming community of faith. So are we. Even the most decisive texts – ‘I permit no women’ … ‘women should stay silent’ – are teaching from very particular ancient contexts and with particular pastoral needs in mind. When we do not understand that we are always be in danger of mis-applying them in our contexts. I think we would agree on that?
        So yes, I think the gift of the NT scriptures lies partly in their incompleteness – communities on a transforming journey into Kingdom living, facing, as they go, their prejudices and partial sightedness. If anything needs rescuing it is that understanding of scripture.
        This is very brief and therefore incomplete too – but thanks for the question.

  6. In the gospels we have ample evidence of names that reflect character traits. (Rock, sons of thunder, twin etc.) ‘Tower’ might simply be a reference to Mary being vertically challenged…

    • Huh! Like Robin Hood’s Little John?

      I’m sure Richard is right. The Given names like ‘Theophilus’ were more than nicknames. Read his links. They are very insightful.
      It makes me wonder who in the Gospels got renamed. Did Jesus mother get renamed Sweetness, or Sweetspring or Honey? Perhaps it’s time we gave Christian names to all the characters in the Gospels.

      • Oh, and if we use Richard’s method the new name for Mary should sound similar. Does any Greek scholar know a sweet name that sounds similar to bitterness?

  7. Martha was certainly in the archetype, for the reasons that you give, and for other reasons too.

    However, it is true that the name “Magdalene” likely signified (to insiders) her role in protecting the community of believers. “Tower” is a very similar metaphor (in the OT and elsewhere) to Peter (the rock on which the church is built). Another parallel is “Sosthenes”, meaning “saving strength”, which was the name given to Crispus (see my 2016 Tyndale Bulletin article, which has been discussed on this blog). I show in that article that benefactors of the church were often given new names with appropriate symbolic meanings, and Mary Magdalene was a benefactor of Jesus and his followers. Now, Bauckham would counter that outsiders would have taken “Magdalene” to be a reference to a place of residence. Fine. Jesus and the disciples would not have wanted outsiders to understand that the name “Magdalene” honoured her for funding the movement, for that would have jeopardized her funds and her safety. Also, there is a head-rhyme between Mary and Magdalene. This serves to convince hearers that Mary was indeed a tower of strength, by employing the rhyming fallacy. Second names (at least when given in adult life) often had a phonetic resemblance to the original name (Joseph-Justus, Saul-Paul, Silas-Silvanus, Jesus-Justus, Titus-Timothy, Lydia-Euodia). It would be a remarkable coincidence if Mary happened to come from a place that rhymed with her name.

    • Thanks for this Richard. ‘benefactors of the church were often given new names with appropriate symbolic meanings, and Mary Magdalene was a benefactor of Jesus and his followers.’ Yes, that gives more informed content to my own comments below on preferring the name as a ‘title’ (expressing transformation and calling) to place (looking back to pre-salvation and deliverance). And that is why , contra Ian’s comment above, I think the issue of the right understanding of her name matters a great deal.
      None of this, in my mind, has anything to do with what Paul is addressing early in I Corinthians. I just want Mary properly honoured among the saints. But at least Jock has stopped calling her ‘Mary the Nut-case’. That crosses a line for me and honours no one. Thanks again for this post.

  8. I’m wondering if the unnamed woman of Bethany in Mark 14:3-9 (Matt 26:6-13) could be linked to Mary of Bethany in John 12:1-8. Yes there are some difference (Jesus feet or head) – yet there are also some significant similarities, notably the expensive nard (perfume) that is mentioned and the criticism by the disciple([s] Judas).
    How many woman of Bethany anointed Jesus? Could Simon the leper (unknown to us except here) be Martha, Mary and Lazarus’s father? Nothing major rests on it.

  9. Just goes to show that when we want to find a way of reading the bible in a way that fits our worldview, we can always find a suitable lens to distort/amplify/correct the bible in our favour. When NT scholarship provides new insights it needs to be moderated by 2000 years of biblical interpretation otherwise we lose our catholic and apostolic grounding.

  10. I’m all for Mary Magdalene being the first evangelist, even the first apostle as herald of the resurrection, but find the semantics around her name speculative & unconvincing.

    What evidence is there that she was a tower – metaphorically speaking? It was Shakespeare who coined the term ‘tower of strength’ – was the idiom ever applied to anyone else in C1st Israel?

    Magdala was a notorious city, associated with immorality and prostitution, and the later Talmud makes a semantic link between sexual immorality and the term Magadala. I think Scripture more clearly connects her title to the demonic: Lk8:2 “Mary Magadalene – out of whom Jesus cast seven demons” and not with the a sense of her being a tower of strength or placing the reference to her as a financial support as a qualifier of Magadalene.

    I love Mary Magdalene – and I think Scriptures show Jesus did – and she is an inspiration – more so as a former immoral woman delivered of demons and living full of faith and all out for Jesus, than being a tower cos she was a benefactor.

    • Greetings Simon. Well there is much we do not know here. But I am not comfortable with your claim that ‘Scripture more clearly connects her title to the demonic’. When it comes to positive naming I note that Peter was called Rock long before there was any evidence to support the claim – quite the reverse. Isn’t the gospel glorified by us being known and named for who we have become or are called to be rather than where we are from or our past failings? (I think we get it wrong with ‘Doubting Thomas’ for the same reason). And there is more than love expressed for Mary by Jesus. He entrusted a very significant authoritative ministry to her on his resurrection day. So I would like to honour who she became. The historic church has not honoured her by forever linking her with fallen women. Like you I would love and honour her. She is for me a tower of faith and leadership in the gospel.

      • David, Simon – we’re stepping dangerously into 1 Corinthians 1:12 territory here.

        Paul, Peter, Mary Magdalene were sign posts to the Way, but the sign post is not the Way.

        Mary Magdalene was a fine Christian woman – and, just like every other Christian (other than Jesus) who has ever existed, was a very flawed character.

        There is only one rock; Jesus Christ. There is only one tower; Jesus Christ.

        When reading Ian Paul’s article, I did feel that Mary Magdalene was being bigged up to something that was more than a mere sign post – just as the person who gave the seminar seemed to take the view that Peter was more than a mere sign post to the way – and she was worried about inequality of numbers between men and women among the spiritual A-team.

        All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.
        The wages of sin is death.
        The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ.

        • Thanks Jock
          I hear ya
          but I do think she is worthy of honour – not because she is an example of a powerful deliverance but as an example of a beautiful devotion – worshipping at Jesus’ feet; last at the cross, first at the tomb etc If she is indeed the same Mary of whom Jesus said “whenever the gospel is preached in all the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk14) then she is bigged up by Jesus and we have failed to honour her as he stated we ought

        • @David – we aren’t far apart – but I think the fact Scripture refers to her as the one from whom Jesus cast 7 demons is really important – and she was a walking testimony of Jesus’ grace, love and power. An icon of hope. For some to put weight on “Magdalla” as Heb “tower” and suggest she was a “tower” of strength n support to the disciples seems flimsy and has no other supportive scriptures – to put weight on and say she is a walking witness to the transforming power of Jesus is for me the right weighting. What matters, and what Luke emphasises first and foremost, is what Jesus did for her, and only secondarily what she did for Jesus.

      • “Isn’t the gospel glorified by us being known and named for who we have become or are called to be rather than where we are from or our past failings”?
        You employ the term *Rock* David as it is applied to Simon Peter. And yet “from that time on” [Matthew 16:21] , whatever Rock means in this context, when Jesus declares that he must suffer and die, Peter rebukes him! Here he is, as it were, acting as an agent of Satan and a “stumbling block” against Jesus. This is hardly an incident whereby which the gospel is “glorified!” An appellation in itself does not guarantee a perpetual state of *honour*. After all did not Bethel become Bethaven (the house of sin)!
        But conversely, a name associated with ill-repute can become a paradigm of righteousness. “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient[Hebrews 11:31].” I think I’m right in saying she was *the only woman* to be included in a list of righteous men . Yet the historic church “has* honoured her without dropping the epithet “prostitute”. I would humbly submit that for”this* reason “she is a tower of faith and leadership on the gospel.” In the final analysis, we stand before our maker as *sinners* saved by grace. To *God* be the glory!

        • Hi Colin. Thanks. I was trying to make precisely your point. Jesus calling someone like Peter ‘rock’ can only have been anticipatory/prophetic. There was a long road to its fulfilment in the Apostle he became. Your comment on Rahab is interesting and insightful. But the issue being discussed here is different I think. It is whether ‘Magdalene’ is a place (with a distinctive sexual/sinful/demonic undertow that links Mary to her own earlier life – as noted on this thread) or a title expressing faith, strength and example. They are significantly different. In all my life long discipleship the emphasis has consistently been on the former. I think this has not honoured her. In so doing we have tied her to a place and not named her after who she became. So I am still with Richard Fellow’s earlier piece on this. Thanks again.

          • Sorry David but I think I have grasped the significance of the distinction. The point I was trying to make (albeit badly) was that behind your preoccupation with place/title lurks a deeper issue undergirding why you make statements such as ” I think this has not honoured her”without adducing either reasons or biblical evidence to support your case. Or,
            for example,when you challenge Simon’s statement – ” I think Scripture more clearly connects her title to the demonic Luke 8:2 Mary Magdalene out of whom Jesus cast out seven devils” – in the first place you omit the *think* in his statement; making it sound more dogmatic that it actually is. But secondly and more importantly, the actual text *does * connect her with the demonic – but not in the way you interpret it. It says: “Mary who is *called* Magdalene” and then goes on to say: ” from whom seven demons had come out”[Luke 8:2] ; a biblical statement which, although it alludes to demonic possession, also does it in such a way as to affirm the victory over the demonic! You, however, have interpreted it negatively as to make it sound like a perpetual incictment of the woman! All of which seems to indicate that you have a problem with this text as it does not appear to fit in with your presuppositions.
            No! I think that underlining your presentation is a statement you made in your first post on this topic: ” If nothing else her (Marys’)absence anticipates the historic exclusion of women generally from the male -dominated church throughout so much of church history.”


          • Colin. I have acknowledged on this thread how helpful I find Richard Fellow’s contributions. He supplies sources. But you are right to note my final comment. We all read the biblical texts through the lens of Christian history – a history with long and shameful treatment and marginalising of women. Two examples from my own Anglican tradition. For most of my Christian life the calendar that honours and celebrates holy lives and ministries listed nearly 100 men and just 11 women. If that disproportion were not suspicious enough, they were even they were listed differently. ‘St Francis – Friar’/‘St Clare – virgin’. ‘Lord Shaftesbury – social reformer’. ‘Josephine Butler – social reformed, wife and mother’.
            Or, more relevantly (and now more recently revised) the lectionary for the public reading of scripture has been highly selective in its readings of the lives of women in scripture. Stories of unnamed, ‘fallen’ women have predominated and the examples of more positive, authoritative partnership and leadership with men were left out. Their stories have simply not been read aloud in church. An example is the story of the woman anointing Jesus. All four gospels include it. Luke describes as a known sinner and stresses her need for forgiveness. And that is part of her witness. But in Mark and Matthew the anointing is an authoritative and prophetic ministry offered to Jesus. And Jesus says of her – ‘wherever the gospel is preached what she has done will be told in memory of her’. But in Anglican worship it has not been. In the lectionary for Sunday readings only Luke’s version – stressing her sin and forgiveness – was selected to be read in public. That is why I think this discussion about whether the name attached to Mary is this is a place or a title or honour really matters. And it simply be would be all too typical to have been prioritising the former and to be missing or side-lining the latter.
            So yes, you have understood me here. This does underline my approach to this debate and I hope I have explained why.

          • David Runcorn – from what you have said of the C. of E., they haven’t grasped the main idea that `all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’, `the wages of sin is death’.

            I marvel at the list of good, holy, pious characters, containing 100 men and 11 women – when in the Old Testament, the people of God are all a bunch of rotters, every single one of them. Jacob, for example, is described as `a worm of a man’ and even a cursory reading of Genesis indicates that this is a correct assessment.

            I found William Still’s commentary on Genesis (Collected Writings of William Still: Volume 3, Genesis and Romans edited by Sinclair Ferguson) very useful in pointing out very serious flaws of every character in the book of Genesis.

            Move forward to New Testament times: Peter denied Jesus three times – and (as Colin McCormack pointed out) his performance up to that point was hardly exemplary – and it is very difficult to find anyone in the New Testament who was exemplary (maybe Stephen).

            So when exactly in the last 2000 years did this all change? When exactly did people of God start becoming so good that they could be presented as ‘role models’ – so that the C. of E. was able to list 100 pious men and 11 pious women?

            Your general point – that women have been suppressed in ways that are unacceptable is something that I wholeheartedly agree with – but this isn’t the main problem.

            The problem is that the sign post, which points towards the real pillar, the real rock – and necessarily points away from itself, is becoming the main object of concern.

          • Jock. You misunderstand my point. Do you not have your own heroes of the faith – people whose lives or writings particularly inspire and encourage you in your own discipleship? That is what this is about. All Christian traditions have them. No one is claiming these holy men and women are perfect. The reason we remember ‘the cloud of witnesses’ is not a denial of human sinfulness but to offer us role models and guides – fellow sinners who’s lives teach, challenge and inspire us in what God can do through fallen humanity when sustained by his grace. We need them around.

          • David – well – I’d say no – I don’t really have `heroes of the faith’. Of course, I’ve read quite a lot from a wide variety of authors, which I have found useful – but `hero’ is always the wrong word.

            I have always thought that `role model’ and `Christianity’ are contradictions in terms; take any person whom you think is a decent `role model’ either for yourself or for somebody else, dig beneath the surface and you’ll find something reprehensible.

            We do need the sign posts, which point to the Rock and the Pillar – and which point away from themselves – but the idea of `role model’ is a secular concept which simply doesn’t exist in Christianity.

            I’m not disagreeing with what you say – I think it’s probably where the emphasis lies.

          • Hi Jock. Dictionary den. “Role Model: a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated’. Not sure what makes that a non-Christian concept? I thinks it sounds pretty close to Paul – ‘be imitators of me’? Example, coach, mentor, teacher, trainer … throughout my teaching and pastoral ministry I have tried to offer all of those as a means of assisting others in the way of faith, understanding and ministry. And as Paul taught through weakness and failure too and am even more sure I have too.
            Meanwhile I hope I have reassured you that the CofE takes sin seriously and believes in the forgiveness of sins. Thanks for this exchange

          • David – are you serious about Paul as a role model? As an example to be imitated? Really? Well, he was called by God and was faithful to his calling – to that extent, yes – I suppose he is a role model.

            But I’m not at all sure I’d like to become a cantankerous man, dashing off letters telling people what to do when they don’t seem to understand correct etiquette with respect to hats.

            The man never married – and I suspect there was a very good reason for this – he would have been impossible to live with (although, like Richard Fellows, I’d like to see some more feminine input here – to confirm or deny my suspicions). The great Pauline verses about how married people should live together have two characteristics: firstly, they seldom have anything to state except for the obvious and secondly, they’re written from the perspective of a person who has accepted the patriarchal society, who never married himself and therefore doesn’t have any first hand experience.

            I quite agree with your position concerning women – that they’ve been `done down’ for many centuries in a way that is not commendable. But don’t you think that the apostle Paul (with all his baggage from the time he was a Pharisee) was part of the problem?

            My own father told me once that he learns much more from a Thomas Hardy novel about relationships than he does from reading the Apostle Paul – and over the years I have come to agree with this.

            If you want to give an example of a `role model’ then I don’t think the apostle Paul is a good one – despite his own self-assessment (except of course, in the matter of trusting in Christ and being faithful to the calling).

          • It is true that the church has suffered from sexism down the centuries. This has resulted in textual variants from as far back as our data can take us. See my “Early Sexist Textual Variants, and claims that Prisca, Junia, and Julia were men,” CBQ (2022). A pre-publication version is available here:
            Was Paul a big part of the problem? It depends whether he wrote 1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus, Eph, Col, and 1 Cor 14:34-35.

          • Thanks again Richard. I am still trying to pick my jaw up off the floor at Jock’s revelation that St Paul is even more completely unreliable as a guide and teacher for Christians than the Church of England!
            On Paul and sexism, I think the issue is not just who wrote those texts – but what was actually intended by them in their original context.

          • Hello David and Jock,
            The same crime would get different advice from a barrister in different ages because the penalty might be a capital one in a previous age but not in later one.
            Paul was not misogynistic, he was simply loving his flock in the prevailing culture. His advice was universal to the extent that it was intended to offend the conscience of the weaker members.

          • David – so far this has been on-topic; Diana Butler Bass seems to want role models, pillars, rocks. She thinks of Peter in this way and wants to present Mary Magdalene similarly. My contention: too much emphasis on what is only a sign post, which is not the Way, but which is only intended to point towards the Way – and, in doing so, points away from itself.

            You and Simon quite rightly pull me up on this – I’m going too far and the examples of Peter and Mary Magdalene have more to teach us than I seem to be prepared to admit. This may be correct – but we do have to focus on what the sign posts are pointing towards, the real pillar. It all has to be taken in this context.

            Then we move onto Paul as a possible role model and I throw up my hands in horror – I can’t see him as such.

            Now we seem to be moving more towards Paul – which is becoming a deviation, which is my responsibility, and I hope our host (Ian Paul) doesn’t mind too much.

            With the apostle Paul, his ‘general theory’, his theology as expressed in Romans is beautiful, truly inspired – it has been central in shaping my own faith, particularly the observation that the `wretched man’ passage of Romans 7 is written in the present tense, the current experience of a mature Christian. For me, this explains an awful lot – and when it was pointed out to me that `wretched man’ is written in the present tense, that was when the penny dropped.

            At the same time, yes – you’re absolutely right – in practical terms of marriage and how to bring up children, Paul is utterly useless – and – yes – probably worse than the C. of E. teaching that you are thinking of.

            David – I put your name into google and found your web site. I see what you are trying to do, the people you are reaching out to and ministering to – and I think this is thoroughly commendable – and I pray for God’s blessing on your ministry and am encouraged by it. At the same time – I can’t see how the practical (censorious) advice that Paul is dishing out really can be of use to you in this ministry.

            And – to Richard Fellows – yes – I believe that the whole lot was written by the apostle Paul. When the Holy Spirit works within someone, taking them and turning their lives right around, it’s the same brain. So all the incisive theological understanding got channelled in to the letter to the Romans. At the same time, there were aspects of his background as a Pharisee which he simply couldn’t shake off. He had been born and brought up in a patriarchal society where nobody seemed to question it. It would therefore have been very surprising if this hadn’t appeared in his letters somewhere.

            We can’t really blame Paul for this – it is we who are the fools if we consider Paul’s letters as some sort of instruction manual and implement them to the letter.

  11. I might just be getting a handle on this PhD, scholarship malarky.
    Get an idea and follow it through to extremities.
    My idea would be: what’s in a name? Finding Jesus in Biblical names: a longitudinal Biblical Theological, Christocentic approach.
    Migdol – The Me of the Lord is a strong tower – the righteous run into it and they are saved.

    1 Trace references, names in the OT and their position in Redemptive history.
    1 High places – towers. Places of idolatrous worship, the epitome being Babel.
    2 God’s warning against idolatry, with an Egypt/exodus redemptive echoes; place names, geographical areas: e.g. Jeremiah
    3 Compare and contrast positive and negative biblical references in the context of redemptive history
    4 Watchtowers in cities with Watchmen/ wakemen, having prophetic connotations.
    5 link other metaphors for salvation good news being Christ himself: rock, temple, tower, foundation, capstone …and more, for the church is built on the profession of the person of Christ, not on the person of Peter/Petros word play. Christ is the Rock (desert and temple mount rock on which his church is built with living stones).
    5 Salvation is, only, of the Lord. There is no other name by which men may be saved.
    Such Good news.

  12. Using my admittedly neophyte Hebrew, I do wonder about the assumption that ‘Magdalēnē’ comes from the Hebrew migdal, meaning a Tower. The verbal root MGL means to be/become great/strong, and its concrete root is about twisting twine to make rope (according to BDB). It seems an assumption that a word from this root is to be interpreted specifically as ‘tower’ and the associating this as ‘defender of the faith’.

    I will (slightly naughtily) point out that in the OT there are only a couple of uses of ‘tower’ which are a metaphorical describing God as a place of refuge. There are two references in the Song of Songs to the Beloved’s neck as a tower, and one to her nose as a tower. If ‘Magalene’ is a reference to ‘tower’, perhaps it is because this Mary had a particularly fine neck – or nose.

    Hebrew or Aramaic words used as names are generally transliterated into the Greek. The obvious example is ‘Cephas’. So, one would need to explain the suffix on the verbal root. The M prefix is part of a number of common noun pattens – how nouns are formed from the verbal root. However, is this ‘ēnē’ suffix Hebrew?

    ‘Cephas’ is the paradigm example of a nickname given by Jesus. In Hebrew there is the rare word ‘kēp’ meaning ‘rock’, listed by BDB as “probably a loan word from Aramaic [kêpā’]”. So, this seems to be an Aramaic nickname. So, I would think one needs to justify the meaning of ‘Magdalene’ more in relation to Aramaic usage than Hebrew usage.

  13. Part of the problem with this kind of thing is the nature of that part of academic world which deals with very well trodden roads. To build an academic career one has to make a name for oneself and this is hard when there is no much to be found.

    Once the reviewer of a thesis said, “this is both original and significant. Unfortunately, the original bits are not significant and the significant bits are not original.”

  14. idle thought from Davids very informative comment… In an old master, a painting of a face on close inspection, is nothing more than vegetables…we are what we eat.
    I wonder if the meaning of all the women’s names in the N.T. adds up to a portrait; as in the beloved in Song of Songs? Tower, faun, flocks of sheep, pillars etc. Perhaps an ambiguous name can be clarified by sorting out the ones we know. 🙂

  15. That’s more like it David –
    biblical scholarship, that is. Thanks for taking the time and trouble. A Watchman indeed! Like Ian.
    And what are we left with? Unreliable document, unreliable doctrine; unsuitable – insubstantial, unsubstantiated, misleading-derived semon? For me, it is wearing, disheartening. dispiriting, a sign of the times; now revived with a dose of BDB with the best- before sticker removed, dusty though it may be in the academy of today.

  16. All 14 commenters on this post are male. I don’t know what to make of that, except that it is statistically significant. Some of the comments have been glib and insensitive.

    Schrader’s article, that tries (unsuccessfully in my view) to remove Martha from John’s gospel, can be found here:
    For important and valuable work supporting the idea that the title “Magdalene” was symbolic, see Elizabeth Schrader, Joan E. Taylor, “The meaning of Magdalene: A Review of Literary Evidence,” JBL 140 (2021): 751–773.
    My own article on honorific naming in the NT can be found here:

    • Yes, there are some unhelpful comments here. There is not much I can do in determining the sex of those who comment. But it is generally a feature of online commenting.

    • There are two main aspects
      1 place name: I have very briefly touched on that from a Biblical theology stance.
      Simon has too.
      If those points are followed through, it is highly improbable that the name given would be * honourific*.
      2 meaning of the root word. David Wilson has followed through on this point, including OT references.

  17. Generally I really enjoy this post. this time i found it unworthy of good biblical scholarship. Archeology has shown that there was a city of Magdala on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This is really a piece right out of Dan Brown.

  18. Thank you Ian.

    “Mary is indeed the tower of faith.”

    I find myself rather weary with these assertions… and which, as you say, are unnecessary if one simply reads Luke. I wonder if there is anything more behind it than an attempt to be “relevant” to the contemporary world… in its passing enthusiasms.

    I find a similar weariness in reading Francine Rivers… Whatever the “colour” is added to the story, scripture it isn’t, but that doesn’t stop it having some usurped authority amongst her readers and, occasionally, preached on as scripture itself. Preaching from between the lines is always a danger but one can try to gaurd against it by asking the really simple question “does scripture actually assert this?”. If in doubt, think twice, then don’t ….

    • Yes I find it interesting that people today refer to previous ‘towers of faith’ when in this case she actually witnessed the resurrected Jesus, unlike any of us. As Jesus said, blessed are those who believe and have not see… It seems many have forgotten that.

      Mary followed Jesus because she had no doubt He had healed her from oppression, and subsequently witnessed Him after His resurrection. It is hardly surprising she had strong faith.

  19. Mary the Magdalene is always the first named when she is listed with others (Matt 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; Luke 8:2-3; 24:10). The only exception is John 19:25, where she is preceded by family members of Jesus. Name order was very important. It is significant that the lists of more than two names in the New Testament are usually led by someone who is known to have received a leadership name or has a Greek name with an appropriate meaning for a leadership name. The lists at Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3; Gal 2:9 are led by James-The Just-Oblias. Simon-Peter is first on the list at Matt 10:24; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13; John 21:2; Matt 17:1; Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33; Luke 8:51; Mark 13:3; Luke 8:51; 9:28. Barnabas is first in Acts 13:1. I have argued on other grounds that Stephanas, Aristarchus, and Timothy were leadership names and they are first in the lists at 1 Cor 16:17; Col 4:10; and Rom 16:21-23 respectively. The names leading the lists at Rom 16:14; 15; Acts 6:5; 20:4; and 2 Tim 4:21 have Greek names with appropriate meanings, so they may have been leadership names, whereas the others in the lists tend to have names that are pagan or Latin. There are just 5 lists of more than 2 names that do not support the trend (Rom 16:1-13; Philemon 2, 23-24; 1 Thes 1:1; 2 Thes 1:1).

    In summary, evidence that the title “Magdalene” was symbolic, comes from the fact that she is listed first, as well as the meaning of the word, its head-rhyme with Mary, and the fact that she was a benefactor.

    • So now the place of honour – leadership- is not derived from geographical place but on an unsubstantiated claim(s) or assertion(s) the it is place or position from named orders.
      To me it reads as a conclusion looking for an answer!
      There is no evidence at all that she was in a leadership position, only derived opinion, eisegesis.
      And none of it addresses the points made by Simon nor David Wilson, which would scupper the launch of your canoe from the outset.

      • Geoff, I did respond the comments of Simon or David Wilson because I did not find anything of substance in them. Sorry.

        • Why not – why no substance, Richard? It is a mere assertion, once again, hardly of a scholars response, looking at all positions.
          As a former solicitor following even simple rules of pleadings, their counter- points remain uncountered and considered accepted unless further and better particulars are provided
          Your thesis I find neither compelling, nor convincing, especially as it seems to be moving the goal posts even within the confines of a moment’s section, particularly as you fail to deal with all of the points made in opposition, in prosecution of your hypothesis, a hypothesis which of its very nature can not be proved, even on the balance of probabilities, more likely than not. It is a thin thread that can not bear the weight you seek to place on it.

          Or to use your words relating to your none response to Simon and David Wilson, ” I do not find anything substance”… in your claim(s).
          I’m not sure some bilicak scholars would make reliable jurors in a trial seeking to interpose their opinions with the actual evidence and within the bounds of the rules and laws of evidence.
          Deeply disconcerting and enervating – gospel – life- leeching.
          Wonder where Jesus figures in your eisigesis of names?

    • David R, the idea that Mary the Magdalene was the beloved disciple has been considered. The theory requires that her identity is hidden (for her protection?) behind masculine vocabulary. Lazarus is a good candidate (see, Ben Witherington’s blog post). Also Simon Gathercole’s work (Journal of Theological Studies 2018) would favour someone called John. He argues that the gospels always had the names of the authors attached.

      • Thank you again Richard. I think there is a mystery here. Other women are noted in the NT record. She would surely be among the most significant after her amazing apostolic witness on resurrection day. But she is missing completely from the lists of witnesses to the resurrection and invisible in the recorded narratives of the NT church. This could be for her own protection – though why would this be necessary? Or early prejudice at work that we have both agreed has been part of church history towards women from the earliest days. Possibly a mix of both?
        But thank you again for the research sources you have offered. I will follow them up. You have offered me some really helpful ways of exploring the mystery of MM further.

      • Theories that the true identity is ‘hidden’ behind the actual language used are inherently unfalsifiable, since in the text, the language is all we have to go on!

        I am curious that Ben Witherington considers Lazarus; John Stibbe proposed this in 1993, and I have never found it to be convincing.

  20. Identifier- name as an identifier.
    Luke, known as an historian (Marshall), out of all the Mary’s/Miriam’s of the time is specifically identified as an eye witness so that the evidential veracity of the historicity of the account could have been checked out with her. (Even though female witnesses would not carry much weight on those times). Simple.

    • The research into names which has been done in recent years also illuminates this issue. Bauckham has details in his ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’. We now have information on name frequency in Judea/Galilee etc. at the time of Jesus (and the frequency of names was different among the 1st Century Jews in Egypt, and in the 2nd Century Jews in the Levant). Mary (i.e. Miriam/Mariam) was the most common female name. One finds that the people found in the Gospels have name frequencies which are appropriate to the 1st century and location.

      The second feature of this is that Gospel text, including in reported speech, needs to distinguish between those with common names – a ‘disambiguator’ needs to be added. See how often the text distinguishes the Marys.

      The most likely explanation for the ‘Magdalene’ is to distingish this Mary from the many others, rather than a title or nickname for her.

      Also, we know that Cephas – Rock(y) – was translated into Greek as ‘Petros’. I.e. the meaning of the nickname was translated. If Mary M was a leading figure in the Church because of being this ‘tower of strength’, why was the name also not translated?

      • A case can be made that Luke DOES communicate that “the Magdalene” was symbolic. He says that she was “CALLED the Magdalene”. Yes, it is true that he and the other gospel writers do not translate the name.

        Few in the gospels are named after a place or origin. Joan Taylor has shown that Iscariot does not refer to Judas’s hometown. Joseph of Arimathea is “Joseph FROM (απο) Arimathea”. It was much more common, in the gospels and elsewhere, for women to be distinguished from others of the same name by reference to male relatives. Mary, from her infancy, would have needed some kind of epithet to distinguish her from other Marys in her village or town. Why was such an epithet abandoned in favour of “Magdalene”? If the name had no symbolic significance we would need to suppose that she disowned her family. This is possible, but not provable.

        As far as we can tell, there was no place called just “tower” (Magdala). There were places called “tower of something”. So, if Mary was named after her place of origin, why was she not named after the “something” for greater clarity and to distinguish her from Marys from “tower of something else”?

        In the early church a new name was not given only to distinguish the individual from others who had the same birth name. Ignatius, for example, was not a common name, yet he received the new name “Theophorus” (bearer of God).

        There are a lot of unknowns here. For me, it is too much of a coincidence to suppose that Mary came from a place with an appropriate meaning with a head-rhyme and was named after that place for no other reason than that it was her place of origin. Women were not given nicknames in ancient Palestine, as far as we can tell, so a pseudo-toponym would be an appropriate way to honour this benefactor, without endangering her by drawing attention to her role among outsiders.

        • Richard –

          do you give any weight at all to the the Talmudic reference to Magdala as a euphemism for prostitute, predicated on the place being a bi-word for immorality?

          Do you see any link between Luke’s possible structuring of a sentence linking Mary with Magdala and Mary with needing exorcism?

          • Richard – ps – I just noted you saying that you didn’t think there was anything of substance in my comment and presumably my question above – does not the C2nd Talmudic reference throw some light on this?

            Sacred Scripture explicitly underlines the fact Mary Magdalen was delivered of demons and this statement immediately follows her title – it seems plausible, indeed substantial, to me that her title euphemistically refers to her previous lifestyle, and that is further underlined by her need for deliverance from demons.

            Better than calling her “Mary the former demonised”

          • The Talmud is far too late to have weight as a source on the disciples of Jesus. It does, however provide further evidence that the ancients were much more conscious of the meaning of names than most modern cultures.

            I see no evidence that the giving of new names/titles had anything to do with demon possession. Acts 4:36, for example, connects the naming of Barnabas with his benefaction. Similarly, I would argue (from John’s gospel as well as Mark’s) that it is Simon’s role as host that resulted the giving of his new name (Cephas/Peter). Certainly it is hosts/benefactors who receive new names in Paul’s churches.

    • Ultimately it does not matter whether a theory is ideologically driven. It is the evidence that counts. Bass misrepresented both Schrader and the folks at Munster. Schrader has tried to set the record straight, with partial success. It is troubling that Bass censors even mildly dissenting comments on her blog.

      There is plenty of good scholarship that shows that women had authority in the early church.

      • Richard,
        Of course it matters whether it is ideologically based.
        Police have often arrested without evidence and gone looking for it and think they find what they are looking for; and evidence can be mistaken and wrong and false as the conclusions, drawn therefrom. And what amounts to reliable ” evidence” in some biblical scholarship comes across as swhat iffy. There really is a need sometimes to step outside the self-referential guild and schools of scholars.

        • And how about, full-disclosure -of self-interest/ideology; of a disinterested, not serving a purpose of their own, “peer review”, Richard?
          It happens in other fields of research.

  21. One of the alleged point above:
    h. Therefore, the Mary in John 11 is Mary Magdalene. Her name is not a reference to the place Magdala (which didn’t exist in the first century) but an appellation meaning ‘Towering One’ since, migdal in Hebrew and Aramaic means ‘tower’.

    This seems specifically contradicted in the Wikipedia article on the place ( On the basis of Israeli excavations, this town – named, presumably, because it had a tower – was from perhaps the 2nd Century BC, to the third century AD. It seems to have suffered during the First Jewish War, confirming what Josephus recorded.

    So, there is no need for any complicated explanation for the name other than a place of origin – which was not Bethany.

    • Thanks, David.
      I was aware of Richard Bauckham’s book, but not before visiting this site where mention has been made, but have not read it. My comment came from training in my former profession and questions relating to evidential matters, including eyewitness testimony /evidence and tracing them; its admission, reliability and weight. The information on name frequencies, Mary/Miriam being the most common female name of that place and era is spot on, on point, yet hardly surprising, given the Hebrew- faith, cultural/religious context.
      Is this what is known as the perseverance of the saints – with a nod to Ian’s following article on Luke’s lectionary reading!

  22. Thank you, Ian, for this careful critique of Butler Bass’ theory. The sermon and related articles were shared (with much enthusiasm) in a Greek Club WhatsApp group I am part of from my theological college days. But after checking it out I couldn’t help but feel there were a few things amiss, which I didn’t have time to pursue. Your article has hit the nail on the head.

    So I think we can be confident that Martha is not in fact Mary Magdalene.

    However I want to ask what you think of the idea that the Mary in John 11 and 12, Mary of Bethany, might in fact be one-and-the-same as Mary Magdalene?

    I came across the idea promoted by John Wenham in his book ‘Easter Enigma’ (Wipf & Stock, 2005 edition, chapter 2, pp.22-33). I wasn’t quite persuaded at the time, but it’s been like a small stone in my shoe ever since. It is odd that Mary of Bethany, for all her profound prominence in John 11-12, suddenly disappears from view altogether and doesn’t turn up to witness the crucifixion or the empty tomb (seemingly replaced in the narrative by Mary Magdalene, who herself hasn’t been mentioned hitherto in John’s Gospel). And you point out that John, in 11:2 (before his own telling of the anointing story in ch.12) identifies Mary of Bethany as as character we should already be familiar with, not from later on in John’s narrative, but from previous Gospel narratives – “This Mary, who’s brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.” Mark and Matthew tell the story of the woman who anoints Jesus during Passion Week, but neither of those accounts mention Jesus feet being wiped by her hair. (They only mention the perfume being poured on his “head” and “body”, and hair-wiping is absent.) But Luke does tell us of such a story, but it is chronologically and locationally very different, in Luke 7:36-50 – the unnamed “sinful woman”. Wenham connects this woman to Mary Magdalene who is introduced by name for the first time just a couple of verses later in Luke 8:2. Do you think John, in 11:1-2, intends to direct the reader’s memory explicitly to both Luke 10 (Mary and Martha) and Luke 7 (the sinful woman who cried on and poured perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair, who also might be the same as Mary Magdalene of Luke 8)? Wenham takes it (and I tend to agree here) that although Luke 7 is highly similar to the Passion Week anointing in Bethany, it is not the same event, and that what happened in Bethany could well have been a deliberate re-enactment of what happened in Luke 7, whether by the same woman or a different one. (He of course thinks it the same woman – Mary of Bethany, also called Magdalene.)

    Curious what you might make of this.
    Many thanks.

    • Thanks. Briefly, I am not convinced that Mary of Bethany is Mary Magdalene. It would be strange to switch. But characters come and go abruptly in the gospels, so the sudden appearance of Mary M isn’t that much of a puzzle.

      Yes, I agree that Luke 7 and John 12 are quite different occasions.

  23. My new article in the Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism (TC) builds on Schrader’s work, but comes to a different conclusion. It argues that there were early sexist textual variants at John 11:1-5; 12:2, and Mark 6:22, and that NA28 gets the text right, except at Mark 6:22. The article is available online here:
    Thanks to all those who engaged in constructive discussion of this topic.


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