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Translation into Portuguese

MAGDALA

JIM MCKAY


We know very little about Mary Magdalene despite her important role in the Gospel. Speculation about her over the centuries has fleshed out her story by identifying her with a number of almost archetypal figures: the reformed prostitute, the wife of Jesus, the daughter of Zion, and even the Mother of Jesus. Each of these carries its own message that usually tells us more about the speculators than they do about Mary Magdalene herself. Without touching any of those thoughts, I would like to look at her from another, more historical angle.

“Mary Magadalene” almost certainly means “Mary of Magdala.” It is formed like Jesus the Nazarene or Simon Cyrene, to take some other examples from the Gospels. Unlike Nazareth we have no real evidence for a town named Magdala until a century or more after the time of Christ. That Magdala was known by the Greek name Taricheae long before the time of Jesus. The use of the Aramaic name Magdala, rather than the more common Greek name, gives us our first clues about Mary Magdalene. This preference for Aramaic suggests an antipathy toward Hellenistic culture among the people who use it. Radical forms of anti-Helenism, like the violent Zealots or the purist Essenes, are well documented, but less radical forms may have simply gone unnoticed. This ambiguous relationship with the dominant culture perhaps explains the survival of documentation of Taricheae rather than Magdala.

Taricheae means “The Fish Factory”, suggesting a different milieu than the “small fishing village” that often comes to mind. Certainly it was not like a modern factory, but it was a specialized community whose work depended on the more traditional fishermen, and served its products throughout the Empire. (J Murphy-O’Connor BR 15:03, Jun 1999) The social effects of industrialization and globalization probably were presenting themselves – nostalgia, alienation, monetarizing of services, and more.

This portrait of Magdala as a “factory town” barely scratches the surface of what we know of the town. Taricheae was Josephus’ headquarters of sorts during the Jewish War, thirty years after the death of Jesus. His histories tell us quite a bit about the town, perhaps even a little too much. Josephus wrote after he had been adopted by Vespasian, the conqueror of Judea who became emperor of Rome. It is hard to sort out the conflicting loyalties to come up with a convincing portrait of the town’s politics.

The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem sent Josephus to Galilee to persuade the people not to fight against the Romans until the whole country was ready. He fortified Tiberias but was chased from Tiberias and went on to neighboring Taricheae. The Taricheans quickly rallied to support Josephus and just as quickly plotted against Josephus when a rumor spread that he was going to betray Taricheae to the Romans. Josephus calmed their anger with near miraculous oratory, one of many occasions when he claimed such success.

What does all this intrigue tell us about the town identified with Mary Magdalene? Divided loyalties ran through the city. Opinions shifted easily, but it seems like there always was an eagerness to fight. They supported Josephus, the legate from Jerusalem, but opposed him when they thought he would betray them to the Romans. Does this mean they were anti-Roman, pro-rebellion? Or was this story Josephus’ way of distancing himself from the people he led?

Taricheae did not fare particularly well under Josephus. He was never able to finish walls to fortify Taricheae’s defenses. Luckily, Taricheae had an extraordinary defensive tactic – when the city was overrun, the citizens would retreat to their boats and set sail on the Sea of Galilee. The city did not seem as vulnerable as Tiberias.

Nero had been emperor for more than twenty years when Josephus came to Galilee. He started the first persecutions of Christians. Antagonism toward the Jews was allowed to grow throughout the Empire, culminating in pogroms in Syria and surrounding areas. The Jews were on the verge of revolting when Nero sent Vespasian to pacify Galilee. He devastated several cities with little effort. After Titus, Vespasian’s son and lieutenant, had taken Tiberias, he turned to Taricheae. When the citixens fled to the boats, the Romans turned on the “neutral inhabitants” in the city and slaughtered them. Vespasian set sail to capture the combatants who had gone out in their boats. There the rout was worse than on the ground. While the Romans shot arrows at the smaller boats, rocks bounced off their armor and fell harmlessly into the water. The Romans long spears pierced many before they could get near enough to fight. Caught between the superior naval force and the Romans on the land, the Jewish fighters were overwhelmed by the Roman forces: “the lake [was] all bloody, and full of dead bodies, for not one of them escaped…  as for the shores, they were full of shipwrecks, and of dead bodies all swelled.. The number of the slain, including those that were killed in the city before, was six thousand and five hundred.”  

 This land and sea battle was not the end of the story. Vespasian deliberated over the remaining citizens, and was persuaded that they would be a threat. He promised freedom to all who would go to Tiberias, but then captured them while on the road. “Then came Vespasian, and ordered them all to stand in the stadium, and commanded them to kill the old men, together with the others that were useless, which were in number a thousand and two hundred. Out of the young men he chose six thousand of the strongest, and sent them to Nero, to dig through the Isthmus, and sold the remainder for slaves, being thirty thousand and four hundred, besides such as he made a present of to Agrippa.

William Whiston, in his translation, notes “This is the most cruel and barbarous action that Vespasian ever did in this whole war…” Even considering the civil unrest, massacres of Jews in Syria, and the defeat of neighboring towns, this double dealing in Taricheae stands out. By the time he published this account,

There were also women looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome. Mark 15:39

This forlorn description of the women watching the death of Christ is our earliest recorded reference to Mary Magdalene. Most scholars date it to the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, These are the same years when the news of the massacres in Galilee, and at Taricheae in particular, must have begun circulating through the Empire. The first we hear of Mary Magdalene is at the time just after Magdala was wiped off the map.

We have a modern analogy for understanding this. On September 10, 2001, working at the World Trade Center in NY meant one thing. It was a business place, just like Magdala was “a fishing village” before 67. But after September 11th, “Mary from the World Trade Center” or “Mary from the Twin Towers” means something very different. It identifies her as a witness to a horrendous act of violence. And so it must have been with Mary of Magdala in the first years after the massacre in her city. She gives immediacy to the sorrow of Jesus’ death when she, the first witness, is identified with a recently devastated town.

Within a year of the treachery in Taricheae, all of Judea had been conquered by Vespasian, except for Jerusalem. A year long respite followed as Rome was engulfed in The Year of Four Caesars.  Nero was forced from his position, and ultimately committed suicide. Roman generals from Spain, Germany and the Pretorian Guard claimed supremacy as each murdered his predecessor. A senator or two tried to claim power. In the midst of these claims and counterclaims, Vespasian established himself as a candidate. In July 69, a little more than a year after the death of Nero, the armies throughout the Empire began acknowledging Vespasian as the new Emperor.

Suetonius tells us: “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world.” Not only was Vespasian, the man who massacred so many in Galilee, going on to become emperor, he claimed the prophecies of a king from Israel referred to him!

Mark wrote during this political turmoil, perhaps even writing at Rome. Nero, “the first Antichrist”, was the first emperor to persecute Christians. As the last emperor from the family of Julius Caesar, the glory of the Empire was threatened. Military leaders took power, and just as quickly, lost it. The one person who might be worse than Nero made his claim. Vespasian had ravaged Galilee and his son Titus was poised to finish the job in Jerusalem. The Empire, perhaps the whole world, was in his grasp and he claimed to be the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies of a Messiah.

By placing the woman of Magdala at the cross, by having her witness the burial of Jesus and find the empty tomb, Mark makes a counterclaim: Jesus is Lord! The world is conquered not by death and destruction, but by hope and resurrection. Vespasian’s victories, military in Galilee and political in Rome, could not fulfill the Jewish hope for a Messiah. Only Jesus, resurrected from the dead, could bring salvation to the people of Magdala, to the people of Rome, and to the whole world.


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