Saturday, March 31, 2007

Resurrecting Mary Magdalene and excavating Migdal

In his latest contribution to the Talpiot tomb debate, James Tabor commends to us Jane Schaberg's 2002 monograph, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament. I agree: Schaberg's work is a delightful read. She is a wordsmith whose passion and imagination serve, rather than obscure, her scholarship. Stitching traditions to texts to physical remains to meditations, she advances a savvy feminist agenda, a "Magdalene Christianity" meant to challenge the prevailing "Petrine Christianity" (p.19).

Toward that end Schaberg's second chapter is a poignant lament over Migdal, home to the Magdalene. In sharp contrast to the attention (and money) lavished on Capernaum, Migdal, a few miles down Galilee's shore, suffers from severe neglect. Pilgrims descend from their tour buses at Capernaum only to ascend into a modern "(magnificent? tasteless? expensive)" (p.59) church that memorializes and protects what may well be the ancient house of St. Peter. By contrast, the excavations at Migdal lie overgrown and abandoned (ostensibly due to flooding), the desolation of the site summoning Schaberg to the "feminist task" (p.48) of reclamation and recovery. The difference between the opulent Franciscan church at Capernaum and the barbed wire of Migdal illustrates, for Schaberg, "the sexual politics of archaeology" (p.60).

I'm inclined to agree. Even if archaeologists have shied away from Migdal because of its high water table, and even if New Testament ties to the site are limited to references to Mary Magdalene's provenance (Mk 15:40, 47; 16:1; Matt 27:56, 61; 28:1; Lk 8:2; 24:10; Jn 19:25; 20:1, 11-18) and perhaps to Jesus' port of call after feeding the crowds (Dalmanutha/Magadan in Mk 8:10; Mt 15:39), I'm betting the ruins would have received much more attention had Migdal been, say, home to one of Jesus' male disciples.

Tabor's interest in the home of Mary Magdalene is principally driven, it seems, by the Talpiot tomb ossuary bearing the name Mariamenou Mara. Is there anything about ancient Migdal that might encourage us to link this Greek inscription to Mary of Migdal? Tabor's summary of Schaberg's chapter (pp.47-64) on Migdal hints that there might well be.
Schaberg’s treatment surveys the material/archaeological evidence on the city of Migdal, home of Mary Magdalene. That portion of the book alone recast things for me as much as beginning to factor in Jesus’ hometown Nazareth being just outside Sepphoris, the urban capital of the Galilee. Migdal, according to our sources, had a large aqueduct system, a theatre, hippodrome, and a market. Josephus describes it in some detail and made the city his headquarters when he became commander of the Galilean revolt. It was culturally and commercially diverse, opulent, and “wild.” Meyers and Strange concluded that the city was more “Romanized” than Capernaum or Chorazin, and thus closer to Sepphoris, Tiberius, and Beth Shean as a Roman polis.
This summary of Schaberg is close enough to be considered fair, though the phrase "Roman polis" seems to be Tabor's (somewhat loaded) paraphrase of J. F. Strange's suggestion (cited by Schaberg, p.57) that places like Migdal show us "the imprint of the Roman idea of the city" (p.57). And terms like "opulent" and "wild" are apt only as descriptions of Migdal's reputation in the Talmud and Midrashim (p.55), which later rabbinic reputation likely derives (according to Schaberg) from evolving Christian legends about Mary Magdalene rather than from historical knowledge about the town.

In any case, the implication seems to be that Migdal's "Romanized" character may well explain the Greek on the Mariamene ossuary inscription. Recall Tabor's comments from a week ago:
We don’t know much about Mary Magdalene in our N. T. sources, but she does seem to be a woman of means and she is associated with several other women of standing (Luke 8: 1-3). The Mariamene ossuary is decorated and the inscription is in Greek, which surely fits this data, and Migdal, according to the record of Josephus, was a large, thriving, and culturally diverse “Romanized” city with theatre, hippodrome, and a large aqueduct system.
Was Migdal as "Roman" as, say, nearby Tiberias? Should we perhaps even expect that the ossuary of someone from such a town would be inscribed in Greek? Does the size and significance of the town lend credence to the translation of Mara as master or honorable lady?

Scholars these days (Tabor included) know better than to dichotomize sharply between Hellenism and Judaism. All 1st century "Judaisms" were Hellenized to some degree. Nevertheless, the emerging consensus is that pre-70 Galilee was much less Hellenized than previously thought. Mark Chancey's recent monographs (The Myth of a Gentile Galilee and
Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus), for example, show how most evidence for Roman culture in Galilee dates to the time of Hadrian. Even the use of Greek seems to have been limited in earlier periods.

But if Roman culture and influence (including the use of Greek) were limited in the Galilee, and not evenly distributed, can we say anything specific about Migdal? Was it uncharacteristically cultured, cosmopolitan and Hellenized for pre-70 Galilee?
Ben Witherington's assessment of Mary Magdalene's hometown seems to differ sharply from Tabor's:
As for Migdal, it is simply false that it was a major cosmopolitan commercial center. It was a tiny Jewish fishing village---give me a break! No one who has been there and compare it to Bethsaida just up the road could ever come to that conclusion about Migdal. Their explanation is one based on ignorance apparently.
Unfortunately, the overgrown, unfinished state of affairs at Migdal makes it difficult for visitors to assess just how "major" or how "tiny" the town was; surely there was far more there than now meets the eye. Witherington seems to underestimate the economic heft of the place, perhaps to offset overstatements in the Jesus Tomb documentary.

Dennis Duling
describes the first century town as a noteworthy "boat building and fish processing center." Chancey's analysis, however, highlights the city's "adherence to Jewish tradition" and its apparently enthusiastic support of Josephus' mobilization against Rome during the first revolt (Myth, 99). Although Josephus mentions a theater and a large hippodrome in Migdal (a.k.a. Taricheae; cf. War 2.598-599), the lack of corroborating archaeological evidence has led some (including Schaberg) to declare Josephus' description and population estimates exaggerated. For her part, Schaberg bemoans the lack of a full-scale scholarly treatment of the site but she does find enough evidence to suggest that Migdal was a place of "traffic, commerce, and the flow of ideas and information" (57, citing J. F. Strange). Fair enough. But when she says that Migdal was "a place where Jews and non-Jews met" (idem), she seems to move beyond the evidence she herself has so carefully mustered. The idea that Migdal's Jews in the early 1st century would have spoken and written principally in Greek rather than Aramaic or Hebrew moves us even further beyond that evidence.


Dr. Eli Elkayam said...

I have inherited a few acres in Migdal bought by my grandfather in 1930. I have the Palestinian deed to the land. Do you have any information related to unclaimed property in Magdalena's town?

Cheri said...

This is great!