Friday, February 24, 2017

Our Trip to Magdala: Glimpses of Mary's Transformation

Demon possession was a very real phenomenon in the ancient world.  And while it remains an issue today, many in the secular-dominated West fail to comprehend its reality.  But in Jesus’ day, many came to Him for release from evil spirits—or others interceded for their healing.  One woman in particular stands out as a masterpiece of the healing powers of Jesus.  Her name?  Mary Magdalene.

Often viewed through the lens of popular culture, this Mary has received a bad reputation.  In the 14th century, for example, a "Magdalen House” for women of ill repute was erected in Naples. The Scripture, however, indicates no such connection between Mary of Luke 8 and the sinner woman of Luke 7. From paintings and other traditions, some have guiltily construed this “woman which was a sinner” as an adulterous Mary Magdalene.[1]   With the fiction of popular culture dragging Mary’s name through the mud, it is high time her reputation be restored to the reputable place she occupies in God's Word.

As Peter’s name is mentioned first in the list of disciples, so, in all but one instance (John 19:25, where, at the scene of the crucifixion, one would expect Christ’s mother to be given preeminence), Mary Magdalene’s name is listed first among other women who followed Christ (Matt. 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; Luke 24:10).  This is no accident, and it appears Mary stood at the forefront of other women disciples.  Luke tells us of

            certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of      their substance” (Luke 8:2-3).

The life of Mary Magdalene took on even greater significance for me as I visited her village on my recent trip to Israel.  As I walked, listening to our tour guides describe the city at the time Mary lived here, I began to place myself back in time, in the days before Mary Magdalene became a Christ-follower.

Imagine walking through the streets of a first century town in this region which the biblical writers refer to as “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  The streets, five feet wide, with stone houses standing parallel to one another, speak of a presence that is both Jewish and Roman.  Here, a tower stands--from which the city gets its name—Magdala—or Tower. 

Site of the fish market at Magdala
The marketplace, a bustling, noisy place that smells distinctly of fish, is alive with activity.  (In Greek, the town’s name is Tyreche, or “the place of smoked fish,” for it boasts a thriving fishing industry.  Tilapia, or St. Peter’s fish—a kosher fish for Jews since it has both scales and fins—dominates the fish trade that exists here with Jerusalem. ) Raucous laughter greets the ears of those passing the House of Dice, as Roman soldiers cast their dice in a gamble for some silver trinkets acquired from a recently convicted felon.   

Many  Jewish homes come complete with their own private mikvehs, or ceremonial baths—for the Torah demands cleansing--after touching a dead body, having any running issue, or for a host of other situations, as the first five books of the Bible clarify.  Greco-Roman homes include floors of intricate mosaics, some with swastika-type designs.  (This symbol for most of history was considered a positive one until it became distanced from that reputation by Hitler and the Nazis.) 

A mikveh at Magdala
One woman emerges from her home.  Her long, flowing hair covered by a veil, she walks, basket in hand, toward the fish market.  You’ve seen the sight countless times but watch in fascination, anyway, for none know just when the demons will overtake her.  And there, at the corner, it happens.  A child has accidentally stepped into her path and, helplessly, the woman stops, eyes glazed, as foam appears at her mouth.  The once placid features become immediately contorted into a grimace.  Her basket falls to the ground in the frenzy.  Moments after, a gray-haired man, her father, quickly hastens to her side, seeking to pull her near him and motion her homeward.  Her brothers appear next on the scene and eventually, ten of her male relatives are able to carry her back home.

Why do they insist on allowing her to travel to the market alone?  You wonder.  Is it that they need some peace in the house?  Or is it that she is only affected at certain times?  That she goes days without being overcome and then, it happens?

This is how I imagine life might have been for Mary Magdalene, Mary of Magdala, from whom Christ cast seven devils.

The Magdala Stone

Oh, how many times in her possession might Mary have sat at the synagogue at Magdala, eyes fixated upon the Magdala Stone?  (This stone artwork bore upon it a representation of the Temple at Jerusalem, complete with a flowered pattern, it would seem similar to the covering for the Holy of Holies, a menorah, and a wheel, indicating, perhaps, the wheel which carried Ezekiel heavenward in his spirit).  Her brown eyes fastened to the stone before her, in those moments of clarity, she no doubt wished beyond measure that her body might be free from her devilish inhabitants.  Oh, that a deliverance might occur!  Oh, that she might get to God without these devils always interfering!
A mosaic on the floor of the synagogue at Magdala
One day, a new Rabbi enters the village.  His fame has already gone before Him as the Healer of the sick.  If one would but come to Him in faith, it is reported, her sins would be forgiven; her infirmities, healed.  And so, upon hearing He would be arriving to teach at their synagogue, the crazed woman finds a seat in the audience.  The next thing you know, she is cured.  No more frenetic fits.  No more lunacy.  No more crazed outbursts.

Mary becomes a devoted follower, a calm and controlled woman, dominated by a passion to serve a new Master.  Now, her daily market escapades bring back extra fish and you learn that she, along with other women, have been preparing it to assist the new Rabbi and His disciples.  She makes frequent journeys these days, always carrying a sufficient supply of food and provision for this Teacher Who has revolutionized her life.

For the next few years, her dramatic devotion is witnessed by all who know her.  She organizes supplies, plans routes for journeys of assistance and aid, arranges the women’s quarters, and seems to nearly perfectly manage the affairs of this ministry of providing of her substance for the physical well-being of Jesus and His followers.

And, most likely, because her life has been dramatically affected by this Master, we see her, as a matter of habit, accompany Him on His most dramatic journey, from the shores of Galilee to the foot of the cross.  As Christ wept in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He sweat great drops of blood with His disciples dozing in sleep, full from their Passover supper, unaware of the incredible cup of suffering their Lord was about to taste, she and the women may likely have hovered in the shadows.  As Christ stood in Pilate’s judgment hall, while Peter denied Him about the fire, Mary Magdalene would have been nearby.  As He walked the Via Dolorosa, she and the others would have watched, grieving at their hearts, that this Master, Who had rescued them, would be taken so unfairly, punished so severely, and hung so cruelly upon the worst of Roman punishments, the cross.

            And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him:  Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.—Matthew 27:55-56.

When Joseph of Arimathea came to beg the body of Jesus (John 19:38), when he and Nicodemus prepared Christ’s body (John 19:39-41), carrying it to Joseph’s new garden tomb, Mary saw (Mark 15:47).  That was Friday evening.  On Sunday, John tells us, the first to appear at the tomb was Mary.

            “The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark,      unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre”—John 20:1.

Reporting that Jesus’ body was gone was Mary.  And when the disciples "went home," one woman stayed on at the site of the grave, weeping for her Lord.  That woman was Mary. 

I believe those tears she shed were saturated in sorrow.  Where had her Lord gone?  She and the others had come to anoint His body, but it was not there.  And then, at a pinnacle moment in all of Scripture, our Lord appears first to this one from whom He had cast seven devils, Mary.   Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15) says the grief-stricken woman in sorrow to the Man she believes is the gardener. But one word from His lips stills her murmuring heart cry. 


At His words, she answers, "Master."   

And Christ gives her a commission:  Go..and tell...”

And that is what she did.

Now, nearly 2000 years from that moment, stones from an ancient synagogue at Magdala remind us of a woman who may have been healed there, for Christ no doubt came and taught in that exact synagogue.  (A mudslide from Mt. Caramel behind the town of Magdala covered the town and preserved it for 2000 years and today, archaeologists have discovered evidence of a town’s last attempt to save their lives, for in unearthing the ancient town of Magdala, synagogue pillars were discovered at the entrance to a roadway, suggesting that the inhabitants here started dismantling their synagogue.)

In 67 A.D., Magdala was destroyed.  Josephus records that thousands of people lived here at the time of the Roman conquest and that the sea ran red with their blood.  No human remains nor weaponry were discovered at the site possibly because these inhabitants were killed, captured, and sold into slavery, for there was no resettlement of this village. 

Would Mary have been a victim in that destruction?  Likely, if she had been still alive, she would have fled, having believed Jesus' words that such destruction was coming.   While such details are not stated in Scripture, what we can learn from Mary of Magdala is what one delivered and devoted Christ follower can accomplish for Him.

What about us, who have likewise been delivered from the chains of our sin?  While few can say that seven devils have emerged from them, anyone who partakes of Christ's eternal salvation has been delivered from the awful penalty and power of sin's reign in our mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11).

Is our devotion in like measure to that of Mary from Magdala?  Have our entire lives been offered as a service to this Divine Master?  If not, may we learn from the woman from Magdala and offer Christ our all!

[1] Lockyer, Herbert.  All the Women of the Bible.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Press, 1967, pg. 100.
Top picture from
Food picture from
Fish picture from
Mary telling Peter and John picture from

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