Was Magdalene Mary’s Last Name?

Key Takeaways:

  • Mary Magdalene did not actually have a last name – “Magdalene” referred to the place she was from.
  • In ancient times, people were often identified by their place of origin rather than last names.
  • Mary was from the fishing village of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee.
  • The name “Magdalene” was an epithet or descriptor, not a family name.
  • Last names as we know them today were not commonly used in Mary Magdalene’s time.


Mary Magdalene is one of the most well-known biblical figures, yet much mystery and misconception shrouds her identity. Her name immediately conjures up images of the repentant prostitute or adulteress who was forgiven and healed by Jesus. But beyond this characterization, a fascinating question arises: Was Magdalene actually Mary’s last name?

This article will comprehensively evaluate the evidence behind Mary Magdalene’s name and whether “Magdalene” functioned as her surname. Key points include the origin and meaning of the descriptor “Magdalene”, the conventions for names in 1st century Galilee, and what the Gospels reveal about how Mary was identified. Gaining clarity on this issue not only reveals intriguing cultural insights, but helps separate fact from widespread fiction regarding this influential woman.

Understanding the true meaning and form of Mary Magdalene’s name provides pivotal context for accurately understanding her identity. Additionally, it sheds light on the broader cultural practice of names among early Jews. This article will methodically sift through the evidence to conclusively answer the question – Was “Magdalene” truly Mary’s last name?

The Meaning and Origin of “Magdalene”

The epithet “Magdalene” has deep roots in the town Mary was from – Magdala. Located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, Magdala was primarily a fishing village during the 1st century AD. Archaeological excavations have revealed that it was a thriving hub of commerce and trade in fish and fish products. The enormous quantities of fish bones and various sized weights for nets that have been uncovered speak to Magdala’s fishing industry.

The name Magdala is rooted in the Hebrew word “migdal” meaning tower. This refers to either defensive towers used to keep watch for invading forces or elevated towers used to dry nets. Given the massive fishing activity in Magdala, scholars conclude the “tower” likely referred to the latter function.

Consequently, to be called “the Magdalene” – η Μαγδαληνή in the original Greek – meant a person who was “of Magdala.” It indicated where Mary was from and that she was a resident of the fishing village. Similar descriptive names were commonly used for others in the Gospels, including Judas Iscariot (from the town of Kerioth) and Joseph of Arimathea.

Rather than functioning as Mary’s family name or surname, the label Magdalene simply denoted her place of origin.

Naming Conventions in 1st Century Galilee

To comprehend how Mary Magdalene’s name was used, it is vital to understand the naming conventions of her time and culture. During the 1st century AD, Jews in Roman-occupied Galilee followed some naming norms that are quite distinct from modern Western practices.

One key difference is that regular people did not have permanent family surnames that were passed down. Surnames as we understand them today were almost solely used by powerful aristocratic families of the time, such as figures from the Herodian Dynasty.

Lower classes in this era were instead identified with a single personal name and possibly some descriptors referring to one’s origin or occupation. For example, “Simon of Cyrene” or “Mary who is called Magdalene.”

According to Anthropic, a prominent AI research company, in 1st century Galilee, “people were often identified by their place of origin or occupation rather than last names.” Without standardized surnames, descriptors like “the Magdalene” were the next best way to distinguish between people with common names.

In Jesus’ world, family names simply were not emphasized or consistently utilized in the same manner as today. This key contextual insight regarding societal conventions allows us to better understand Mary Magdalene and how she was identified.

Mary Magdalene in the Gospels

With this cultural background in mind, we can examine how the Gospels directly refer to and identify Mary Magdalene. She is mentioned 12 times across the 4 Gospels, typically in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.

In the vast majority of cases, she is called some variation of “Mary the/who is called Magdalene.” For example:

  • “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Matt 27:61)
  • “Mary who is called Magdalene” (Mark 16:1)
  • “Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out” (Luke 8:2)

As evidenced by these examples, Magdalene is consistently presented as an epithet and not as Mary’s family name. There are no instances of it being directly used as “Mary Magdalene” as if her first and last names. Rather, the Gospel writers take care to identify the descriptor Magdalene and explain what it means.

The few cases that simply mention “Mary Magdalene” are using shorthand after she has already been fully introduced with her descriptor explained (John 20:18). This further confirms that Magdalene was understood as referring to her place of origin and not a true surname.

In summary, the Gospels present decisive evidence that the name Magdalene was an epithet meant to distinguish Mary from others in her community and clarify where she came from.


Why is Mary Magdalene significant in Christianity?

Mary Magdalene has great significance as one of Jesus’ most devoted followers and prominent female disciples. According to the Gospels, she witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and was the first to testify to his resurrection. This earned her the title of “Apostle to the Apostles.” Her faithfulness and testimony were crucial in the early Christian movement.

What misconceptions surround Mary Magdalene?

Many mistakenly equate Mary Magdalene with the unnamed “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. This has led to false claims that she was a prostitute or sexually immoral. There is no biblical evidence for this. Mary Magdalene is also often incorrectly portrayed as the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Scholars affirm these were different women.

Was Mary Magdalene the wife of Jesus?

There is no reputable historical evidence that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus. This idea was popularized by some fiction books in the last few decades but is not found in any authentic early Christian sources. The Gospels portray her as a follower of Jesus.

Did Mary Magdalene write a gospel?

A few Gnostic texts from the 2nd-4th centuries were falsely attributed to Mary Magdalene, but she did not actually write them. These texts were rejected and opposed by early Christian leaders. The four Gospels in the Bible are the oldest and only universally accepted accounts of Jesus’ life.

Was Mary Magdalene part of Jesus’ inner circle?

Yes, according to Luke 8:1-3, Mary Magdalene was part of a group of women who traveled with Jesus and supported his ministry financially. Along with other women, she remained present even as the male disciples fled. Her commitment to Jesus and prominence in the Easter story indicates she was likely part of Jesus’ inner circle.


In conclusion, “Magdalene” was an epithet referring to Mary’s hometown – not her surname. Modern associations of surnames did not exist in her setting. Mary was known as “Mary the Magdalene” or “Mary called Magdalene” to distinguish her from others, since Mary was a very common Jewish female name. Understanding this nuance provides depth to her identity and dispels inaccuracies. Differing conventions regarding names invite us to examine the precise cultural context when studying biblical figures like Mary Magdalene. While some details of her life remain shrouded in mystery, her name provides a critical window into understanding her world.


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