Archaeological Discoveries at Magdala Show: Christians and Jews Are Coming Full Circle

Finds at the town Mary Magdalene called home cross faiths, cultures and the millennia to shed new light on a fateful era in the history of the land of Israel.

Magdala, a small town going back millennia, is most famous for its best-known citizen – Mary Magdalene. Yet recent findings by Israeli and other archaeologists have shed light on fascinating and little-known aspects of the town by the Sea of Galilee.

These are times in which Christians, led by the popes themselves, have been reconnecting with the Jewish roots of their faith – and from the digs at Magdala it seems they are just closing a circle. Findings at the town include an ancient 1st-century synagogue where it seems Jews and the earliest Judeo-Christians worshipped together, side by side.

Today is an era of female empowerment, creating new interest in the story of Mary herself, and in the town she came from. Magdala is a town whose time has come.

Magdala is situated on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee at the foot of Mount Arbel. Many of the recent findings are firsts in archaeological excavations, in Israel and even worldwide.

The first unique feature of Magdala isn't news. It's that it was the only city along the shore of the Sea of Galilee (until Tiberias was founded in 19 C.E.) In 67 C.E. the town was besieged by the Romans under the command of General Titus himself, who defeated Magdala after a bloody sea battle.

The dig at Magdala is co-directed by Israel Antiquities archaeologist Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar in collaboration with Marcela Zapata from the Anáhuac University of Southern Mexico City and her dedicated team of volunteers. It is being underwritten by the Ark New Gate Company, which is building the nearby Magdala Center.

Mary's story comes to life

The center will be a modest meeting and prayer facility for pilgrims, whose decor, says center director Father John Solana, will reflect interest in women of the Bible - in consideration of the role of Mary Magdalene, the woman most often mentioned in the New Testament after Mary, Mother of Jesus.

The threads of Mary Magdalene’s story are now being coaxed from the complex fabric of legend and early Church writings, associating her with other Marys of the New Testament. The New Testament depicts her as apostle in her own right in that she witnessed Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion and resurrection, and was a proclaimer of the new faith. Over the ensuing centuries, however, she became identified by Church leaders and lore with the penitent prostitute of the New Testament.

But the very way her name, “Mary of Magdala” is most often cited in the Gospels, shows that this may have been a special title she bore: she may have been a particularly prominent citizen of the town, says scholar Mary R. Thompson. And now the digs provide new insight as to where and how she lived; the streets she would have walked; and the synagogue where she would have heard Torah.

Excavations over the past decade have revealed that Magdala was founded in the Hellenistic period, and expanded into a well-planned town during the Early Roman era.

How Torah was read at the Magdala synagogue

The synagogue that graced the city in this period is the find that has attracted the most attention for a number of firsts it claims. For one, it's the earliest synagogue in the Galilee and is one of very few in the country from the first century.

Najar, who spent 25 years excavating the huge glittering, multi-stratum, millennia-old city of Beit Shean, refers to Magdala - which rose and fell within a century - as his “baby,” and this synagogue is certainly one of the reasons.

Its dating to the early first century is confirmed by a coin found there from the year 29 C.E. The synagogue itself measures just 11 x 11 meters, smaller by far than the synagogues that pilgrims visit nowadays to recall the ministry of Jesus.

One find in particular identified the synagogue as a gathering place for Jews: a small stone table on four legs, featuring a series of reliefs, including a seven-branched candelabrum. This is the earliest relief of a candelabrum found outside of Jerusalem, and the earliest ever to be found in a religious structure.

According to Najar, the person who carved it “probably saw the candelabrum itself in Jerusalem.”

The stone table had holes in the top that are likely to have held supports for a wooden table, on which Torah scrolls may have been placed for reading, say the experts. Nothing like it has ever been found before: it may teach us how the Torah was read in ancient synagogues.

Another unique find is a rosette mosaic flanked by a meander design. This was the first time this design, which became popular in later Roman and Byzantine times, has been found in a synagogue.

The walls of the room and the six columns that supported the ceiling, which was probably made of wooden beams and mortar, were covered with a frescoes painted in seven colors including dark red, yellow and blue panels in black and white frames.

The excavation revealed that the synagogue, which was renovated in around 40 of 50 C.E., was abandoned before 68 C.E. at the time of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans.

Considering the dating of the synagogue, visitors have their choice of characters to imagine in this very location, beginning with Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Early fish farmers

It isn't rare for places to have different names in the different languages of the region. The historian Josephus referred to Magdala as the city of Tarichae, which in Greek means, roughly speaking, like “the place of fish salting.” Indeed associations with the fishing industry are evident in several locations in the ancient city.

Then as now, salting meant preserving and another unique find in Magdala indicates the city engaged in an occupation still pursued in the very same area today – fish farming.

One of the exciting finds in Magdala is a unique complex of four small pools, some bearing their original plaster alongside four identical rooms. Fish raised in the pools may have been salted and prepared for sale in the nearby rooms.

A shaft next to the pools presumably led to the aquifer – a fresh-water spring not far below ground level, which flows into the Sea of Galilee here.

The picture of Magdala as a fishing town is rounded out by the “fishermen’s quarter” - so named for the finding of fishing implements such as needles to repair nets and hooks, and an adjacent pier, now high and dry as the Galilee’s waters have receded. The gear rounds out the picture of Magdala as a fishing town, with the evocative imagery this evokes of Jesus’ first disciples.

Speaking of high ground water, another first-and-earliest find at Magdala are two miqva’ot (ritual baths) – but they lack an otzar, a pool for fresh water to be mixed with stored water, according to Jewish law. No such reservoir was necessary because these miqva’ot drew their water directly from groundwater in a way not seen again until the Middle Ages in Cologne in Europe, Najar says.

As always seems to be true when it comes to archaeology in the Holy Land, at Magdala, too, the significance of the findings go far beyond dating or décor , as in the years to come these ancient stones become a backdrop for a new and lively cross-cultural, interfaith dialogue about some of history’s most important chapters.

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh