Israel: Second Synagogue Found in Hometown of Mary Magdalene

Never before have two synagogues been found in the ancient towns of the Galilee dating to the Second Temple era. The new discovery seems to have served the Magdala industrial zone

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
The site where the second synagogue was discovered in the ancient Galilean town of Migdal.
The site where the second synagogue was discovered in the ancient Galilean town of Migdal. Credit: University of Haifa
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

To the surprise of archaeologists excavating the Galilean town of Magdala, today known as Migdal, a second synagogue dating to the Second Temple period has been found.

It is the first time two synagogues from that time have been found in a single town, explain the archaeologists investigating the site. The newly unearthed one is smaller and apparently not as ornate as the first, which was found in 2009, but together they shed new light on the devotion of the people in this Jewish town some 2,000 years ago.

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As is so often the case in Israel, the synagogues at Migdal were discovered in salvage excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority, together with the company Y.G. Contractual and the University of Haifa; and yet again the discoveries were made ahead of building new infrastructure.

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The two synagogues were dated by other artifacts found at the site, including glassware, pottery and coins, excavation co-director Dina Avshalom-Gorni explains.

Migdal’s claim to fame is twofold. One is that the town, just north of Tiberius along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, was the main base for Josephus – or as he was known at the time, Yosef Ben Matityahu, a military leader in the ill-fated rebellion against the Romans in the Galilee that would culminate in the total destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The second is that Mary Magdalene is said to have hailed from Migdal, hence her soubriquet “the Magdaleine.”

Archaeologists working on the site where the second synagogue was discovered in the ancient Galilean town of Migdal. Credit: University of Haifa

The Second Temple period began about 2,500 years ago, though its starting point depends who you ask: some cite 516-515 B.C.E. as the date of erection of the “first Second Temple” – the modest affair that would be replaced by the grand one whose construction began under King Herod. On the other hand, its ending is unambiguous: the Second Temple period ended in 70 C.E. when the Romans looted and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.

In other words, the lifetime of Jesus and Mary Magdalene was within the Second Temple period. “We can imagine Mary Magdalene and her family coming to the synagogue here, along with other residents of Migdal, to participate in religious and communal events,” Avshalom-Gorni says.

While the first synagogue had a decorative mosaic floor, the builders of this modest second one settled for a compacted, then plastered, earthen floor, she says.

The first synagogue featured brightly colored frescoes on the walls. The second one had white-plastered walls, though some evidence of wall paintings has survived. Both had the same basic plan: a square central meeting hall and two rooms on the side. In both cases, the side room in the southwestern corner had a plastered stone shelf which, the archaeologists speculate, may have served to store the Torah scrolls.

Excavating the ruins of the second synagogue at Migdal. Credit: University of Haifa

In both cases, the walls were constructed of local volcanic basalt and limestone. Other artifacts from the time, such as pottery and stoneware vessels, were also made of local material.

This is significant, Avshalom-Gorni explains. “Jewish society at the time was deeply connected to sanctity,” which can be deduced from the existence of the ritual baths and stoneware (which was immune from contamination by unkosher practices).

Mark you, what we call stoneware today is not the same thing; it is china that emulates stone, and is not suitable for kosherizing by hagalah, the rabbis caution. The stoneware in the Second Temple period was made of actual limestone. In fact, in 2017 archaeologists found a second ancient quarry and stoneware manufacturing industry in the Galilee, which they take as indicative of the intense zealotry prevalent in Galilee at the time.

The logic behind making tableware of heavy, unwieldy stone, which involves much more work than fashioning it of clay – and is absorbent to boot – is that Leviticus 11:32-33 explains how cloth and wood can be purified after contamination with an unclean animal, but pottery must be broken and not used any more. But it doesn’t mention stoneware. Hence, by the late Second Temple era, if not before, the assumption was made that stone cannot become impure.

An aerial shot of the first ancient synagogue found in Migdal. Credit: AVRAM GRAICER

When Josephus exaggerates

While the shores of the Sea of Galilee, really a freshwater lake, have been occupied since hominins and humans began leaving Africa, Migdal as a town was founded in the Hasmonean period which began in the 2nd century B.C.E., according to Jewish historical sources.

The Babylonian Talmud refers to the town as “Magdala Nunayya,” meaning “Town of Fishes” – like its contemporary, Bethsaida, it was a Jewish fishing village, netting tilapia and other marine life from the lake. Its name was perpetuated in the Arab village at the site, al-Majdal.

As for the surprise of finding another synagogue in a Second Temple-era Jewish town for the first time, Avshalom-Gorni says that so far it is unique, but it isn’t shocking. “The more we study this time, the more we realize that synagogues were very common,” she says.

However, they didn’t serve the same purposes as modern synagogues.

The first ancient synagogue found in Migdal. Credit: Hanay

One might suspect one of the Migdal synagogues came first and was supplanted by the other, but that is not so. Both existed in exactly the same period, Avshalom-Gorni says. “These are both from the Roman-period town and existed from about 50 B.C.E. until the Jewish rebellion in 67 C.E.”

Why might the ancient Jewish village or town of Magdala have needed two synagogues at the same time? One need not assume hostilities, though the history of humankind settling down and crowding into villages is rife with unpleasantness.

Josephus, the archaeologist points out, wrote that Magdala had a population of 40,000 and a vast fleet of 230 fishing boats. Indeed, some take issue with the Roman-Jewish historian’s veracity in some cases and this may be wild exaggeration, Avshalom-Gorni intimates. But even if it had only a tenth of that number, a town of 4,000 people is big. And since the synagogues were apart, one in the east in a residential area by the foothills – that is the fancier one – and one in the northern industrial zone, they were likely neighborhood community meeting places.

Today, synagogues serve for ritual and worship, as well as learning and community. Back then, though, worship, ritual, ceremony and sacrifice were centered in Jerusalem, at the Temple, until its destruction.

The thinking about neighborhood synagogues is that they were places for meeting and learning Torah, Avshalom-Gorni says. Worship in synagogues is a much later phenomenon, centuries later, at which point some of them would become quite grand. But before that disaster, Jewish and early Christian sources mention “meeting houses,” she points out: and we have probably just found two of them in Migdal.

Long story short, in the Second Temple period the synagogues would likely have been a sort of modest community center-cum-school, and while they didn’t expect to find this second one in Migdal, it makes sense. The people at large didn’t worship and perform rituals as is common nowadays, but they wanted a connection to the great Temple in Jerusalem – hence the discovery of the menorah engraving in the first synagogue unearthed in Migdal.

A menorah from the first ancient synagogue unearthed in Migdal, northern Israel.Credit: Yael Yolovich, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

It seems to be a replication of the great menorah in the Temple that the Romans not only stole, but marked their theft by depicting it in not one but two triumphal arches marking their victory over the Jews. “It [the menorah] speaks of the relationship with the Temple. The artist had to have known the Temple in Jerusalem,” Avshalom-Gorni says.

As for Mary Magdalene, she is supposed to have been born in Migdal, and it could well be that her family plied one of the two synagogues. Jesus is also reported to have visited the town.

“The fact we have found two synagogues shows that the Jews of the Second Temple period were looking for a place for religious, and perhaps also social, gatherings,” says Prof. Adi Erlich, head of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. “The stone bearing a relief of the menorah from the other synagogue at Migdal suggests that the local Jews saw Jerusalem as their religious center, and their local activities took place under this centrality,” she adds.

It bears adding that the identification of ancient places is often an iffy affair, and not all have categorically agreed over the ages that the ruins found just north of Tiberias were the Magdala mentioned by scripture. But both the Talmud and the eighth-century saint Willibald, who walked around the Sea of Galilee, write of the location of Magdala being between Tiberias and Capernaum, which fits nicely.

Anyway, for all this show of piety, the Talmud claims in Lamentations that the Romans razed Magdala because of the people’s depravity. Josephus says the Romans tore the town down because of the Jewish rebellion.

While finding the synagogues, archaeologists have also detected (in 2006) a destruction layer from the Second Temple period, though who caused it is another matter. Yet again, that was due to infrastructure works requiring salvage excavation. And after the wrath of the Romans, the deity, or both, was slaked, the town would rise anew. Not on the ruins, but a little bit to the north.

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