Was Jesus Here With Mary Magdalene?
By Irris MaklerDecember 21, 2012
In a village near the Sea of Galilee, archaeologists have struck a first-century synagogue. Did Jesus once preach at its long-buried pulpit?
The sign on the road near the Sea of Galilee says “Magdala” and “Hawaii”. Hawaii was the name of the holiday bungalows that were there until recently; Magdala is the name of a first-century town, inside a seven-kilometre stretch along the Sea of Galilee where the New Testament tells us Jesus ministered and performed most of his miracles. We know him as Jesus of Nazareth, but he spent most of his life here on the seafront, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes with loaves and fishes, and delivering the Sermon on the Mount. Sometimes he would stand on a boat in the water to deliver sermons to the crowds who gathered on the shore.
At that time, Magdala was a thriving fishing village, home to thousands, including Mary Magdalene — Mary of Magdala. The most frequently mentioned woman in the New Testament, she appears in the text even more often than Jesus’ mother Mary. Magdala was the next town along from Capernaum, where Jesus lived, a brisk morning’s walk or a short boat ride away.
And now Magdala is the site of a rare archaeological find. The remains of a well-preserved first-century synagogue, one of only seven in the country, richly decorated, have been uncovered here, along with an ancient industrial area; further along, a large home has been unearthed — with a bench facing the street and playing dice made of stone in the rooms — as well as three Jewish ritual baths. All this was a mere 50 centimetres beneath the topsoil. Nothing had been built over it in the centuries since and no one had disturbed it. It was waiting, like Pompeii, to be discovered.
“It is a kind of a miracle, I think,” says Dina Gorni, one of two archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority, who did the original excavation on the site in 2009. “We didn’t know there was any ancient material on this site. We knew of material further south, where there had been extensive excavations. We were only digging here as a precautionary measure before a building project began.” (In Israel, it is a legal requirement that all new construction in historically sensitive areas is preceded by an archaeological sweep, paid for by the developer. The archaeologists either do probes, to tell them where to dig, or they simply divide up the area based on a grid, and try to dig up most of it, given the purpose of this salvage excavation is to identify the material before it is covered up again.)
The bungalows of the Hawaii holiday camp had been built above ground, so no dig had been required before they went up. Before that, the site had been waterfront brushland for decades, perhaps centuries. Even today, the Galilee is remote and rural, not overly developed. Looking around, it seems inconceivable that a religion with worldwide reach emerged from here.
There were water pipes on the ground when Dina Gorni and her colleague Arfan Najjar began digging in August 2009. It was summer, oppressively hot; they didn’t expect to find much, and the developer was pressuring them to finish. But there, beneath the pipes, they uncovered a large, richly carved stone.
It appeared to be a model of the Temple in Jerusalem, meant to serve as an altar or prayer table. It has carvings on every side except the bottom — images including a Menorah, the seven-armed candelabra, believed now to be the first-known depiction of this Jewish symbol.
Nothing like it, dating from the first century, has ever been found.
“That stone had power. You could feel it. We abandoned all the other areas and began digging here. Everything was near the surface, and everything was from the first century,” says Gorni, who is not religious, but says that being an archaeologist often invokes visceral feelings.
They found the stone inside the ruins of a large public building, made up of two rooms, with a beautifully preserved mosaic floor and frescoes on the wall. Benches around the walls indicated it was a synagogue.
“It took me three days to believe what I was seeing, that we are standing in a synagogue from the time that the Temple in Jerusalem was functioning,” says Gorni.
THE EXCAVATIONS BEGAN BECAUSE of Father Juan Maria Solana. The energetic Mexican priest had come to Israel in 2004 to take up the directorship of the Pontifical Institute, and the well-known pilgrim hotel, Notre Dame of Jerusalem. Father Solana had a dream: to build a church and hotel for pilgrims in the Galilee where Jesus had lived and ministered. When a Franciscan priest told him there was land available in the area where the ancient town of Magdala had been located, Father Solana felt a shiver. “I discovered the connected points that God sometimes allows in our life,” he says.
The priest’s mother had had a vision involving Mary Magdalene, which she had frequently recounted to him when he was a boy. From then on, he says, “For me, Mary Magdalene was an acquaintance, she was not a stranger.”
Once he became a priest, he wanted to give more emphasis to the role of the women who had ministered to Jesus during his lifetime. He believed that although the Twelve Apostles have been given greater prominence, the women were no less important among his disciples.
“Mary Magdalene was the first person — not the first woman, the first person — to see the risen Christ,” he notes.
The Maria in his name as a priest was added as a tribute to Mary Magdalene. And now there was land available in Magdala…
Of course, there were obstacles. Waterfront land is expensive everywhere, but especially in the Galilee, where it also has historic value. Father Solana had no money for this project when he set out in 2005; he travelled the world seeking donations. In addition, the land was not available in one piece, but as four separate parcels, and he had to organise to purchase each plot separately. It cost millions of dollars. At one point, he had only two outside strips, but not the inner area. He persisted, and by the time Pope Benedict XVI visited the Middle East in 2009, all the land had been purchased and the plans for the church and hotel had been completed.
The Pope blessed the foundation stone of the new church and asked — almost presciently — what Father Solana would do if he found any archaeological remains on the site.
“I said, ‘Holy Father, of course, I will preserve them!’ — although I had not a clue that a couple of months later we would find such beautiful things,” the priest says.
Father Solana says that the findings are historically significant for Christians as well as Jews. The New Testament does not record that Jesus ministered in Magdala, but Father Solana argues that the discovery of this synagogue requires a re-assessment.
“From the Jewish point of view, the position is clear: it’s a first-century synagogue, beautifully decorated, with pieces of art and an altar such as has never been found in any other synagogue from that time. From the Christian point of view, we cannot doubt that Jesus would have been there sometime. The first Christian communities used to gather in the synagogues. They were observant Jews. We know from the letters of Paul that the first thing he did when he came to a town was to go to the synagogue and preach there. So if the village was destroyed around AD 66 it’s clear that the first generation of Christians used to gather there. It’s the first Church on earth,” says Father Solana softly, still awestruck.
This will become part of the ongoing debate about how far Jesus reached in his ministry. For example, was the wedding at Cana, where Jesus performed the miracle of turning water into wine, in Qana [Kefar Qana] in the Galilee, or was it in Qana in Lebanon, in the area today controlled by the Shia Islamist group Hezbullah? Some Lebanese Christians believe Jesus did reach that far north and their Qana is the Cana. Not many others agree, and it is not the generally accepted site. But the debate continues, because linking a village to Jesus can make a huge difference to its status and economy.
The two archaeologists working on the Magdala site, Arfan Najjar and Dina Gorni — one Muslim and the other Jewish — give cautious support to the theory that Jesus was there. They point to the synagogue’s location and its size as marking it off from the rest of the town’s Jewish community. It was on the outskirts of Magdala, in fact almost out of town. It was built for a congregation of 120, not the thousands who lived there, and was smaller and more highly decorated than the few other surviving synagogues from this period.
“We believe, we suggest, that this was a special community, not large, that put itself at the edge of the main Jewish village. This community wanted to make their religious house different. They put money into it, into the decorations, into the special stone altar,” Gorni says.
“They may be connected to Jesus and Mary Magdalene. We know that Jesus was not involved in the main Jewish community and preferred to live aside. Perhaps he was the leader around whom this synagogue was built.”
Gorni pauses, and adds: “But they were all Jews then, even Jesus. Don’t forget Jesus died as a Jew.”
Tramping around the archaeological site on a sunny winter’s afternoon with the Sea of Galilee shimmering only metres away, Gorni becomes reflective. “I think this is the point of the beginning and you can see it in the stones. The story about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the altar stone, the Menorah, it’s so important to both religions, I think to the world. There’s no other place where [the link between Judaism and Christianity] becomes so clear and sharp as here.”
Father Solana puts it like this: there’s no reason to doubt, and even less to deny, that Jesus was in Magdala. Sometimes the priest sits in the ruins of the synagogue, re-reading the Gospels to see if there are any clues he has missed. Could the priest at this synagogue have been Jairus, whose daughter was one of three people Jesus raised from the dead? No location is given for that miracle. Father Solana hopes that subsequent excavations will produce more evidence.
“It’s really amazing, it’s a unique case, because you can visit beautiful Hippos, Biet Shean, Capernaum, but there were more constructions there over the centuries. People even re-built after earthquakes. In this part of Magdala, time stopped at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century.”
It appears that this area of Magdala was abandoned after the Great Revolt against the Romans. Some 30 years after the death of Jesus, in 66 AD, the Roman army marched into Magdala, and defeated the Jewish rebels. The small sect who had lived here never came back. They abandoned their beautiful synagogue, and no one maintained the water channels they had built to keep winter rains from flooding the area. Mud and silt slowly covered the ruins.
Now that they have been unearthed, these ruins will not be covered over again. They will be preserved in an archaeological park, an open-air museum sitting side-by-side with the church and the pilgrim hotel. Now, even before the dig has finished, tourist buses are already pulling up every day.
For the archaeologists working at Magdala, this is very satisfying.
“We could so easily have not excavated here. I think about this a lot. What called us to dig this spot, 10-by-10, that we could so easily have overlooked?” asks Gorni. “That stone was there for 2,000 years and it was waiting for us, for this generation, to see it, to come and touch it and to come and to pray here again.”
Irris Makler is the author of ‘Hope Street, Jerusalem’. She blogs at www.hopestreet.com.au