First-Century Synagogue Discovered in Magdala

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 05/27/2014

The decision of the Rev. Juan M. Solana to build a retreat center in Galilee has led to an interesting archaeological find: “the presumed hometown of Mary Magdalene and an ancient synagogue where experts say Jesus may well have taught.” From the New York Times:

All that remained before construction could begin in earnest was to carry out a salvage dig on the site, a routine requirement in Israel. The Roman Catholic Church and the archaeologists dispatched by the Israel Antiquities Authority did not expect to find anything significant, and intended to get the dig over with as quickly and cheaply as possible.

But their spades struck history only a little more than a foot below the surface: a stone bench that, it soon became evident, was part of the remains of a synagogue from the first century, one of only seven from the Second Temple period known to exist, and the first to be found in Galilee. A local coin found in a side room of the synagogue was dated from the year 29—when Jesus is thought to have been alive....

The site of the dig was only about five miles from Capernaum, a known center of Jesus’ activities.

Soon it was clear that the site was not just near Magdala; this was Magdala. The dig went on to uncover an ancient marketplace and a separate area of rooms with adjacent water pools, presumably used for producing the salty cured fish that Magdala was famous for; a large villa or public building with mosaics, frescoes and three ritual baths; a fishermen’s neighborhood, scattered with ancient hooks and other equipment; and a section of a first-century harbor....

The ancient synagogue had some unusual features, including an ornately engraved stone block that archaeologists say was probably used as a table for reading the Torah. It is carved with columns and arches, a seven-branched menorah with vessels for wine and oil to each side, a 12-leaf rosette and chariots of fire. The stone appears to be a miniature of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in the year 70, adorned with symbols also meant to commemorate the First Temple.

To learn more about the discovery, here’s an Issues, Etc. interview with historian Paul Maier.