On December 12, 2021, archaeologists taking part in the ongoing excavations in the Biblical city of Magdala, which is believed to be the birthplace of the disciple Mary Magdalene, uncovered a second synagogue in the ancient town.
Magdala, a large town along the western shores of the Sea of Galilee, figured prominently in the Bible as the place of origin of Mary of Magdala, who was said to have been cured of her “seven demons” by Jesus.
The city had served as a huge fish processing center at least since Hellenic times. However, it was only in 2009 that the exact ancient site of Magdala was located after a Catholic priest decided to build a retreat center along the shores of the Galilee.
Magdala center of many Biblical events including Mary Magdalene’s exorcism
Once breaking ground, the builders came upon the remains of not only a synagogue but a stone pillar which is believed to have the oldest representation of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Now, a second synagogue has been uncovered in Mandala as workmen attempted to reroute an intersection on the highway that runs along the shores of the great inland sea, which was the backdrop of many Biblical stories, including Jesus walking on water and the miracle of the fish.
Careful salvage excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority, together with the company Y.G. Contractual and the University of Haifa, made this stunning discovery possible.
Synagogues were meetinghouses during Second Temple period
Located just 100 meters (yards) from the first synagogue, the newly-discovered building is contemporaneous with the first synagogue.
As archaeologist Dina Avshalom-Gorni explains to Fr. Eamon Kelly, the vice director of the Magdala retreat center, the new synagogue, which is also from the early Roman period during the first century AD, “is built exactly like the first one, with benches around it, with plastered walls, and also a small room with a shelf where they would house the scrolls.”
From there, “men would take the scrolls and read aloud from them in the main sanctuary of the synagogue. So they were reading and studying in this beautiful (building),” she states. Both synagogues contained vessels made of stone, an important fact that relates to the necessary purification rituals that were an integral part of Judaism at that time.
“Jewish society at the time was deeply connected to sanctity,” the archaeologist notes.
One may well ask why there needed to be two separate synagogues in such a limited area, even with the fairly large population that it had at the time.
Avshalom-Gorni explains to Haaretz that the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus recorded that Magdala, during his time, had a population of 40,000 and an enormous fishing fleet numbering 230 vessels.
“Unique” situation with two synagogues in city of that size
Even if these figures are accurate, it would still be unusual to have to construct two separate synagogues in one city of that size. However, the archaeologist explains that these structures were not used in exactly the same way as synagogues are today, solely for religious rituals.
In those times, outside of the Great Temple in Jerusalem, synagogues were more like meeting houses, places where people could gather and perhaps learn about God and discuss the scriptures — but they would not have served as the purely religious buildings that they would later on.
“It’s a huge neighborhood, with roads, buildings, shops and so on; this is adding to the information and the story of Magdala from the early Roman period to the time of the Second Temple Period in Jerusalem (which ended in 70 AD). Here we have a community that could not visit the Temple. And this is beautiful,” Avshalom-Gorni tells Fr. Kelly, beaming.
She goes on to state that the existence of two synagogues so close together in a town of that size is “very interesting,” saying that it was “the first time” any such arrangement had ever been found in Israel.
“Even in the later villages from the fifth or sixth centuries AD we do not see two synagogues in the same place. Here we have something unique,” she notes, adding “We presume this synagogue served the people who lived in the western neighborhood of Magdala and that every village or neighborhood would have its own gathering house.”
The discovery, she says, has shed “new light on what community life was like” in those days.
“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 tells Haaretz.
Coin found in Magdala shows Jesus preaching
Magdala was a prosperous, thriving fishing village by the time the Romans invaded the Galilee in 67 AD. At one time it was large enough to have had stone-paved streets, but the village had tragically fallen into ruin in the centuries after Christ through religious upheavals, military conquests and the vicissitudes of time.
Unearthing the remains of the first-century synagogue just an incredible 30 cm under the surface in 2009, archaeologists found coins dating back to between 5 and 63 AD. A coin minted in 29 AD shows an impression of Jesus teaching in the synagogues during his public life, as recorded in Matthew 4:23 and Mark 1:39 in the New Testament.
The first Migdal Synagogue is the oldest synagogue found in the Galilee, and one of the only synagogues from that period found in the entire country, as of the time of the excavation.
The first synagogue also has stunning mosaics showing the Greco-Roman influence in the area during the Herodian period. A small mosaiced room on the southern side of the building was likely where the Torah scrolls were stored, according to the archaeologists, as reported on magdala.org.
In the center of the synagogue stands the unique Magdala Stone, an elaborately-carved pillar which shows what experts believe is the earliest carved representation of the Great Temple in Jerusalem — which was destroyed in the year 70 AD by the Roman army — anywhere outside of the city.
Magdala later home to church founded by Helen
Recognition of Magdala as the birthplace of Mary Magdalene appears in texts dating back to the 6th century AD; in the 8th and 10th centuries, Christian sources tell of a church in the village that was also Mary Magdalene’s house, where Jesus is said to have exorcised her of demons.
The anonymous author of the “Life of Constantine” attributes the building of the church to Empress Helena in the 4th century AD, at the exact location where she found Mary Magdalene’s house.
In the year 1283, Burchard of Mount Sion records having entered the house of Mary Magdalene in the village, and about ten years later, Ricoldus of Montecroce noted his joy at having found the church and house still standing.