A Galilee boat altar in Magdala Church
Photos: Mike Cronin
The day benefited from glorious winter sunshine. The route to Magdala from Karmiel passed through Emek Beit Hakerem with its bountiful olive groves. Nurit, our guide, told us that some of the old olive trees are believed to be around a thousand years old, planted by the Jewish landowners who lived in this region at the time. In biblical times, so it is said, the olive oil from this area was renowned for its quality and used in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even today, the high-quality olive oil produced in this area is often called “Roman Oil” by the locals.
Our tour of Magdala had three points of focus: the remains of the Magdala first-century synagogue; the town's Cohanim quarter, replete with mikvot; and the new church which the Christian owners of the land have erected at the site.
Magdala, presumed to be Mary Magdalene's town, is situated near modern-day Migdal, just north of Tiberias and close to the steep slopes of Mount Arbel. It was established around the third or fourth century B.C.E, and so predates Tiberias which was founded in 20 C.E.
In 2004, the Legionaries of Christ Order in Mexico purchased thirty dunams of land close to the Kinneret, intending to build a pilgrimage center and church for its adherents. It was only in 2009, and after Israel's Antiquities Authority performed a spot dig to check the site for archaeological significance, that the remnants of the 1st century synagogue were discovered. The synagogue was subsequently dated to around 30 C.E. This, of course, is when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was still standing and whilst Jesus was alive.
Our tour began at the synagogue, where the highlight was a replica of the large white stone (small coffee- table size) that was found after they cleared the layers of earth, in the center of the synagogue (the original stone plinth is now with the Antiquities Authority). It was engraved on every side with emblems related to the Second Temple. Particularly fascinating is the engraving of the seven-branched Temple menorah which stands on a tripod and not on a pedestal, as does the menorah depicted in the Arch of Titus in Rome. It is assumed that the stone was used for Torah readings with the Torah scrolls placed on its surface and, according to scholars, “when it was carved, the Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem for the carver to see. The stone is a kind of ancient snapshot”. Definitely an extraordinary historical discovery.
A fresco in Magdala Synagogue
The tour then moved to the area of the large houses and mikvot (thought now to be the Priests’ Quarter). One can wonder whether the Jewish historian and chronicler of the revolt in the Galilee, Josephus Flavius, stayed in one of these houses whilst he was at Magdala. The dig has uncovered evidence of the town's fortifications, which Josephus directed, as advance defence preparations against the Romans. Magdala was destroyed by Titus in September 67 C.E. during the Jewish Revolt and most of its 30-40,000 inhabitants were killed or enslaved.
The last stop before the church was at the ancient fishing pier. A second pier has recently been uncovered (currently interpreted as evidence that the water level of the Kinneret was retreating in those days as well).
The interior design and architecture of the modern church, Duc in Altem (Launch Out into the Deep), conveys an ambience in complete harmony with its location close to the Kinneret and the historical significance of the site of Magdala/Migdal in both Jewish and early Christian history. Elements of the synagogue have been incorporated in the design of the church, such as the patterned motif from the synagogue floor and the low benches around the central space.
A featured item in the church is a full-sized replica of a fishing boat of the type thought to have been common on the Kinneret in the 1st century and mentioned in the New Testament.
A mosaic in a side chapel inside Magdala Church
The discovery of this Jewish synagogue provides further evidence (as described in the Gospels) that Jesus traveled throughout the Galilee, meeting at local Jewish synagogues (community centers), preaching and interpreting passages from the Bible.
It is more than coincidental that a historically-related Vatican news item was issued on the day of our excursion - specifying, among other things, that “Catholics must refrain from active attempts to convert Jews”.
Many thanks to ESRA Karmiel for their efforts in organizing the very interesting trip to Magdala.
If you would like to know more about Magdala, there is an interesting New York Times article:
“A Carved Stone Block Upends Assumptions About Ancient Judaism”