Carved stone block depicts symbols of the Jerusalem Temple
Imagine a first-century Jew living in the land near their Temple in Jerusalem, yet they are too far away to make frequent visits. What did the Temple represent in their daily life? Did they locate God’s presence in the Jerusalem Temple alone or also in their midst when they gathered in the synagogue? For a people living in the diaspora, unable to visit the Temple frequently, what kept the memory and centrality of the Temple fresh in their minds? An intriguing stone uncovered at the site of Magdala on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee in September 2009 might offer a clue. Carved with symbols from the Temple, the quartzite stone was discovered in the middle of an ancient synagogue.
The so-called Magdala Stone is a stone block carved with symbols of the Temple in Jerusalem, with the core of the Temple represented (the Hall, Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies). The stone measure 1.8 by 2 feet with a height of 1 foot. Found almost in the center of the synagogue, the Magdala Stone is believed to be a piece of ceremonial furniture on which the Torah and other sacred scrolls were placed. But is it simply a bimah (a traditional holder for the scrolls), or does it have some deeper significance?
Various theories are being explored. Dr. Rina Talgam of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a forerunner in research on the Magdala Stone, believes that the Magdala Stone may indicate an early Jewish Movement in which the synagogue was perceived to be a “minor temple.” Gathering together with Scripture could be conceived as a form of spiritual worship in lieu of a ritual sacrifice offered in the Temple. It begs the question: Was there an evolving concept of worship in the diaspora? Was there an understanding of God’s presence in the midst of those who revered Scripture? Can this be considered a form of prayer within a first-century synagogue? Or would this be a Christian interpretation imposed upon a Jewish object? Talgam’s research and reflections on the Magdala Stone are awaiting publication.
The front of the Magdala Stone displays an obviously Jewish symbol, the menorah (see image below). It is currently the oldest carved image of the Second Temple’s seven-branched menorah found in a public place. Its tripod base indicates the likelihood that the artist saw the actual menorah in the Temple.
The menorah on the Magdala Stone appears to rest on top of a decorated square—symbolic of the altar of sacrifice. It is flanked by two jars, perhaps representing the water and oil used in the Temple. If a rabbi stood in front of the stone, facing the menorah, he would set his gaze south toward Jerusalem, as though entering the Temple itself.
Along the sides of the stone, the onlooker sees several pillared archways and another set of archways within, giving it a three-dimensional feel (see image below). Talgam speculates that these archways represent the gates of the Azara, or the wall around the Sanctuary and the wall of the Sanctuary itself. A small object at the start of these archways has the shape of an oil lamp from the Herodian period. One can imagine walking through the Temple’s passageways illuminated by oil lamps.
Scholars still debate the meaning of several objects on the top of the Magdala Stone (see image below). For example, opinions differ about the interpretation of two clusters of three hearts—six hearts in total. Are they pretty space fillers? Are they ivy leaves? Are they bread loaves? Motti Aviam, Professor of Archaeology at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, interprets these as bread loaves that were offered on the shewbread table. Splitting each heart in half conjures up an image paralleling the way bread was offered on the shewbread table: two sets of six bread loaves. The symbols representing the shewbread tables look like upside-down cups. Finding this symbol on ancient coins gives credence to this interpretation.
Another fascinating symbol dominates the center of the top of the Magdala Stone: a six-petaled rosette. It is flanked by columns with palmette capitals, echoing ancient Jewish historian Josephus’s description of the area directly before the Holy of Holies. The rosette itself symbolizes the actual veil before the Holy of Holies. Josephus describes this veil as being decorated with flowers—perhaps with this very rosette.
Curiously, the rosette is a common Jewish motif found on ossuaries, sarcophagi and monumental tomb façades from the late Second Temple period to the second century C.E. Considering this connection, one wonders if it signifies a passing through the “veil” of this life into the presence of God, just as passing through the veil into the Holy of Holies is an entry into God’s glory localized in the Temple.
This brings us to the final symbol representing the deepest part of the Temple on the Magdala Stone: the Holy of Holies. Two wheels appear suspended in the air with triangular shapes underneath, representing fire (see image below). Early Jewish writings use this imagery to represent the heavenly realm. The wheels are interpreted as the bottom of the chariot, symbolizing God’s throne. The fiery chariot described in Ezekiel 1 and 10 gives credence to the symbol representing God’s presence dwelling both in the Temple and in the heavens.
The richness and completeness of the symbols forces the question: Did the Jewish people in Magdala believe God’s presence was among them in a particular way as they gathered around Scripture? If so, Magdala offers more than mere first-century archaeology. The site allows us also to ponder the crossroad of Jewish and Christian history and faith.
Magdala is open daily to the public from 8:00 to 18:00. For more information, visit www.magdala.org.
Jennifer Ristine coordinates the Visitors Center and the Magdalena Institute at the site of Magdala in Israel. Previously an educator, she has been helping in the development of Magdala’s site since September 2014.
This story first appeared in Bible History Daily in January, 2019
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