Second Synagogue Uncovered in the Birthplace of Mary Magdalene
Earlier this week, the University of Haifa announced the discovery of a first-century C.E. synagogue in Magdala, Israel. Magdala (Migdal in Hebrew) is thought to be the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, as well as the main base of operations for Flavius Josephus, historian and Jewish rebel. Although this is one of only a handful of synagogues from the first century ever excavated in the Galilee, it is remarkably not the first uncovered in the ancient city of Magdala. Another synagogue was discovered in the city in 2009. Now, these two synagogues together shed light on the religious life of Jews in the Galilee during the period of Jesus’s ministry. “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,” commented Dina Avshalom-Gorni, co-director of the excavation. Although Magdala is not specifically referenced as the hometown of Mary Magdalene in the Bible, most scholars accept that her name means Mary from Magdala.
This is the first time that two synagogues have been found in a single settlement from this period. Yet, it was not altogether surprising, and several excavators had previously suggested that Magdala, given its large size, would have had more than one synagogue. Located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, Magdala was a large Jewish settlement during the first century. Its population is estimated to have been around 30,000. This new synagogue helps scholars understand the deeply Jewish nature of Magdala and the Galilee as a whole in the first century, a subject that has been widely discussed and debated. As stated by Adi Erlich, head of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, “The fact that we have found two synagogues shows that the Jews of the Second Temple period were looking for a place for religious, and perhaps also social, gatherings.”
The newly excavated synagogue is a simple, square-shaped building, constructed out of basalt and limestone. It consisted of a central hall with a bench along one side and two small rooms. One room is thought to have been used to store scrolls. Each of the rooms and the bench were coated with plaster. By contrast, the first synagogue discovered in Magdala was far more elaborate. In addition to six columns, the synagogue contained several mikva’ot (Jewish ritual baths) and beautifully colored frescoes. Most stunning of all was a large stone that sat in the middle of the room and possibly functioned as a table for reading Torah scrolls. This has come to be known as the Magdala Stone. Etched into the stone are numerous images, including one of the earliest depictions of a menorah, thought by some to be an actual representation of the menorah that stood in the Jerusalem Temple. A possible explanation for the difference in the synagogues is their location within the town, with the first synagogue having been discovered in the town’s commercial area, whereas the new synagogue was located within one of its neighborhoods. According to Adi Erlich, “the local synagogues were constructed within the social fabric of the settlement.”
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