Researchers Unearth 2,000-Year-Old Synagogue in Mary Magdalene’s Supposed Hometown

Archaeologists at excavation site
The newly discovered synagogue is the second found in the ancient community. University of Haifa and Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists have discovered a 2,000-year-old synagogue in the ruins of the ancient Jewish community of Migdal—the supposed birthplace of Mary Magdalene. The structure is the second of its kind found at the site, which is also known as Magdala, reports Rossella Tercatin for the Jerusalem Post.

The discovery “casts light on the social and religious lives of the Jews in the area in this period, and reflects a need for a dedicated building for Torah reading and study and for social gatherings,” says excavation co-director Dina Avshalom-Gorni, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa, in a statement. “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.”

Constructed out of volcanic basalt, limestone and plaster, the synagogue consisted of a main hall and two other rooms. One of the smaller rooms housed a stone shelf that may have held Torah scrolls. Six pillars held up the roof, and some of the white plaster walls were decorated with colorful designs. The site also contained pottery candle holders, molded glass bowls, rings and stone utensils used for purification rituals, reports Stuart Winer for the Times of Israel.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) collaborated with the University of Haifa and archaeology firm Y.G. Contractual on the salvage excavation. Such digs typically take place ahead of construction to ensure the preservation of important ruins, wrote Ariel Sabar for Smithsonian magazine in 2016.

The find marks the first time two synagogues dated to the Second Temple period—roughly 516 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.—have been unearthed in a single town, reports Ruth Schuster for Haaretz. Larger and more ornately decorated, the other synagogue was discovered in 2009. One of the most significant discoveries made at that site was a stone embossed with the image of a seven-branched menorah at the Second Temple of Jerusalem. According to the researchers, the relief shows that Migdal’s synagogues were built when the temple was still standing.

Researchers Unearth 2,000-Year-Old Synagogue in Mary Magdalene's Supposed Hometown
The synagogue uncovered in 2009 contained a stone embossed with the image of a seven-branched menorah. University of Haifa and Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

“These are both from the Roman-period town and existed from about 50 B.C.E. until the Jewish rebellion in 67 C.E.,” Avshalom-Gorni tells Haaretz.

The two synagogues stood about 650 feet apart in a section of the ancient town that held Jewish ritual baths, a marketplace and industrial facilities. They appear to have coexisted rather than replaced each other. Migdal may have simply been large enough to need two synagogues, which probably served as neighborhood meeting places and learning centers. 

Founded in the second century B.C.E. at the start of the Hasmonean period, Migdal was a fishing village and center of Jewish life on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In biblical texts, the town is referred to as “Magdala Nunayya,” or “Town of Fishes.”

Archaeologists are unsure whether the ruins now referred to as Migdal really belong to the community mentioned in ancient texts, but its location fits those descriptions. 

In the New Testament Gospels, Mary Magdalene, or “Mary of Magdala,” stayed with Jesus as he faced crucifixion and was the first person he appeared to after his resurrection. While the Gospels contain only limited information about her, other texts from the early Christian era suggest that she held the status of an “apostle,” rivaling Peter’s significance in the years after Jesus’s death, as James Carroll wrote for Smithsonian in 2006.

Over the centuries, theologians, historians and Christians have floated many theories about Mary Magdalene, including that she was an unrepentant prostitute and that she was married to Jesus. Various ideas about her status have played into debates about sexuality, celibacy and women’s role in Christian institutions.

Aside from its significance in the Christian Gospels, Migdal is known as the military base of Jewish leader Yosef Ben Matityahu. During a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in 66 to 67 C.E., he served as military commander of Galilee, but he later defected to the Roman side and changed his name to Flavius Josephus. 

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