Magdala was not on our original itinerary – in hindsight I can’t imagine why – the archaeological findings in this small Sea of Galilee coastal town have deep and intensely important relevance to both Christianity and Judaism.
Firstly, Magdala is known as the birthplace of Mary Magdalene. In the gospels it is written that she was one of a number of women who were disciples of Jesus. She not only witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and tended to his body but also was the first eyewitness to his resurrection:
Jesus visits Magdala by boat: Matthew 15:39
Mary supports Jesus’ ministry: Luke 8:3
Mary goes to Jesus’ tomb: Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18
Mary announces the Resurrection to the disciples: John 20:18
It is also believed by some scholars that Jesus may have taught in Magdala for a brief time.
Magdala was also the home of a Jewish leader by the name of Yosef ben Matityahu who is probably better known as the Roman historian, Josephus Flavius. He was governor of the Galilee during the time of the Great Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE), but although he had a defense wall around built the city, the Romans put siege to the city, it fell and its inhabitants were either exiled or killed.
But all was not lost. It is mandatory in Israel that before any modern structure is built, an archaeological test is required and what was found is one of the most profound discoveries for both the Christian and Jewish faiths – the remains of the 2,000 year old town of Magdala:
And one of only seven Israeli synagogues from the First Century CE:
The piece de resistance of this monumental find is a small stone “box” seen in the center of the above photo. This is just a replica of the real stone, whose priceless value is being protected in a vault by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
This is the Magdala Stone and its carvings are the earliest known artistic depiction of the Second Temple. Let me provide a little background so you can understand the importance of this.
The First Temple was built by King Solomon in the mid-10th Century BCE on the Temple Mount, a hill in Jerusalem. In Deuteronomy it is written that the Temple Mount was “the place that the Lord will choose” as his dwelling (Deut 12:14-15). It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE – more on this in a later post.
In 538 BCE the King of Persia, who had defeated the Babylonians, ruled that the Jewish Temple was to be rebuilt so that the exiled Jews could return to Judea and construction began in 521BCE. Herod also had a hand in enlarging the temple in 20 BCE.
The wonder of the excavation of the Magdala Stone is incredible. The front of the stone depicts the oldest carved image of the Second Temple’s seven-branched menorah ever found.
The long sides of the stone depict the sides of the Second Temple with pillared archways.
The back of the stone illustrates a pillared structure with two wheels above a geometric shape depicting fire representing the Holy of Holies.
The Holy of Holies is the inner sanctum of the Temple in which was kept the Ark of the Covenant and a copy of the 10 Commandments.
The symbolic meaning of the carvings on top of the Magdala Stone is still being debated. Some scholars say the heart shaped figures are loaves of bread. The rosette may symbolize the veil that exists in front of the the Holy of Holies. The rosette motif is actually found on many Jewish structures and some believe it represents the passing of this life into the presence of God:
The interpretational debate will go on for quite some time but I think it can be said that all of Magdala’s archeological artifacts are indeed of great import – it is as though some divine intervention led to their discovery.