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The Magdala Synagogue, Judaism and Christianity

Magdala Synagogue dates to the Second Temple period and is the oldest known synagogue in Galilee. It is one of the only synagogues from that period remaining in the entire country. Photo courtesy of V.A. Rakov Photography
Magdala Synagogue dates to the Second Temple period and is the oldest known synagogue in Galilee. It is one of the only synagogues from that period remaining in the entire country. Photo courtesy of V.A. Rakov Photography

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

Jews, Christians and Muslims share many sites in Israel, such as the Temple Mount. Magdala was the first such place I visited. An ancient Jewish city on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, by the first century CE, Magdala was a thriving fish processing site along the Via Maris trade route.

According to Wikipedia, Jews established Magdala between the second and first centuries BCE. By the third century CE, it was in ruins. Archeological excavations of the site have uncovered the Migdal Synagogue, which dates to the Second Temple period and is the oldest known synagogue in Galilee. It is one of the only synagogues from that period remaining in the entire country.

After their first exile, the Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt their temple, now known as the Second Temple. The people who lived and worked in settlements such as Magdala typically visited the temple three times per year: at Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. But it was also during this time that the synagogue system emerged to benefit those who could not make the journey. Early synagogues were essentially meeting houses (beit knesset in Hebrew), where travelers could stay and people (mostly men) would gather to study Torah and the Oral Law teachings as a way to discuss the just workings of their society. This made synagogues logical places for Jesus to visit to teach, preach and find followers.

Magdala Stone, may have been used as a stand for reading the Torah. The stone features carved symbols from the Second Temple, such as a seven-branched menorah. Photo courtesy V.A. Rakov Photography.

Inside the Midgal Synagogue, archeologists unearthed the Magdala Stone, which may have been used as a table or stand for reading the Torah. The stone features carved symbols from the Second Temple, such as a seven-branched menorah. This is the earliest carved menorah of that period to be discovered outside Jerusalem and enabled those who went to the local synagogue to experience a piece of the Second Temple. In “The Magdala Stone: The Jerusalem Temple Embodied,” Jennifer Ristine describes the other symbols on the stone.

Magdala was also the home of Mary Magdalene (literally Mary of Magdala), the woman from whom Jesus cast seven demons. This story makes me wonder whether Jesus’ ministry was so inclusive that it even welcomed people with mental illness and those thought to be possessed by demons, who were believed to be the opposite of God.

According to the Gospels, Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus who traveled with him and witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection. The Gospels mention her by name 12 times, more than most of Jesus’ apostles and more than any other woman outside his family. Luke 8 says she helped support Christ’s ministry from her own resources, indicating that she was probably wealthy.

Given the time she spent with Jesus, I wonder why Mary Magdalene wasn’t considered a disciple like the others, who were all men. Clearly, she followed Jesus closely enough to hear his teaching and preaching, to witness him healing people, and to observe his lifestyle. Wouldn’t that have made her a disciple in practice if not in title? Although the Bible names some of the women who not only followed Jesus but financially supported him, the list seems far from complete.

The Twelve were with him, and some women … Mary (called Magdalene) … Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8:1-3)

Elsewhere in the Gospels,, we hear of a few other women associated with Jesus, including Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary, the mother of James and Joses; Salome, the mother of the other James; Mary, wife of Cleopas; and  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Yet the text says there were “many others.” With the women specifically mentioned numbering eight, and 12 male disciples, it’s possible that Jesus had more female than male followers.

Interestingly, the Gospel accounts don’t mention Jesus ever making negative remarks about women, even though that was conventional practice at the time. Nor does Jesus ever segregate his male and female followers, as was the practice at the time and is still today for many Jewish sects. (Jesus was practicing Reform Judaism ahead of his time.)

Given that the Bible mentions Mary, Jesus’ mother, being with him when he turned water into wine, it’s hard for me to imagine that not a single woman was with him during his last supper — not any of the women mentioned above, nor the woman Jesus met at the well, nor the woman who poured perfume on his feet, nor the sisters Mary and Martha, nor the Syrophoenician woman nor the woman who was healed of her hemorrhaging. Given their recorded loyalty to Jesus, I don’t think the men could have kept them away if they wanted. When the disciples tried to keep the children from Jesus, they were rebuked. Wouldn’t they have received the same rebuke for keeping the women away? And considering the gender roles at that time, weren’t there women preparing the last supper and baking the bread?

It’s very possible they were there but just not mentioned. One writer postulates that the women were at a separate table. We have to remember that Leonardo da Vinci’s rendering of the last supper is not a photo but an interpretation of what happened.

When I was in Magdala, a friend pointed out that when considering the historical role of women in Christianity, it’s important to look not just at how Christian women fared relative to Christian men but at the relative roles of women in Judaism during the same period and, later, in Islam.

It can be hard to reconcile the past with the present. When I saw the Sea of Galilee, I was taken aback by the sight of people on jet skis and pontoon boats. Then it struck me that just as people today use the lake for water sports, during Jesus’ time, people would have been fishing there. It also makes sense that Jesus would have recruited fishermen from Galilee to join his followers.

To be honest, I am somewhat skeptical about many of the purported locations of Biblical sites in the Holy Land. But the intersection of the Magdala synagogue, Mary Magdalene and Jesus seems right to me. The Migdal Synagogue existed at the right time for Jesus to have studied and discussed Torah there. Magdala sat on a major commercial trade route between Nazareth and Capernaum. Jesus could have stopped there as he traveled between those towns. I could envision Jesus in this synagogue, reading or studying the Torah unfurled across the Magdala Stone.

It also makes sense that while in an area known for its fishing industry, Jesus would be able to recruit fishermen, if not in Magdala then in Tiberias, another town only three miles away, also in Galilee. It is widely accepted among secular historians that, like Jesus, Mary Magdalene was a real historical figure. Given the amount of recorded history concerning her story, I believe Jesus did encounter her in the town of Magdala.

Over time, Mary Magdalene has risen to her rightful place. She is considered to be a saint by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran denominations, and Pope Francis said she should be called the “Apostle of the apostles.” Today there is a chapel in Magdala, the Duc In Altum that honors her, the other women who followed Jesus, and women of faith across all time.

 

Magdala Chapel, Duc In Altum “- Launch in to the Deep” Photo provided by Magdalena Institute

The Romans destroyed Magdala in 67 CE, killing much of its Jewish population and selling the rest into slavery. Although the site was periodically settled after that, its first century remains were eventually all covered by debris. This was fortunate, because otherwise Christians would likely have built a church on the site. Then Muslims would probably have destroyed the church and built a mosque, and Christians would likely have subsequently destroyed the mosque. And if all that had happened, we would never have gained access to the original site.

Now there is an archaeological park for Jews and Christians to explore and enjoy. It was a blessing that the first site I visited in Israel was Magdala, often described as the “crossroads of Jewish and Christian history.” I experienced it through Jewish and Christian eyes. I believe we, Jews and Christians, share a common history, which is why I refer to myself as a Judeo-Christian and believe it’s essential to eliminate the polarization caused by antisemitism, racism and other forms of discrimination.

About the Author
Ed Gaskin attends Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Roxbury, Mass. He has co-taught a course with professor Dean Borman called, “Christianity and the Problem of Racism” to Evangelicals (think Trump followers) for over 25 years. Ed has an M. Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and graduated as a Martin Trust Fellow from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He has published several books on a range of topics and was a co-organizer of the first faith-based initiative on reducing gang violence at the National Press Club in Washington DC. In addition to leading a non-profit in one of the poorest communities in Boston, and serving on several non-profit advisory boards, Ed’s current focus is reducing the incidence of diet-related disease by developing food with little salt, fat or sugar and none of the top eight allergens. He does this as the founder of Sunday Celebrations, a consumer-packaged goods business that makes “Good for You” gourmet food.
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