Baker Academic

Monday, December 22, 2014

Has Mary Magdalene's Synagogue been Discovered?

Today HAARETZ is reporting that another first-century synagogue has been discovered, this time in Magdala (perhaps the home of Mary Magdalene). Ofira Koopmans writes:
When archeologists and volunteers started digging, they were astonished to find a treasure: A 1st-century synagogue, one of only seven in Israel - and in the entire world. 
"This is the first synagogue ever excavated where Jesus walked and preached," says the father, calling it "hugely important" for both Jews and Christians. 
Experts say it's highly likely that Jesus would have preached in the recently uncovered synagogue, believed to have first been built in the year 1 as a simple structure which was then upgraded into a more ornate one in the year 40.
I always feel skeptical when an article refers to "experts" who are equal parts confident and anonymous. I'm also skeptical when a news source reveals some new discovery around Christmas or Easter. That said, Jesus may well have visited this synagogue. Perhaps Mary was in some way connected to the group that met in this place.

What is even more interesting - and enjoys the stronger claim - is that this site may also boast the oldest etching of a menorah. Koopmans writes, "A sculpted limestone block found in the center was probably used for writing or reading the Torah. Its relief depicts the oldest menorah ever found on stone."



  1. The synagogue is definitely first century CE. It was first excavated in 2009 and, along with the one in Gamla, shows that there definitely were synagogues in Galilee in the time of Jesus, something that Horsley, for example, has doubted. (For a reason I cannot honestly now explain other than brain fart, I stated in Jesus against the Scribal Elite that there aren't yet any excavations of first-century synagogues in Galilee while affirming that they definitely existed. Thankfully, Jordan Ryan caught the mistake. I correct myself in my contribution to the forthcoming Evil in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity, where I discuss the Magdala synagogue, stone, and another very interesting stone from the same site.) There's definitely a carving of images from the temple in Jerusalem on the "Magdala stone," one of which is a menorah. So we can be sure of these things. Whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene were there would have to remain speculative, but not unreasonable. Some scholarship:

    Mordechai Aviam, “The Decorated Stone from the Synagogue at Migdal: A Holistic In-terpretation and a Glimpse into the Life of Galilean Jews at the Time of Jesus,” NovT 55 (2013): 205–7; Mordechai Aviam, “Zwischen Meer und See—Geschichte und Kultur Galiläas von Simon Makkabäus bis zu Flavius Josephus,” in Bauern, Fischer und Propheten—Galiläa zur Zeit Jesu (ed. Jürgen K. Zangenberg and Jens Schröter; Darmstadt: Philipp von Zabern, 2012), 13–38; Donald D. Binder, “The Mystery of the Magdala Stone,” in City Set on a Hill: Essays in Honor of James F. Strange (ed. Daniel Warner and Donald D. Binder; Mountain Home: BorderStone, forthcoming 2014), n.p.; Marcela Zapata Meza, “Neue mexicanische Ausgrabungen in Magdala,” in Bauern, 85–98; Jordan Ryan, “Magdala,” Lexham Bible Dictionary (ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz; Logos, forthcoming):; Jürgen K. Zangenberg, “Archaeological News From the Galilee: Tiberias, Magdala and Rural Galilee,” Early Christianity 1 (2010): 475–8; as well as the entire volume of El Pensador 5 (2013), which is dedicated to the Magdala synagogue and site.

    1. Chris, you beat me to it!

      The LBD article you mentioned above is available now. The English-language publication on the site has been delayed, but should be available from Lexham Press sometime next year. There was also a popular level article I did for the May-June 2014 issue Bible Study Magazine, which has a reconstruction of the building.

    2. Sorry Jordan! Can you provide the correct links for any blog readers who might want to follow up? Some readers might also be interested in the relationship between this Magdala site and the earlier one. Could you speak to that a bit?

    3. Sure thing.

      The best place to start would be the Magdala Archaeology Project website: Links and articles can be found on the homepage. The 'El Pensador' articles are mostly in Spanish, although the one I contributed is in English, so that one might be worth a read for anyone (like myself) who doesn't read much Spanish.

      The experts mentioned in the article are probably the excavation directors, Arfan Najjar and Marcela Zapata Meza, since I recognize what is being said in the article as similar to things that I have heard from them. I have been an associate of the project since the 2012 season (see the list on the website), and I can confirm that the final phase of the synagogue was probably constructed during Jesus' time. The earliest coin that I know of for certain from that phase dates to 28 C.E., though I have heard recently that earlier coins have since been found. The synagogue was renovated sometime between 40-64 C.E., as an unfinished mosaic floor was added during that time. There is an earlier phase below the first-century one, which dates to the Hasmonean period, but it is not clear that the building was used as a synagogue at that time (see here:

      The older Franciscan excavation at Magdala that Chris is referring to here is still ongoing, and is adjacent to the ongoing excavation headed up by the IAA and the Mexican archaeologists from the Universidad Anahuac Sur. As it happens, the areas covered by both excavations belong to the same town, which was Magdala. There were further soundings done which indicate that Magdala was actually a massive town, much larger than was originally thought.

      I'd be happy to field any questions anyone has about the site.

    4. This speaks to something I've been saying for some time: the synagogue source book by Runesson, Binder, and Olsson, although only six years old and still the best place to start if one wants to get a sense of where studies of the ancient synagogue currently are at, is already out of date. It doesn't contain anything about the Magdala excavations because the synagogue simply hadn't been discovered at that point when the book was being assembled in 2006-2007. The problem synagogue studies is moving so fast that to stay reasonably up-to-date book of this sort would need near-annual updates.

  2. Anthony,

    I am glad to see broader New Testament scholarship taking note of developments in Second Temple synagogue scholarship. Such scholarship became aware of the Magdala synagogue several years ago, following its discovery in 2009. This, and the several other pre-70 synagogues now found in the Land, should hopefully fully put to rest the idea that no such buildings existed at that time.

  3. I wonder what language Jesus preached in, as the scriptures of the day were apparently from the Greek LXX. Many say Aramaic, but this seems unlikely because the gospels accounts seem to specifically mention when he speaks Aramaic and then revert back to the vernacular of the day, all the rest of the time.
    Which was ?