Deeper Dive: A look inside the Galilean town of Magdala

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What do we know about the first-century village of Magdala? Not much is said about this town in the Bible, but a few conclusions can be drawn because of its geographic location. Archeologists are also making amazing discoveries in this town that reveal an industry that was thriving in the time of Jesus; an industry that we read about on several occasions in scripture.

Let’s dive and look at a few highlights that will help add perspective to what we read in the gospels.

Synagogue:

In September 2009, during the beginning stages of construction of a pilgrimage center, a piece of construction machinery hit rock while digging on the dusty shores of the Sea of Galilee. People had long known a town existed in this area, but nothing of this magnitude had been discovered before then. As it turned out, that rock happened to be a stone table, used for holding Old Testament scrolls, which was sitting in the middle of a first-century Jewish synagogue. That stone went on to be referred to as the “Magdala Stone”. Construction stopped immediately and excavation began on what would later become the discovery of one of the most intact first-century synagogues in all of the land of Israel.  In nearly pristine condition, archeologists discovered frescos on the walls, intricate mosaic tile floors and a traditional perimeter seating area which is the signature of a Jewish synagogue during the time of Jesus (and beyond)! Did the Messiah step foot in this synagogue? Did he stand in front of the ornate Magdala Stone and teach? We can’t say with 100% confidence, but we can look at a verse in Matthew that points to that possibility. In Matthew 4:23 we read:

“And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”

Even though we can’t know for sure if Jesus visited the synagogue at Magdala, this very well could have been one of his stops. The town of Magdala is located only about six miles from the city of Capernaum, Jesus’ home base during his ministry.

Fishing Industry:

Often times, we don’t give the people who lived thousands of years ago much credit for their hard work and ingenuity. Magdala had a robust fishing industry that fed off of the Sea of Galilee and fishermen, like several of the apostles, who would bring their catch to this port town. Evidence of that industry can be seen in the excavation of a marketplace near the synagogue.  Deep wells inside show the engineering feat that was needed to preserve these fish. The town was known for its dried fish. Josephus, the famous historian near the time of Christ, speaks of a wealthy Galilean city with the Greek name “Taichaeae”, known for its fisheries. In scripture, we can’t find any references to the fishing industry here but we can gain a little understanding when we hear the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. In Matthew 14:15-19 we see Jesus multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish and feeding thousands of people who had come to hear him teach. We can conclude the fish were in some way preserved because the passage tells us it was evening and unless someone had recently caught those fish, they wouldn’t have been fresh very long.  The town of Magdala was known for its cured fish factory. We can only speculate, but maybe the fish Jesus multiplied in that miracle, were preserved or sold in Magdala.

Magdala’s most well-known resident:

One thing most scholars are certain of is the tie of Mary Magdalene to the town of Magdala. It was quite common in those days for you to be known by your hometown (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth). It was sort of like an identifier. Mary was a Jewish woman and follower of Jesus, who often followed him when he traveled around the region. We know, from scripture, that she was possessed by seven demons at one point in her life. Mark 16:9:

“Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons.”

We also know she witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and from that same passage in Mark, we see that she was the first person that Jesus appeared to after his resurrection from the dead. Could it have been possible Mary heard Jesus speak while sitting in her hometown synagogue in Magdala,? Yes, it’s very possible. Within the four gospel accounts, Mary Magdalene is named at least a dozen times, which is more than most of the apostles. She was a woman working hard for God!      

As you can see, there is a rich history in the town of Magdala, a history that no doubt intersects with it’s neighbor to the north, Capernaum. Every year more and more evidence is being unearthed in the Galilee region that further verifies the words of the Bible to be true.  

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