The hometown of the most popular sinner of the New Testament may also have been the seat of one of the priestly families that fled Jerusalem to the Galilee after the fall of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans.
A combination of recent findings at Magdala — home of Jesus disciple Mary Magdalene (who was recently celebrated by Catholics on her July 22 feast day) and the Jewish historian Joseph Flavius — point to a developed priestly culture with echoes of ancient Jerusalem at the site.
The question scholars are now exploring is just how much of the Temple practice the priests took along with them when they fled.
In 2009, the Israel Antiquities Authority began salvage excavations of the site ahead of the construction of a proposed visitors center and hotel, and found an extremely rare early synagogue. As recorded in a May 2017 article in Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), “One of perhaps only eight synagogues identified so far in Israel as dating from the first century C.E., it provided one splendid find — the so-called Magdala Stone, a Torah reading table sculpted in stone with reliefs depicting a seven-branched menorah and possibly the Jerusalem Temple.”
The Stone, which is thought to be produced from an eye-witness account of the Temple and Holy of Holies, is considered one of the most impressive archaeological finds of the past half-century in Israel.
In addition to the depiction of the menorah, the sculpted Magdala Stone also has four horn-like protrusions that recall the horns of sacrificial altars. According to scholars, it is another link between the site and the contemporaneous “Temple cult” in Jerusalem. The stone was recently displayed in Rome as part of the “Menorah: Worship, History, Legend” exhibit produced in cooperation between the city’s Jewish Museum and the Vatican.
In seven years of intensive digs under Mexican archaeologist Marcela Zapata-Meza, the site of ancient Magdala has also yielded four ritual baths (mikva’ot) that “have similar archaeological context as the priestly residence uncovered at the Herodian Quarter in Jerusalem,” according to Zapata-Meza.
Thus far, in addition to the ritual baths and early synagogue, Zapata-Meza’s team has uncovered at Magdala a marketplace, fishing pools, mosaics, some 2,400 coins, a rich domestic area, wharf and harbor.
Additional findings pointing to priestly Temple-like use include chalk stone vessels that were used to keep purified water necessary for ritual purposes, oil lamps like those used by priests in Jerusalem, and a shovel that is an exact copy of the ones used to pick up ember incense ashes at the Temple, said Zapata-Meza, a researcher at Universidad Anáhuac México.
“The oil lamps are associated with the elite and the temple of Jerusalem — we see them carved on the Magdala Stone as well,” said Zapata-Meza.
As Jewish life in Jerusalem became increasingly untenable under the Roman invasion, it is hypothesized that the priestly classes left the city for the Galilee.
“In this context, we could imagine some of these groups migrating north, far from the dominant Roman occupation, looking for a place to follow their laws and traditions, like Magdala,” said Zapata-Meza.
This idea of priests fleeing to the Galilee has traditional and archaeological support.
“Theoretically, it is possible to connect the ritual baths or stone vessels found at various sites in the Galilee with priests who resided in those locales after 70 CE,” wrote Hebrew University Prof. Zeev Weiss in a 2012 essay. There are records of some priests becoming rabbis, and even today there are special roles for Cohanim (priests) in synagogue services.
However, Weiss disputed the idea that the priestly classes would be the only ones maintaining ritual purity in their new homes outside of Jerusalem.
In light of her findings at Magdala, Zapata-Meza is exploring more deeply the social and religious relationship between Magdala and Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, in particular the potential continuation of Temple practices outside of the Temple Mount. She and Shrine of the Book curator Dr. Adolfo Roitman are currently writing a book set for publication in 2018.
Where the ‘fisher of men’ met his loyal female disciple
Called Taricheae in ancient Greek texts, 2,000 years ago Magdala was a thriving city of fishing and industry along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. For Jesus and his disciples, fishing was a touchstone for religious metaphors. During Mary Magdalene’s time, ahead of its destruction in 67 CE, it would have reached a population of approximately 30,000, according to Joseph Flavius, once a governor of the area.
In his Jewish War, Josephus Flavius tells of Titus “leaping on his horse” and riding through water to conquer the city as “rebels” boarded boats and fled. (Interestingly, the Talmud explains the fall of Magdala as being due to the “moral depravity” of its residents.)
Magdala stands in many ways at the crossroads between Jewish, Roman and Christian history of 2,000 years ago. Although some 800 ancient ritual baths have been discovered in Israel, the four uncovered at Magdala are the only ones found in “gentile cities,” wrote Zapata-Meza in a 2017 BAR article. Additionally, she wrote, most Jewish residents in cities surrounding the Sea of Galilee would more likely have used the lake for ritual purification.
The ritual baths at Magdala were uniquely filled with groundwater, not collected rain water or other natural spring systems. According to Zapata-Meza, this sophisticated plumbing “is one more proof that Magdala was at the forefront of regional commerce and culture in the first century.”
In short, fit for a priest.