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Walking in the Synagogue at Magdala

This is a site to which we generally take our Octagon Tour groups.

Location - Magdala

Map Coordinates - 32.826949, 35.513593

Magdala was one of a ribbon of villages that encircled Lake Galilee in the first century. The city is mentioned only once in the Bible, in Matthew 15:39, which states that Jesus came to the region of Magadan.

Throughout the centuries the fame of this town rested on one famous person - Mary Magdalene, of whom Jesus cast out seven demons (Luke 8:2). Magdala is widely recognized as the hometown of Mary Magdalene, who was so named in the Gospels because she was either from Magdala, or she was born there.

Who was Mary Magdalene?

All four Gospels refer to Mary Magdalene. The Gospel writer Luke lists her first among the women who accompanied Jesus and supported His ministry from their own resources (Luke 8:2, 3). Legend has it that the robes worn by Jesus at the time of his crucifixion were made in Magdala.

After Jesus died Mary was one of the women who watched to see where He was buried (Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47), and who took spices on Sunday morning to anoint Him in the tomb (The Merged Gospels story, 288).

Later the resurrected Jesus appeared first to Mary (Mark 16:9). Initially she thought He was the gardener, but she soon recognized Him when He spoke her name. Then she announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”. (John 20:1-18)

Mary Magdalene.

Mary’s identity became confused in 591 AD. In that year Pope Gregory the Great gave a sermon that expressed his belief that Mary Magdalene was the same person as the penitent prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment (Luke 7:37-50), and also Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume (John 12:3-8). Mary Magdalene has also been confused with the woman who was caught in the act of adultery at the Temple (John 8:2-11). To be clear, there is no Scriptural evidence that supports these associations.

There is a legend that claims that Mary Magdalene had traveled to southern France and died there. A Greek legend says that she died in Ephesus.

The Synagogue.

Jesus reminded Annas, the high priest, that He only taught in the synagogues (Story #268 of The Merged Gospels). Because of its proximity to Capernaum, it is most likely that He was in the Magdala synagogue at least once.

One of the remarkable things about this synagogue is that the mosaic tiles laid here were constructed in the first century. In addition, in the center of the synagogue was discovered a cuboid stone, with a relief of a seven-branched menorah on a triangular base, dating from dating to the Second Temple period (50 BC-70 AD). This is the first time that a menorah decoration had been discovered dating from the time when the Temple was still standing, and it is assumed that it was done by an artist who saw the seven-branched menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem with his own eyes.

What happened to Magdala?

Magdala was one of the largest towns on the lake at the time of Jesus. Josephus reports that Magdala had a population of 40,000 people and a fleet of 230 boats about 30 years after Jesus died. Excavations have uncovered the remains of a sprawling Roman city with mansions, paved streets and a thermal bath complex.

However, some 34 years after Jesus' crucifixion, Magdala suffered a tragic blow. In 67 AD, soon after the First Jewish revolt against Rome erupted, Magdala was defeated by the Romans. Josephus recounts that the city was conquered with much bloodshed by the Roman army commanded by Titus.

Since Magdala was a center of boat building, many of the residents fled to the lake in their vessels. A great battle resulted with a total of 6,500 Jews slaughtered in the lake and on land. Josephus describes how the lake became "all bloody, and full of dead bodies." Titus' father, the emperor Vespasian, then decreed that the remaining citizens would not be spared. The old and infirm were slaughtered and thousands of the city's strongest were given to Nero as slaves. The remaining thousands were sold in the slave markets. (Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 3, Chapter 10)

Somehow, Magdala continued on as a city. In the following Roman Period, there were several villas built on the Roman model, with baths and mosaics, and the main street, or cardo maximus, was paved.

The First Church Here.

In the 4th century a church was built on the reputed site of Mary Magdalene’s house. Destroyed in the 7th century, it was rebuilt by Crusaders in the 12th century but was converted into a stable when the Crusaders were expelled from the Holy Land.

A painting on display at the Magdala Chapel, depicting the woman with a hemorrhage reading out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment (The Merged Gospels, story 48).

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