David and I are once again in Israel, the “Beautiful Land,” as the prophet Daniel described it.
There are a series of famous towns along the Galilee, at least to us who are avid Bible readers. One of those towns, Magdala, will instantly ring a bell. Here, a woman named Mary, beset by seven demons, was released for all eternity from her torment by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Soon afterward [Jesus] went on through one town and village after another, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities:
– Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,
– and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza,
– and Susanna,
– and many others,
who ministered to them out of their own resources.Luke 8:1-3 (NRSV)
Mary’s astonishing story as a traveling disciple with Jesus, as a close friend of Jesus’s family, and as the first apostle of the Gospel, is written in all four Gospels.
As you have probably guessed, Migdal shows up in the Book of Joshua as the tribe of Naphtali’s inheritance, being part of the region of Galilee. It is described as a fortified town, and has an intriguing suffix, Migdal-el, the generic word for any god in Hebrew. I wonder if it is a hint that even from the beginning, the people of Migdal were spiritually minded.
A Surprising Find
Archaeologists are discovering Magdala seems to have been an especially spiritual place, considering the town supported two synagogues in the first century CE, predating the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple mount in 70 CE. The first synagogue to be discovered was in a public area, and a second synagogue has recently been revealed in a residential area, only two hundred meters from the first synagogue.
In fact, this is the first time two synagogues from this time period (when the Jerusalem temple was still fully functioning) have been found in the same settlement, bringing up questions about the religious and spiritual lives of people living in Magdala, in the Galilee, and really in Judea. It seems many people wanted to gather together regularly for worship and prayer, and though the temple held a central place, for those who lived farther away the synagogue became an integral part of life.
The Migdal Synagogue, where the Magdala Stone was found, was discovered first.
The Migdal Synagogue
In 2009, before a developer could put in a guesthouse and grounds near the already oft-visited current-day chapel at Migdal Beach, Israel, Duc In Altum, a salvage excavation had to be scheduled. In Israel (and Germany as well), no new building can start without first making sure antiquities are not hidden in that site. Am sure the developer had mixed feelings about their project being put on hold, but in the long run, it was a delightful and wonderful discovery to find Magdala’s first-century house of worship.
Now, the guest house is built alongside the still-active excavation, and—imagine this!—you can literally step from the hotel lobby back through two thousand years into the world of Mary Magdalene.
The synagogue is not that large, about thirteen hundred square feet, with stone benches that line the walls. Remnants of colorful frescoes and intricately designed mosaic floors speak of the love and care that went into its construction.
Magdala’s second house of worship, unearthed in 2021, is square-shaped and constructed of basalt and limestone blocks. Its main hall, and two smaller rooms (one seems to have housed their scrolls), is a bit plainer in appearance, though it also had brightly decorated walls.
As we walked along the excavated area, David and I counted at least three mikvoth, more testimony to the people’s commitment to their spiritual lives.
A mikveh (plural mikvoth) is a pool of living water—water that moves such as collected rain water or moving river water—in which a person can immerse themselves for ritual cleansing.
This mikveh was in Magdala.
Current-Day House of Worship
Dedicated at least in part to the women disciples who followed Jesus, and ministered, the Duc In Altum is right next to the Magdala Excavation. All around the entryway are beautiful marble pillars dedicated to Biblical women, and women in the early centuries of the church.
Duc In Altum draws its name from Luke 5:4 where Jesus instructs Simon Peter to “launch into the deep” or “put out into deep water.”
Duc In Altum provides a place for prayer, teaching and worship for Christians of all backgrounds and denominations. The building is dedicated to the public life of Jesus, his transforming encounters, and honors the women of the Bible and all women of faith through its Women´s Atrium.Duc In Altum
Taking her by the hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl stood up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.Mark 5:41-42 (NRSV)
Years later, the apostle Peter remembered each detail of this astounding miracle and did everything as Jesus had done. Through his prayer the Lord raised up Tabitha.
Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be aliveActs 9:40-41 (NRSV)
“Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them that he had said these things to her.John 20:17-18 (NRSV)
As we walked through the chapel, we admired the frescoes of scenes from scripture, read the names of women disciples on the marble pillars, and stopped in the sanctuary to gaze at the replica of the Galilee Boat, thinking about Jesus and His ministry. In locations like this, it is easy to get a sense of the sacredness of a place.
In a strange way, it felt like being home.