2nd-Temple-period synagogue found where Gospel’s Mary Magdalene was born

The building is the second synagogue from the time uncovered in Migdal, a prominent Jewish settlement that was also the main base of Flavius Josephus, historian and anti-Roman rebel commander.

 Magdala stone exhibited for the first time in Israel at Yigal Allon Center  (photo credit: EINAT AMBAR ARMON/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
Magdala stone exhibited for the first time in Israel at Yigal Allon Center
(photo credit: EINAT AMBAR ARMON/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

A 2,000-year-old synagogue was discovered in the ancient Jewish settlement of Migdal in Galilee, the second synagogue from the Second Temple Period uncovered in the town, also known as Magdala. The location is prominently featured both in the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus’ writings, and as the birthplace of Mary Magdalene in the Gospels.

“The discovery of a second synagogue in this Galilean settlement casts light on the social and religious lives of the Jews in the area in this period, and reflects a need for a dedicated building for Torah reading and study and for social gatherings,” said Dina Avshalom-Gorni, one of the directors of the excavations. “We can imagine Mary Magdalene and her family coming to the synagogue here, along with other residents of Migdal, to participate in religious and communal events.”

According to the Gospels, Mary Magdalene – also known as Mary from Magdala – was one of the women who traveled with Jesus and witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection.

In the first century CE, Migdal was also the main base of Yosef ben Matityahu (Flavius Josephus), who served as commander of the rebellion against the Romans in Galilee before he surrendered to them and eventually obtained Roman citizenship.

 Ancient synagogue uncovered in Migdal, Galilee. (credit: COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA) Ancient synagogue uncovered in Migdal, Galilee. (credit: COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)

The first synagogue was uncovered in the Migdal in 2009, when an excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority unearthed Jewish ritual baths (mikvaot), streets, a marketplace and industrial facilities. A unique artifact stood in the middle of the synagogue’s main hall: a large stone portraying the Second Temple of Jerusalem, with a carved seven-branched menorah on one of its sides. It represented a crucial discovery because the depiction was engraved in the stone when the temple was still standing.

“The fact that we have found two synagogues shows that the Jews of the Second Temple period were looking for a place for religious, and perhaps also social, gatherings,” said Zinman Institute head Prof. Adi Erlich. “The stone bearing a relief of the Menorah from the other synagogue at Migdal, suggests that the local Jews saw Jerusalem as their religious center, and their local activities took place under this centrality.”

The newly discovered synagogue was shaped as a square and built in basalt and limestone. It featured a main hall and two other rooms. The main hall was coated in white plaster and featured a stone bench along the walls, also coated in plaster. One of the smaller rooms presented a stone shelf. According to the experts it might have been used to store Torah scrolls.

“The synagogue we are excavating now is close to the residential street, whereas the one excavated in 2009 was surrounded by an industrial area,” Erlich also said. “Thus the local synagogues were constructed within the social fabric of the settlement.”

The excavation was initiated as a salvage excavation prior to construction works at the Migdal intersection. According to Israeli law, all development projects need to be accompanied by such an excavation.