Magdala once likely populated by elite Jerusalemites

Jews may have taken refuge in historic community during Second Temple period persecution.

ARCHEOLOGISTS EXCAVATE the historic site of Magdala (photo credit: Courtesy)
ARCHEOLOGISTS EXCAVATE the historic site of Magdala
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The historic ancient town of Magdala, located on the western coastline of the Sea of Galilee, may have been inhabited by elite Jerusalemites who fled the capital amid Roman persecution during the Second Temple period, new research suggests.
The discovery, to be published in a book next year about the social and religious relationship between Magdala and Jerusalem during the first century, was made by Mexican archeologist Dr. Marcela Zapata-Meza.
Zapata-Meza, a professor at Anahuac Mexico University, worked in partnership with Dr. Adolfo Roitman, director of the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, who will help pen a chapter about the area where Josephus Flavius and Jesus once lived.
“Magdala has a rich cultural history for both Jews and Christians,” said Zapata- Meza, noting it is mentioned in the Talmud and Christian Bible.
“The archeology found in Magdala holds incredible significance to the events that once took place... and is at the crossroads of Jewish and Christian history.”
According to the researcher, the book will provide rare context about the social and religious influence Jerusalem had on first century Magdala, and the entire Galilee area.
The archeological excavations carried out there since 2010 exposed a large portion of the northern quarter of Magdala, primarily from the first century.
Among the evidentiary findings include the Magdala Stone (a miniature temple model); Jewish purification baths (mikvaot); chalk stone vessels used to purify water; oil lamps; and a shovel used to pick ember incense ashes at the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
“The site was the largest urban center on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee until the founding of Tiberias in 19 CE,” she said.
“It has been identified with the ancient city of Migdal Nunia (meaning fish tower), and Tarichaea (meaning the place of salted fish).”
Magdala is well known in Christian liturgy as the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, who was named at least a dozen times in the gospels where she is described as one of several women traveling with Jesus and his disciples.
Magdalene was also one of the witnesses of Jesus’s crucifixion, and according to Christianity, the first eyewitness of his resurrection.
Jesus, it is said, then commissioned her to inform his disciples and followers of his return.
Magdala was also the home and main headquarters of the Jewish leader Yosef Ben Matityahu, popularly known as the Roman historian Josephus Flavius.
Flavius was governor of the Galilee during the time of the Great Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE), and erected a defense wall around the city.
Josephus’s recordings of history, particualrly during the first century CE, are critical for understanding that time period of Jewish history.
According to his historical account, Magdala became a gathering place for rebels who defied the Romans.
“These people were not citizens of the city, but people who came from elsewhere throughout the region,” said Zapata-Meza.
“In 67 CE, Roman forces commanded by Vespasian reached Magdala and put siege to the city. After its fall, many of the rebels fled by boat, or were killed during battle in the Sea of Galilee. The Romans killed all the remaining inhabitants,” she noted.
Although there have been small settlements in the area over the centuries, Magdala was never reestablished.
Zapata-Meza contends that the oppression of the Jews by the Roman Empire could have suppressed Jewish traditions and religious law in Jerusalem, resulting in a migration of elite groups to the Galilee area.
“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,” Zapata-Meza postulates.
“The Magdala mikvaot have similar archeological context as the priestly residences uncovered at the Herodian Quarter in Jerusalem,” she added.
“The oil lamps are associated with the elite and the Temple of Jerusalem. We see them carved on the Magdala Stone as well.”
Since excavating the site, Zapata-Meza has written 26 chapters describing the lifestyle of Magdala’s inhabitants, as well as the possible social and religious influence between Magdala, Jerusalem and other towns.
“Research of several materials, architectural analysis and historical sources will be integrated into this book,” she said.
The interdisciplinary and interagency project was developed by a team of several universities and experts from Mexico, the US, Spain, Oslo and Israel.