Off the Beaten Track: For Christians and Jews alike

The archeological site of Migdal in the Galilee has a rich historical background and connections to Judaism and Christianity.

Golan Heights 370 (photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Golan Heights 370
(photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
While traveling along Lake Kinneret, Christian and Jewish histories become inseparable. Sometimes while driving along the stretch of Route 90 along the lake’s western shore I find myself diving head first into the roots of Christianity even if I am guiding people who have no interest in hearing about Jesus and his disciples. After all Jesus, his disciples and their first followers were mostly all Jews who lived in the Galilee. Instead of ignoring this chapter of history in the Land of Israel during a Jewish focused trip, I feel it is important to put the story in its correct context of the first centuries BCE and CE.
While driving from Tiberias to Safed and passing the relatively new archeological site of Migdal with a family of orthodox Jews, I found myself stopping the van at this site which primarily interests people of the various Christian faiths.
“Why are we stopping here?” asked the family patriarch.
“Well, recently a first century BCE synagogue was found here, which is currently one of the oldest known synagogues in the world. I thought you might want to see it,” I replied.
With which he responded: “Sounds good. What is the name of this place?”
I explained that in Hebrew we call it Migdal which means “tower”, the Christians call it Magdala and believe it was the birthplace and burial site of Mary Magdalene so it is an important site for them as her hometown and as a site where Jesus and the disciples visited and preached.
“So it’s a Christian site?” asked the father.
While this is true, I explained that it is also a Jewish site as it was a large Jewish agricultural and fishing village on the shores of Lake Kinneret starting in the early Second Temple Period until the Arab conquest of the Middle East in the seventh century CE.
We parked and headed over to the ancient synagogue, which is currently being refurbished. About a year ago one was able to go inside but today it is only accessible through the new Magdala Center which is under construction nearby and run by the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem.
You can go up to the synagogue and walk around its 120 meter squared perimeter in the shade. The synagogue walls once boasted frescoes and the floor mosaics. Some of the finds here and in the city under excavation are truly fascinating, including the Jerusalem-facing synagogue, a possible altar depicting a seven branch menorah on a four pronged pedestal and various canals using the Kinneret water to supply fish ponds and mikvehs (ritual baths). There are also piers into the lake for boats, the main road of the city as well as part of the Via Dolorosa which was the main highway linking Egypt and Mesopotamia in antiquity.
Migdal is well known in history for one specific period: the first century CE.
“He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied.
Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand, besides women and children.  After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magdala.” - Matthew 14:39, New Testament (NIV).
After sailing across the lake to Migdal, Jesus and his disciples were confronted by the “Pharisees” for his “…disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” – Matthew 15:1.Classic debates between Jewish sects and between different rabbis from different schools of thought make up much of the Jewish traditions outlined in the Talmud. This debate between Jesus and “Pharisees” can be considered to be of the same vein. It is important to note that in the first century the term “Pharisee” was a derogatory term used against Jews who supposedly followed the Rabbinical interpretations and traditions of the Torah outwardly in public but secretly did not. In other words, Pharisee meant Hypocrite. Today when we use the term Pharisee we are speaking about Rabbinical Judaism from the Talmudic period. Later interpretations of this event and other similar ones were used by the enemies of the Jewish people to say that all Jews went against Jesus when in actuality these discussions amongst learned Jews are simply that: discussions. Any orthodox Jew knows this.
In the decades leading up to the Great Revolt (66-74 CE) the Romans increased taxes of the Jews to unbearable rates and began colonization efforts creating pagan centers all over the Land of Israel. Tension grew yearly between pagans and Jews which finally exploded in a revolt in the 66 CE. Flavius Josephus, Jewish rebel general turned Roman historian, claims that he himself fortified the city of Migdal against the oncoming roman onslaught.
The people of Migdal revolted against Rome in 66 CE and the rebels from Tiberias fled there during Vespasian’s conquest of that city. In 67 CE the Jewish rebels retreated from the city in fishing boats after the collapse of the city’s walls but the Roman legionnaires pursued on rafts, slaughtering the Jews and dumping their bodies into the lake. Around 6,700 Jews were killed in the battle and 5,000 of the city’s young Jews were sent to Nero in Rome as slaves. In nearby Kibbutz Ginnosar a boat excavated nearby, which was probably one of the fishing boats used in this battle can be viewed in an excellent museum.

Joe Yudin
became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land  of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.