By Alina Dain Sharon
When Father Juan Solana, a Catholic priest, wanted to construct a guest house for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land in the Galilee region in 2009, he couldn’t have imagined he’d become the leader of incredible archaeological findings, exposing the rich Christian and Jewish history of the area.
The findings include the remains of a first century synagogue, dated to the Second Temple period and the time of Jesus’s life.
Solana was sent to Israel by the Vatican in 2004 to direct the Holy See for the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center.
In 2009, the Mexican-born priest received a building permit for his guest house on plots of land near northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (“Kinneret” in Hebrew), and the Israeli city of Migdal. The town is named after the ancient town of Magdala, which was known as Migdal Nunia (“fish tower”) and by the Greek name Taricheae (“place of salted fish”). Magdala was the largest urban center on the Sea of Galiliee’s west coast before Tiberias was founded in 19 CE. For Christians, the town is significant because it is thought that Mary Magdalene, as her name suggests, came from Magdala.
As part of the permit process Israeli law required an archaeological evaluation of the site, which led to a “few of the most important archaeological discoveries in Israel” in the past 50 years, Solana told JNS.org.
“The site is significant since it only keeps one layer of history, unlike other towns around in Galilee,” Solana explained. “It (also) has a strong connection with the (Roman-Jewish) historian Josephus Flavious,” who came from the city and is also known by the Hebrew name Yosef ben Matityahu. Flavious was governor of the Galilee region during the Great Jewish Revolt in 66-73 CE, during which time the town was a gathering place for Jewish rebels. The Romans destroyed the city in 67 CE.
More broadly, the findings at Magdala shed light on first century life, religious practices, and architecture.
The site was excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in 2009, and since 2010 in conjunction with a Mexican team from the Anahuac University of Mexico and the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
“Archaeology helps to enlighten one of the most important periods of history, the relationship between gathering places with the daily life of its inhabitants,” Marcela Zapata-Meza, PhD, from the Anahuac University of Mexico told JNS.org.
“The research done so far contributes to an enriched description of the earliest synagogues and ancient Judaism,” which makes it “possible to understand the trade routes (of a community, and) the role of a community spread (across) the country but unified by religious law,” she said.
Magdala, where Christianity began
Some researchers speculate that Jesus, who was Jewish, may have taught in this synagogue. Solana explained that Magdala was “most likely, a place where Jesus could encounter Mary Magdalene” and heal her, as outlined in Matthew 4:23. The scripture states that Jesus “went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people,” according to the King James version of the bible.
According to Solana, this makes “Magdala the capital of the first followers of Jesus. We are talking about the beginning of Christianity. It was a time wherein Jews and Christians shared daily life, they would be from the same families and may have gathered together at the synagogues and in their homes. It was a significant time for Jews, as for Christians. Therefore, Magdala is defined as (the) ‘Crossroads of Jewish and Christian History.’’
Inside the synagogue’s ruins, archaeologists had also discovered what has become known as the Magdala Stone, a stone block with carvings depicting the Second Temple, likely created by an artist who had seen the temple. They also found the remains of an ancient marketplace and fishermen’s quarters, and most recently – in the summer of 2016 – a domestic water installation and water channel from the same Second Temple period located in the back of a market shop that was likely used as a Jewish ritual purification bath (Miqweh) for its owner, or as a source of underground drinking water.
“Based on the architectural evidence we can say that Magdala was a settlement that prior its establishment was thought and planned according to the water supply (as were many other sites in antiquity). Galilee is a fertile area, and the Kinneret is the main source of water, but also all the rivers and underground water that feed the lake,” Zapata-Meza said.
The newly discovered canal will lead researchers to further study soil samples from the area to make more precise judgments on how the canal was used.
“To find miqwa'ot around the lake reinforces the theory of a population that were religiously observant. Along with these water installations identified as miqwa'ot, there are more than 10 small water installations fed with underground water, and (built) with a similar construction style,” Zapata-Meza said.
Along with the multi-cultural excavation and research team, multi-faith archaeologists have also been involved. Arfan Njjar, an Israeli-Muslim archeologist who co-managed the dig of Magdala through the IAA, told JNS.org “the people of Magdala were powerful and smart enough to develop such water installations.”
When Pope Francis visited Israel in 2014 he also toured the Magdala site.
Other items discovered on the site include an oil lamp and Second Temple-period pottery. Also, this summer, archaeologists excavated more than 200 Herodian and Hasmonean coins, as well as a bronze incense shovel, which “is one of 10 others known in the country from the Second Temple period," archaeologist Dina Avshalom-Gorni of the IAA said in a statement.
"From early research in the world, it was thought the incense shovel was only used for ritual purposes, care for the embers and incense that were burnt in ritual ceremonies. Over the years, after incense shovels were also discovered in non-cultic context,” it was found they ”were also used as tools for daily tasks,” she said.
These items are being studied by more than 40 Israeli and international volunteers and researchers from institutions around the world.
“We need to keep digging to understand more about the town. We have dug so far 20 percent and there is another 80 percent under our feet,” Njjar said.