When many people hear the name of Mary Magdalene, they automatically think of a prostitute.
But the Bible never indicates the female follower of Jesus was involved in any sexual sin.
What it does say is that she was the first person to see the risen Christ, and that she had previously been possessed by seven demons.
Now, excitement has been growing in recent years in the woman’s ancient hometown of Magdala, Israel, where archaeologists believe they’ve found a first century synagogue, prompting some to wonder whether Jesus Himself visited the building.
“It is likely that people who used this synagogue were witnesses to the multiplication of the loaves and other miracles depicted in the four Gospels,” says a promotional video at MagdalaCenter.com, a project looking to construct a hotel and worship complex in the area.
The dig has received some international publicity in recent days, with much interest focusing on what’s called the “Magdala Stone,” a large stone initially discovered in 2009 featuring intricate carvings on every side except its bottom.
One of the images on the stone is that of a menorah, and could be related to the ancient temple of God in Jerusalem. It’s believed to be the oldest menorah sculpted on stone ever discovered.
“This stone is really unique, we’ve never excavated anything like it,” Dina Gorni, one of two archaeologists from the Israeli Antiquities Authority working on the site, told Middle East journalist Irris Makler, who has been covering the story for the Global Mail and Public Radio International.
“It took me three days to believe what I was seeing, that we are standing in a synagogue from the time that the temple in Jerusalem was functioning. … That stone had power. You could feel it. We abandoned all the other areas and began digging here. Everything was near the surface, and everything was from the first century.”
“It is a kind of a miracle, I think,” Gorni continued. “We didn’t know there was any ancient material on this site. We knew of material further south, where there had been extensive excavations. We were only digging here as a precautionary measure before a building project began.”
The remains of the structure were just 20 inches beneath the topsoil, and no other towns had apparently been built over the ancient fishing village for two millennia. Magdala was located next to Capernaum, which is cited 16 times in the New Testament, saying Jesus resided there.
Gorni, herself a non-religious Jew, has been working the site with a Muslim archaeologist, Arfan Najjar.
Makler notes that both diggers give cautious support to the notion Jesus was there at some point.
“They point to the synagogue’s location and its size as marking it off from the rest of the town’s Jewish community,” Makler said. “It was on the outskirts of Magdala, in fact almost out of town. It was built for a congregation of 120, not the thousands who lived there, and was smaller and more highly decorated than the few other surviving synagogues from this period.”
Interestingly, the Book of Acts actually numbers Jesus’ disciples in the immediate aftermath of His death, resurrection and ascension to heaven, stating, “the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty.” (Acts 1:15)
“We believe, we suggest, that this was a special community, not large, that put itself at the edge of the main Jewish village. This community wanted to make their religious house different. They put money into it, into the decorations, into the special stone altar,” Gorni told Makler.
“They may be connected to Jesus and Mary Magdalene. We know that Jesus was not involved in the main Jewish community and preferred to live aside. Perhaps he was the leader around whom this synagogue was built.”
The man who originally sought to build on the site is Father Juan Maria Solana, director of Jerusalem’s Pontifical Institute.
“To be frank, I felt something about this place and this project, that it was impossible to explain,” Solana told Makler.
Scripture never specifies Jesus going to Magdala, but Solana says the discovery of the synagogue suggests a re-examination may be in order.
“From the Jewish point of view, the position is clear. It’s a first century synagogue, beautifully decorated, with pieces of art and an altar such has never been found in any other synagogue from that time. Never, ever,” Solana said.
“From the Christian point of view, we cannot doubt that Jesus would have been there sometime. The first Christian communities used to gather in the synagogues. They were observant Jews. So it’s clear that the first generation of Christians used to gather there.”