Editor's note: This is a longer version than the one featured in the print edition.
On the road from Nazareth, Cana and Tiberias to Capernaum lies Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene, by the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Mary of Magdala was the first person to see the risen Lord; we celebrate her feast on July 22. Here, in September 2009, archeologists unearthed the first synagogue ever discovered in Galilee from the time of Jesus.
"The probability is very high that Jesus was in this synagogue," says Legion of Christ Father Eamon Kelly, the Irish priest who serves as vice chargé of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center in the Holy Land. "It’s so high that it’s almost certain."
This is a very special place to visit in the Holy Land. Visitors are welcome from 8am to 6pm, seven days a week. From 8am to 1pm, visitors can watch volunteer archaeologists as they carefully uncover the first-century A.D. synagogue — and, indeed, the whole town of Magdala, the Aramaic name for the town that now appears on maps in Israel by its Hebrew name, Migdal.
The archeological endeavor is special because a Catholic initiative led Israeli archeologists to discover a Jewish synagogue. The synagogue and town were discovered when archeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) were digging up the site where the Legionaries of Christ were about to begin building the Magdala Center, which will include a center with a Catholic church and an ecumenical chapel where Protestant and Orthodox Christians can worship, as well as a restaurant and hotel.
Israeli law requires excavation of sites before building projects can proceed. So far, the excavation project has drawn 550 volunteers from more than 20 countries
"God has entrusted me with this work, and God is in charge of what happens with this project," Arfan Najar, an Israeli Arab with a Muslim background, who has been a key archaeologist on the site, told me when I visited Magdala last summer with my wife and daughter. The cooperation between Najar and the director of the excavation, Dina Avshalom-Gorni, an Israeli Jewish woman, and the others on the site is "a great exemplification of the living together that happens in the Holy Land — and all you hear about [from the mainstream press] is the negative," Father Kelly says.
It is a big job. "We have about 12 acres to dig, so there are years and years of work to do," Father Kelly says.
The Magdala Center’s 20.5-acre site is adjacent to a site owned by the Franciscans that presently is not open to the public, although it probably will open soon.
It was Providential that the synagogue was discovered precisely where the Magdala Center’s ecumenical chapel originally was planned to be built. In the very place where the Catholic leaders of the project planned a chapel, “as a gesture of openness” to non-Catholic Christians, here is where “our older brothers and sisters” in the faith, the Jews, worshipped 2,000 years ago, Father Kelly says.
In the first century A.D., the Jewish followers of Jesus assembled in the synagogues. Jesus himself "went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people," St. Matthew tells us (4:23).
The word syn-agogue means “together-leading,” “leading together” or assembly place; synagogues were places not only of worship, but also of public assembly for teaching and meetings. Later, St. Paul would first meet with the Jews in the synagogues.
In the synagogues of Jesus’ and Mary Magdalene’s time, there was no physical division between Christian and Jew or among Christians. This makes the synagogue at Magdala “a beautiful icon of what we share in common,” Father Kelly says.
Where Jesus Walked
It’s breathtaking to come to a synagogue where Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ disciples most likely walked.
The floor is made of mosaic tiles. The archaeologists unearthed a stone on which is engraved the first seven-branched menorah discovered from the time before the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
The synagogue at Magdala is one of only seven synagogues in the world known to date from the Second Temple period (50 B.C. to 100 A.D.), according to the IAA.
The stone adorned with the menorah, or candelabrum, is in the middle of the synagogue. Also in the main hall of the synagogue are stone benches, which were built up against the walls of the hall. Here, the people sat and listened; they listened to Our Lord, if he spoke here. The mosaic floors are well preserved. There’s also an anteroom outside the main hall where observant Jews may have studied the Torah.
The great thing about visiting Magdala is that you have a chance to talk with the archaeologists who are unearthing the town. I recommend that you call (057-226-1469) or email (email@example.com) beforehand to alert the archaeologists, although that’s not essential; what made our visit particularly notable was having Arfan Najar explain the synagogue and the town to us.
The day we visited, Najar was particularly excited by the discovery of a six-petaled rosette ornamenting a stone.
You can see the remains of the town of Magdala in the low stone walls of the shops and homes laid out next to the old streets (see photo). Also in the town are three mikvahs, baths used by the Jews for ritual cleansing (purification). When a volunteer archaeologist recently freed up a canal between the three of them, the water began flowing between the baths just as it did 2,000 years ago.
Seaport and Papal Blessings
The archaeologists have found the remains of a first-century port on the Sea of Galilee. Magdala was "the principal center of the fishing industry" in the first-century A.D., the Times Atlas of the Bible states.
“Who got on and off the boats at the port? Definitely the disciples; probably Mary Magdalene; possibly Jesus,” Father Kelly says.
Later, Magdala was a base of Flavius Josephus when he led the Jews in revolt against the Romans. Josephus assembled all the ships on the lake there — all 230 of them — and sailed with his followers to Tiberias. Josephus calls Magdala by its Greek name, Taricheae. Later, the Romans crushed the Jewish revolt and burned the temple in 70 A.D.
After several years of drought, the rains returned to Galilee in 2012 and 2013, so that the lake’s water level is up to the site of the Magdala Center’s provisional boat-shaped altar, where groups of pilgrims can celebrate Mass.
The rains come in the winter, and, although they have been a blessing to the people of Galilee, they also cause mud, which covers up the excavation areas and then has to be removed. Rain is rare in the summer, which aids the excavation work, but then the volunteers must deal with the heat.
In 2004, Pope John Paul II asked the Legionaries of Christ to take over the running of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame Center of Jerusalem, where we stayed during our pilgrimage. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI visited the center for an interreligious dialogue during his eight-day pilgrimage to Jordan and Israel and blessed the commemorative cornerstone for the Magdala Center.
Now Bartholomew I, the patriarch of Constantinople and leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, has invited Pope Francis to join him in the Holy Land to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras, patriarch of Constantinople, which took place on Jan. 5, 1964, at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
As a result of their meeting in 1964, the pope and the patriarch later issued a declaration in which they revoked the mutual excommunications of 1054 and said that they “regret and wish to erase from the memory and midst of the Church the sentences of excommunication ... and to consign them to oblivion.”
If Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew do come to Israel in January 2014, the Magdala Center is likely to consecrate the center during that visit instead of at the end of the Year of Faith, as originally planned.
In its pastoral recommendations for this Year of Faith, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith encourages “pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the place which first saw the presence of Jesus, the Savior and Mary, his Mother” — and we can add St. Mary Magdalene.
“No matter what’s happening” elsewhere in the Middle East, “it’s very safe to make a peaceful pilgrimage in the Holy Land,” Father Kelly affirms.
“Why does Providence, at the beginning of the 21st century, allow all of us to have this new treasure at Magdala?” asks Father Kelly. “It certainly is an impulse to continue on the path of mutual understanding, respect and communion.”
The commemorative stone blessed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 describes the Pope as “a pilgrim of hope and peace”; the mission of the Magdala Center, it says, is “to proclaim the Gospel to the people and build Christ’s Kingdom.”
After touring the excavations at Magdala, we drove up north to the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha and the Church of the Primacy of Peter and Capernaum, the base of Jesus’ ministry.
“Eighty percent of Jesus’ ministry took place here at the northwest part of the lake, between Magdala and Capernaum and Bethsaida,” Father Kelly says. Capernaum has the ruins of a synagogue that dates from after Jesus’ time. Our Lord probably taught at an earlier synagogue at the same site.
Two trails, the Jesus Trail and the Gospel Trail, lead pilgrims from Nazareth to the lake. Both come out at the Sea of Galilee near Magdala at the Wadi Hamam, by Mount Arbel.
“It’s very telling that both trails, although they take different tracks earlier, end up through this wadi” near Magdala, says Father Kelly. “This says: This is the way you walk from Nazareth to the lake,” which is also called the Sea of Tiberias or the Lake of Gennesaret.
Almost every day during our pilgrimage, in the early afternoon, a strong wind blew off the Sea of Galilee, reminding us of the violent storm that terrified Jesus’ disciples. It was here that Jesus awakened and "rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm" (Matthew 8:26).
The Holy Land brings the Gospels to life. Now, as we read Scripture, we can picture the places and terrain where Jesus and his disciples walked; the biblical places and people have become real to us.
Bryan Berry writes from