Exclusive! Major New Excavation Planned for Mary Magdalene’s Hometown
A major new excavation is being planned for the hometown of one of the most significant figures in the life of Jesus. Often referred to simply as the Magdalene, Mary Magdalene came from Magdala, an important fishing community on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The site is situated 4 miles north of Tiberias and 7 miles south of Capernaum, where Jesus himself spent much time and in whose synagogue he preached (Mark 1:21
; Luke 4:31
Today the site belongs to the Franciscan fathers and is not open to the public. It was partially excavated by Father Virgilio Corbo and Father Stanislao Loffreda in the 1970s. But not much has happened archaeologically since then. The excavation reports are all in Italian and little noticed.1
According to Luke 8:1–2
, when Jesus “went on through cities and villages [of Galilee], proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God,” Mary Magdalene was with him, along with his male disciples. Both Matthew and Mark record the names of three women who followed Jesus and ministered to him in Galilee and who thereafter in Jerusalem watched from afar as he was crucified. In both Matthew 27:55–56
and Mark 15:40–41
, Mary Magdalene heads the list of the three women. The Magdalene returned to the tomb on the third day, bringing spices to anoint the body, and discovered that the tomb was empty (Mark 16:1–8
; see also Matthew 28:1–7
; Luke 24: 1–9
; John 20:1
). It was Mary Magdalene who reported what she had seen to the other disciples (John 20:2
), and Jesus’ first appearance after his resurrection was to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11–18
Mary Magdalene is unusual in another respect. At that time, a woman, especially a woman with such a common name as Mary, was referred to in relation to her husband—for example, “Mary wife of Cleopas” (John 19:25
). In this same verse, however, our Mary is called Mary Magdalene—that is, Mary of the town of Magdala. This suggests that this Mary controlled her own property and funds. She was her own woman. Indeed, in Luke 8:2–3
we are told that the Magdalene was among those who provided for Jesus and his retinue “out of their [own] resources.”
Given the Magdalene’s prominence in the Gospels, it is surprising that so little attention has focused on the town from which she came and by which she is known.
Magdala is the Aramaic name of the site. The Arabic name of the site is Majdal, which obviously echoes the earlier Aramaic name. But the same place is referred to as Taricheaea by the Jewish historian Josephus and other ancient sources. The Hebrew form of the name is Migdol, which means “tower.” Taricheaea means “(salted) fish” in Greek, presumably the source of the town’s wealth.
Combining the two names—Magdala, meaning tower, and Taricheaea, meaning fish—suggests a (perhaps salted) fish tower.a
Indeed the site boasts an impressive extant tower over 20 feet high with walls 7 feet thick. It appears to be a water tower, siphoning water to the town from the springs to the west. A street 13 feet wide passes in front of the tower.
The excavations from the 1970s indicate that the town was founded in the late Hellenistic period, around the third or second century B.C.E. If Josephus’s city called Taricheaea is the same as Magdala, as seems highly likely, then Magdala suffered a major defeat in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 A.D). According to Josephus, the Roman general (and later emperor) Titus attacked the city from the sea. (A few arrowheads have been found near the shore.) The city attempted to defend itself in the only sea battle of the war. It was a disaster for the Jews. Six-thousand Jews were killed. Those who survived fled to Tiberias. The then-emperor Vespasian ordered 6,000 of the refugees from Magdala to be sent to build a canal in Greece and 30,400 to be sold as slaves.
The most impressive building uncovered in the 1970s Franciscan excavation was identified by Father Corbo as a small synagogue dating to Jesus’ time. The nearly square building measures approximately 30 feet on each side. It had rows of Doric columns on three sides and five incremental steps or benches on the fourth side. A water channel flows around the three columned walls. Just outside the building, beyond the steps, is a channel-fed pool. Was this pool added after the initial use of the building as a synagogue, as the excavator believes? Is it a mikveh
(Jewish ritual bath)? Is it a fish pool? Is it a pool to supply residents with fresh spring water? Ehud Netzer, one of Israel’s leading archaeologists of the period, believes that the building was never a synagogue, but was always a springhouse.b
In his interpretation, the benches are simply steps by which one entered the springhouse.
These are some of the questions that Father Stefano De Luca, who has been studying the site for several years and who will serve as field director of the new excavation, hopes to answer. The 36-year-old Franciscan priest from Bari, Italy, will work under the direction of the distinguished Franciscan scholar Father Michele Piccirillo.
In addition to excavating, the new team plans to conserve and restore many already-exposed features of the site, especially those elements that have deteriorated in the years since the last major excavation. The proposed budget for the work exceeds $350,000.—H.S.