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First-century Synagogue Discovered on Site of Legion’s Magdala Center in Galilee
Synagogue and menorah decoration date from the time of Jesus and the apostles.

Magdala center synagogue
An aerial picture of the synagogue. Photograph: Skyview Company, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

September 11, 2009. Magdala (Galilee), Israel. The Legion’s planned Magdala Center is located on a piece of land that has just revealed a rare archaeological treasure: one of the oldest synagogues in the world, with traces of frescos and decorations dating from the time of Christ and the apostles.

The synagogue was discovered during excavations on the land of the future Magdala Center, whose cornerstone Pope Benedict XVI blessed this past May 11 during his visit to the Holy Land.

An exciting and unique find

The excavations, directed by archaeologists Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar of the Israel Antiquities Authority, unearthed two significant findings: a synagogue from the Second Temple period (50 BC-100 AD), and in the middle of the synagogue, a stone engraved with a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum), the likes of which have never been seen before.

The main hall of the synagogue is c. 120 square meters (c. 1300 square feet) in area and its stone benches, which served as seats for the worshippers, were built up against the walls of the hall. Its floor was made of mosaic and its walls were treated with colored plaster (frescos). A square stone, the top and four sides of which are adorned with reliefs, was discovered in the hall. The stone is engraved with a seven-branched menorah set atop a pedestal with a triangular base, which is flanked on either side by amphora (jars).

Excavation director, Dina Avshalom-Gorni of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said that this synagogue is one of only
view of the stone with menorah
Picture of the decorated stone. Photographic credit: Moshe Hartal, Israel Antiquities Authority.
seven in the world dating from the Second Temple Period. Most likely, it was destroyed during the period of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the years 66 and 70 A.D.

She also noted that the discovery of the menorah decoration is the first of its kind.

“We are dealing with an exciting and unique find,” she said. “This is the first time that a menorah decoration has been discovered from the days when the Second Temple was still standing. This is the first menorah to be discovered in a Jewish context and that dates to the Second Temple period/beginning of the Early Roman period. We can assume that the engraving that appears on the stone, which the Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered, was done by an artist who saw the seven-branched menorah with his own eyes in the Temple in Jerusalem.”

The archaeological discovery is of great interest for the Jewish world. Mr Shuka Dorfmann, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, has visited the site twice, declaring the find to be an extraordinary discovery that must be studied in depth. Many Israeli and Christian archeologists have come to visit the ruins already.

The Israeli authorities have also asked for the excavation to continue, and for the findings to be preserved on site and incorporated into the planned Magdala Center.

Fr Juan Solana, LC, director of the Pontifical Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center and initiator of the Magdala Project, said that the new archaeological findings will be an integral part of the planned center.

“I knew that Magdala was a holy place and I always had the sense that it would be a special place for the pilgrims from different religions. But these new findings certainly surpass our expectation. In a moment of prayer in this place, I thought that the last time the faithful gathered in this place, around 70 AD, most of them had been witnesses of the life of our Lord,” he said.

“I’m dreaming of the day when this place opens for pilgrims to visit, and I hope it will serve to build bridges of dialogue and ties of true love between the believers of different religions in the Holy Land,” said Fr Solana, LC.

A place rich in history

The synagogue is located in Migdal (Magdala), which is mentioned in Jewish sources. Migdal played an important role during the Great Revolt and was actually the main base of Yosef Ben Matityahu (Josephus Flavius), commander of the rebellion in the Galilee. After it was conquered by the Romans, the city was destroyed and many of its residents were killed. At the end of the Second Temple period Migdal was an administrative center of the western basin of the Sea of Galilee. Until the founding of Tiberias in the year 19 AD, Migdal was the main settlement along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

For Christians, Magdala is also an important place of connection to the life and ministry of Jesus. It is located about 5 miles from Capernaum, where Jesus spent much of his public ministry, so it is most likely that many of the local inhabitants were witnesses to Jesus’ preaching and miracles.  And of course, ‘Magdala’ is mentioned in the Gospels as Mary Magdalene’s hometown.

It can also be said that Galilean towns like Magdala were the birthplace of communities of Christians; up to the year of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Christians often shared synagogues with the followers of Judaism. Only after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD was there a more clear separation between Jews and Christians, leading the Christians to create their
Magdala Center logo
The Magdala Center will be a place of prayer and pilgrimage.
own places for gathering and worship.

About the Magdala Project

The Magdala Project was born when the Legionaries of Christ arrived to Israel in 2004, after Pope John Paul II asked them to take charge of the Pontifical Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center.

The idea of the Magdala Project was to offer pilgrims an additional place of prayer and hospitality in Galilee, to complement the services of the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem.

Thanks to the support of thousands of Christians and followers of other faiths from all over the world, the Magdala Project has been steadily unfolding. On July 2, Israeli authorities granted the first building permits, with the required archaeological excavations as the first step toward preparing the way for future constructions.

The future Magdala Center, for whose construction and management the Ark New Gate Company was founded, has the following purposes:
1. To provide a hotel to welcome pilgrims who visit the Holy Land.
2. To preserve and display the ruins of that holy place – a purpose now reinforced by the discovery of a synagogue from the times of Jesus.
3. To offer a multimedia center to show the message and life of Jesus, and the history of the place.
4. With the inspiration of Mary Magdalene, to offer a center promoting the vocation and dignity of woman.

The project continues onward, with full respect for the norms established by the authorities, and these important ruins will be part of the completed Magdala Center.

The Center was planned to open on December 12, 2011. However, it is possible that the recent discoveries may push back the opening date.

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Related links web site
New Gate Tours
Institute for the Psychological Sciences
Magdala Center
Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center
Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College

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