The following article was reprinted with permission from the
National Catholic Register, published July 22, 2013. (A longer version
is available in the NCR print edition.)
by Bryan Berry, Register
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
"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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.