UPDATED : The latest “synagogue” at Magdala

This started as a “comment” on Todd Bolen’s 17 June 2010 post at  http://blog.bibleplaces.com/ with welcome news of the renewed excavations at what is believed to be NT Magdala, the excavators’ call for volunteers, and the offer of free room and board, which is indeed “such a deal”. Well, my comment grew into an extended diatribe, which I decided to give a home of its own, i.e. here…

Until now, I had withheld comment on the identification of a 1st century synagogue at Magdala, ever since the IAA announced the find, with the sort of fanfare they’re so good at, several months ago. However (call me a skeptic), I can’t help thinking they’ve “jumped the gun” with their interpretation of the remains. Israeli archaeologists love finding synagogues, of course, and finding one from the 1st century is the “icing on the cake”. And, I daresay, many Christians – all potential visitors to this land – love having them found, especially in a place with direct NT connections like Magdala!

However, I must ask certain questions about the present find, especially in relation to the other synagogues long dated to the late 2nd Temple period in this country – and there are only a handful: Masada, Herodium, Gamla, Jericho, and perhaps one or two others. For one thing, what other synagogue from this period has a mosaic floor (of any kind or design)? What other synagogue lacks stepped benches around the periphery of the hall? And, indeed, what other synagogue has a decorative carved stone set into the middle of the floor? In short, almost everything about the Magdala structure seems to be an anomaly – if it is what the archaeologists claim.

It is interesting that there is – or was – another “synagogue” that was found at Magdala, on an adjacent site, and identified as such by the Franciscan excavators back in the 1970s. It is a squarish structure but quite small, with nice columns and also surrounded by some kind of spring-fed water installation (if you  have access to BAR, see the Nov.-Dec. 2001 issue pp 51+). Long story short: the original identification has now been called into serious question — it is very likely not a synagogue.

As for the present find, from everything I’ve read it seems that the sole basis for the synagogue interpretation is the image of a menorah appearing on one face of the stone in the floor. This, to me, is rather slim evidence. (Even the mosaic floor contained no religious motifs of any kind, as far as I know — see photo.)  It’s a nice enough stone – it photographs well! – but what would its actual function have been in the context of a synagogue? I wonder also if the experts considered the possibility that the Magdala stone might have been in secondary use there, brought from somewhere else and/or installed at a later time. The fact is, the only other late 2nd Temple period menorah image ever found in the entire country (of which I am aware, at least) was from a private residence, etched in the wall plaster of a palatial villa in Jerusalem’s Herodian-period Upper City.

The Magdala Mosaic floor (source: Life.com)

Granted, it is quite possible that there was a variety in the design of the earliest synagogues that we have not imagined (which has certainly proved to be the case with synagogues of later periods, the 3rd – 7th centuries). For example, early on were there perhaps “house synagogues” in the same way that there were house-churches? I don’t think we know these things.

Understand: It’s not that I don’t “want” the Magdala structure to be a synagogue. I want it to be what it is, and for the stones to tell their own story, without having some narrative forced upon them. That goes for all archaeological finds, everywhere. In this particular instance, I’m not sure the archaeologists have made their case. If anyone has thoughts or comments on any of this, I am interested, of course.

UPDATE / FEB. 2013

A Dec. 21, 2012 article in The Global Mail, found on-line [sorry, broken link], reflects the latest narrative being forced upon this excavated structure and the carved stone found set into its floor. As noted in my original post, above, this whole thing has taken on a wished-for life of its own. The article, by Irris Makler includes photos and a link to a 6-min. sound version of the story.

In short, the “synagogue” is now being touted as the earliest known Judeo-Christian church, and the carved stone has now morphed into an “altar” (never mind that a synagogue doesn’t have an altar), or, alternatively, a “prayer table” (whatever that is) or a “model of the Temple” in Jerusalem. The article’s sub-head goes a step further and asks of the “synagogue”: “Did Jesus once preach at its long-buried pulpit?” [i.e., the stone].

The convoluted reasoning that turns this fresco-ed, mosaic-floored building into a synagogue/church is highly questionable. It goes something like this: Because the structure’s features are all anomalous to the realm of known 1st century synagogues… then it must be a synagogue, and in fact the very church attended by Jesus’ first followers in Galilee!

Here’s Fr. Juan Maria Solana, the Mexican priest who oversees the larger project, the creation of an elaborate pilgrim center on the site, on behalf of the Legionairies of Christ. I’m sure he’s a very nice man, but Fr. Solana is helping spin a narrative for these archaeological finds which really has no basis in objective reality:

“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 as has never been found in any other synagogue from that time. 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 if the village was destroyed around AD 66 it’s clear that the first generation of Christians used to gather there. It’s the first Church on earth,” says Father Solana softly, still awestruck.

What’s interesting is that the IAA archaeologist who is quoted repeatedly, Dina Gorni, is also quite “awestruck”! So much so, that one is forced to question how objective her interpretations are, and how professional her immersion in this project. Yes, archaeologists are allowed a bit of excitement, of course, but… well, you be the judge:

“It is a kind of a miracle, I think,” says Dina Gorni, one of two archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority, who did the original excavation on the site in 2009. “We didn’t know there was any ancient material on this site. [OK, which is why you carry out the legally required archaeological survey and probes. How does that qualify as a “miracle”? (tp)]

“That stone had power. You could feel it.” … “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,” says Gorni.

… “we suggest, that this was a special [Judeo-Christian] 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 says.

“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.”

* * *

Read this RELATED POST about the Magdala excavation project.

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Galilee, Issues in Archaeology, Magdala, New Testament and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to UPDATED : The latest “synagogue” at Magdala

  1. Great post. Sometimes real archaeologists are just as sensational as the Noah’s Ark folks. Just in a more scholarly way:)

  2. David Stacey says:

    The identity of a building in Jericho as a Second Temple period synagogue is also, I believe, more wish fulfilment than reality (see my article http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Hasmonean_Jericho.shtml . Its location between the storerooms and the administrative accommodation suggest its function was predominantly commercial and social.

  3. Tom Powers says:

    Oh, yes – I forgot about the frescoed walls. What other structure identified as a 1st century synagogue has painted plaster decoration? Answer: none.

    About the “benches”: it seems some people “see” them and others don’t. I don’t. The people who do should document clearly what it is they are calling “benches”.

  4. Excellant article and I agree with the conclusions. I find it interesting that after the initial publicity on this synagogue theere has been no foloow up details about the synagogue. I stopped by the site last summer (2010) and they had the site closed to vistors.

  5. nick says:

    there is much more to this location and this stone. so far they are off the mark!

  6. Doubting Thomas. 🙂 Enjoyed your article.
    I just visited the site last week with a tour, it is open to the public.

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