A real biblical site, a real woman, and a real faith, all rooted in history. That’s what we learn from the archaeological dig at Magdala.
If there were a prize for the least-understood yet incredibly-important person in the Bible, it would probably go to Mary Magdalene. I suspect that more people “know” that she was a prostitute—which is based on a misreading of Luke, chapters 7 and 8—than the fact that she was the first witness to the Lord’s resurrection.
Recent archaeological discoveries are shedding a much-needed light on the life and times of this vital biblical character.
Ten years ago, the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame Jerusalem Center decided to build some guest houses in the Galilee region. The site they choose was near the Israeli town of Migdal and the former site of an Arab town called Al-Majdal.
As the names suggest, the area was associated with the ancient city of Magdala, from which Mary Magdalene got her biblical epithet. Still, no one expected to find the actual Magdala, much less the kind of evidence that told us anything substantial about the biblical heroine.
But that’s exactly what they got.
During a mandatory, albeit cursory, examination of the site by the Israel Antiquities Authority, diggers struck something hard, which they thought was a bench. It was not a bench. Instead, it was part of a first century synagogue, one of only seven such remains ever to be found in Israel.
What’s more, they found a coin dating from 29 A.D., during the reign of the emperor Tiberius. Sound familiar? This is the time of Jesus’ public ministry, and since Jesus was active in the area—Capernaum was only five miles away—we are talking about ruins and artifacts that may have been associated with Jesus himself. Dina Gorni-Avshalom of the Authority told the New York Times that there was “circumstantial evidence” of Jesus having been there.
Judging by the evidence, Magdala was a prosperous town. It was the center of the fishing industry in the region, with an infrastructure to match, and it exported fish to as far away as Rome itself. The synagogue reflected this prosperity. It was, in the words of Smithsonian Magazine, “opulent” for its time and place.
It contained murals and frescoes, and “an ornately-carved stone block” that was probably used for reading from the Torah. In fact, the stone appears to be a miniature version of the temple in Jerusalem.
The prosperity of her hometown, and presumably Mary herself, sheds light on Luke 8, where Mary Magdalene and several other Galilean women are said to have provided for Jesus and His disciples “out of their resources.”
Father Eamon Kelly of the Jerusalem Center, who recently appeared with me on the “Eric Metaxas Show,” has suggested that after the first Easter, this synagogue may have become the home to a congregation of Jewish Christians. He cites, among other things, the fact that it is located on the outskirts of Magdala rather than in the center of town.
The find at Magdala is yet another reminder of the historical nature of Christian faith. The Christian story of the Word made flesh, who lived and died as one of us and rose on the third day, may sound “mythic,” but it happened in actual history.
And, as the evidence from places like Magdala attest, the Gospel accounts faithfully reflect this history. Magdala was a real place that produced a real woman named Mary who probably had the wherewithal to support Jesus in his ministry and follow him all the way to Calvary.
That being the case, it’s reasonable to believe the Bible when it tells us that the story didn’t end there.
Eric Metaxas is the bestselling author of “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy.” He is the radio host of “The Eric Metaxas Show” and the co-host of “BreakPoint.”
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.