Holy Land Pilgrimage and Biblical Archeology



MARK 16:9 

Holy Land Heroines

Mary Magdalene -- First Witness to Jesus' Resurrection

Mary of Magdala, who was the first to witness Jesus' resurrection, was cast in a provocative, very unbiblical role in author Dan Brown’s best-selling fantasy, “The Da Vinci Code.”  In the aftermath of the success of the 2003 novel, Magdala, Mary’s hometown a few miles north of Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, attracted a surge of curiosity seekers and cult followers.

Magdala as seen from Mount Arbel lies on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Magdala as seen from Mount Arbel lies at the bottom right corner

But they missed it!  No one really knew the location of Mary's authentic hometown until 2009 when a salvage dig conducted by the Israeli Antiquities Department struck pay dirt, so to speak.  Less than one foot under the topsoil, a first century AD synagogue was discovered, including a decorated stone block that archeologists say was probably used as a table for reading the Torah.  The stone may even be a miniature of the Jerusalem Temple with its ornate columns and arches, a seven-branched menorah flanked by vessels for wine and oil, a 12-leaf rosette and chariots of fire.

Menorah relief found in middle of Magdala's synagogue of Jesus' day

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Menorah relief found in the middle of Magdala's synagogue of Jesus' day

A local coin found in a side room in the synagogue was dated to the year 29.  Matthew says, "Jesus went all through Galilee, teaching in its synagogues, preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and curing the sicknesses and the ailments of the people."  Wow – did Jesus preach in this VERY synagogue?

Mosaic found in first century AD Magdala synagogue

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Mosaic found in first century AD Magdala synagogue

We know that Magdala, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, was a Galilean hub for the fish industry. Indeed, one of its most populous quarters was called Tarichae in Greek, meaning the place of the fish-salters. From here fish were exported to Judea and around the Mediterranean world. (I'll bet even Augustus Caesar delighted in serving pickled Magdala fish as tasty appetizers at his extravagant banquets.)

Magdala mosaic showing first century AD fishing boat

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Magdala mosaic showing first century AD fishing boat

Archeologists have uncovered an ancient marketplace with a separate area of rooms for water pools presumably to produce salted cured fish, along with a fisherman's neighborhood and a section of a first-century inner harbor.  First century AD historian Josephus mentions 230 (!) boats out in the sea, opposite Magdala during the Jewish revolt against the Romans.  (And let's not forget that the ancient boat -- dubbed "the Jesus boat" -- was discovered in 1986 by two fishermen, right on this very shore.)

First century AD boat found by the shores of Magdala in 1986

Courtesy of Jesus Boat Shop

First century AD fishing boat found by the shores of Magdala in 1986

Map of Galilee in Second Temple period

Adapted from Bible Mapper by itsGila

Map of Galilee showing prominent towns in Jesus' day

Mary Magdalene, then, came from a very prosperous thriving town with a synagogue. Uniquely, among the gospels, she is specified by name as a witness to three key events: Jesus' crucifixion, his burial and the discovery that his tomb was empty. Both John and Mark specifically name her as the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection.
However, in the Middle Ages, Mary's reputation plummeted. She metamorphosed into the unnamed sinner in Luke 7 who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears.  Mary Magdalene as "repentant prostitute" became the most commonly depicted woman in Western Medieval Christian art after the Virgin Mary.
She is often shown as either provocatively dressed or stark naked, covered by her long flowing blond or reddish blond tresses.  The artists – and the church -- ignored the gospel references and had forgotten that the preeminent early church theologian Augustine had identified her as the "apostle to the apostles."

Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene Mosaic

Mosaic in Duc in Altum Chapel at Magdala

Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene | the town of Magdala is at left

But now we have an authentic place to contemplate the real Mary Magdalene and her role in Jesus' public ministry. The site of Magdala itself (so far) is understated.  The excavations are visible and there's a lot to see.  For those of a spiritual bent, there is an ecumenical center with breathtaking mosaics recalling pivotal events in this area – the call of the fishermen, the casting out of demons and Talitha cumi.
The chapel itself is named "Duc in Altum" which means in Latin, "put out into the deep" from Luke 5:4. (He said to Simon, 'Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch')

Lord save me! mosaic in Magdala Chapel

Mosaic in Duc in Altum Chapel at Magdala

"Lord save me!" mosaic in Magdala Chapel

Come with me to Magdala and we will go "into the depths" to explore together Jesus' ministry and message in Galilee!  Gila | March 2015

Copyright 2015 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

Postscript March 2022
During my first stay at Magdala’s glorious pilgrims guest house, in March 2022, I discovered something amazing.  Access to the ruins of ancient Magdala including its first century AD synagogue is unrestricted (and free) 24/7 from the hotel.  I took advantage of the opportunity and offered my group an early bird pre-breakfast optional tour and walk-around the site at 6.45 a.m.  And I am happy to report that the majority of the group joined me!
Needless to say, at that hour, we were the only ones touring ancient Magdala, one of the most popular sites in Galilee.  As we exited the guest house, we were almost immediately inside the ancient synagogue, demonstrating that the guest house was to have been built (unknowingly) over the first century AD synagogue.  Thank goodness for the bylaw ordering an exploratory salvage dig before construction!
One pilgrim asked how the synagogue is dated to 29 AD. After all, there was no AD yet!  The coin found on the floor of a side room of the synagogue is inscribed on one side with the Greek letters ΗΡWΔΟΥ ΤЄΤΡΑΡΧΟΥ (Herod the Tetrarch, i.e., Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great) around a palm branch with the year 33 ΛΓ, the number of years he had been ruling since his father's death in 4 BC.

Both sides of the coin found in a side room which dates the synagogue to 29 AD

The reverse side of the coin inscription says ΤΙΒЄΡΙΑC.  Tiberius, the step-son of Augustus, was the emperor at that time.  His name is surrounded by a laurel wreath. 
Since the excavations began in 2009, over 4,000 coins, 28 shops, 300 fishing weights and 40 fish ponds have been found.  And no less than five mikvehs, Jewish ritual baths (see Leviticus 15).  Today there is no doubt that the prosperous Magdala was not only at the geographical crossroads, located at a vital intersection of the Via Maris, the international trade route.  But also, Magdala held a key position at the cultural crossroads of Judaism’s adaptation to Greek and Roman culture.
And Magdala has continued to surprise even the most seasoned archeologists.  The Magdala excavation team announced in December 2021 that a second synagogue dating to the Second Temple period has been found! 
It is the first time two synagogues from the first century AD have been found in a single town. The newly unearthed one is smaller and apparently not as ornate as the first, which was found in 2009, but together they shed new light on the observance of Judaism in this cosmopolitan wealthy town.

The first synagogue featured brightly colored frescoes on the walls. The second one had white-plastered walls, though some evidence of wall paintings has survived.  Both had the same basic plan: a square central meeting hall and two rooms on the side. In both cases, the side room in the southwestern corner had a plastered stone shelf which, the archaeologists speculate, may have served to store the Torah scrolls.

Photo by Lisa Olson on tour with Gila in 2022

Colored fresco on basalt stone entrance to first Magdala synagogue discovered

The second synagogue is still being excavated and studied.  Stay tuned for further developments at Magdala, Mary Magdalene's home town!

Copyright March 2022 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

When American humorist Mark Twain visited the Holy Land, Magdala was on his itinerary.  Tongue in cheek he vividly described being greeted by its blind, crazy, and crippled residents, all begging for baksheesh.


Then he wrote that he and his entourage “filed through the town with many exquisite frescoes till we came to a bramble-infested enclosure and a Roman-looking ruin which had been the veritable dwelling of St. Mary Magdalene, the friend and follower of Jesus.  The guide believed it, and so did I.  I could not well do otherwise, with the house right there before my eyes as plain as day.  The pilgrims took down portions of the front wall for specimens, as is their honored custom, and then we departed.”
Perhaps that’s why Magdala’s ruins are so sparse today!  If you are a Mark Twain fan, or contemplating a holy land tour, see Mark Twain's Tips for Holy Land Pilgrims for travel tips relevant for contemporary holy land pilgrims.
Earlier, in 1838, Edward Robinson, the Connecticut Yankee considered the father of biblical geography, visited Magdala while searching for the ruins of Capernaum, the headquarters of Jesus’ Galilean ministry.

Photo of Magdala in late 19th century

Courtesy of Northmat

Photo of Magdala in the late 19th century

Mary Magdalene is said to be tied to the tradition of painted eggs at Easter.  It's said that following the death and resurrection of Jesus, Mary used her position to gain an invitation to a banquet hosted by the Emperor Tiberias.  When she met him, she held an egg in her hand and exclaimed, "Christ has risen!"  The Emperor laughed and said that Christ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg in her hand turning red while she held it.  Just then, as he finished speaking, the egg in her hand turned a bright red.

For more Mary Magdalene stories, book Gila to visit the 24-carat gold onion-domed Church of Mary Magdalene on the slopes of the Mount of Olives.  And to hear about the astounding and improbable life of Princess Alice, mother-in-law of Queen Elizabeth II and great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria who is buried in the Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem.


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In 67 AD the Romans destroyed Mary Magdalene's hometown during their attempt to subdue the Judean rebellion against Rome.  In the year 70 AD the temple in Jerusalem was conquered and burned by the troops of the Roman general Titus.  During a recent visit to Rome in July 2017, Gila shared the Judean narrative vis a vis the Roman Empire while standing next to the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum.  If the topic of the Judean nation versus the might of Rome interests you, then you may enjoy reading her spiel, A Judean Woman stands by the Arch of Titus.




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Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin