MAGDALA, Israel—What started as a vision to build a guest house for pilgrims coming to the Galilee took an entirely different direction. After breaking ground, the project turned into an extensive archaeological site providing a colorful picture of life at the time of Jesus.
CBN’s Scott Ross takes us to Magdala, the city many believe was the home of Mary Magdalene.
Located on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee, Magdala sits at a crossroads of Jewish and Christian history.
“Magdala is very significant already just in general culture. One of the most known figures of Christian discipleship is Mary of Magdala,” said Father Eamon Kelly, Vice-Director of Magdala.
“What's the importance for Magdala for the Jewish people is the First Century town and a very significant excavation in the First Century for the Jewish culture,” Kelly told CBN News.
In 2005, Father Juan Solana initiated the Magdala Project to highlight the ministry of Jesus and as an opportunity to honor women of faith. They broke ground in 2009 and what happened next Father Kelly describes as “providence.”
“We bought this piece of land, and then to find it in Magdala, not just any hill around the Sea of Galilee; and then you start digging with two prayers. Lord, spare us from archaeology because it’s an expensive hobby and then a big delay for all the project.
“And then the second prayer was if you do give us archaeology, give us something good. And so we find this incredible discovery of a First Century synagogue,” Father Kelly said.
Seated in the synagogue itself, Father Kelly described some of the features that make it so amazing.
“We’re in a very big room and we see it’s organized with two rows of seating here in the central part and we have another row of seating inside the outer walls,” he said describing the stone seating. “So, this is a space that’s not a family home.”
“It’s a very ornate community room that has this mosaic and the frescos. And the mosaic has two parts: the rosette mosaic with the three colors, but now the specialists are telling us there are 26 colors in the mosaic; and then we have the unending pattern, which shocked some people. But they say this was also in the Temple in Jerusalem,’ Father Kelly said.
“And then we have the Magdala stone right bang here. So, it’s considered and treasured by many archaeologists on the level of the Dead Sea Scrolls in terms of archaeologically importance,” he explained.
Archaeologist Motti Aviam proposed the theory of the Magdala stone, saying it resembled the Second Temple of Jesus’ day.
“I suggested that what we have here is a some kind of a model, symbolic model of the Temple in Jerusalem,” Aviam told CBN News. “We have the menorah, we have the altar, the golden altar, we have the showbread table and we have a scene into the Holy of Holies.”
Because of the commandment against graven images, Aviam says the choice was to portray God symbolically in a divine chariot.
“As it is in the Book of Zechariah and many other books from the Second Temple period, which gives us the description of the chariot on which God is riding,” Aviam explained.
“What is the significance of Magdala, going back in Biblical history?” Ross asked.
“Magdala, today, gives the largest view, archaeologically of the time of Jesus,” Aviam said.
While there’s no physical evidence that Jesus visited Magdala, Father Kelly says the signs are there.
“Scott, every day, every group asks me this question: ‘Was Jesus here? Was He in this synagogue? Was He in Magdala?’ And I say, ‘we don't know because we lost all the videos,’” he said jokingly.
“Jesus was surely present in Galilee. This is on the path from Nazareth to Capernaum. There’s a port here and He’s always crossing the lake and the fishermen are anchored here. This is a Mecca for the Galilean Sea fishermen,” Father Kelly said about some of the facts that indicate that Jesus was there.
At Magdala, the Duc Al Altum Center is a place for people of different faiths to worship. Its Latin name means, ‘the deep’ and is taken from the Book of Luke where Jesus tells Peter to “launch into the deep.”
The atrium of Duc Al Altum is designed with pillars to honor the Jewish women who followed Jesus in the New Testament.
Four smaller chapels include mosaics illustrating biblical events and in the larger Boat Chapel, a unique boat-shaped altar that overlooks the Sea of Galilee.
“When the Gospel is proclaimed there up at the microphone it looks like Jesus is preaching to us again from the boat,” Father Kelly explained. “Imagine you’re having liturgy here, prayer and the boats are going by. It allows people to get into the moment of the Gospel happenings.”
Downstairs there’s the Encounter Chapel, where Father Kelly says he believes God is healing divisions between Christians and the Jewish community.
Part of the road of the first century port runs through and is enclosed in the chapel.
“So you know the names of any first century? fisherman?” Father Kelly asked Ross. “So who walked on this street? Now if Jesus came to Magdala, I say he was more often on this street than he was in the synagogue, in our synagogue.”
Magdala is staffed in part by international volunteers, who told CBN News a little bit about their experience.
“Sometimes you realize that you know very little of your faith, so this helps you to go like deeper inside and really to live like all the things you can find out in Israel,” said Sophia Gandarilla from Mexico City, Mexico.
“I had never been in the Holy Land before, so it was taking a huge risk. So, it was very surprising to see what we think about Israel and the Holy Land and coming here and seeing the reality,” said 24-year-old Aldo Anzura of Mexico.
And remember that guest house for pilgrims? It opened just recently.
“What’s the vision for the future now?” Ross asked Father Kelly.
“Well, we had to make quite a few adjustments because of the archaeological discoveries which enriched the site immensely, enriched it with meaning,” Father Kelly said.
“And then by finding a synagogue, (there was) a huge increase of the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and also the Christian-to-Christian encounter, because here we have a faith where we’re not divided. So, where providence is going to continue taking this for the future, I think we’ll all be surprised as we are every day,” he said.