Archaeologists working with Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have found a second synagogue dating to the time of Jesus in the town of Migdal also called Magdala.
It was a prominent town in Jesus’ day. And most believe that the last name of Mary Magdalene, one of Christ’s most famous female followers, indicated that she came from this community, located on the Northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a short walk from Capernaum. This was an area where Jesus ministered extensively.
2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out. (Luke 8:2 NASV)
It is the second synagogue dated to Jesus’ day found in the town. Synagogues played an important role in Jewish society. It was here they gathered to read the Torah, as Jesus did at the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21). It would have also served as the location for communal gatherings.
The recently discovered synagogue is square-shaped, with a large central room where the Jews gathered on the Sabbath. It also had two smaller rooms, including one with a shelf, suggesting this is where the rabbis stored their scrolls of Biblical text.
But this synagogue differed in one important regard from the previous synagogue discovered in 2009 by IAA archaeologists.
It was located near the town’s main residential street, while archaeologists discovered the earlier one on the outskirts.
Because of the law’s restriction on work during the Sabbath, the Jews built the synagogues close to where the people lived.
Since they discovered the earlier synagogue on the town’s outskirts, this suggests it was the black sheep of Migdal’s synagogues.
Some state that this was the home of a Messianic congregation that believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Since the Messianic Jews were no longer bound to the law, they were not hindered by travel restrictions.
Aside from its location, there were other factors that indicated this might be the case.
It was smaller than traditional Jewish synagogues and could seat only 120 people, which indicated it was serving a smaller Jewish population.
Thirdly, this synagogue was elaborately decorated, which was not typical for synagogues. This included an intricately carved altar, that had images of Herod’s temple carved on it, and as well several utensils used in the temple worship, including a menorah. This altar was very unusual for its day.
The elaborate carvings of the temple even included two chariot wheels and a motif of fire, that referenced God descending from heaven in a chariot of fire (Daniel 7:9).
When Jesus referred to this same imagery, describing Himself as the ‘Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power with the clouds of heaven,’ the Jewish priests immediately accused Christ of blasphemy and called for his execution (Mark 14:62-64).
The altar may have been hinting of this very incident when it included the chariot wheels. Though there are no overtly Christian symbols, this is not unexpected, as they were not developed until much later.
So if this was the home of a Messianic congregation, who would have funded it?
Well, it may have been none other than Mary Magdalene, who was quite wealthy and listed as one of the main benefactors of Christ’s ministry:
The twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.” (Luke 8:1-3)
Though many believe that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, there is no clear evidence of this. That theory became popular in 591 AD, when Pope Gregory I likened Mary Magdalene to the unnamed sinful woman or prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume (Luke 7:36-50).