Archaeologists have uncovered a 2,000-year-old synagogue on the shores of the Sea of Galilee—a freshwater lake in northern Israel.
The synagogue was discovered at the site of an ancient settlement known as Migdal, or Magdala, from the Second Temple period of Jewish history that was the supposed birthplace of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ followers who witnessed his crucifixion, according to the four canonical gospels.
The Second Temple period lasted between the late 6th century BCE and 70 CE and is widely seen as an era when Jewish culture developed a number of characteristics that define the Jewish experience today.
The period is defined by the existence of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, which was constructed by the Jews following the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
During the Second Temple period, Jews lived under Persian, Greek and Roman rule. The period ended with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE during the First Jewish-Roman war—a large scale revolt by the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean against the Roman Empire.
Migdal served as a main rebel base under the commander Flavius Josephus during this war.
According to a statement from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the latest discovery is the second synagogue from the era of Roman rule to be uncovered in the settlement—and the first case of the existence of two synagogues anywhere from the Second Temple period.
Adi Erlich, head of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, and Dina Avshalom-Gorni, director of the excavation with the University of Haifa, said the discovery of a second synagogue at the settlement sheds new light on the history of this period.
“The discovery of a second synagogue in this Galilean settlement casts light on the social and religious lives of the Jews in the area in this period, and reflects a need for a dedicated building for Torah reading and study and for social gatherings,” Avshalom-Gorni told the Jerusalem Post.
“We can imagine Mary Magdalene and her family coming to the synagogue here, along with other residents of Migdal, to participate in religious and communal events.”
The first synagogue in the settlement was discovered in 2009 during excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority that unearthed ancient Jewish ritual baths, streets, a marketplace, and industrial facilities. The first synagogue is located only around 650 feet away from the second.
In the middle of the first synagogue’s main hall stood a large stone portraying the Second Temple of Jerusalem, with a seven-branched menorah carved on one side. This finding highlights the connection between Jerusalem and subordinate communities, according to the archaeologists.
“Its discovery is significant because it was carved on the stone when the Temple was still standing,” the statement said.
Erlich told the Jerusalem Post: “The stone bearing a relief of the Menorah from the other synagogue at Migdal, suggests that the local Jews saw Jerusalem as their religious center, and their local activities took place under this centrality.”
The newly discovered synagogue was square-shaped and made of basalt and limestone. It had a main hall, in addition to two other rooms.
The first and second synagogues appear to have coexisted rather than one being a replacement for the other, according to archaeologists.