A panoramic view of Migdal (on the right) and surrounds.
The birthplace of Mary Magdalene has been known for at least a century. Near today’s town called “Migdal” (the ancient Aramaic settlement, now gone, was “Magdala“), the site is located along the coast of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. In the time of Jesus, the town was the only important settlement on that shore. But the ruins associated with the Magdalene of the New Testament have been unmarked and overrun with weeds and litter, like a shameful grave, for 2,000 years. Not far up the road, a “McMansion“-scale tourist church dedicated to the apostle Peter (according to Jane Schaberg, Mary’s rival for Christian leadership after the Crucifixion) was built long ago.
An imagined Mary Magdalene by Georges LaTour. Erotic representations such as this one perpetuated the myth that Mary was a prostitute, but the record does not support it.
Experts now agree that Mary Magdalene was not a harlot. (A helpful summary of the evidence, history, and issues by the Smithsonian Institution can be read here. I have posted an even shorter summary here.) She probably had a spiritual role alongside the other apostles and may have been a leader among them (“apostle to the apostles” is the common phrase). Evidence even suggests Jesus liked her best–and not necessarily in a sexual way, but as recognition of her more advanced spirituality. Schaberg argued in her book, Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, that, in fact, Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ chosen successor, but she was usurped by Peter, a jealous type who, even during Jesus’ lifetime, could never stand being challenged by a woman. Schaberg further remarks that there were several women followers of Jesus, who would have actually comprised another four to seven apostles besides the male ones I learned to name in Sunday school.
The first chapters of Schaberg’s book are her own first-hand observations of just how far Migdal had been allowed to deteriorate, just how unnoticed it was by anyone, at the time her book was published in 2004. Five years later, an archaelogical expedition by the Israeli Antiquities Authority unearthed the remains of a Second Temple period (50BCE – 100 CE) synagogue, the oldest known in the world, complete with a stone showing the first seven-branched menorah ever referenced in Jewish sacred objects. The excavation was an instance of “rescue archaeology” (also called “preventive archaeology,” “salvage archaeology,” or “commercial archaeology”), occurring in connection with a hotel being planned for the beach; the property is owned by the Ark New Gate Company.
A preventive excavation on the site of Mary Magdalene's birthplace unearthed one of the oldest known synagogues, one that would have been in use during Jesus' lifetime.
Suddenly, Migdal was back on the map, but not for reasons related to Mary of Magdala.
Today, the excavation continues. A resort hotel and a multimedia visitor’s center are still planned, intended to draw tourists from both Christian and Jewish traditions and to tie in (in trade terms) with the McMansion to Peter at Capernaum, not far away. You can clearly see the air-conditioned buses in the Magdalene’s future.
It just goes to show you. If we can make a buck out it, if we can jingle it, if we can make it into a theme park, a character and their story becomes the history we know and tell. So, irony of ironies, international tourism has come around to rescue the disciple Jesus loved best from obscurity.
Before this stone, showing a menorah in relief (front panel in this picture), was excavated at Migdal, Jewish historians believed that ancient peoples simply used an array of candles for ritual purposes, not a special candelabra.