Following Jesus to Magdala

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After a tumultuous first day of ministry in Capernaum, Jesus left the following day for others places, Mark’s Gospel says.

“Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.
Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ He told them, ‘Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.’
So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee. (Mark 1,36-39)

Was one of the nearby villages Magdala?

Magdala, or Migdal, a prosperous Jewish port city in the first century. was just five miles south of Capernaum on the south-western part of the Sea of Galilee. Some of the city has been uncovered recently by archeologists and the discovery opens another window into the gospel story.
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Magdala’s economy was built on fishing and, in fact, it seems to have been the center of a highly developed industry on the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ day. We were aware through written sources , that salted fish from Magdala was sold in the surrounding areas and even as far as Rome, but the recent findings offer another look at Magdala’s economy and the sophisticated techniques to store and prepare the lake fish for market used there. As a flourishing Jewish center on the Sea of Galilee, it was an obvious place for Jesus to visit.

The Jewish historian Josephus may be exaggerating when he says there were 40,000 people in Magdala, but certainly it had a good-sized, prosperous population in the time of Jesus. Christians see it as the home of Mary Magdalen.

The new excavations in Magdala and also in Bethsaida on the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee make us think again about the world of Jesus and what he did there. For example, a newly excavated synagogue at Magdala, the only existing synagogue from his day, offers an important visual tool for understanding Jesus’ ministry in the synagogues of Galilee on the Sabbath. Did he stand in a place like this and teach and cure? Probably.
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The recent findings also invite us to look again at Jesus’ disciples. What kind of people were Peter, Andrew, James and John, and the other Galilean fishermen whom Jesus called to follow him? They’re often described as “poor” “ignorant” fishermen, tagging along, open-mouthed, before the wonders Jesus worked and the words he spoke.

But the Galilean fishermen seem more resourceful and knowledgeable than that. They were the obvious guides to the world around the Sea of Galilee. In Mark’s Gospel the Sea of Galilee has an important symbolic role. It separated two peoples. On its western shore were mostly Jewish communities; on its eastern shores were the gentile cities of the Decapolis. Jesus first goes to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but then he crosses over to gentile world.

Who takes him to this different world but the savvy fishermen who know the places and the peoples around the sea?

The disciples were certainly not ignorant people. They’re part of the sophisticated economy of Galilee. At one point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter that he’s thinking like a human being when he tries to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem to face suffering and death. In fact, the disciples were quite good at human thinking, quite confident in their own opinions and thoughts. In the gospel Jesus constantly challenges their “human thinking” with the thinking of God. .

Where did he meet them? Mark’s gospel says simply it was along the Sea of Galilee. A mosaic of the call of the disciples in the new center at Magdala suggests it may have happened here. Another mosaic suggests that the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, may also have taken place here.
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Speculation, maybe, but the Jewish fishing villages and centers along the Sea of Galilee were where Jesus first ministered. It’s a good guess that the call of Mary Magdalene and her release from the control of seven devils took place at Magdala. There she, and surely others like her, became his disciples.

Mark’s gospel doesn’t limit the followers of Jesus to twelve. He only mentions the twelve once in his gospel. In Mark’s and Luke’s gospels, a wide range of people become followers of Jesus, from the fishermen of Galilee, tax-collectors like Matthew, to women like Mary Magdalene and Johanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Cusa. Women had a place with the twelve, Luke’s gospel says:

“Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.” (Luke 8,1-3)
Herod Antipas’ capitol, Tiberias, was only a few miles from Magdala.
Like so many ancient cities, Magdala had its good days and days of decline. It was probably destroyed during the Jewish revolt in 68 AD. Only a few places in the city were left standing when the Crusaders arrived in the 12th century, then it disappeared in the earth.

The Legionaires of Christ bought the property along the Sea of Galilee in 2004 and intended to build a 300 room hotel on the site, but in preparing the building site they uncovered the ruins of ancient Magdala. Construction stopped and the archeologists stepped in.
“For the Rev. Juan M. Solana, it was the spiritual equivalent of striking oil,” a New York Times article from May 14, 2014 said.
“When he set out to develop a resort for Christian pilgrims in Galilee, he unearthed a holy site: the presumed hometown of Mary Magdalene and an ancient synagogue where experts say Jesus may well have taught.”

4 Comments

Filed under Religion

4 responses to “Following Jesus to Magdala

  1. Harry warren

    Fr Victor, I must admit, nothing moved me like the synagogue of Magdala. It changed every mental picture I had of the site of Jeses reading from the scrolls. Incredibly enlightening.

  2. Gloria

    I read Fr. Juan Solana comments on the “LOC” website. How fortunate that the synagogue of Magdala was found when the site was being cleared for construction. One day people will be able to stand in the place where Jesus read from the scrolls and announced the Good News.
    I wonder whoever put forth the idea that Andrew, Peter, James and John
    and the Galilean fisherman were poor and ignorant. From what you
    describe about the area, the economy must have been quite robust, so
    they must have been smart businessmen.
    Same thing with Mary and Joseph being described as poor peasants.
    Joseph was a master carpenter and a fine woodworker. He must have had
    work in Egypt and later, Nazareth and its surrounding towns.
    As for Mary Magdalene, I think a lot of misinformation has been passed
    down through the last 2000-plus years. As for having 7 demons cast out
    from her, they probably weren’t much different from the demons of our
    contemporary society. I liked Fr. Eamon Kelly’s writing about her on the
    LOC website. Tank you, Fr. Victor for all this wonderful history and information. Gloria

  3. Amazing. As humans it is so much easier to believe when we can “see” something. I believe many are strengthened when they learn of the historical truths that bring further qualification to the gospels. Thank you Father Victor!

  4. vhoagland

    You’re right, Annette, it helps us believe. See you soon. Fr.VIctor

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