THE uncovered remains of a first-century synagogue beside the Sea of Galilee are providing what could be a direct link to the life of Jesus, and an opportunity for greater understanding between Christianity and Judaism.
The synagogue is at Magdala, believed to be the birthplace of St Mary Magdalene, on the western shore of the lake, and is part of a biblical prayer-and-worship centre founded by Fr Juan Solana, the Mexican head of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center.
He says that he was motivated to begin the scheme in the Galilee region “by the image of Jesus preaching from the boat, surrounded by crowds of people. I felt people should have the same chance today to hear the preachings of Jesus in the same area.”
Fr Solana bought what was once a beach resort on the lakeside, and, in 2009, drew up plans for the complex, which included a guesthouse and other facilities for pilgrims. Before construction could begin, archaeological excavations had to be carried out. It was then that the remains of the first-century synagogue came to light.
Only a few others from this period have been discovered in Israel, and none in such good condition. The intricately carved altar-stone, the Magdala Stone, is believed to be the earliest known depiction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Fr Solana is keen to emphasise that the Magdala complex is being visited by Christians of many denominations, not just Roman Catholics. There are also Jewish and non-Roman Catholic volunteers at Magdala, and many Israelis visit the archaeological sites there.
There is much conjecture among visitors to Magdala about whether Jesus visited the settlement and entered the synagogue. The chief archaeologist at the site, Marcela Zapata Meza, says that “There is no archaeological evidence that he visited Magdala. But we don’t need that evidence, because we have the Gospels.”
Jesus was known to have spent time around the Sea of Galilee; and Magdala, at the time, was one of the most important settlements there. “So to say that Jesus never visited Magdala is ridiculous,” Ms Zapata Meza says. Proof of Magdala’s status as a thriving fishing centre in the first century comes from the discovery of a large stone wharf, now on dry land, and the remains of a large warehouse near by.
Ms Zapata Meza says that, in archaeological terms, the synagogue is the jewel of the discoveries. But, she believes, there will be more discoveries in the years ahead.
This month, visitors will be invited to pray for women affected by breast cancer, at the Women's Pillar in the Women's Atrium. Pink ribbons designed to raise awareness of the disease are being worn.