Unearthing the World of Jesus

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Synagogue at Magdala (Photo by Yadid Levy, Smithsonian Magazine)

In January, Smithsonian Magazine ran a great article on excavations at Magdala and Bethsaida that bring new evidence to light concerning the world of 1st Century  Galilee.  Below is an extract; click through the link at the bottom to read more.

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Ariel Sabar, “Unearthing the World of Jesus”

The IAA archaeologists had mucked around on Solana’s 20 acres for a month and found little. “Almost done?” he’d ask, emerging in his clerical robes from a shipping container that served as a makeshift office. “I have a budget! I have a timetable!”

In truth, the archaeologists didn’t want to be there either. Summer temperatures had ticked into the 100s, and the site prickled with bees and mosquitoes. They’d say shalom, they assured the priest, as soon as they checked a final, remote corner of his land.

It was there, beneath a wing of the proposed guesthouse, that their picks clinked against the top of a buried wall.

Dina Avshalom-Gorni, an IAA official who oversaw digs in northern Israel, ordered all hands to this square of the excavation grid. The workers squatted in the mealy soil and dusted carefully with brushes. Soon, a series of rough-cut stone benches emerged around what looked like a sanctuary.

It can’t be, Avshalom-Gorni thought.

The Gospels say that Jesus taught and “proclaimed the good news” in synagogues “throughout all Galilee.” But despite decades of digging in the towns Jesus visited, no early first-century synagogue had ever been found.

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For historians, this was not a serious problem. Galilean Jews were a week’s walk from Jerusalem, close enough for regular pilgrimages to Herod the Great’s magnificent temple, Judaism’s central house of worship. Galileans, mostly poor peasants and fishermen, had neither the need nor the funds for some local spinoff. Synagogues, as we understand them today, did not appear anywhere in great numbers until several hundred years later. If there were any in Galilee in Jesus’s day, they were perhaps just ordinary houses that doubled as meeting places for local Jews. Some scholars argued that the “synagogues” in the New Testament were nothing more than anachronisms slipped in by the Gospels’ authors, who were writing outside Galilee decades after Jesus’s death.

But as Avshalom-Gorni stood at the edge of the pit, studying the arrangement of benches along the walls, she could no longer deny it: They’d found a synagogue from the time of Jesus, in the hometown of Mary Magdalene. Though big enough for just 200 people, it was, for its time and place, opulent. It had a mosaic floor; frescoes in pleasing geometries of red, yellow and blue; separate chambers for public Torah readings, private study and storage of the scrolls; a bowl outside for the ritual washing of hands.

In the center of the sanctuary, the archaeologists unearthed a mysterious stone block, the size of a toy chest, unlike anything anyone had seen before. Carved onto its faces were a seven-branched menorah, a chariot of fire and a hoard of symbols associated with the most hallowed precincts of the Jerusalem temple. The stone is already seen as one of the most important discoveries in biblical archaeology in decades. Though its imagery and function remain in the earliest stages of analysis, scholars say it could lead to new understandings of the forces that made Galilee such fertile ground for a Jewish carpenter with a world-changing message. It could help explain, in other words, how a backwater of northern Israel became the launching pad for Christianity.

But on that dusty afternoon, Solana had no way of knowing this. He was toweling off after a swim when an IAA archaeologist named Arfan Najar called his cellphone with what seemed like the worst possible news: They’d found something, and everything Solana had worked and prayed for these past five years was on hold.

“Father,” Najar told him, “you have a big, big, big problem.”

Read more: Smithsonian Magazine, Unearthing the World of Jesus

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