(post by Chris McKinny)

For an introduction to this series see here.

It seems only a short time ago that archaeologists were saying that there were only 3 positively identified 1st century CE synagogues in Israel – Herodion, Masada and Gamla (See “Synagogues” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, Meyers 1992: 6.255). In the case of Herodion and Masada – these are relatively late synagogues as they were both converted from Herodian structures during the first Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE). The Gamla synagogue represented the only tangible archaeological evidence of a synagogue built for the primary purpose of being a synagogue (versus later retrofitting).

The 2009 discovery of the first century CE synagogue at Magdala changed that perception. We have discussed this discovery on several occasions, including a debate regarding the function of the building and the possibility of excavating at the site with costs covered by the excavation. I asked on a recent visit and this offer still stands, according to the staff at the site. Also from what I gathered their work will continue long after 2013, as they had stated previously – see here for pictures of volunteers from fall 2012.


View Secret Places: BiblePlaces in a larger map (toggle between different map view in top left corner – other views might provide easier driving directions)

Getting to the first century remains at Magdala is quite simple – from Tiberias it is a mere five-minute drive to the north of town – make a right at “Magdala Hawaii” and turn into the construction site – there will be a sign that says “Magdala” and two small office buildings on each side of the road in front of the excavations.

Touring Suggestions 

Upon arrival you will be met by a security guard who will ask you to donate money to the project (there is no admission fee) – he will also give you instructions on where you can and cannot go on the site. The guard might also offer a few words of insight about the site – take what he says with a grain of salt. The following instructions are tentative as visiting protocols will change as the Magdala Center project develops (for comparison note the complete absence of buildings in this area in the Google Maps view above).

Update 4/8/2013 – Entrance information: Opening time  Monday-Friday 8-1pm. Email contact (HT: Shmuel Browns)

Historical Background and Discussion

Magdala means tower (Hebrew – migdal). It is never mentioned by name in the Gospels, rather the site name only appears when identifying Mary Magdalene apart from the other Marys (e.g. Matthew 27:56). Had the other Marys been named Salome instead of the ubiquitous “Mary” it is likely that even “Magdalene” would not be part of the New Testament record.

Before the founding of Tiberias as capital of Galilee in 20 CE under Herod Antipas, Magdala (Josephus calls the site Taricheae, which means fish) was the main administrative center (toparchy) of eastern Lower Galilee beneath the authority of Sepphoris, Antipas’ Galilean capital. In 20 CE, the capital shifted from Sepphoris to Tiberias and Magdala lost its administrative significance, but remained an important site. Later on in the 50s CE the site was ceded to Herod Agripa II (son of Agrippa I, grandson of Aristobolus, great-grandson of Herod the Great) and later still in 66 CE it was the site of a  naval battle between the Romans under Vespasian the result of which was the total defeat of the Jewish forces (including the execution of thousands inside the stadium at Tiberias). This naval war also produced one of the most interesting archaeological finds of all-time – the so-called “Jesus Boat,” which probably owes its exceptionally rare preservation to the unique events that transpired during the onset of the first Jewish Revolt. (For more information regarding Magdala’s historical background see James Strange “Magdala Magdalene,” Anchor Bible Dictionary 4:463).

Magdala from the eastern side of Mt. Arbel looking east towards the Sea of Galilee

The synagogue is on the left side of the road, as of March of 2013 visitors could still not go into the synagogue itself, but you will be able to view the beautiful synagogue from a distance. As fascinating as the synagogue is – what caught my eye was the extremely well-preserved, presumably first cent. CE street ca. 30 meters south of synagogue (see picture above). Along this street one can easily make out several mikvaot (ritual baths) that seemed to be fed by means of a canalization system and remains of the foundations of buildings constructed from basalt (black volcanic rock typically used in construction in the Golan Heights).

Magdala Street – notice the slabs in the center of the street that cover the canalization/sewage system, the mikvaot are to be found on the left side of the picture (that is the south side of the street – the picture is looking west to the foot of Mt. Arbel with highway 90 in the distance)

Mikvaot? There are at least four of these along this street, notice the extremely well-preserved steps and opening for presumably filling the pool. 

While final say will go to the excavators of this important site, it seems quite clear that the remains around the synagogue, including the street with presumed mikvaot, all date to the same time period – the excavators have claimed that the synagogue is first century CE on the basis of coinage and pottery. It therefore seems likely that the connected buildings date to the same time period. Beyond the clear connection of this site to Mary Magdalene of the Gospels this Early Roman town has the potential to illuminate many details of first century, Galilean village dynamics.

In conclusion, this exciting new site should be considered a “required” stop on any trip to Israel that makes it to the Sea of Galilee. In the opinion of this author, Magdala is a more important site for folks interested in New Testament and Second Temple Judaism than say, Tabgha or Chorazin (primarily 4-5th cent. CE Byzantine remains with New Testament textual connections). Magdala has the potential of illuminating our understanding of first century daily village life (i.e. the very time of Jesus’ ministry) in the same way that Qatzrin has illuminated our understanding of everyday Jewish life in Mishnaic/Talmudic times. 

(Post by Chris McKinny) 

One of the exciting things about living in Israel is how quickly archaeology can change the landscape of our understanding of the biblical world. Our picture of the ancient Near Eastern world is constantly developing and becoming more nuanced, largely due to the work of archaeologists operating in Israel.

Israel, home to an estimated 30,000 archaeological sites (and counting), produces large quantities of archaeological architecture and materials of biblical significance that are often passed over by tourists, students and even scholars who visit the Land. While readers of this blog are considerably more well-informed regarding biblical archaeology’s rapid developments than the general public – there still remains a bit of a gap between exposure to the information and first-hand experience through visiting the various “secret places” scattered throughout the country.

With this in mind, the purpose of this upcoming series is three-fold: 1.) to expose the reader to off-the-beaten path locations, new archaeological sites and museums, and significant views and overlooks; 2.) to inform the reader on the importance of these locations by connecting the site with the historical/biblical data; and 3.) to show the reader how to get to these locations when visiting Israel.

(by Chris McKinny)

Today, I was able to make it over to the Cura Aquarum conference on Water in Antiquity that was mentioned previously here. The first session of lectures dealt with several topics of interest for readers of this blog. Below I have added a few brief notes from the lectures.

1. Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel? The Gezer Water System Project – Dan Warner*, Tsvika Tsuk, Jim Parker and Dennis Cole

Warner gave an update of their project after two seasons and discussed their plans for the 2013 season. The following are a few difficulties that they have encountered and a few goals that the seek to accomplish in their project:

  • Macalister’s plans of the system differ from the seemingly more accurate plans of Father Vincent (no great shock there).

Entrance to Gezer Water System

  • Macalister built a large retaining wall for the material that he removed from the system, however, that retaining wall collapsed towards the end of the Gezer expedition – re-filling the system back to 60% of its original fill level. This is what they have spent the last two seasons removing. They have successfully excavated two of the systems three parts – 1.) the “keyhole opening” (see pic above) and 2. the “stepped and sloping water shaft”. On the last few days of excavation this past season they reached the water cavern itself (part 3.). All told they have removed around 439 tons of fill so far. 
  • Vincent’s drawings seem to indicate that there was an opening or exit in the cavern section of the system. One of their goals is to determine the location or existence of this opening. 
  • Dating: While admitting to not finding any datable materials in their excavations, Warner concluded that he believes that the Gezer water system should be preliminarily dated to the Canaanite period/Middle Bronze Age. He dates the system based on its close proximity to the Middle Bronze Age fortifications (conta the site’s former excavator William Dever). He also made note of several “cultic niches” along the walls of the water system one of which has what he referred to as an embedded massebah (i.e. “standing stone”) similar to what is seen on top of the tell. If this system does in fact date to the Middle Bronze age, Warner theorized that it would then be one of the largest such systems from that time period in all of the ancient Near East. 
2. A New Assessment of the Upper Aqueduct to Jerusalem: its Date and Route – David Amit and Shimon Gibson*

  • Very nice presentation on all of the available date including some recent excavations near Jaffa Gate/Mamilla. 
  • Concludes that the Upper Aqueduct was originally constructed during the time of Herod the Great, in order to provide water for the Temple Mount and the Herodian Palace on the Western Hill of Jerusalem. They interpret the large amount of “10th Roman Legion” epigraphic evidence (i.e. bricks with the imprint of “XLEGFR”) around the Upper Aqueduct near Rachel’s Tomb as evidence of repair and not initial building. 
3. Dating and engineering of Siloam Tunnel, Jerusalem – Amos Frumkin* and Aryeh Shimron

  • Frumkin showed convincingly that the Siloam Tunnel (i.e. Hezekiah’s Tunnel) dates to around 700 BCE on the basis of a date range provided by the assessment of C14 (piece of charcoal found in the original plaster) and speleothems (stalactites). As both of these pieces of evidence fit the textual data, they concluded that the tunnel was dug by Hezekiah. On a side note, since both of the authors are geologists, it was very nice to see them consider all of the evidence including the biblical and extra-biblical texts. This has not always been the case with geological assessments of Hezekiah’s tunnel see here
City of David with Hezekiah’s Tunnel in Blue

  • Frumkin also showed that Hezekiah’s tunnel was not excavated along natural karstic shafts. This common theory he referred to as the “Karst Theory.” Instead of following any natural, easier path for excavation, he demonstrated that the tunnel’s excavators passed through many bedding plates or fractures perpendicularly.  
  • Of even more importance, Frumkin provided some very interesting rationale for why Hezekiah’s tunnel meanders on both starting points instead of being excavated in a straight line. He believes that the entire excavation process was marked by changes “on the fly.” He comes to this conclusion based on the several “false starts” inside the shaft and the “semi-circular loops” on the north-eastern and south-western beginning points (he also makes the point that the NE starting point dropped 5 meters from its initial starting point, another indication of a mistake). Frumkin hypothesized that the excavators soon realized that they were not going to be able to find each other by digging in a direct line, diagonally across the city. So instead, both excavation teams began excavating towards the slopes of the Kidron Valley, an area much closer to the surface, with hopes that they would be able to “hear” one another above ground. Testing this hypothesis – Frumkin and Shimron’s claim that they were able to hear someone inside of the tunnel from directly above, which would mean that their theory is plausible, at the very least. 
  • Interestingly, Frumkin points out that this subterranean-to-above-ground communication could very well be what is meant in the Siloam Inscription where it reads, “… the tunnel … and this is the story of the tunnel while …the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to cut? … the voice of a man … called to his counterpart” (italics mine).
All told, it was a very interesting set of lectures that showed that even old excavations can be given new interpretation and nuanced meaning through the advancements and developments of the discipline.


by Chris McKinny

A recent study of seismological activity carried out in the Dead Sea region by geologist Jefferson Williams claims to have found evidence for an earthquake that can be dated to April 3, 33 CE. This study then goes on to make the claim that this earthquake relates to the crucifixion earthquake mentioned in Matt. 27:51. However, later in the article Williams concedes that the earthquake could have happened some time “before or after the crucifixion” at which point it was “borrowed” by the “author of the Gospel of Matthew.” Jennifer Viegas writes in Discovery News: 

To analyze earthquake activity in the region, geologist Jefferson Williams of Supersonic Geophysical and colleagues Markus Schwab and Achim Brauer of the German Research Center for Geosciences studied three cores from the beach of the Ein Gedi Spa adjacent to the Dead Sea. Varves, which are annual layers of deposition in the sediments, reveal that at least two major earthquakes affected the core: a widespread earthquake in 31 B.C. and an early first century seismic event that happened sometime between 26 A.D. and 36 A.D.  

In terms of the earthquake data alone, Williams and his team acknowledge that the seismic activity associated with the crucifixion could refer to “an earthquake that occurred sometime before or after the crucifixion and was in effect ‘borrowed’ by the author of the Gospel of Matthew, and a local earthquake between 26 and 36 A.D. that was sufficiently energetic to deform the sediments of Ein Gedi but not energetic enough to produce a still extant and extra-biblical historical record.” If the last possibility is true, this would mean that the report of an earthquake in the Gospel of Matthew is a type of allegory,” they write.Williams is studying yet another possible natural happening associated with the crucifixion – darkness. Three of the four canonical gospels report darkness from noon to 3 PM after the crucifixion. Such darkness could have been caused by a dust storm, he believes. Williams is investigating if there are dust storm deposits in the sediments coincident with the early first century Jerusalem region earthquake. 

This last paragraph effectively shoots holes in the somewhat sensationalistic exactness of the claim.

What’s the point of arguing for the calendar week and day in which Jesus was crucified if you are going to say it could have happened any time in 33 CE? Moreover, the fact that he is looking for naturalistic ways of explaining the phenomena mentioned in Matt. 27 reeks of the formula used in “The Exodus Decoded.” So prepare yourself for a Discovery channel documentary in the near future.

That said – if the report is to be trusted – it is quite interesting that there is seismological activity in the period in question. In fact, this lines up quite well with the late Harold Hoehner’s chronology in Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (see pg. 95-114). However, given the caveat of the geological analysis proving to be accurate, this evidence still proves relatively nothing. I suspect scholars will line up along party lines with inerrantists claiming infallible evidence and the rest claiming allegorical etiological explanations (e.g. Arad, Ai/Et-Tell, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.)

Update 6/1/2012
Geologist Jeff Williams has sent me an email clarifying his team’s findings and subsequent interpretations. I have reproduced his clarifications and personal input with his permission below.

Based on his response which expresses a strong desire to maintain objectivity, it is my feeling that this is not a case that should be lumped into the growing sensationalistic pseudo-archaeological, pseudo-scientific “discoveries” related  to Jesus. You can also check out some more of there research here.

An early first century earthquake shows up in the Dead Sea sediments for which the historical record (that we know of) shows no plausible candidates. However, there is mention of this earthquake in the New Testament. In fact, we added no new information about the date of the crucifixion. We took previous work by other authors largely based on astronomical calculations pertaining to the Jewish Lunar Calendar which assigned a range of likely dates for the crucifixion and compared them with our geologic estimate of the age of the earthquake; which was dated to have occurred between 26 and 36 AD. We also performed a geomechanical analysis to examine all historically reported earthquakes within a 40 year time span around 30 AD to see if it was likely that any of them would have deformed the sediments. None appeared to be likely candidates. Then we made some conclusions which are listed in the abstract of our article. 

The abstract of our article is reproduced below :
 This article examines a report in the 27th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament that an earthquake was felt in Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. We have tabulated a varved chronology from a core from Ein Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea between deformed sediments due to a widespread earthquake in 31 BC and deformed sediments due to an early first-century earthquake. The early first-century seismic event has been tentatively assigned a date of 31 AD with an accuracy of ±5 years. Plausible candidates include the earthquake reported in the Gospel of Matthew, an earthquake that occurred sometime before or after the crucifixion and was in effect ‘borrowed’ by the author of the Gospel of Matthew, and a local earthquake between 26 and 36 AD that was sufficiently energetic to deform the sediments at Ein Gedi but not energetic enough to produce a still extant and extra-biblical historical record. If the last possibility is true, this would mean that the report of an earthquake in the Gospel of Matthew is a type of allegory.

Finally, I think I should explain who I am and what I am about.
I am first and foremost a scientist. I am also agnostic. I assume the New Testament is a human document that contains errors. I am not trying to prove or disprove the Bible. I am treating the statement by Matthew that there was an earthquake on the day of the crucifixion as a hypothesis that needs to be tested. I will publish whatever I can coax out of the sediments; whether this supports or contradicts biblical accounts. I have much respect for people of faith but I personally do not rely on faith. I am naturally curious and don’t know what the end result will be of the research I am undertaking.

by Chris McKinny

In light of the current discussion concerning the so-called
“Jesus Discovery” of the depiction of a Jonah/resurrection motif on a 1st
century CE ossuary (see here) it is probably prudent to re-examine the
typological relationship between the two prophets of Jonah and Jesus.
Besides the explicit connection of “the sign of Jonah” mentioned
in Matt. 12:38-41; 16:4; Luke 11:29-32 there are several probable connections
that can be derived through comparing the Gospels to the book of Jonah and 2
Kings 14:25 (i.e. the only Old Testament mention of the prophet outside of the
prophetic book of Jonah). 
Consider the following suggested similarities/parallels:
1. Each prophet heralded from and began his ministry in
Lower Galilee. Jonah/Gath-Hepher and Jesus/Nazareth – 2 Kings 14:25; Matt.
2. Each prophet’s ministry occurred during a time in which
Israel’s hierarchical, wealthy members “trampled upon the poor.” Jonah/“cows of
Bashan” during the time of Jeroboam II (8th cent. BCE);
Jesus/”devourers of widow’s households” – Amos 4:1-3; 5:11-12; 8:3-7; Matt. 19:23-25; Mark 12:41-44; Luke
16:19-31; 20:46-47.
3. Each prophet preached Yahweh to Gentiles despite a desire to
primarily minister to their own Israelite/Jewish population. Jonah joined
Phoenicians on their way to North Africa (i.e. Tarshish) to avoid the goyim of Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-3) and Jesus
stated that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt.
15:24). However, both eventually ministered to Gentile populations – Jonah with
Nineveh and Jesus for example with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:25-28),
Legion of the tombs of Gadera (Luke 8:26-34), and the centurion’s servant at Capernaum (Matt. 8:5-13).
4. Each prophet slept in the bottom of a ship in the midst of a
raging storm while the ship’s sailors were wracked with fear and bewilderment
due to the prophet’s slumber (Jonah 1:4-6; Mark 4:35-38). Additionally, each
prophet was the reason for the ceasing of the storm (Jonah 1:7-16; Mark
5. Explicit connection (see above) Each prophet spent
“three days and three nights” in the “heart” of the earth before being “brought
up from the pit.” Compare Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2) and Jesus’ “sign of Jonah”
(Matt. 12:38-41; 16:4; Luke 11:29-32) to Jonah’s expulsion (Jonah 3:1) and Jesus’
resurrection (e.g. Matt. 28:1-6).
6. Each prophet, despite being from northern Israel (i.e.
Israel in the 8th cent. BCE and Galilee in the 1st cent
CE), were obedient to the Law of Moses in worshipping Yahweh at his chosen
location of Jerusalem (Deut. 12:5-7; 2 Sam. 7:13; 1 Kings 5:5). Compare Jonah’s
“worship in the temple” (Jonah 2:4, 7), despite the enduring presence of the syncrestic
temples of Dan and Bethel, to Jesus going up to Jerusalem for various feasts
(e.g. Luke 2:41; 22:1).
7. Each prophet proclaimed coming destruction upon his
audience’s capital city. Compare Jonah’s proclamation to Nineveh (Jonah 3) and
subsequent, vengeful grief over their repentance (Jonah 4:1-4) to Jesus’
prophecy of doom to Jerusalem (e.g. Matt. 24) and subsequent, knowing grief over
their rejection (Matt. 23:37; and especially Luke 19:41-44). As an aside, I
find Jonah’s statement in Jonah 4:3 to be an ironic double entendre in the vein
of Caiaphas’ statement in John 11:49-50.
Dominus Flevit – looking at Temple Mount (copyright BiblePlaces) 

8. Each prophet left the city that they had just preached in
and went to the east of the city and prayed. Compare Jonah’s selfish,
languishing prayer concerning the loss of his shade east of Nineveh and
Yahweh’s response (Jonah 4:5-11) to Jesus’ selfless, anguish-filled plea to
“let this cup pass” in Gethsemane and Yahweh’s silence (e.g. Luke 22:39-44).
More could be said about the typology of Jonah in relation
to Jesus, especially with regards to the notable differences between the two.
Nevertheless, in my opinion the above similarities undergird the connection between
Jonah and early Christian motifs (see for example Jensen’s post which mentions 4th cent. CE depictions in Rome). Whether, the Talpiot ossuary is
the first known example of this connection is an open, debatable question, but in
either case it seems clear that the motifs derive from a clear typology that is
rooted in the Gospels. 
Post by Chris McKinny

The following video illustrates the different phases of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher moving backwards in time from the Crusades until Crucifixion. Here is the information from the site:

A journey back in time to tell the story of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the site defined in many Christian traditions as “the Centre of the World”. This is the gift by ATS pro Terra Sancta to all the friends and the supporters of the Holy Land.Divided in chapters, the video by Mrs. Raffaella Zardoni for ATS pro Terra Sancta presents a 3D reconstruction of the basilica at different times, back to the stone cave which saw the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our being here, our commitment for this land and our deep desire to help its living stones start and gather meaning from here.

While the video is extremely well done it should be noted that it illustrates the architecture of the bench of “Jesus’ tomb” identically in each chapter of the video. This is not exactly historically accurate. The burial bench beneath the “Rotunda” was actually reconstructed by Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus in 1048 AD after it and much of the surrounding rotunda of Constantine/Helena had been destroyed by Fatimid Caliph Hakim in 1009 AD.

For more information regarding th the various stages of the development see the “Church of Holy Sepulcher” entry in the Anchor Bible Dictionary by Oliver Nicholson (pgs. 3: 258-260).