Driving along the western shore of Lake Kinneret, called “the Sea of Galilee” in the New Testament, it’s virtually impossible to miss a steep cliff called Arbel and a valley below it called either the Wadi Arbel or the Wadi Hammam (“Valley of the Doves”). This area is saturated — literally as well as figuratively — with ancient history.
The Arbel cliff contains roughly a hundred caves, in and around which bloody battles were fought during the Maccabean Revolt in 161 B.C., the Herodian war in 38 B.C. and the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in A.D. 66-70.
Perhaps the most important thing for Christian visitors to know, however, is that the Wadi Hammam is almost certainly the path that Jesus walked between his hometown of Nazareth, in the mountainous Upper Galilee, and his adoptive Lower Galilean home in the village of Capernaum, where the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John lived, as well as the tax collector Levi or Matthew. Jesus would have traveled northward from Sepphoris and Nazareth to the town of Cana (John 2:1-11, 4:46, 21:2), descending eastward from there to the Sea of Galilee.
Emerging from the valley onto the lakeshore, he would have found himself facing the town of Magdala, which (as her name indicates) seems to have been the home of Mary Magdalene. One of the most prominent of the early Christian disciples, Mary is actually mentioned more often in the New Testament gospels than most of the apostles, and — much more importantly — she was both an eyewitness of the crucifixion of Jesus and the first witness to his resurrection.
Magdala is in ruins today, but a Palestinian Arab village called al-Majdal existed there until being abandoned just prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and a modern Israeli town with essentially the same name, Migdal, was founded directly to the north in 1910. The original Hebrew name of the ancient village was “Magdala Nunayya” — “Magdala of the Fish” or, perhaps, “Fish Tower” — which clearly suggests that its major industry was the drying and export of the fish that are still abundantly taken from the lake (and served to tourists). Positioned as it was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and at the mouth of the valley that ascended to Upper Galilee and, past that, to the ports of the Mediterranean, Magdala was superbly situated for the export of dried freshwater fish to markets throughout the Galilee and even beyond Palestine.
The most exciting recent development at the site has been the discovery, during preparations for the construction of a new hotel at Migdal Beach in 2009, of a first-century synagogue. One of the oldest such structures ever found in Israel, this synagogue appears to have been used from roughly 50 B.C. to the end of the first century A.D. In other words, it was standing during the time of Jesus himself. Did he ever visit it? He almost certainly did. “Jesus went about all Galilee,” reports Matthew 4:23, “teaching in their synagogues.”
Given its location near the Wadi Hammam, the connection between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, and the fact that Magdala is only six miles (10 kilometers) from Capernaum, it seems unlikely that Jesus never visited the building.
In the center of the Magdala synagogue is a rectangular stone that features a carved image representing the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that stood in the temple of Jerusalem prior to that sanctuary’s destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70.
Flanked on each side by a column and a two-handled vase or jug, this is the oldest such representation known to exist, and the only image of the temple menorah that was very likely created by a craftsman who had actually seen the original in Jerusalem. While it stood, devout Jews congregated at the temple from all over the land of Israel during the three great annual festivals of Passover (Pesach), Weeks (Shavuot) and Tabernacles (Sukkot).
Discoveries such as the synagogue at Magdala help to take ancient biblical history in general, and the life of Jesus Christ in particular, out of the hazy realm of mythical things that happened, if they happened, “long ago, in a land far away,” and to give the scriptural stories a sense of vivid, concrete reality. This is as it should be for a faith based upon the conviction that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
(For photographs and information about the synagogue and the “Magdala Stone,” see magdala.org.)
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.