When Jesus was born, the largest and most important city on the Sea of Galilee was Magdala — perhaps the same town as the New Testament’s “Dalmanutha” and “Magadan” — on the western shore.
Josephus’ “Jewish War” says that the Roman general Cassius (later one of the assassins of Julius Caesar) took 30,000 captives from Taricheae, as Magdala was known to classical authors. That number may be exaggerated but, plainly, the town was sizable.
The name “Taricheae” derives from the Greek word “tarichos,” which refers to salted, smoked, or dried meat (especially fish). The Greek geographer Strabo (d. A.D. 24) commented on the town’s excellent fish, which were very highly regarded even in the markets of Rome.
Around A.D. 20, however, Magdala’s status would be threatened when the Roman client-king Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, founded a new city called Tiberias — which he named in flattery of the emperor Tiberius Caesar.
But Magdala wasn’t overshadowed immediately, and its connection with Christianity guarantees that it will never be wholly eclipsed. It is, for example, very likely the place from which Mary Magdalene received her name. Moreover, as observed in Biblical Archaeology Review by Marcela Zapata-Meza and Rosaura Sanz-Rincón of the Universidad Anáhuac México, which conducts archaeological research there, “Although there is no archaeological evidence that Jesus visited Magdala, it is almost certain that he did.”
The first century synagogue was discovered in 2009 in Magdala. | Provided by Magdala.com
Why? Not only because of Mary Magdalene. Referring to the Galilee region generally, Matthew 9:35 tells us that “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.” In 2009, during the construction of a new hotel, a small first-century synagogue was discovered at Magdala. We can be quite confident that Jesus preached in that newly found synagogue.
The verses immediately following Matthew 9:35 read as follows:
“But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (see Matthew 9:36-38).
An intriguing article published by S. Kent Brown, a retired Brigham Young University New Testament scholar with many years of experience in Israel and the region around it, suggests that Jesus took practical action to recruit more workers for his cause, and that Magdala or Taricheae may have played a central part in that (see “The Savior’s Compassion,” Ensign, March 2011).
Capernaum, where the future apostles Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John and Matthew lived, sits approximately six miles northward along the lake shore. It was a fishing village of perhaps about 1,500 people, and boats regularly set out from it onto what the New Testament sometimes calls “the lake of Gennesaret.”
The story to which Brown calls attention is the account, often called “the miraculous draught of fishes,” recounted at Luke 5:1-11. They had had no luck, but Jesus tells Peter and his associates to cast their net one more time. Doubtful, but already deeply impressed with Jesus, they do so and now they gather so many fish that their two boats nearly sink with the weight of the catch.
Verse 11 concludes the story by saying that, “when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him.”
But surely they didn’t just wastefully leave all those fish aboard their boats. Instead, Brown suggests, they would have taken the fish for processing — very likely to Magdala (or Taricheae), the most important center for such work in the area. A catch of fish as large as Luke describes would have sustained the families of the fishermen for months, if not for perhaps even a year or two.
Jesus would shortly call these men to leave their familiar Galilee in order to be “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). So the miracle of the wondrous catch of fish may have been not only intended to demonstrate Christ’s power over nature but designed as a practical measure to care for the apostles’ families while they were away.
Authors' note: For an earlier discussion of Magdala, see “Did Jesus teach in this ancient synagogue?” from April 15, 2016, on deseretnews.com. We’ve also drawn from Marcela Zapata-Meza and Rosaura Sanz-Rincón, “Excavating Mary Magdalene’s Hometown,” in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, which features excellent photographs.
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.