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Magdala: A Galilean Town

March 5, 2019

For anyone seriously interested in Galilee in the time of Jesus, the recently published multi-author volume edited by Richard Bauckham is a must-read:  Magdala of Galilee: A Jewish City in the Hellenistic and Roman Period (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018; the publisher’s online description here.)

Magdala is of particular interest for students of the Gospels on account of Mary (the) Magdalene, whose sobriquet indicates that she came from Magdala.  It was a town on the western shore of Lake Genessaret/Galilee, whose main industry during the early first century CE was fishing and the related preparation of fish for export.

In recent decades there have been some intensive archaeological projects conducted on the site of ancient Magdala, and this book harvests the results.  The lead essay is a 67 pp. summary of matters by Bauckham:  “Magdala as We Now Know It:  An Overview.”  There follow detailed studies of the particular discoveries:  “The Harbor” (Anna Lena), “Domestic and Mercantile Areas” (Marcela Zapata-Meza), “The Domestic Miqva’ot” (Ronny Reich and Marcela Zapata-Meza), “The Synagogue” (Mordechai Aviam), “The Synagogue Stone” (Mordechai Aviam and Richard Bauckham), “Magdala and Trade” (Santiago Guijarro), “Magdala and the Fishing Industry” (Richard Bauckham), “Magdala/Taricheae and the Jewish Revolt” *(Morten Hørning Jensen), “Magdala in the List of the Twenty-Four Priestly Settlements” (Richard Bauckham), “Magdala in Rabbinic Literature” (Richard Bauckham), and “The Prosopography of Magdala” (Richard Bauckham).  There are also maps of sites around Lake Genessaret, plus 49 illustrations.

Magdala now offers us some remarkable new data.  For instance, the synagogue, which has been dated to the pre-70 CE period, and has interesting wall decorations, the curious “synagogue stone” and its symbols that show a strong Jerusalem-temple orientation, the miqva’ot (stepped pools used for ritual purification) which further show the Jewishness of inhabitants of the town, the housing that indicates both well-off and less well-off inhabitants, the hippodrome and baths which show the Jewish acceptance of aspects of Hellenistic culture (alongside the miqva’ot and other indications of distinctive Jewishness), and still other matters.

This is a remarkably detailed study of various aspects of life in a Galilean town in the first century CE.

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  1. John Mitrosky permalink

    Dear Larry,

    So what is the evidence for the town’s name? I know I brought up Joan Taylor’s article before and you were not to keen on her suggestion, but Magdala the town in Jesus’ and Mary’s time is just a hypothesis too, is it not?


    • Bauckham cites Aramaic and Rabbinic references to Magdala. He engages Taylor’s views and gives arguments against them. Check out the book.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        What do our oldest texts say? For example, what does Luke 8:2 say? “Mary, from Magdala”? Or “Mary, called Magdalene”? I’ve seen it translated both ways and I just thought you might like to share or investigate, since you are an expert on our oldest copies. I’m a big admirer of Bauckham’s work, so it is not that I wish to argue the point, but “the Rock”, “the Toweress”, “the Sons of Thunder”, “the Twin”, “The Son of Man”, “the Baptist”, or “the Dunker”, etc., all have nice nickname rings to them indicative of a group of close friends in their late 20’s, or early 30’s.

      • Yes, John, Jesus and the twelve were young men, in their 20s-30s. That’s got nothing to do with why this Mary is called “the Magdalene”. She’s called that to differentiate her from the other many Marys.

  2. I have this book, but your post put a new thought in my head.

    People assembled in the synagogue around a rock. Jesus and his followers assembled in the house of Peter, about whom Jesus declares, “ἐπὶ this rock I will build my assembly”. Is Matt 16:18 comparing/contrasting Peter, a living stone, to a synagogue stone that represented the Jerusalem temple?

    (On Peter as host, see Gehring “House Church and Mission”)

    • We don’t really know where that stone stood or how it was used, I’d say that your suggestion is . . . not a likely one.

  3. So, regarding the Synagogue: any data on reading places and places where texts were stored or anything regarding schools or schooling or whatnot? I’m starved for info on this, which I began tackling only recently, but pretty intensely. On this topic, I’ve just finished a chapter from H. Gregory Snyder’s _Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World_, and, reviewing Gamble’s _Books and Readers_, I see that I missed so many details (and broad strokes!) in the endnotes (God place a curse on endnotes; footnotes are the only appropriate thing for a non-barbarous society). I’m broke, so I can’t afford your book (yet). Trying to find reliable data on schooling in Jewish Palestine — and literacy levels. Help?

    • The chapter on the synagogue does address some of these matters. On early synagogues: Anders Runesson, Donald D. Binder and Birger Olsson, , The Ancient Synagogue From Its Origins to 200 C.E.: A Source Book, AJEC, no. 72 (Leiden: Brill, 2008); Donald Drew Binder, , Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period, SBL Dissertation Series, no. 169 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999).
      On ancient literacy and schooling in Jewish Palestine in the second-temple period, there is debate, ranging from assertions of very low levels of literacy: Catherine Hezser, , Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, TSAJ, no. 81 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001); to more positive estimates: e.g., Alan K. Bowman and Greg Woolf, eds., Literacy and Power in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

      • Oh, thank you! These are excellent suggestions — I wish we’d corresponded two weeks ago, when I could have pursued these _before_ my conference paper! I have more questions about Harris & _Ancient Literacy_ & extract lists/testimonia, if you don’t mind. I found the blog posts regarding them (or at least _some_ of your posts regarding them), and I’ll ask the questions in the comments on the relevant posts, to keep the structure you have here. Thank you, again!

  4. Andrew Cress permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    Forgive me if this is not entirely on subject. I have been wondering about the following question for several years now.

    What do you find is the best way to keep up with new publications in your field/sub-field? Outside of emails from publishers, book reviews from journals, and publisher catalogs, that is.

    You seem to be able to find and consume a curated selection of excellent new works.

    • Well, you’re kind, Andrew. For I am conscious often of having missed so many good things when I read the works of others, especially diligent younger scholars.

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