On the Sea of Galilee, near the base of towering Mount Arbel, lie the ruins of the ancient city of Magdala. Today the remains of the city can be found by traveling north about six kilometers on the coastal road from Tiberias.
Magdala was placed on the map forever because of its most famous first-century resident. We know her from the dozen references in the New Testament as Mary Magdalene. We also know from the Gospels that Jesus (Yeshua) delivered this woman from a demonized life (Mk. 16:9). Thereafter, she became a disciple par excellence. Mary accomplished something that the twelve selected disciples did not accomplish. She followed Jesus all the way to the cross (Jn. 19:25), and three days later she was the first witness to the resurrection of the Lord (Jn. 20:14-18).
Mary’s city, Magdala, is mentioned only once in scripture, in Matthew 15:39. Here it is stated that Jesus came to the region of Magdala. However, even in this instance, the NIV translates Magdala as Magadan. The area of Magdala is also associated in the New Testament with the name Dalmanutha, as seen in Mark 8:10. All other references to the city are indirect ones.
Like so many other ancient cities, Magdala was rediscovered in the past century. In 1971-74, the city was excavated by Corbo and Loffreda. In their excavations they discovered a mini-synagogue, a water reservoir and some mosaics. One of the mosaics, now on display at Capernaum, depicts an ancient boat with both sails and oars, not unlike the famous boat actually discovered in the general area in 1986.
HOW MAGDALA GOT ITS NAME
In the Talmud, Magdala is called by its Aramaic name, Migdal Nunaiya (Pes. 46a). This name gives us a clue to the basic enterprise going on in the area, since the name means “Tower of Fish.” Magdala was famous for its skill in processing fish. In the first century the town was called by another name illustrating this. In the Greek language it was called Tarichaea, again, referring to it as a place of salting or processing fish.
We read in the New Testament about two miracles that Jesus performed, both including some type of small fish. It is thought today that the small fish were the plentiful Kinneret sardines. Obviously the boy could not have had them in his lunch unless they were preserved in some fashion. It is likely that the fish were either salted or smoked. It is even quite possible that these little fish were originally processed at Magdala.
HISTORY OF MAGDALA
Soon after the time of Jesus, Magdala suffered a tragic blow. After the revolt against Rome began in AD 66, Magdala was defeated by the Romans. The historian, Josephus, recounts that the Romans under Titus conquered the city with much bloodshed. Since Magdala was a center of boat building, many of the remaining residents fled to the sea in their vessels. A great sea battle resulted with a total of 6500 Jews slaughtered in the sea and on land. Josephus describes how the sea became bloody and full of dead bodies. Titus’ father, Vespasian, then decreed that the remaining citizens would not be spared. The old and infirm were slaughtered. Six thousand of the city’s strongest were given as slaves to Nero, and the remaining thousands were sold in the slave markets.*
Somehow, Magdala continued on as a city. In later times the Talmud mentions Magdala once again as a boat-building center. The city is also characterized as one noted for its wealth and depravity.
JESUS CLEANSES MARY
In their book entitled “Jesus and His World, An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary,” the authors John Rosseau and Rami Arav ask concerning Magdala: “Can a correlation be made between its ‘depravity’ and the seven demons that Jesus cast out of Mary (Lk. 8:2)?” It would seem possible that in this affluent city, Mary got with the wrong crowd. Somehow demonic forces began to enter and take control her life.
When Mary Magdalene met the Master, she met deliverance. We are told in scripture that Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary. From that point on, she loved the Master with a great and enduring love. For the remainder of Jesus’ ministry Mary was there to
Regardless of what our modern and postmodern world proclaims, our lives can be greatly influenced for good or evil by the kind of company we keep. The Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’” (1 Cor. 15:33). Obviously the reverse of this statement is also true. When Mary met Jesus and began to travel with him and his disciples, her life took a turn toward the beautiful. The same thing can happen
Today although the ancient city of Magdala lies in ruins, not far from the old city is the modern farming community of Migdal. This modern community once more takes its name from the Hebrew word for “tower.” As early as 1885, new settlement was begun in the area by some German Catholic families. At the turn of the century their land was purchased by a group of Zionist Jews from Russia. Their intent was to establish a colony that could assist the Jewish people in learning agricultural techniques. By 1910, the settlement could boast itself as a successful farming area, and soon more settlers
In 1921, a construction camp was established in the area as work was begun on the Tiberias-Rosh Pina highway. This work battalion was under the direction of the legendary hero, Joseph Trumpledor. In the intervening years, the community of Migdal continued to grow and today it boasts a population of some 1500 people. Most of today’s inhabitants are occupied in the farming industry. They grow olives, citrus crops of all kinds, dates, mangoes, avocados and many other fruits. Their picturesque farms dot the Plain of Genassaret lying just below the city. Migdal also attracts many vacationers who love its beautiful and peaceful area and its proximity to the Sea of Galilee.
Situated on the crest of Migdal’s hill and overlooking the Sea is the Galilee Study Center, presently operated by the evangelical Christian ministry, Jerusalem Cornerstone Foundation. At this center, Christians from all over the world come to spend a few days. They rest, pray, study and tour near the place where Mary Magdalene once lived and where Jesus once ministered.
With Bibles in hand they, like the disciples of old, hike over the hills, sit under the fig and olive trees and learn more about the land of Israel, the land of their heritage. As they experience this “disciple country” first hand they also learn much more about the Master whom they serve.
* Josephus Flavius, The Wars of the Jews, Book 3, Ch. 10
This updated article presented courtesy of Bridges For Peace, Jerusalem
Photo credit- Peggy Steffel