Along the Shore of the Sea of Galilee: Magdala


"Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God..." (Luke 8:1-2).


In the footsteps of Jesus...

Mileage-wise we will not be covering a lot of ground today, but there is a lot to see and learn, necessitating an early start. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we head north from Tiberias on the lakeside road (Road 90).

At the northern edge of Tiberias, on the left, is a steep hill (below left) which our guide, Doran, tells us was the site of Rakkath, mentioned in Joshua 19:36 as one of nineteen fortified cities allocated to the tribe of Naphtali at the time of the Hebrew conquest of Canaan. It was strategically located on an ancient road used by caravans travelling between Damascus and Acre (on the Mediterranean Sea).  During the Roman period it was replaced by Tiberias.

Some 3.5 miles from Tiberias, on the seashore, we come to the site of Magdala (above right), the home of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus' most faithful followers. In the same manner as Jesus was identified as a Nazarene (from the town of Nazareth), Mary Magdalene came from Magdala. As described in the New Testament, Jesus met Mary and healed her of several evil spirits:

"After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out" (Luke 8:1-2).

Mary became one of the inner circle of Jesus' followers, a witness to his crucifixion, and the first witness to his resurrection.


Located at the point where the Sea of Galilee reaches its greatest width, Magdala was one of the largest towns on the lake at the time of Jesus (the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus gives a possibly exaggerated figure of 40,000). But, the founding of Tiberias in 20 AD, about 10 years before Jesus began his public ministry, diminished its importance. Since it had a hippodrome (chariot racing track), part of its population must have been non-Jewish, or at least Hellenistic (Greekized).

(Above left) Magdala townsite from above. Photo:; (Above right) site of the Magdala harbor, a structure measuring 300 feet long and 30 feet wide; not always visible due to the water level of the lake.

Magdala is mentioned only once in the Bible, in Matthew 15:39, which states that Jesus came to the "coasts of Magdala" (KJV), or "vicinity of Magadan" (NIV). The area was also associated in the New Testament with the name Dalmanutha (Greek, of Aramaic origin, meaning "slow firebrand") found in Mark 8:10. The Talmud used the longer Aramaic name Magdal Nunaiya, or "fish tower." In Greek it was called Tarichaea, roughly "the place where fish was salted," because the town was a center for processing fish sold in the markets of Jerusalem and exported as far as Rome. Magdala was also renowned as a center for flax weaving and dyeing. Legend has it that the robes worn by Jesus at the time of his crucifixion were made there. The town came to be known as "Magdala of the Fishes" to distinguish it from another town of the same name, located south of the Sea of Galilee and east of the Jordan River. Originally the city lay next to the lake, but silting moved the site inland.

The narrow valley, called "Valley of the Doves" or "Valley of the Robbers" began at Magdala. The famed caravan route, called "Via Maris" by the Romans, lead west through the valley to the plateau country and the Jezreel Valley, thence to the Mediterranean coast and on to Egypt. Jesus undoubtedly followed this natural access route as he moved back and forth from the lake to Cana and Nazareth and other Galilee towns (though very few are actually named in the gospels).

(Below left) View west from the vicinity of Magdala of the steep cliff of Mount Arbel (left) rising above the Valley of the Doves (Valley of the Robbers), traversed by the Via Maris; (Below right) mosaic from a 1st century AD Magdala home, now displayed at Capernaum, about 5 miles to the north. It depicts a boat with a mast for sailing and oars for rowing. Apparently it was designed for a crew of four rowers and a helmsman controlling a rudder (the larger third "oar" at the stern). Jesus and the disciples would have sailed around the lake in a boat much like this and it is not unlike the famous first century "Jesus Boat" actually discovered in the general area in 1986 (See "Jesus Boat" below).

(Below left) Square stone, with relief of a seven-branched menorah on a triangular base, amphora (jars) and rosettes, from a synagogue dating to the Second Temple period (50 BC-100 AD). This is the first time that a menorah decoration has been discovered dating from the time when the Temple was still standing and It is assumed that it was done by an artist who saw the seven-branched menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem with his own eyes.

(Above right) One of the jars, dating to the 1st century AD, found at Magdala. It was conserved in mud at the bottom of a swimming pool in Magdala's thermal complex. The jars were intact and contained "greasy substances" which may or may not be balm or perfume.

Magdala after Jesus' time

Some 34 years after Jesus' crucifixion, Magdala suffered a tragic blow. In 67 AD, soon after the First Jewish revolt against Rome erupted, Magdala was defeated by the Romans. Jewish historian Josephus* recounts that the city, which he called by its Greek name "Taricheae," was conquered with much bloodshed by the Roman army commanded by Titus. Since Magdala was a center of boat building, many of the residents fled to the lake in their vessels. A great battle resulted with a total of 6,500 Jews slaughtered in the lake and on land. Josephus describes how the lake became "all bloody, and full of dead bodies." Titus' father, the emperor Vespasian, then decreed that the remaining citizens would not be spared. The old and infirm were slaughtered and thousands of the city's strongest were given to Nero as slaves; the remaining thousands were sold in the slave markets.

*Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 3, Chapter 10

Somehow, Magdala continued on as a city. In the following Roman Period, there were several villas built on the Roman model, with baths, and mosaics, and the main street, or cardo maximus, was paved. The Talmud mentions Magdala once again as a boat-building center. The city was also noted for its wealth and depravity. There are records of several doctors who came form Magdala, probably connected with the hot springs at Tiberias, and a report by Euthychius of Alexandria states that there was a Christian church there in the later 4th century AD.

But, early in the Christian era the exact location of Magdala was lost. It was known to be just west and south of Capernaum, but parts of the site were submerged in the 1920's when a dam raised the level of the Sea of Galilee.

Between 1971-1976, the city was excavated and discoveries included two main streets running at right angles, a square plaza with private and public buildings on the eastern side of the main road, a Byzantine monastery, a villa with a swimming pool, a water reservoir and some mosaic floors.

Magdala has never been part of the tourist track. While some tour brochures might mention the town, they indicate only that your guide will point out the site on the way to the more notable pilgrimage stops on the north shore of the lake. No road leads to it. It is, however, a very peaceful site, lying open and waiting, its squares and streets empty, except for ghosts. On the hill just to the south, along the far side of Route 90, you can still see stone coffins (sarcophagi) carved out of the rocks in what was the city cemetery.

A mile to the northwest of the Magdala site, we pass through the modern farming community of Migdal.

Migdal, like its ancient predecessor, takes its name from the Hebrew word for "tower" (migdal, pronounced "mig-dawl"). As early as 1885, some German Catholic families settled in the area. At the turn of the century their land was purchased by a group of Zionist Jews from Russia with the intent of establishing a colony to assist the Jewish people in learning agricultural techniques. By 1910, the settlement could boast that it was a successful farming area, and soon more settlers arrived. In 1921, a construction camp was established in the area as work was begun on the Tiberias-Rosh Pina highway. In the intervening years Migdal continued to grow and today it boasts a population of some 1,500 people. Most of today's inhabitants are occupied in the farming industry. They grow olives, bananas, citrus crops of all kinds, dates, mangoes, avocados and many other fruits. Their picturesque farms dot the Plain of Gennesaret 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.

Continuing north on Road 90, we are following the route of the "Via Maris," the ancient and well-traveled trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia as it made its way north along the lakeshore.

Beyond Migdal, the hills recede, giving way to the rich and fertile Plain of Gennesaret. Stretching along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, it marked the border between Upper Galilee and Lower Galilee. At its heart is Kibbutz Ginosar, one of 250 (according to our guide) communal farms in Israel. Founded in 1937, it is noted for its out-of-season fruit and vegetables. It is thought to be the site of the aforementioned town of Gennesaret, where, according to Luke (5:1), Jesus stood teaching a crowd gathered around him; also where he landed in a boat with his disciples (Matthew 14:34; Mark 6:53). The one genuine antiquity kept at Kibbutz Ginosar a must see for us is the preserved remains of a fishing boat used between 100 BC and 100 AD the time of Jesus. It was an especially valuable find for Christians because the Gospels contain no special information concerning the characteristics of boats in Jesus' day. With the large population around the Sea of Galilee, there must have been a vast number of fighting-boats, fishing-boats and pleasure-boats, and boat-building must have been an active trade on its shores. But, what did a typical boat look like? Its size? Could it have held up to thirteen men? Did it have a sail? How many oarsmen were needed? It is the "Jesus Boat" exhibit at Kibbutz Ginosar that helps answer most, if not all our questions.

The "Jesus Boat" discovered near Magdala

A harsh summer in 1985 and a lack of rainfall in the fall of that year created a drought in Israel. Water was pumped from the Sea of Galilee to irrigate parched fields and the level of the lake took a nosedive creating vast expanses of mud flats. While of great concern to Israel's residents, for whom the lake serves as a primary source of fresh water, the disaster proved a boon for archaeologists.

Late in January 1986, between the ancient harbors of Ginosar and Magdala, two brothers, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, discovered the faint oval outline of a boat in the muddy lake bed. As one brother later explained:

"It was little more than a curving arc of wood, flush with the surface of the ground, but we immediately realized that this was the uppermost plank of a boat that was entirely buried by the mud."

Amazingly it was almost intact after nearly 2000 years, but its timbers were extremely fragile and soaked like wet cardboard. Before the water level returned to normal, the boat was cleared of mud, reinforced with fiberglass frames, encased in polyurethane foam and floated across the Sea of Galilee, to be placed in a special conservation pool the kibbutz's Yigal Allon Museum, named for its favorite son who served as deputy prime minister under Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin in the 1970's. For 9 1/2 years, it was submerged in a hot polyethylene glycol bath to preserve the waterlogged timbers. In 1995, the pool was drained and the boat was revealed.

According to Carbon 14 dating, The so-called "Jesus Boat" was constructed in about 40 BC and was in use into the 1st century AD. The boat was probably sunk during the bloody battle with the Romans referenced above.

(Above left) "Jesus boat" on permanent display in the Galilee Boat Wing of the Yigal Allon Center; (Above right) reconstruction of 1st century AD boat

The boat was 26 1/2 feet long, 7 1/2 feet wide and 4 1/2 feet high, and it was probably of the Sea of Galilee's largest class of ships. Apparently, it was built to last by a master craftsman. It was made with different kinds of wood (mainly cedar and oak) salvaged from other boats, as well as inferior woods, such as pine, jujube and willow available locally. First, the outside planks were assembled with mortise and tenon joints, then the frames or ribs were nailed inside; the whole underside was smeared with a bitumen pitch. Its fore and aft sections were most likely decked and it probably had a mast, meaning it could be both sailed and rowed. Studies of ancient ships suggest this vessel had a crew of five (four rowers and a helmsman). Jewish historian Flavius Josephus referred to such ships holding 15 people. Skeletal remains from Galilee during this period indicate males averaged 5 feet 5 inches tall and about 140 pounds. Therefore it was large enough to accommodate Jesus and his 12 disciples.

Although there is no proof that this boat was ever actually used by Jesus or any of the disciples, it helps us visualize several incidents related in the Gospels, for example, Jesus traveling by boat to various places around the lake:

"When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered round him while he was by the lake" (Mark 5:21).

...Jesus calling the brothers James and John to be his disciples:

"Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him" (Matthew 4:21-22).

And...Jesus asleep in the rear of a boat with a storm raging all around:

"Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, 'Teacher, don't you care if we drown?' He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, 'Quiet! Be still!' Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, 'Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?' They were terrified and asked each other, 'Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'" (Mark 4:36-41).

All that's missing from the remains of the boat displayed at the at the Yigal Allon Museum is a nameplate on the stern reading "Zebedee and Sons!"

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Excerpts from Josephus' account of the sea-battle in 67 AD at Magdala (Taricheae) from The Wars of the Jews, Book 3:10:

"And now Vespasian pitched his camp between this city and Taricheae, but fortified his camp more strongly, as suspecting that he should be forced to stay there, and have a long war; for all the innovators had gotten together at Taricheae, as relying upon the strength of the city, and on the lake that lay by it. This lake is called by the people of the country the Lake of Gennesaret. The city itself is situated like Tiberias, at the bottom of a mountain, and on those sides which are not washed by the sea, had been strongly fortified by Josephus, though not so strongly as Tiberias; for the wall of Tiberias had been built at the beginning of the Jews' revolt, when he had great plenty of money, and great power, but Tarichese partook only the remains of that liberality, Yet had they a great number of ships gotten ready upon the lake, that, in case they were beaten at land, they might retire to them; and they were so fitted up, that they might undertake a Sea-fight also. But as the Romans were building a wall about their camp, Jesus and his party were neither affrighted at their number, nor at the good order they were in, but made a sally upon them; and at the very first onset the builders of the wall were dispersed; and these pulled what little they had before built to pieces; but as soon as they saw the armed men getting together, and before they had suffered any thing themselves, they retired to their own men. But then the Romans pursued them, and drove them into their ships, where they launched out as far as might give them the opportunity of reaching the Romans with what they threw at them, and then cast anchor, and brought their ships close, as in a line of battle, and thence fought the enemy from the sea, who were themselves at land. But Vespasian hearing that a great multitude of them were gotten together in the plain that was before the city, he thereupon sent his son, with six hundred chosen horsemen, to disperse them...

...But now, when the vessels were gotten ready, Vespasian put upon ship-board as many of his forces as he thought sufficient to be too hard for those that were upon the lake, and set sail after them. Now these which were driven into the lake could neither fly to the land, where all was in their enemies' hand, and in war against them; nor could they fight upon the level by sea, for their ships were small and fitted only for piracy; they were too weak to fight with Vespasian's vessels, and the mariners that were in them were so few, that they were afraid to come near the Romans, who attacked them in great numbers. However, as they sailed round about the vessels, and sometimes as they came near them, they threw stones at the Romans when they were a good way off, or came closer and fought them; yet did they receive the greatest harm themselves in both cases. As for the stones they threw at the Romans, they only made a sound one after another, for they threw them against such as were in their armor, while the Roman darts could reach the Jews themselves; and when they ventured to come near the Romans, they became sufferers themselves before they could do any harm to the ether, and were drowned, they and their ships together. As for those that endeavored to come to an actual fight, the Romans ran many of them through with their long poles. Sometimes the Romans leaped into their ships, with swords in their hands, and slew them; but when some of them met the vessels, the Romans caught them by the middle, and destroyed at once their ships and themselves who were taken in them. And for such as were drowning in the sea, if they lifted their heads up above the water, they were either killed by darts, or caught by the vessels; but if, in the desperate case they were in, they attempted to swim to their enemies, the Romans cut off either their heads or their hands; and indeed they were destroyed after various manners every where, till the rest being put to flight, were forced to get upon the land, while the vessels encompassed them about [on the sea]: but as many of these were repulsed when they were getting ashore, they were killed by the darts upon the lake; and the Romans leaped out of their vessels, and destroyed a great many more upon the land: one might then see the lake all bloody, and full of dead bodies, for not one of them escaped. And a terrible stink, and a very sad sight there was on the following days over that country; for as for the shores, they were full of shipwrecks, and of dead bodies all swelled; and as the dead bodies were inflamed by the sun, and putrefied, they corrupted the air, insomuch that the misery was not only the object of commiseration to the Jews, but to those that hated them, and had been the authors of that misery. This was the upshot of the sea-fight. The number of the slain, including those that were killed in the city before, was six thousand and five hundred." (This battle took place about 34 years after Jesus' crucifixion)

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