Exploring Mary’s Magdala

Magdala1This summer I had the opportunity to spend several weeks in Israel digging at Tel Shimron and then touring the rest of the country. My husband and parents joined me for the second less-dusty part of the trip, but I still managed to wear them out traipsing to tel after tel in the blazing sun.

Toward the end of our trip, we stayed 4 days in Tiberias, on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee. About 20 minutes north of our hotel sits Magdala, a city most famous as the hometown of Mary Magdalene.

Standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee next to a replica of a first-century fishing boat, it is easy to imagine Jesus and His disciples docking at Magdala’s port (Matthew 15:39) before taking a short walk to the synagogue to preach as He had throughout Galilee (Matthew 4:23).

Archaeologists have discovered that Magdala first became a city around 200 B.C.E. By the time Mary was born, it had grown into a prosperous fishing village with a distinctly Jewish culture. It boasts the oldest synagogue discovered in Galilee to date, and the frescoed walls and mosaic floors preserved in several buildings survived flooding, conquest, and a major earthquake. Four high-quality groundwater-fed ritual baths further indicate both the importance of the Jewish religion to daily life and the city’s great wealth.

Magdala2The current excavation of Magdala began in 2009 when contractors preparing the foundation of a new building stumbled on the remains of a 1st-century synagogue. The dig is now jointly sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Mexican universities, Universidad Anáhuac México Sur and Universidad Autónoma de Mexico. It was seen by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and is visited by more and more Jewish and Christian tourists each year.

Once excavation and restoration are complete, Magdala will be a dazzling example of maritime society in the ancient world. Today visitors can enjoy a mostly do-it-yourself tour thanks to helpful diagrams and historic facts presented throughout the site. We spent about 2 hours there–which is probably twice as long as was needed–and only paid about $5 per person. Tour guides are sometimes available at no additional cost, if your timing is just right.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how dedicated Magdala’s scholars are to “rehabilitating” Mary Magdalene’s reputation. Since naming my next book after her, I find myself increasingly aware that too many Christians–myself included–grew up believing Mary was a castanet-playing, blue-eye-shadow-wearing prostitute. The Bible actually describes her as a wealthy woman who was among Jesus’ most devoted followers:

[Jesus] went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons. . . and many others who provided for Him from their substance (Luke 8:1-3 NKJV).

Alongside Magdala’s dig site is the Magdalena Institute, a nonprofit inspired by the figure of Mary Magdalene that seeks “to highlight issues of human dignity–with an emphasis on the dignity of women–and contributions of the feminine genius in both religious history and facets of life today.” Many scholars would argue that the denigration of Mary by Pope Gregory the Great (and the subsequent fifteen centuries’ teachers and preachers who solidified her identification as a prostitute) is the result of historic misogyny in the church; the Institute works from the same place where Mary walked and Jesus may have preached to make sure no woman is marginalized because of her gender.

Women are smart and capable of studying and understanding Scripture, but too often we are offered emotion-based ministries seeking to make us feel good about our relationships with God and others instead of Scripture-based lessons that can actually help us know God better.

Revealing how history and traditions can (and too often have) incorrectly influenced the reading of the Bible is my goal in Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow and future books. I want to strip away the Sunday school stories and dig into Scripture itself, for only in Scripture can we meet the risen Jesus, as did Mary Magdalene before us.

Knights of Acre

Have you ever watched the History Channel’s drama Knightfall (now also on Netflix)? The series opener is inspired by the failure of the European Christians to defend against the Mamluks during the Siege of Acre in 1291. The story itself is quite soapy (thanks to courtly love, palace intrigue, and a corrupt pope) as the show describes the romanticized lives of the Knights Templar in 14th-century France.

The last episode of season 2 aired just before I left for my summer in Israel, and the well-advertised highlight of the season was Mark Hamill’s role as an elder Templar knight. He is the knights’ iron-wielding “Yoda” in this largely fictitious Crusader story.

As I watched the season finale, I had no idea that I’d soon be standing on the shores of Acre, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One Saturday, all of Tel Shimron‘s volunteers and staff members were invited on a “field trip” to that Mediterranean city. We hopped off the bus at the Old City’s gates, and each went his or her own way. I paired off with one of my square-mates, Avie, and we toured the Crusader City together for a couple of hours.

Much of what we toured has been underground since the 18th century when an Ottoman citadel was built over it. It is strange to walk along streets once busy with commerce but now completely encased in the stone foundations of the citadel. Most places only have artificial light, and ancient graffiti remains on buildings now filled only with curious tourists.

Before our trip, I was familiar with the Knights Templar and their simultaneously historic and fantastic quest for the Holy Grail. The “cup of Christ,” from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper and/or into which His blood flowed at the Cross, was thought to have magical healing powers and could propel armies of God to certain victory. (And, thanks to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we know it was wooden, not gold!)

CoverBut I learned that the Templars weren’t the only knights at Acre, and any healing in the city was done by their brothers and rivals, the Hospitallers. During the Crusades, both the Templars and Hospitallers were warriors, but their spiritual fathers and daily activities put them in fierce opposition with each other. The Templars were Benedictine knights who were sworn to protect pilgrims (and accumulated great wealth); the Hospitallers were Augustinians who cared for the sick and wounded. The Templars were disbanded and executed by 1312; the Hospitallers remain active healers today.

After a few hours underground, Avie and I decided to walk along the coast (she had never seen the Mediterranean, and I was happy to take her first pictures!) and eat some lunch. We found a wonderful seafood restaurant called Mina and ordered fresh fish, mussels, and assorted salads to eat on a deck built into the sea. It was lovely–until the sunshade collapsed on our table just as we were trying to leave.

Rarely, it seems, am I capable of enjoying an uneventful outing. Fellow travelers beware!

Summer in Shimron

I write to you today from Israel, where I am volunteering for a dig at Tel Shimron. (That’s Shim-RONE, like the Rhone River in France, not Shim-RON as I mispronounced it for the last year!)

There are almost-countless famous archaeological sites in Israel, but the name of this one probably doesn’t ring a bell. In the Bible, Shimron the city is only mentioned in the Book of Joshua, first as part of a Canaanite coalition against Israel:

When King Jabin of Hazor heard what Israel had done to the central and southern cities of Canaan, he sent messengers to King Jobab of Madon, the king of Shimron, the king of Achshaph, and the kings who were in the northern hill country, in the Arabah south of Chinneroth, in the lowland, and in the heights of Dor on the west; to the Canaanites in the east and the west; the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites in the hill country; the Hivites in the foothills of Mount Hermon in the land of Mizpeh, and to all those who could still fight the invaders. They banded together and came out to fight—so many warriors that you could no more count them than you could count the grains of sand on a beach—and leading them was a vast number of horses and chariots. All of these kings pooled their forces, and they camped together by the waters of Merom, ready to make war on Israel (Joshua 11:1-5).

And then as a conquered city belonging to the Israelite tribe of Zebulun (after that coalition failed and Israel took over the land of Canaan):

The third lot fell to the people of Zebulun, clan by clan. The boundary of its inheritance stretched as far as Sarid, then it climbed up westward to Maralah and brushed Dabbesheth, then on to the wadi that is east of Jokneam. From Sarid it turned in the other direction eastward toward the sunrise to the frontier of Chisloth-tabor; and from there it went to Daberath, then up to Japhia. From there it went eastward to Gath-hepher, then Eth-kazin, and going on to Rimmon, it curved toward Neah. Then on the north, the boundary curved toward Hannathon and ended at the valley of Iphtahel with Kattah, Nahalal, Shimron, Idalah, and Bethlehem—12 cities with their surrounding villages (Joshua 19:10-15).

This season I have been stationed in a square where we are excavating remains from the Middle Bronze Age occupation of the city. What that means is, we are in dirt that last saw daylight long before David or Saul were kings in Israel.

CoverI can’t tell you much about the dig itself–scholars will publish our finds in the years to come–but I will say that the disciple of archaeology has changed drastically in the 15 years since the last time I dug. After less than a week in the field, I am amazed by how much has modernized. Satellites help triangulate the exact positions of artifacts; laptops are onsite doing I-don’t-know-what-all; tags are now bar-coded instead of handwritten. Technology has improved and hastened the excavation process (and, sadly, made my beloved plumb bob obsolete).

When the dig is over, I’ll be touring the rest of the country and writing my next book, The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel. It will be part archaeological survey / part biblical exegesis / part travel memoir with photographs I’ll take myself this summer.

I am so thankful to God and Harvest House Publishers for the opportunity to re-immerse myself in my first love–biblical archaeology–and share that love with you.