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The Magdala Stone May Be A Portal To Early Religion

Arfan Najar, an archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, introduces a replica of the Magdala Stone at the Magdala Archeological Park in Israel on Dec. 2, 2013.
Li Rui
Arfan Najar, an archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, introduces a replica of the Magdala Stone at the Magdala Archeological Park in Israel on Dec. 2, 2013.

The Magdala Stone, a stunning archaeological find from an excavated synagogue in Israel that dates back to the time of Jesus, sits at the intersection of Jewish and Christian history.

Since its 2009 discovery, the stone — a carved block decorated with symbols including a seven-branch menorah (rare for the time) — has ignited intense discussion among the archaeologists and religion scholars who continue to study it.

Discovered by Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the block is named the Magdala Stone because the synagogue in which it was found is located in Magdala near the Sea of Galilee. This is presumed to be the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, understood to be one of Jesus's loyal followers.

The stone dates to the time when the Second Temple stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (between 516 B.C. and A.D. 70; Herod's renovation of the temple stood from 20 B.C. to A.D. 70), and, as such, it's the closest thing we may ever have to a portal for time travel back to a period central to both the Jewish and Christian faiths. Some experts have suggested the possibility that Jesus could have taught in the Magdala synagogue.

Looked at one way, the Magdala Stone suggests that we should recast our understanding of early synagogues and their relationship with the Second Temple. As The New York Times reported last week:

"Experts have long believed that in the period before Herod's Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, synagogues were used as a general place of assembly and learning, something like a neighborhood community center. The more formal conception of a synagogue as a sacred space reserved for religious ritual was thought to have developed later, in the Jewish diaspora after the Temple had been destroyed."

But the stone was found right in the synagogue's center, and as Rina Talgram from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told the Times, it's just about the right size for laying down a Torah scroll. Could it have been both a symbolic sacred object and a practical piece of furniture?

That possibility intrigues Julie Galambush, a religious studies scholar and my colleague at the College of William and Mary. Earlier this week, Galambush told me:

"Reading the Torah from a podium designed to evoke (or perhaps invoke) the temple would have enhanced the sense that local prayer was directly linked to the holiness of the Jerusalem sanctuary."

In some ways, Galambush went on to say, the Magdala Stone reinforces rather than overturns scholars' traditional assumptions:

"There is a sense in which the Torah was always a symbolic substitute for the temple. Contemporary scholars see the Torah as having been compiled in response to the Babylonian exile — that is, after the destruction of the first Jerusalem temple.

"The Torah creates a portable identity for the people, preserving their stories, the words of their God, and a detailed description of the temple and its rituals. The Torah's key function of providing access to the same core of holiness represented by the [first] Jerusalem temple would not have disappeared with the building of the Second Temple. This means that the connection between Torah and temple as intertwined holy 'spaces' is exactly what one would expect in light of the crucial role the destruction of the temple played in making Torah a valid point of access to God's presence and power, and in preserving the Jews' status as a holy people during the exile."

Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is both a religious studies scholar and an archaeologist, told me that the seven-branch menorah engraved on the Magdala Stone is, all by itself, a highly significant find:

"This is because there are only a few other depictions of the menorah which antedate 70 AD, and this is the first one that has been found in a synagogue context (the others are depictions of menorahs on a wall in a tomb, on a wall in a house, and on coins). I believe it is correct to say that the depiction of the menorah is an allusion to the Jerusalem temple."

Magness was reluctant to go further than this; she noted that no analyses of the Magdala Stone are yet published.

Similarly, we don't know for sure that during his life Jesus taught in the synagogue where the Magdala Stone was found; evidence for that claim seems to me both circumstantial and plausible, related to Jesus' likely route as he moved about, teaching, in the Galilee region.

More archaeological excavations will bring more knowledge. This merging of interpretations from science (archaeology) and religious studies can be fascinating for any of us intrigued by the history of human religiosity — whether this month we celebrate a sacred holiday, a secular one or none at all.

Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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