The carved stone block is about the size of an occasional table. It has held its secrets for two millenniums. Whoever engraved its enigmatic symbols was apparently depicting the ancient Jewish temples.
But what makes the stone such a rare find in biblical archaeology, according to scholars, is that when it was carved, the Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem for the carver to see. The stone is a kind of ancient snapshot.
And it is upending some long-held scholarly assumptions about ancient synagogues and their relationship with the Temple, a center of Jewish pilgrimage and considered the holiest place of worship for Jews during a crucial period, when Judaism was on the cusp of the Christian era.
Known as the Magdala Stone, the block was unearthed in 2009 near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, where a resort and center for Christian pilgrims was going to be built. Government archaeologists are routinely called in to check for anything old and important that might be destroyed by a project, and in this case they discovered the well-preserved ruins of a first-century synagogue and began excavating.
The site turned out to be the presumed hometown of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ most faithful followers. The dig also revealed an ancient marketplace and fishermen’s quarters along with the synagogue.
Experts have raised the tantalizing possibility that Jesus may have taught in the synagogue when he was in Galilee. A local coin found in a side room was minted in A.D. 29, when Jesus is thought to have been alive.
But for some scholars, the Magdala Stone was the real eye-opener.
“I approached the stone, and I could not believe what I was seeing,” said Rina Talgam, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor specializing in ancient art of the Middle East. Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists had asked her to visit the site to view Magdala’s mosaics and frescoes, but when she first saw the stone, “they said I stood there for three hours.”
Talgam concluded that she was looking at a three-dimensional depiction of the Temple of Herod, also known as the Second Temple.
She has since spent years deciphering and interpreting the symbols that adorn the stone and researching the possible implications of the discovery.
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 Magdala Stone was found in the center of the old synagogue, and Talgam said it might have been intended to give the space an aura of holiness “like a lesser temple” even while Herod’s Temple still existed.
Other scholars have come to the same view. Elchanan Reiner, a retired professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, said that the stone was probably intended to represent the place where God, or the holy spirit of God, was believed to reside and that its placement in the middle of the synagogue “gives new meaning to that public building.”
For Jews living in Galilee in those days, Jerusalem was a substantial journey away. Reiner noted that, though there could be only one Temple, the stone would have brought a suggestion of it to the synagogue in Magdala. “It brings that community closer to, and further from, Jerusalem at the same time,” he said.
One side of the stone has what experts say is an unusual feature for the time: a carving of a seven-branch menorah. A candelabra of that kind is described in the Bible and is believed to have stood in the Temple, and it emerged as a Jewish symbol of hope for redemption centuries later, according to David Mevorah, senior curator for Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine archaeology at the Israel Museum.
During the annual eight-day festival of Hanukkah, which began on Sunday evening, Jews light a nine-branch menorah to commemorate the re-dedication of the Second Temple after a successful revolt against the Syrian-Greek Seleucid empire in 165 B.C.
But there would have been no need for a symbol of redemption in first-century Magdala, Mevorah said. “The Temple exists,” he said. “Everything is functioning. So why would there be a symbol of the Temple here? It raises questions about the role of the synagogue at that time.”