Magdala of Galilee

A Jewish City in the Hellenistic and Roman Period

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Richard Bauckham
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     460 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Richard Bauckham’s edited volume, Magdala of Galilee: A Jewish City in the Hellenistic and Roman Period, contains twelve essays of varying length. This volume unfolds many features of the excavations at Magdala-Terichaeae, the ancient city situated on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Bauckham authored five of the twelve chapters. The remaining work represents contributions from six international scholars. Each chapter in the collection unpacks an aspect of the archaeological features present in this ancient Jewish city.

These essays include discussion about Magdala’s harbor, its baths, the synagogue and its accoutrements, the fishing industry, and its role in the Jewish revolt against Rome. The book aims to holistically portray the city in light of both archaeological and literary phenomena. Thus, the book contains the work of specialists in both archaeology and history of Second Temple Judaism and Roman Period Galilee. As Bauckham writes in the preface: “Magdala is really important! It is very important for all who have an interest in the historical Jesus and the Gospels” (vii).

Due to the length and various contributions of the volume, I cannot comment on every feature of the book. But I will survey three essays of the work in order to provide a sample of the work’s content. These chapters highlight the contours of the volume as they detail the geography, literature, archaeology, and history of Galilee and its significance for understanding the Hellenistic world.

The book begins with an extensive introduction by Bauckham, who provides an overview of research into Magdala. He unpacks the history of its excavations, the origins of its several reported names, and how the city’s location is known. Bauckham also discusses Magdala’s origins and history, its layout, economics, internal features, and its relationship to the New Testament Gospels.

As a city whose existence spanned roughly from the Hasmonean period until the middle-to-late Roman period, Magdala’s greatness was woven into its fishing industry, strategic position, its extensive trading contacts, and its prosperity. Several of these topics receive more detailed treatment in the subsequent chapters. But this introductory overview sets the pace of the book and provides essential prologue for the remaining essays.

In chapter 5, Mordechai Aviam provides a concise overview of the excavation at Magdala’s synagogue. Synagogues were common among Jews in the Second Temple era, even in towns and villages with fewer than fifty inhabitants. But the Magdala synagogue was the first to be discovered in all of Galilee during the Second Temple period. And even though the New Testament contains several references to Jesus’ synagogue teaching, before this discovery many scholars suggested that synagogues only existed at this time in the diaspora. Regarding the synagogue discovery, Aviam concludes: “what is portrayed in the New Testament was, as a matter of fact, the reality in the Galilee, as it was in Judea” (131).

Aviam also details the architectural and design features of the synagogue including its mosaic floor patterns, the colors of its columns, and the adornments of its walls. Within this synagogue, Aviam introduces us to the “synagogue stone,” an object believed to have been the base of a lectern for Torah readings. This feature receives a more thorough treatment in chapter 6. Within the synagogue, excavators also discovered what is believed to have been a repository for Torah scrolls. As Aviam notes: “the synagogue at Magdala is a small but very elegant structure, of which the entire interior was decorated with wall painting and which had a colored mosaic floor . . . an impressive building that would represent its importance in Jewish society” (131-132). It appears that this synagogue was destroyed in the mid-1st century CE during the Jewish Revolt.

In chapter 9, Morten Hørning Jensen discusses the events and impact of the Jewish revolt upon Magdala. Typically, discussion of the Jewish revolt centers around the destruction of Jerusalem, but Magdala “is the overlooked gem of the revolt in Galilee” (269). And Josephus provides significant information about Magdala’s role in Galilee’s defense.

Jensen outlines the narratives of the Jewish revolt primarily from evidence found in Josephus, since his works constitute the overwhelming majority of documentation from this period. And despite some inconsistencies in Josephus’s presentation of historical events, Jensen suggests that we trust these records while also recognizing that “his presence is evident on every page” (273). He affirms Josephus’s reliability and precision as an ancient historian.

Moreover, Jensen argues against a socioeconomic rationale behind Magdala’s involvement in the revolt. Instead, he locates its inception deep within the internal social and political divisions of the region. He argues that Magdala “provides us with a miniature of how divisive the revolt was from the beginning and how fatal it became in the end” (270). The events at Magdala-Terichaeae brought about a great loss of Jewish inhabitants through military confrontation on the lake of Galilee. The battle produced a lake filled with blood and corpses. Survivors were executed, employed in slave labor, or sold in the slave trade. These circumstances took place amongst “deep-seated” and “internal Jewish conflicts” (270). And Jensen inquires about the rationale behind Magdala’s desire to enter into conflict with Roman forces.

Magdala of Galilee is an advanced and thorough, yet accessible treatment of the excavations at Magdala, and it details the city’s history and destruction. Bauckham has masterfully organized the essays in this volume to synthesize features of both archaeological and literary data concerning this ancient city. But this work accomplishes even more than presenting data about Magdala. It exposes readers interested in the Second Temple period and the Hellenistic world to the epistemological processes between the domains of archaeology and history. As such, it provides a template for future researchers who seek to incorporate diverse arenas of expertise together for the holistic presentation of a topic.

Further, the volume is not an easy read. It contains several references to primary sources, lists of dimensions for excavations, and details about the economics of ancient fishing practices. It may also have been helpful for Aviam to have discussed other Judean synagogues in more detail in order to contrast them with the one discovered at Magdala. This would have offered a more complete picture of the synagogue excavation. Nonetheless, the payoff of working through this volume is found in the imaginative discovery of this ancient city’s inner workings.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Albanese is a doctoral candidate in Hebrew/Jewish Studies at Wolfson College, University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
March 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Bauckham is Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He is the author of several books, including  The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation and J esus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, winner of the 2009 Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing.


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