Uncovered ruins of Magdala sparks reflection on Jesus’ attitude to women

Visitors at the Duc In Altum praying in the Encounter Chapel.
Hannah Viviers spoke to Hermana Viljoen, a guide at the ancient Galilean town of Magdala — home place of Mary Magdalene, where archeologists have unearthed a synagogue where Jesus probably taught. Together they wrote this reflection on Jesus’s attitude to women and the unique historical, cultural and ministry opportunities at Magdala today.

The stories of the apostles in the Bible demonstrate the power of Jesus and also His revolutionary treatment of women.

Take His relationship with Mary Magdalene. This lady was to inform Jesus’ disciples about the best news in the Christian faith: Christ is risen!

But why would our Lord entrust the gospel to a woman?!

History tells us the witness of a woman counted for half a man’s in court those days.

Why didn’t Jesus appear to Peter after His resurrection? Or Pilate?

It seems Jesus was on a mission to restore not only the legitimacy of women, but their dignity.

In Jesus’ time gender bias was rife. But He didn’t subscribe to that kind of thinking.

He believed and preached the good news from Genesis: The first pair of humans were both made in God’s image … both fell in sin and both were to be restored.

During His Ministry, Jesus invited women into a reality of which the prophets had spoken: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh — your sons and daughters will prophesy… (Joel 2:28).

Hermana Viljoen guiding a tour of the synagogue ruins.

Mary Magdalene’s hometown
Seeking for the cultural setting of the first century brings us to Magdala, an ancient city in Israel and the home town of Mary Magdalene.

Magdala.org reports that: “In 2009 archaeologists unearthed the only first century synagogue on the Sea of Galilee — one of only seven synagogues from this period in the world — along with the archaeological remains of the 2 000 year-old city of Magdala”.

According to Hermana Viljoen, a South African woman who guides at the site: “The probability of Jesus preaching in this synagogue is quite high.”

Her reasons for this belief are due to Magdala’s geographical location and the evidence from ancient text.

Magdala was situated on a big international highway, but specifically the stretch between Nazareth and Capernaum.

Jesus and His disciples would have walked from the heights of the Nazareth Ridge, passed Cana and down to the humid basin of the Sea of Galilee; it is highly likely that they sought provisions like fresh water or food at this the first town they would come across, on its western bank.

Researchers also believe in the probability of Jesus preaching in the synagogue of Magdala based on Matthew 4:23 (and four subsequent New Testament passages): Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

Hermana joined the excavation at Magdala in 2012.

A volunteer cleaning the mosaic tile floor of the synagogue.

Magdala ruins uncovered
The ruins of this ancient Jewish town were uncovered by surprise while laying foundations for a guesthouse on the property which clergyman Father Juan Solana had raised funds for.

Having studied Archaeology while doing a degree in History and Geography in Jerusalem, Hermana desired to participate in a dig.

“When the opportunity arose to do so at Magdala,” she recalls, “it was only the first step into a grand adventure”.

In 2014 a worship centre was completed and inaugurated in Magdala.

According to Hermana, Fr Solana wanted the centre to highlight Jesus’ public ministry — but due to the town’s connection to Mary Magdalene, he also felt impressed to focus on women.

Works of art were commissioned and four beautiful chapels with mosaic arches came about.

In a larger room, an altar (lectern) in the shape of a fishing boat was crafted, and icons of the apostles positioned on the walls.

Eight slender columns were shaped according to accurate, (but feminine) dimensions and positioned in the women’s atrium.

They bear the names of certain New Testament women, and stand on a replica of the mosaic floor discovered in the ancient synagogue.

“Come and see!” is Hermana’s invitation to anyone who wants to experience historical artefacts and a 2 000 year-old fishing village.

A service held in the Boat Chapel that overlooks the Sea of Galilee. (PHOTO: Magdala)

Magdala’s reconciliatory role
More than that — for the leadership, right from the beginning, Magdala served a role in reconciliation.

Hermana tells us that: “Magdala’s archaeology has attracted Jews and Gentiles alike — but these are not the only groups that cross paths here.”

Hermana reports that an Arabic TV network, which broadcasts to an estimated 4 million listeners, recorded a documentary in Magdala recently.

She also fondly recalls a recent gathering where two Arab youth stood at her left and a Jewish Pastor on her right — all of them sang the Hebrew text from Isaiah 61, in the synagogue at Magdala!

The incredible significance of this Messianic prophetic text lies in the fact that Isaiah 61 is the portion of Scripture Jesus Himself read in a synagogue during His ministry on earth.

…and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him [Jesus]. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written:
The Spirit of the Lord is on Me,
because He has anointed Me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4:17-19)

The Father’s love transcends all boundaries — and it is this ministry of love that Hermana hopes visitors to Magdala will experience.

She says, “Our aim is to facilitate an environment where people can personally encounter the Lord.”

To visit Magdala, please contact us at visit@magdala.org

Want to volunteer at Magdala? Please write to volunteer@magdala.org


  1. Wonderful to see such discoveries which further authenticate our Lord’s ministry during His incarnation.

  2. Just as the archaelogical site at Magdala draws Jew & Gentile alike, God continues to fulfil the promise made to Abram in Gen 12v3 that – “…all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” God is who He says He is, and can be trusted!! Blessings on the work at Magdala.