The following is from the January 2016 edition of Smithsonian magazine. SMU Religious Studies Professor Mark Chancey provided expertise for this story.
December 16, 2015
By Ariel Sabar
As he paced the dusty shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, Father Juan Solana had a less-than-charitable thought about the archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority: He wanted them to go away.
Everything else had fallen into place for the Christian retreat he planned to build here. . . (But) It was there, beneath a wing of the proposed guesthouse, that their picks clinked against the top of a buried wall.
Dina Avshalom-Gorni, an IAA official who oversaw digs in northern Israel, ordered all hands to this square of the excavation grid. The workers squatted in the mealy soil and dusted carefully with brushes. Soon, a series of rough-cut stone benches emerged around what looked like a sanctuary.
It can’t be, Avshalom-Gorni thought.
The Gospels say that Jesus taught and “proclaimed the good news” in synagogues “throughout all Galilee.” But despite decades of digging in the towns Jesus visited, no early first-century synagogue had ever been found. . .
But as Avshalom-Gorni stood at the edge of the pit, studying the arrangement of benches along the walls, she could no longer deny it: They’d found a synagogue from the time of Jesus, in the hometown of Mary Magdalene. Though big enough for just 200 people, it was, for its time and place, opulent. It had a mosaic floor; frescoes in pleasing geometries of red, yellow and blue; separate chambers for public Torah readings, private study and storage of the scrolls; a bowl outside for the ritual washing of hands. . .
The ultimate find—physical proof of Jesus himself—has also been elusory. “The sorts of evidence other historical figures leave behind are not the sort we’d expect with Jesus,” says Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University and a leading authority on Galilean history. “He wasn’t a political leader, so we don’t have coins, for example, that have his bust or name. He wasn’t a sufficiently high-profile social leader to leave behind inscriptions. In his own lifetime, he was a marginal figure and he was active in marginalized circles.”
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