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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The First Christian Church?

By Gordon Govier
Special to ASSIST News Service

MADISON WI (ANS) -- Some unique features of a first century synagogue found along the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee have sparked speculation that it may have belonged to a congregation of followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and not an ordinary Jewish community. However, the evidence is circumstantial so the story is pure speculation at this point.

The excavation took place in 2009 in Migdal, just north of Tiberias. In the first century it was a fishing village known as Magdala. Jesus lived nearby, in Capernaum, and one of his most well-known followers came from this village: Mary Magdalene.

Carved table with menorah
The most exciting find of the 2009 excavation was a stone altar table with decorative carvings, including a menorah. Due to the well-preserved mosaic floor and the frescoes on the wall, the building was identified as a synagogue. But Dina Gorni, the archaeologist who excavated the site for the Israel Antiquties Authority, pointed out some additional unique features.

She told the Global Mail that the synagogue was on the edge of Magdala, not at its center. And it was smaller than typical synagogues. This might indicate it was used by a group out of the mainstream of Judaism.

But was it a Messianic congregation of first century Christ followers? No evidence to indicate as much. The gospels say that Jesus traveled throughout the Galilee, teaching in the synagogues. So a stronger case could be made that Jesus probably taught at this location.

The synagogue ruins are found on property owned by the Roman Catholic church, where a hotel for pilgrims is being built. The project is under the direction of Father Juan Maria Solana, the director of the Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem. The ruins will eventually be open to visitors.

Gordon Govier reports on Biblical Archaeology for Christianity Today magazine, is the editor of ARTIFAX magazine, and produces a weekly radio program and podcast called The Book & The Spade.

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