In Berkeley, Catholic priest gets excited about ancient shul

Who is the go-to guy for the inside story on a rare Second Temple–era synagogue discovered last year in Magdala, Israel?

That would be Father Eamon Kelly, vice chargé of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. The ruins of the synagogue were found on land owned by the center. Kelly spoke about the significance of the discovery on Dec. 1 at the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology in Berkeley.

Believed to date back 2,000 years, the synagogue is only the seventh Second Temple–period synagogue uncovered and the oldest ruins found in the area. In the center of the 1,292-square-foot building, workers discovered a stone engraved with a seven-branched menorah. That footed stone dates back to before 67 C.E., which makes it the oldest engraved menorah, older even than the menorah carved on the Titus Arch in Rome, which had previously been deemed the oldest.

This carved stone found at Magdala is one of the oldest engravings of a menorah to be discovered, dating to before 67 C.E.

“Some of the glory of Rome has returned to Israel, as it should,” said Kelly, 55, last week on the road in Indiana. “This synagogue is a treasure of humanity, an amazing gift, and we feel tremendous responsibility for it. I am thrilled to be speaking about the discovery — its reality, its context and its significance.” 

Born in County Clare, Ireland, Kelly first aspired to become a farmer like his father, then a nuclear physicist. Eventually, though, he met a priest with the Legionaries of Christ, and was drawn to the church. “That was 37 years ago, and I have never looked back,” he said.

Kelly speaks five languages and has founded numerous creative spiritual and social initiatives and has led youth groups on trips in Europe, Asia and the Americas. He lectures around the world on the Shroud of Turin and on the findings at Magdala, and was assigned to the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center four years ago.

The discovery of the Magdala synagogue occurred after the center, a Christian guesthouse in Jerusalem operated by the Legionaries of Christ, decided to build a hotel and visitor center near the Sea of Galilee. They chose to build in Magdala, said to be the home of Mary Magdalene, about 100 miles north of Jerusalem.

Before the complex could be built, however, the government required that there be an archaeological investigation on the site. The dig, directed by Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar of the Israel Antiquities Authority, began in July 2009. One month later, workers uncovered the first remains of the synagogue.

Archaeologists have since unearthed pottery, coins and frescoes that have retained their vivid colors through the centuries. Magdala was one of several Galilean towns where Christians often shared the synagogues with Jews. The synagogue may have been destroyed during a Jewish revolt against Roman rule between 66 A.D. and 70 A.D.

In October 2009, Avshalom-Gorni told CNN: “We are dealing with an exciting and unique find. This is the first time that a menorah decoration has been discovered from the days when the Second Temple was still standing.”

Since the discovery, the Israel Antiquities Authority has given the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center permission to build the hotel and visitor center, with a projected opening date of July 2012. New construction plans add an ecumenical chapel on the spot where the ancient synagogue was found.

In addition to the synagogue’s historical significance to Jews, Kelly sees it as a possible moment of interfaith harmony, telling an Irish newspaper that “there is a high probability that the people from this synagogue were followers of Jesus and may have witnessed his miracles firsthand.”

He added, “This discovery is saying ‘bring the people together.’ It is emphasizing our common roots, our overall commonality, and is a call to come together and build together … If we don’t use this historic finding to build bridges, we are sleeping on the job.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.