Matthew at the Toll Gate: Part 5


The Remains of the marketplace at Magdala.


Previously, I have alluded to the fishing industry at Capernaum. I would like to explore the fishing industry around the Sea of Galilee, because recent scholarship has determined that fishing was extremely lucrative in the first century A.D.

Peter was a fisherman at Capernaum. Traditionally, Peter has been thought of as being a poor fisherman. More current thought is that this portrayal is not correct. Some modern scholars argue instead that Peter was a successful, multicultural, and bilingual businessman, whose Greek proficiency and intellectual sophistication enabled him to write polished letters, whose temporal resources afforded him the luxury to follow Jesus, and whose early exposure to Hellenistic culture uniquely positioned him to teach Gentiles. Is it possible that a fisherman could have amassed wealth at Capernaum in the first century A.D.?

A great deal of archaeological work has been done at nearby town of Magdala with a focus upon fishing on the Sea of Galilee. While one cannot be certain, it is likely that the fishing industry conducted at Magdala was similar to that which was conducted at Capernaum.

First, at Magdala, which was the town from whence Mary Magdalene came (NB. It was the birthplace of Mary Magdalene (Matt 27:56, 61), excavations have uncovered a large marketplace with at least 28 shops, about 300 fishing weights, 40 fishing pools, and more than 4,000 ancient coins, the majority of which were minted in Jerusalem. This evidence seems to suggest that there was not only a great deal of trade between Magdala and the other towns along the coast of the Sea of Galilee, but also, and more importantly, with Jerusalem, ports along the Mediterranean, Caesarea Maritima, and even Rome itself. The marketplace, fishing pools, fishing weights, port, coins, and glass materials demonstrate that Magdala was a significant place for trade.

In addition, numerous historical sources such as Josephus, Cicero, Suetonius, and Strabo say that the export of salted fish was so successful that Magdala soon became a self-sustaining town. Magdala was also called Taricheae, which in Greek is derived from the word means ‘taricheuein’, that is to smoke or preserve fish. Strabo, in particular, commends the excellent fish from Taricheae, which was available and highly esteemed in the Roman markets. Apparently, this was so, because the name Tarichos (“salted fish”) became the city’s international “brand,” since this pickled fish was sold to Rome. Strabo further mentions that Magdala has excellent pickling places.

The pickled fish of Galilee were known throughout the Roman and Greek world. Large quantities were taken up to Jerusalem at the season of the yearly feasts, because of the great multitudes. Barrels were also transported around the Mediterranean. Josephus also describes Taricheae as a place “full of materials for shipbuilding, and with many artisans” (iii Wars, 10:6).

The port of Magdala is 700 meters long, of which 500 meters have been uncovered, and could easily harbor many boats in antiquity. A geophysical exploration in 2010, made by Dr. Luis Barba from the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), at Magdala, revealed structures and streets beneath the soil and dirt. Thus, there are at least are six more streets and six more structures to be excavated.

There were many other ports along the Sea of Galilee, so it is likely that Magdala did not develop the salted fish industry singlehandedly. Geographically, Magdala sits at the junction of an important Roman road that led from the Lower Galilee to Damascus. Magdala was about three miles of north of Tiberias and about three miles south of Gennesaret, and less than 10 miles south of Capernaum. After the foundation of Tiberias in 19 A.D., the city could have established a favorable trading relationship with Magdala and the Romans along the road to Jerusalem, as well.

Magdala’s income sources could allow the residents to afford expensive and well-constructed buildings, such as a first century synagogue and Jewish ritual baths discovered in excavations. Magdala is the only town in Galilee, so far found, which has a first-century synagogue with frescoes, mosaics and a unique Second Temple model carved in stone. It is the first time that a stone like this has been discovered in the Biblical lands. The Jewish ritual baths found are dated to the first century A.D., also, and are fed by underground water.

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