BEIT SHEMESH, Israel â€” The carved stone block is about the size of an occasional table. It has held its secrets for two millenniums. Whoever engraved its enigmatic symbols was apparently depicting the ancient Jewish temples.
But what makes the stone such a rare find in biblical archaeology, according to scholars, is that when it was carved, the Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem for the carver to see. The stone is a kind of ancient snapshot.
And it is upending some long-held scholarly assumptions about ancient synagogues and their relationship with the Temple, a center of Jewish pilgrimage and considered the holiest place of worship for Jews, during a crucial period, when Judaism was on the cusp of the Christian era.
Known as the Magdala Stone, the block was unearthed in 2009 near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, where a resort and center for Christian pilgrims was going to be built. Government archaeologists are routinely called in to check for anything old and important that might be destroyed by a project, and in this case they discovered the well-preserved ruins of a first-century synagogue and began excavating.
The site turned out to be the presumed hometown of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesusâ€™s most faithful followers. The dig also revealed an ancient marketplace and fishermenâ€™s quarters along with the synagogue.
Experts have raised the tantalizing possibility that Jesus may have taught in the synagogue when he was in Galilee. A local coin found in a side room was minted in A.D. 29, when Jesus is thought to have been alive.
But for some scholars, the Magdala Stone was the real eye-opener.
â€œI approached the stone, and I could not believe what I was seeing,â€ said Rina Talgam, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor specializing in ancient art of the Middle East. Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists had asked her to visit the site to view Magdalaâ€™s mosaics and frescoes, but when she first saw the stone, â€œthey said I stood there for three hours.â€
Ms. Talgam concluded that she was looking at a three-dimensional depiction of the Temple of Herod, including its most sacred inner sanctum, known as the Holy of Holies.
She has since spent years deciphering and interpreting the symbols that adorn the stone and researching the possible implications of the discovery.
Experts have long believed that in the period before Herodâ€™s Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, synagogues were used as a general place of assembly and learning, something like a neighborhood community center. The more formal conception of a synagogue as a sacred space reserved for religious ritual was thought to have developed later, in the Jewish diaspora after the Temple had been destroyed.
But the Magdala Stone was found in the center of the old synagogue, and Ms. Talgam said it might have been intended to give the space an aura of holiness â€œlike a lesser templeâ€ even while Herodâ€™s Temple still existed.
Other scholars have come to the same view. Elchanan Reiner, a retired professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, said that the stone was probably intended to represent the place where God, or the holy spirit of God, was believed to reside and that its placement in the middle of the synagogue â€œgives new meaning to that public building.â€
For Jews living in Galilee in those days, Jerusalem was a substantial journey away. Mr. Reiner noted that, though there could be only one Temple, the stone would have brought a suggestion of it to the synagogue in Magdala. â€œIt brings that community closer to, and further from, Jerusalem at the same time,â€ he said.
One side of the stone has what experts say is an unusual feature for the time: a carving of a seven-branch menorah. A candelabra of that kind is described in the Bible and is believed to have stood in the Temple, and it emerged as a Jewish symbol of hope for redemption centuries later, according to David Mevorah, senior curator for Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine archaeology at the Israel Museum.
During the annual eight-day festival of Hanukkah, which began on Sunday evening, Jews light a nine-branch menorah to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple after a successful revolt against the Syrian-Greek Seleucid empire in 165 B.C.
But there would have been no need for a symbol of redemption in first-century Magdala, Mr. Mevorah said. â€œThe Temple exists,â€ he said. â€œEverything is functioning. So why would there be a symbol of the Temple here? It raises questions about the role of the synagogue at that time.â€
The Magdala Stone is about the right size for laying down a Torah scroll, so it might have been used as liturgical furniture, Ms. Talgam said. After it was found, a similar stone was unearthed in a synagogue from the Byzantine period in nearby Horvat Kur, and that, too, was decorated with what appear to be schematic depictions of Temple iconography.
In contrast to the current tensions over the contested site in Jerusalem that is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, where the ancient temples once stood, and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, the Magdala project has emphasized religious harmony. The land belongs to a Roman Catholic religious order, the Legionaries of Christ, and the archaeologists who are managing the dig and who found the stone are Dina Avshalom-Gorni, an Israeli Jew, and Arfan Najar, a Muslim.
Even so, there is some fear of zealotry. The stone on public display at Magdala now is a close replica; the original is locked up in the Israel Antiquities Authorityâ€™s storage warehouse in Beit Shemesh.
According to Ms. Talgamâ€™s interpretation, there are more signs of the Temple to be seen on the stone. Sacred utensils are depicted in the order in which they would have appeared. A square shape below the menorah may represent the sacrificial altar, with large oil and water containers shown on either side. Engraved steps, arches and columns refer to the architecture of the Temple.
The professor suggested that the 12-leaf rosette on top of the stone might have echoed a motif on the veil that divided the Templeâ€™s main sanctuary from the Holy of Holies.
On the side of the stone that Ms. Talgam believes represents the inner sanctum, the carvings suggest the lower portion of a chariot, with flashes of fire beneath its wheels â€” possibly illustrating the seat of God residing in the earthly Temple. The upper half, or God himself, she said, would have been in heaven.
Ms. Talgam said the first century was a period of debates within Judaism, a factor she said must be considered in interpreting the stone.
Archaeologists can be no less quarrelsome. â€œThere will be disputesâ€ of her interpretation of the stone, Ms. Talgam said. â€œBut that is the way it should be.â€