The Sea of Galilee: Full Circle

25th November, 2012
Sea of Galilee: Tiberias, Ginosar, Tabgha, Capernaum, Bethsaida.

For all photos for 25th November, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.

I woke at 6am, and decided to go down to the Galilee lake to pray the Angelus. I found a place on the rocks where I could sit, and after the Angelus, continued to pray silently. This is so different from anything so far on the journey – the sound of the distant traffic was being drowned out by the birdsong. The lake was glassy smooth – it looked as if you could walk on it if you had a notion to do so… I watched the birds, so many of them and so many different kinds. I wished that I had a pair of binoculars to see them more clearly. There were a number of birds that I took to be kingfishers, one of which was brightly coloured in blues and reds. My wife had asked me on the Skype last night if I was experiencing this as a specially spiritual time – and up to now, those moments were far and few between, but today it was easy to pray at so many different places. Perhaps because the layers of time were thinner here – the holy sites were not covered up with the stones and concrete of centuries since. Perhaps because here the places were closer to nature, and thus closer to how it may have seemed two thousand years ago. Perhaps too, as someone suggested, because Jerusalem was connected to the “darker” times of Jesus’ life, but here it is his ministry with which we are coming into contact.

Breakfast was again a delight, with four different kinds of soft cheese to choose from (I chose them all!), small home-made olives (complete with leaves still on!), home made bread warm from the oven, and a kind of local date which is not dehydrated, but soft and juicy – fresh from the freezer, Gila told us afterwards – which struck me as odd, but that is apparently how they are treated. We were on the bus at 8:30, and drove around to Tiberias, where we boarded a boat for ride on the lake. Here we were told about the general layout of the geography, pointing out the valley that connected Capernaum to Nazareth (along which Jesus would have travelled), the Mount of the Beatitudes (where we are going tomorrow), where the Jordan enters the lake from the North, where Capernaum is situated and so on. The captain of the boat stopped the engines for about a quarter of an hour and we were able to pray and sing in the silence. Thunderstorms were gathering in the West, but we had no fear at this time of a storm like Jesus and his disciples experienced – Gila explained the kind of phenomenon that brought that kind of occurrence on. We were in fact lucky with the rain today – it rained while we were at lunch and it rained at Ma’agan while we were away (my washing got wet again), but we were able to explore the sites in the dry. Which was a good thing, because we were due to celebrate Mass out-of-doors at Tabgha.

The boat dropped us off further up the shore of the lake at Ginosar, the modern name for Gennesaret (the “Sea of Gennesaret” was another name for the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ time – ironically the strange modern Hebrew name comes from a transliteration of the ancient Greek and Latin name, while the Greek and Latin name itself was originally a transliteration of the original ancient Hebrew name, which was different again). Here today the big attraction is the “2000 year old boat” or “Jesus Boat” as it is marketed. This boat was discovered by a couple of local fishermen (and amateur archaeologists) in 1986, during a drought in which the level of the Sea had dropped considerably (a problem again today – the locals watch the level of the lake as we watch the level of our dams back home – it is the source of all their water). It took a very complicated and careful procedure to remove the fragile and soft wooden vessel from the mud in one piece and then to preserve it for study and display, involving encasing the whole artifact in a kind of foam which solidified when sprayed and pumped around the vessel so that it could be taken out of the mud and transported without damage. The boat has been dated to the time of Jesus and hence is an excellent example of the kind of boat that Peter and Andrew and co. would have used, and on which they travelled to and fro across the lake on Jesus’ ministry. There is an excellent website giving all the details at

Outside the museum in which the boat is housed, I found the first patch of Eucalypt trees on this trip, in a park that was planted during the Second World War. In actual fact, these trees served a purpose in the area: planting them was a way of reclaiming swampy land and lessening the number of mosquitoes. Early Jewish kibbutz settlers in the early 20th century contracted malaria from these pests (which are actually being a bit of a nuisance to me as I am writing this while smoking my pipe on the verandah of our cabin). The other place were they were very common was around the ruins of Bethsaida which we visited later in the day, and where they were planted by the Syrians for shade when the location was being used as a military post.

Our next stop was Tabgha, the site where Jesus is traditionally believed to have appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, and where Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him (John 21). This site is called “the Primacy of Peter”, because it was here that Jesus commanded him to “feed my sheep”. We celebrated Mass here, outdoors as I said, overlooking the lake. Afterwards we went into the church, which has, as its main feature, a large rock called the “Mensa Domini”, that is “the Table of the Lord”, as it is here that it is believed (since the end of the 4th century when the first church was built here) that Jesus served the breakfast of fish that he had prepared for the disciples. It was an appropriate place for me to light my customary three candles, and kneeling and touching the rock I prayed for my family and for the blessing of our family table, that we would always have enough in times of need, that we would share our hospitality with others in times of plenty, and that our table would always be a place of unity for our family and a place where we would always gather together. Down on the shore, it was good just to sit and imagine Peter swimming ashore when he realised “It is the Lord”. It was in fact easier to imagine the resurrection appearance here than in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. As I said, little had changed since the time Jesus was here, except, of course, for the whacking great church…

The next stop was the excavation site of Capernaum, which was first discovered in the mid 19th Century. At that stage, both the Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches bought up the land in the area, and both began excavations in earnest in the hope of finding more of this important site. As it turned out, all the main sites were discovered on the Franciscan land, and virtually nothing on the spot purchased by the Greeks. Well, after all, Peter was a Catholic! (Jest). There was some discussion in the bus on the way to the site about how the name should be pronounced. When I was a Lutheran, we always said “Cu-per-nay-um”, with the emphasis on the second syllable, but when I became a Catholic, I found that most Catholics called it “Cu-per-nah-um” with the emphasis on the third syllable (an attempt to pronounce it in the biblical way, according to Rosemary). I was surprised therefore when our American Israeli guide called it “Cu-per-num” with the emphasis on the second syllable. I also had noticed signs to the site with English, Hebrew and Arabic, in which both the English and the Hebrew had “Kafer Nahum”, and Gila pronounced this with the emphasis on the last syllable of each word. It means “Place of Nahum” in Hebrew, although the Nahum in question has not been identified, and has nothing to do with the biblical prophet.

When we walked through the gate the first thing we saw, besides the rather imposing statue of St Peter rushing along with keys in one hand and a crosier in the other, were a line of intricately carved stones from the top of a building. Gila immediately directed us to these and said that they come from the large white marble 4th Century synagogue nearby (which we would soon investigate). The decorations were of grapes and olives and stars of David and so on. One particularly striking decoration depicted a wheeled temple being towed through a grove of palm trees. This, Gila said, was a picture of the ark of the covenant being transported into the City of David. But, I asked, what was a synagogue of this size doing in a city in Galilee during the Constantinian period? Surely there was not a sizable Jewish population in this place at that time? I had asked the right question because this was just what Gila wanted us to ask. The excavations over the place which has been identified as the “House of Peter’s Mother-in-law” (Matt 8:14ff) have disclosed evidence of Byzantine churches, but nothing the size of this synagogue. Gila’s theory, and I kind of like it, is that the synagogue was in fact built as a “tourist attraction” for Christian pilgrims who wanted to see “the Synagogue of Capernaum” according to the Gospel accounts (cf. Mark 1:21ff). A kind of “theme park”, I suggested?

When we looked over the synagogue afterwards, which is very near the “House” excavations, Gila showed us the clear evidence of a large bluestone synagogue from the 2nd Century. All that is left of this is the foundations, but the 4th Century marble synagogue is built right on top of these foundations, to the same basic dimensions and with great care to preserve the foundations (a one point the marble stair case is actually built around the foundations – suggesting a degree of veneration for the original building. At one point in the synagogue, an excavation has shown an older and much smaller synagogue under the bluestone 2nd Century construction – and this would have dated back to the time of Jesus. The big marble synagogue can be dated quite accurately because coins dating from the 4th Century were found scattered in the soil under the marble flagstones.

But to the “House of Peters Mother-in-Law”. This is, of course, the main attraction. The excavations are extensive and show a very large house about 40 metres from the synagogue and with a nice view over the Lake. How do we know that this is the house mentioned in the Gospels? Well, of course, we cannot be one hundred percent sure, but there is evidence that already in the first century the place was being used as kind of “house-church”, and there are the remains of several later churches built upon the site, the last being a Byzantine octagonal structure (the octagon is very significant in Christian theology, as it represents the “eighth day” of the new creation – cf. traditional baptismal fonts). Today there is a church built on the site again (we didn’t go in) – a rather embarrassing concrete building built in 1990. It serves the purpose of protecting the site underneath, but hangs rather too low to afford a proper view of the archeological remains. And, being supported on four columns, with a staircase extending down to the ground, it does look for all the world like the Robinson family’s flying saucer spaceship from the 1960’s “Lost in Space”… One could imagine the Robot coming down saying “Warning, warning, Will Robinson”!

Between the “House”/Church and the Synagogue are extensive excavations of other smaller houses. Some asked the question: would it have been likely that Peter, a humble fisherman, would live in such a grand house as this so close to the synagogue and with such a good view of the ocean. On the principle of “location, location, location”, his wife’s family must have been very well-to-do. Well, speculation of this kind leads in all kinds of interesting directions. For a start, we now know that being a Galilean fisherman in the 1st Century did not mean that you were poor. The family of James and John, for eg., had hired men to work for them in the fishing trade (cf. Mark 1:20, and below in relation to Bethsaida). Secondly, perhaps Peter had “married up” (he was living with his wife’s family, not with his father). Finally, maybe Jesus didn’t just pick the first fishermen that he happened across on the lake-shore, but had picked Peter out as a man with connections in the town. Look, anything is possible, but it is fun speculating.

One other incident drew attention. I was photographing some especially interesting masonry (on which the same scallop shell design that I had photographed in Jerash reappeared here – apparently it was a symbol in paganism of Aphrodite/Venus who was born out of a scallop shell – which was a symbol of a female vulva – and this came to be a sign of rebirth and recreation, and hence used as a Christian symbol for baptism – weird, eh?), when the group began excitedly pointing at something. I thought they were pointing at the same thing I was photographing, but no, they were pointing at the strange furry creatures perched on top of the wall behind the masonry carvings. These looked like a cross between a guinea pig and a meercat, and were the size of a cat (see the photos). Gila then proceeded to explain something that answered one of those questions that I had had since a child about the bible: what on earth was a “coney”? Here was the very animal mentioned in Proverbs 30 and Psalm 104, called in Hebrew a “rock rabbit” or, more strictly, a “rock hyrax”. The ones we could see on the wall were the “lookouts” for the rest of the pack – and it was this practice of keeping watch that earned them a place in the bible as one of the three wise creatures (Proverbs 30:26). Perhaps we could adopt a couple to add to our collection of pets at home?

It was lunch time now, and so we were taken to a restaurant to sample the local delicacy: St Peter’s Fish. These fish, caught in the Sea of Galilee, are so-called because of the story in Matthew 17:24ff. There isn’t much meat on these fish, which were prepared whole and fried in a flour coating, but it was amply supplemented with an “all you can eat” salad, pita bread and dip accompaniment. I sat in the lobby of the restaurant smoking my pipe while waiting for the others to finish their meal, but lost track of the time and again had to be called for the bus. I dashed out and boarded the bus, only to be followed by some Asian tourists/pilgrims waving my tobacco purse at me, which I had left behind on the bench. What kind people – they probably thought I had left my money purse behind me! I am very grateful nonetheless.

Travelling around the lake we saw evidence of a very wide range of agriculture, including banana plantations and mango trees. These, Gila was quick to point out, were not here in Jesus’ day. Otherwise, she said, the Gospels may have told the story of Jesus walking through the banana plantation and picking and peeling a banana on the Sabbath… doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?

We then arrived at the recently excavated site of Bethsaida. This site was only uncovered in the late 1980’s and is continuing to be excavated by the University of Nebraska. It is so recent that it isn’t really on the regular tourist run, and so we had the place all to ourselves. There is considerable controversy over whether this is in fact the biblical native town of Peter and Andrew, as it is a good distance (about 2kms) from the present shore of the lake, but less so since the discovery of a large house in which there was a large number of fishing artifacts (this house is now known as “the fisherman’s house”). It is of about the same size as the neighbouring “wine seller’s house” (identified as such by the large wine cellar incorporated in the residence) and suggests that the fishermen who lived here were quite prosperous. There are any number of theories about the location of the shore-line 2000 years ago, including a possible tectonic shift that altered the lie of the land. In any case, the site has also been identified (as recently as 1996) as even more ancient pagan town of Geshur, the home of one of King David’s wives, Maacah, the daughter of the King of Geshur and the mother of Absalom (2 Sam 3:3). The city gates have been unearthed, and are in surprisingly good condition. Given that David would probably have entered this city at a time when these gates were in use (to come and claim his princess bride), I can be fairly certain that today I stood in a spot that my namesake himself once stood. While at the site, Gila pointed out a recently planted fig tree, planted in memory of the story of Nathaniel, who was sitting under fig tree in this city when Peter came and told him that he had “found the Messiah” (John 1:43ff). Also, while here, several jets flew overhead. We could not see them because of the clouds, but they sounded as loud as thunder. Then a couple of military helicopters flew overhead. That, plus the fact that this had once been Syrian territory in the not to distant past and that there were the little red triangles around the place indicating that the area still contains mines from the time of hostilities from the same period, reminded us that we were today very close to the Syrian border and all the troubles not too far to the North.

We returned to Ma’agan on the Southern shore of the lake by completing the full circle around the lake on the Golan Heights side of the sea. This area is not very highly populated, largely due to the fact that it has been an area of dispute in the past. But we did notice some hang gliders high up on the mountain tops. The sun was setting over the Sea of Galilee as we returned, which was quite picturesque. We arrived home at about 4:30pm, which gave me plenty of time for writing up this entry in my travelogue, and then gathered for a group debriefing before dinner.

We have an early start in the morning again (7:30am) to travel out to Nazareth and Caesarea, so I had best post this and get to bed.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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