One of Jesus’ most memorable sayings called his first disciples from one sort of fishing to another: “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people” (Matt 4:19; Mark 1:17, NLT). The Sea of Galilee was the setting for both types of fishing.
Our previous post introduced the “big three Sea of Galilee Jesus-Sites,” Bethsaida, Capernaum, and Chorazin. We also reflected on the sad legacy of these three villages. This post surveys other sites along the Sea of Galilee that are significant for understanding the Gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. We’re interested in both historical information and transformational lessons. We’ll proceed clockwise from Tiberias to Gadara.
Tiberias is a city on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee founded by Herod Antipas as his capital around 20 CE. Antipas’ (ca. 20 BCE-ca. 40 CE) given name was Antipater. He was a son of Herod the Great and Malthace, a Samaritan. Antipas ruled as Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4-39 CE (Matt 14:1; Luke 3:1, 19; 9:7; Acts 13:1). His unlawful marriage to his brother Philip’s wife led to his ordering the gruesome death of John the Baptist (Matt 14:1-12). Antipas’ guilty conscience evidently led him to wonder whether Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead (Matt 13:1-2). According to Luke 13:31-32, when some Pharisees told Jesus that Antipas wanted to kill him also, Jesus replied, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.'” According to Luke 23:6-12, Antipas mocked Jesus when Jesus appeared before him during the passion week.
Antipas named his capital city for the emperor Tiberius (Luke 3:1), who reigned from 14-37 CE. Jewish tradition links Tiberias to the Old Testament sites of Rakkath (Josh 19:35) and Hammoth-dor (Josh 21:32) in the territory allotted to the tribe of Naphtali. In the New Testament the city is mentioned only in the Gospel of John, twice in an alternate name for the Sea of Galilee (6:1; 21:1), and once describing Tiberias as the place from which boats had come across to the east side of the Sea in search of Jesus (6:23). Josephus called the city it Emmaus, a term related to its hot springs (War 4.11). He also related that the city was spared destruction during the first Jewish revolt because the leaders of the city did not join the leaders of the rebellion and begged the Roman General Vespasian for mercy (War 3.445-61).
After the second Jewish revolt (135 CE), Jews displaced from Jerusalem by the Romans began to settle in Tiberias. The city became a major center for Jewish learning and was likely the place where the oral traditions now known as the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE) and the Jerusalem Talmud (ca. 400 CE) were put into writing. Famous Rabbis such as Jochanan Ben Zakkai, Akiba, and Maimonides were buried there. Just south of the modern city at Hammat Tiberias is a national park featuring hot springs used therapeutically since ancient times and an early fourth century synagogue with a spectacular mosaic floor with three panels, one with a Torah ark flanked by menorahs , a large center one featuring a zodiac wheel, and one with a dedicatory inscription in Greek. Unfortunately, this magnificent mosaic, contemporaneous with the redaction of the Jerusalem Talmud— plausibly the very place where the redaction occurred—was severely vandalized on May 29, 2012, most likely by ultra-orthodox Jews. A discussion of the ideology behind the vandalism and many images of the synagogue mosaic may be found here.
The word Magdala comes from the Hebrew word for tower, perhaps implying Magdala’s strategic location at a crossroads. The town was known by the Romans as Tarichaea, a word used to describe salting fish. In the first century CE its importance was being eclipsed by Tiberias. Many believe that Magadan (Matt 15:39) and Dalmanutha (Mark 8:10) are alternative terms for Magdala. Josephus relates that, during the first Jewish revolt, rebel leaders left Tiberias, came to Magdala, and led some of its citizens into a futile battle against the Roman forces. Although the city had been fortified by Josephus himself, it was destroyed and much of its population slaughtered in a battle on land and sea. (War, 3.457, 462-542). Recently the remains of a first century synagogue, a place almost certainly visited by Jesus, have been opened to tourists. Archaeologists have found many coins at Magdala, as well as oil lamps and an incense shovel like those used in the Jerusalem Temple. Four ritual baths (mikveot) have also been excavated in the residential area of the village. The presentation and images of Magdala at BibleWalks.com are especially helpful.
Magdala is most notable as the home of Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned several times in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and John place her as an eyewitness of Jesus’ crucifixion and first messenger of his resurrection (Matt 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; John 19:25; 20:1, 11, 16, 18; cf. the disputed text Mark 16:9-11). Luke mentions her as one whom Jesus had healed of possession by seven demons. She and other women traveled with Jesus and his apostles and helped meet their needs through their personal resources (Luke 8:1-3). Luke mentions these women as a group who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Luke 23:49, 55; 24:1), and who were present in the upper room when the day of Pentecost arrived (Acts 1:14). It is doubtful that the Magdalene should be identified with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus (Luke 7:36-50) or with Mary of Bethany (John 11).
A recent addition at Magdala is the Duc in Altum Center, whose name is derived from the Vulgate of Luke 5:4—”launch out into the deep.” The center’s design and art feature women of faith from the Bible, especially in the women’s atrium leading into the boat chapel, which commemorates Luke 5:1-11.
Probably the most remarkable find at Magdala is a carved stone table from the synagogue. Scholars theorize that this “Magdala Stone” functioned as a table on which the Torah scroll was laid when read aloud in services. Today such a platform is known as the bema or bimah. The carvings depict the Temple and objects within it, supporting the idea that synagogues were viewed as extensions of the Temple’s sacred space even while the Temple was still standing.
The two New Testament references to Gennesaret describe either a small village or its surrounding plain on the northwest shore of the Sea between Capernaum and Magdala. Jesus landed in this area after feeding the multitudes. After he was recognized there, many people came to him for healing (Matt 14:34-36; Mark 6:53-56). Gennesaret is mentioned several times in Josephus, who spoke of the area’s healthy air, rich soil, and many crops, such as walnuts, figs, olives, and grapes (War 18.516-21). Gennesaret should very likely be associated with Old Testament references to the lake and city of Kinneret (Num 34:11; Josh 11:1-2; 13:27; 19:35; 1 Kgs 15:20). Tel Kinneret (also known as Tel Kinrot and Tell el-‘Oreimeh), overlooking the plain and the ancient trade route from Egypt to Syria, is nearby. It is the only fortified archaeological site dating back to the Old Testament on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. Excavations there are part of the Kinneret Regional Project. The area is known today as Ginosar.
An ancient boat was discovered by fishermen Moshe and Yuval Lufan in the Kibbutz Ginosar harbor during a drought in 1986. Although it is sometimes inaccurately called the Jesus Boat, it does date from the time of Jesus and almost certainly resembles the fishing boats used by Jesus and the disciples to travel around the Sea. Similar boats are depicted in ancient mosaics. Two excellent short videos chronicle the story of this amazing discovery, along with its excavation and preservation (here and here). Tour boats from Tiberias and Ein Gev typically visit the boat museum and gift shop at the Yigal Allon Educational Centre.
Tabgha is located just southwest of Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Its name is based on its location in the area of seven springs, Ein Sheva (עין שבע) in Hebrew and Heptapegon (ἑπταπηγη) in Greek. “Tabgha” is based on an Arabic rendering of Heptapegon. There are two churches here commemorating Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the multitude somewhere in the general area (cf. Luke 9:10). The largest, known as the Church of the Multiplication, opened in 1984. It was built over the remains of a fifth century CE church, incorporating the remains of its remarkable mosaic floor. The multiplication of the bread and fish (often called the feeding of the 5,000, is the only miracle of Jesus portrayed in all four Gospels (Matt 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15).
Nearby is the modest Primacy of St. Peter Church, built in 1933 over the site of a fourth century CE church to commemorate Jesus’ reaffirmation of Peter (John 21), interpreted by Roman Catholics as establishing Peter’s primacy as first pope.
In medieval times the church was reportedly known as “the place of the coals” (John 21:9) in memory of the fish Jesus prepared and fed the disciples. It was built over a bedrock outcrop now known as Mensa Christi (“the table of Christ”). Although the Fourth Gospel does not portray Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Table, John 6:11-12 and 21:13 may be intended to remind us of the sacrament (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-34).
Hippos is on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee, directly across from Tiberias overlooking Kibbutz En Gev. The striking location of this site about 1100 feet above the Sea of Galilee may have given rise to its name—it is perched on a ridge that resembles the back of a horse, hippos (Ἵππος) in Greek and sussita (יתאסוס) in Aramaic. The site was occupied for roughly a thousand years from its founding around 300 BCE until it was destroyed in an earthquake in 749 CE. The city was a member of the Decapolis, a league of ten Roman cities stretching from Damascus to Bet Shean, encompassing the area east of the Sea of Galilee. Some think that Jesus was thinking of Hippos when he said “a city built on a hill cannot be hidden” as he described his disciples’ witness in the world (Matt 5:14). Jesus’ ministry did touch upon the Decapolis (Matt 4:25; Mark 5:20; 7:31), so it is also plausible that Jesus’ casting the demons into the pigs who drowned in the Sea of Galilee happened near Hippos (Mark 5; Luke 8). This video dramatically portrays the elevated location of Hippos. Excavations at Hippos are described and pictured in detail here (Haifa University) and here (BibleWalks.com).
The synoptic Gospels all portray Jesus encountering and exorcising a fierce demon-possessed man (or two men according to Matt 8:28-34; cf. Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). The exorcism resulted in 2,000 pigs rushing headlong into the Sea and drowning. The location of this exorcism is a notorious problem for New Testament scholars. In Matthew 8:28 the exorcism takes place in the region of the Gadarenes, but in Mark 5:1 and Luke 8:26 it is the region of the Gerasenes. Gadara (today’s Um Qeiss) is about ten miles south of Hippos, and about six miles southeast of the Sea, but Gerasa (today’s Jerash) is about 33 miles away. Gerasa was the more prominent city of the two, and its “region” could be said to encompass that of Gadara. To complicate matters further, some ancient manuscripts say the miracle happened in the region of the Gergesenes. Gergesa, a site about five miles north of Hippos, is known today as Kursi. All three readings are plausible if one interprets the term “region” loosely.
In terms of geography, Gergesa/Kursi is the most likely spot on the eastern shore of the Sea where pigs could precipitously rush into the water. Origen in the early third century identified Gergesa as the site of the miracle (Commentary on John 6.41). The ruins of the largest Byzantine monastery in Israel are located at Kursi, indicating that 1500 years ago many viewed Gergesa as the site of the miracle.
On an entirely different note, Greg Boyd discusses the morality of the pigs dying in what he calls “the single strangest episode recounted in the Gospels” here.
Good and Bad Fish
Our two-part study of the villages Jesus visited along the Sea of Galilee has a two-fold purpose. We hope that the survey has been informative about the life and times of Jesus.
All the more, we pray that the information has been transformative for our own times. Jesus called his first disciples from fishing for fish to fishing for people. They abruptly left their livelihood behind to follow him in this radical kingdom adventure. The decision whether or not to follow Jesus remains the most crucial one in all of life. Jesus still fishes for people through his followers today.
Jesus used fishing as a metaphor for God’s kingdom in another place, in his parable of the fishing net:
The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 13:47-50 NIV).
This parable and the other parables in Matthew 13 are about how people receive the Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom (Matt 13:19). Like the previous parable of the weeds in the wheat field (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43), the parable of the net shows us that there will be a mixed response to the kingdom message. In the Gospels, many who heard Jesus teach and saw his miracles did not choose to follow him. Others followed him to a degree, at least for a while, only to turn away in the end. Relatively few people who initially witnessed Jesus’ preaching and performing the kingdom stayed the course with him (Matt 13:18-23), sacrificing everything else to invest their lives in his kingdom. Jesus portrayed this genuine response to his message in two other parables (Matt 13:44-46) which speak of a man who sold everything to buy the field containing a hidden treasure, and of a merchant who sold all his other pearls so that he could buy the best pearl. May we respond to Jesus and his kingdom message today like they did!
Matthew 6:19-34 (NIV)
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.