Our journey of discovery into the world of Christianity continued with a day based around important sites along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, known as the Kinneret in Hebrew. We swapped the rolling hills of the lower Galilee for the calm and beauty of the lake shores.
Our day began at Kibbutz Ginosar and the museum named after one its most famous former inhabitants: Beit Yigal Allon. The museum is about man and nature in the Galil but of particular interest for Christian visitors is the ‘Jesus boat’. This 2000 year old boat (matching the time period of Jesus’ life) was found in 1986 covered in mud along the shores of the Kinneret. After a major restoration programme it was put on display in this museum. Although there is no evidence directly linking Jesus to the boat, given that many of his disciples were fishermen, and Jesus himself lived along the Kinneret shoreline for a time, it gives a unique insight into his way of life. There is also a short movie explaining the find and the complicated restoration process (2000 year old wood is quite delicate!).
We left the kibbutz and travelled north to the Mount of Beatitudes. This is considered the site of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount and is so named after the blessings, or beatitudes, that are contained within the address. The site is managed my Franciscan nuns and the modern day Church of the Beatitudes is built a little up the hill from ruins of the 4th century Byzantine church marking the same event.
There are commanding views over the Sea of Galilee and the church has been built with wide windows to allow the visitor to be inspired by the beautiful scenery and to try to imagine the surroundings within which Jesus would have spoken to his audience.
We headed down the hill to Tabgha, site of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes. This site, managed by German Benedictine monks, commemorates Jesus feeding 5000 men (and therefore around 20 000 people, with their families taken into account) with just two fishes and five loaves of bread. We entered the church and were impressed by the beautiful Byzantine period floor mosaic commemorating the event; one of the most famous mosaics in Israel as it directly connects a miracle to a site. I reflected on when aged seven my teacher gave us fish fingers and pieces of toast in class to commemorate this miracle. Sadly, no fish fingers were available on this occasion, but we had been promised some St Peter’s Fish for lunch, so there was something to look forward to.
We continued by foot to the Church of the Primacy of St Peter. This church is really right on the edge of the Sea of Galilee and as our guide told us the story behind it we watched pilgrims washing their feet in its holy waters. We heard the story of how Jesus appeared here to Peter and the disciples, charging Peter with looking after his flock in his absence. Inside the church is a rock called Mensa Christi (the Table of Christ) which is considered the rock upon which Jesus laid out the food for his apostles. As with many other churches in the area, it is also built on the ruins of a Byzantine site, proving that this has long been considered the location of this miracle.
We continued on to Kfar Nachum, or Capernaum, via a brief stop for a lunch of some St Peter’s Fish (so named as it is believed to be the species of fish that appeared with a golden coin in its mouth to Peter in the story in Matthew 17.
Jesus moved to Capernaum after being expelled from Nazareth, living with Peter and his family. While here he performed several miracles and gave many important sermons. Our first stop was in the Orthodox Church of the Twelve Apostles, close to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is a small but pretty building with an interior decorated with beautiful murals in the byzantine style, showing various important scenes in the life of Jesus and his followers.
We then visited the part of Capernaum owned by the Franciscans. Here is the Church of St Peter’s House, a modern structure built over the remains of a Byzantine church, which itself is built on the remains of a very interesting structure. In the vicinity excavators have found many houses from the Second Temple period (i.e. the time of Jesus) and one of them with a very interesting difference from the rest. In one of the houses, one room was covered in plaster at some point between 50-100 CE and became an early place of Christian worship. Later layers of plaster contain Christian graffiti and the room was enlarged in the 4th century (once Christianity was no longer a persecuted religion). This type of site, one of Christian ritual before the establishment of church buildings, is called a domus ecclesia. There are not many of them around and this is considered the oldest one in existence. As the oldest site with evidence of Christian practice, it is very significant. And it is believed that the ritual began here because it is the site of Peter’s house.
There are also excavations of a synagogue in Capernaum. It was clearly rather large and may even have had a second floor. Most of the site is reconstructed so it is unclear if it is similar to the original structure, but it was still impressive to see.
From Capernaum we continued around the Sea of Galilee to Kursi. This site is quite unusual in that it is a holy Christian site owned by the Israel Parks Authority. This is because it was actually discovered very recently, when after the 1967 Six Day War meant that this area became more secure, Israel decided to build a road. When digging for its construction they discovered the ruins of a Byzantine period church, and up the hill a small chapel by a large boulder, together with a monastery. This site is considered the location of the Miracle of the Swine, when Jesus banished evil spirits into a nearby heard of pigs. We heard the story from the New Testament and enjoyed the delicacy of the ancient mosaic floor, although sadly it had undergone an iconoclasm in the Muslim period so many of the animals had been defaced. The actual site of the miracle is considered the large boulder by the small chapel.
Our day was drawing to a close and our final stop was in the south of the Kinneret where the River Jordan flows out and south towards the Dead Sea. Here is Yardenit, a relatively new site where many Christian pilgrims come to be baptised in the holy waters of the Jordan. We were privileged to witness a ceremony by some visitors and also heard the tale of Jesus being baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist.
It is a beautiful and calm place and a nice site at which to complete what had been rather a hectic day. Next week our Christian odyssey continues in Jerusalem.