Along the Shore of the Sea of Galilee:
Sea of Galilee and Tiberias


"Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee" (Matthew 15:29).

After his rejection in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus apparently did not return. He began to lead a restless existence: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Luke 9:58). He then took his message some twenty miles east, to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where he found a ready audience.


Spotlight on the Sea of Galilee

The beautiful and tranquil body of water known familiarly to Christians as the Sea of Galilee astonishes the eye, lying like a giant sapphire set in blue or mauve tinted basalt hills. It is, of course, no ordinary body water. It exists as much in faith and legend as reality, and it holds a central place in the hearts and minds of millions of Christians around the world, for much of Jesus' ministry took place along, or in close proximity to, its shores. Not surprisingly, many pilgrims find here not only sunshine and and water, but also the very spirit of Jesus' life and the echoes of his words.

One of the most beautiful spots in Israel, its charm is enhanced by its luxuriant subtropical growth. It is Israel's largest freshwater lake and, although it is fed by rain water and underground springs, most of its water comes from the Jordan River, which flows into it from the north from its sources at the foot of snow-covered Mount Hermon. The shoreline is filled with beaches, historic sites and farms raising a whole gamut of fruit: apples, avocados, beans, olives and bananas. Yet, amazingly, most of the shoreline remains wonderfully undeveloped and it looks much the same as it did at the time of Jesus. Today, however, it is much quieter and it's shores far more rural than they were in Jesus' day. Then, the shore was lined with villages, towns and substantial harbors, consisting of stone breakwaters and protected anchorages. Whereas today only four small ports serve the motorized boats and pilgrim ferries that move across the small lake, two-thousand years ago there where at least sixteen man-made harbors servicing the thousands of residents living beside its shores. Among the major harbors were Tiberias, Magdala, Gennesaret, Bethsaida, Capernaum and Hippos. The lake formed a primary transportation hub between three distinct political entities the territories of the tetrachs Herod Antipas and Herod Philip, and the cities of the Decapolis who conducted commerce with each other and collected taxes from the merchants who crossed into their territories to sell their goods. Jewish historian Josephus tells us that in the 1st century AD there were some 230 fishing boats regularly working the lake which in a land with few fresh-water sources, still supports 20 different species of edible fish, the same as those caught by Jesus' fisherman-disciples nearly two millennia ago.

"Galilee" is both the name of the lake and the region where it is located. The Sea of Galilee lies roughly 700 feet below sea level, the second lowest point on the earth's surface after the Dead Sea. It is 13 miles long, 7.5 miles across at its widest point and up to 150 feet deep. The high mountains and plateaus that almost surround it fall off sharply, especially on the east, forming a vast bowl, that is the result of ancient volcanic action.

Today it is Israel's major water source, supplying one third of the country's annual consumption. Throughout history it has been known variously as the "Sea of Chinneroth" and "Kinnereth" (Old Testament); "Water of Gennesar" (in accounts of the Hasmonean revolt); the "Lake of Gennesaret", the "Sea of Tiberias", and the familiar "Sea of Galilee" (New Testament); and the "Lake of Gennesareth" (in The Wars of the Jews, Josephus' record of the First Jewish Revolt against
Rome). Today in Israel it is known by its ancient name, Yam Kinneret.

In Hebrew, the word 'yam' means 'sea' and in ancient times it was used to describe both large and small bodies of water. That is why it was translated 'sea' in European languages by those who never saw the lake or stood on its shores. The name Kinneret, some say, comes from the Hebrew kinnowr, meaning harp or lyre, because the shape of the lake roughly resembles a lyre. Another tradition states the name derives from the the harp-like sounds of its waves. Still another tradition derives the name from the kinnara, a sweet and edible fruit produced by the Christ-thorn tree (Ziziphus spina-christi) which grows in the area, and from which, tradition says, Jesus' crown of thorns was fashioned. Regardless, a satellite view shows it to be in the shape of a human heart.

(Right) view northeast from Mt. Arbel of the fertile Plain of Gennesaret on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. Most of the population around the lake was located here, since elsewhere the shore rises fairly quickly up steep slopes. According to the Gospels, Jesus spent fully half of his ministry in this area. At the southern end of the plain was Magdala, one of the two largest towns on the lake; the other was Tiberias, some 4 miles to the south (right in the above photo). At the northern end of the plain lay Capernaum. East of Capernaum, just east of the Jordan River inlet, was Bethsaida.

Also note, the modern highway (Road 90) cutting through the lower part of the photo. This is the road we will be following on this first leg of our tour, starting from Tiberias.


In the footsteps of Jesus...

Behind us, the sun eases its way toward the western horizon as our bus descends toward the Sea of Galilee. A left turn at the junction with Route 90 takes us into the city of Tiberias constructed starting around 18 BC (Jesus was about 24 years old at the time) by the tetrarch of Galilee, Herod Antipas, to replace Sepphoris as his capital. At the northern end of Tiberias is is the family-run Ron Beach Hotel, our base for the next couple days of exploring the various aspects of Jesus' Galilee ministry.

(Above left) Sea of Galilee, nearly 700 feet below sea level, the lowest fresh water lake in the world; (Above right) sunrise on the Sea of Galilee from the Ron Beach Hotel in Tiberias.

After dinner, several of us don swimsuits to relax and test the waters of the lake at the hotel's private frontage (a rarity here we are told). On this early November evening the water is a bit cold, but warmer than the hotel's large outdoor pool. Some of us, though, wish we had brought cheap rubber sandals to protect our feet from the sharp basalt rocks on the lake bottom! My friend Donald, braver than I, jumps right in...brrrr! His action reminds us of the impetuousness of Simon Peter, always acting or speaking without considering the consequences.

Afterward, many of us head south for dessert and souvenir shopping on Tiberias' traffic-free waterfront promenade. Nobody feels especially tired, and upon our return to the Ron Beach, the whole group gathers in the courtyard to recap our tour-day and absorb the atmosphere. The night is astonishingly sublime. The clear, blue-black sky is sprinkled with stars. An excursion boat, lit by strings of electric lights, glides slowly by on an evening cruise. We are reminded that in ancient times this was the start of the workday* for the fisherman among Jesus' disciples Philip and the brother pairs Simon and Andrew, James and John. It was a prosperous activity for them, and they were hardly poor, especially James and John, who worked with their father Zebedee in a family partnership, owning several vessels and employing "hired men" (Mark 1:20); their mother, Salome, was among the women who provided monetary support for Jesus' ministry (see Mark 15:41).

*See John 21:3: "but that night they caught nothing."

Now as then fisherman cast their nets into the Sea of Galilee and like the disciples they push out into the dark waters after sunset. But they have their own method of taking the fish 25 species, including carp, sardines, mullet, cichlid, catfish that abound in the lake. They tow out unmanned boats, each with a gas lamp to attract the fish. Hours later a launch goes out with an electronic fish finder. Locating a large school, they radio the shore and out comes a manned boat to lay its long nylon net around the light boat that has lured the most fish. Small power winches haul in the lake's bounty.

The Bible, in the original Hebrew and Greek, mentions several methods of catching fish. The oldest method of net fishing, the drag net or seine, is still used on the Sea of Galilee. The seine is 800-900 feet long, 10 to 13 feet high on the ends, and 26 feet high at the center. It was spread from a boat some 1000 feet from the shore and parallel to it. Two teams, of as many as eight men, then pulled the net toward the shore by tow lines attached to each end. The hauling process had to be continuous to keep the fish from escaping. The seine is mentioned nine times in the Old Testament, more often than any other fishing method. In Matthew, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a seine:

"Once again, 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" (Matthew 13:47-48).

*The word translated here as "net" is sagene (sag-ay'-nay), Greek meaning "a large fishing net" or "drag net," commonly called a seine (a large fishing net that hangs vertically in the water by attaching weights along the bottom edge and floats along the top).

Another fishing method was the use of a round casting net, perhaps twelve feet across with lead weights around the edge. Brothers Simon and Andrew were using such a net when they were first called to discipleship by Jesus:

"As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net* into the lake, for they were fishermen. 'Come, follow me,' Jesus said, 'and I will make you fishers of men.' At once they left their nets and followed him" (Mark 1:16).

*The original Greek word here translated simply as net is amphiblestron (am-fib'-lace-tron), from a combination of amphi (meaning "around") and ballo ("to throw a thing without caring where it falls").

A second kind of casting net is mention in John 21:

"He (Jesus) called out to them, 'Friends, haven't you any fish?' 'No,' they answered. He said, 'Throw your net* on the right side of the boat and you will find some.' When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish" (John 21:5-6).

*The Greek word used here is diktuon (dik'-too-on), probably from the verb diko ("to cast").

The three fishing methods on the Sea of Galilee (above, left to right): seine or drag net, round casting net and gill net

Furthermore, John (21:11) records the number of fish they caught as "153." Ancient Greek zoologists held that this was precisely the number of species of fish in existence, and in the Jewish mind this number represented all the nations of the earth, so the catch can be seen as representing all of humanity. Luke states that the net was so full it began to break. Significantly, John places this account of the great haul of fish after the Resurrection and pointedly remarks that the net remained intact, emphasizing the miraculous nature of the catch. In Luke, however, this incident occurs at the beginning of Jesus' ministry and prompts Jesus to promise his fishermen disciples that from then on they would be catching people for the kingdom of God:

"Then Jesus said to Simon, 'Don't be afraid; from now on you will catch men.' So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him" (Luke 5.10-11).

Yet another method of fishing still used on the Sea of Galilee was gill nets. These nets, with weights on the bottom and floats on top, were lowered in a snake-like pattern behind a boat just offshore. The fisherman passed between the shore and his net while beating on the bottom of the boat. The noise caused nearby fish to be scared into the net. After about ten minutes of beating, the nets were drawn in and the fish were hauled into the boat; the fisherman would begin the process over again in a new location.

Fish could also he taken by angling with a simple hook and line, as at the time the annual Temple tax was demanded of Jesus. He instructed Peter to "go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours" (Matthew 17:27). According to tradition this is a species of fish called the cichlid, or Tilapia galilaea. It has a large mouth, a long dorsal fin which looks like a comb and can be up to 1.5 feet long and 3 pounds in weight. It is found on restaurant menus in Tiberias under the name "St. Peter's Fish" (right). As we earlier found out in one of the restaurants along the waterfront promenade, a good-size serving, with French fries, salad and pita bread, costs 45 NIS* (about $12.75).

* "New Israeli Shekel," roughly equal to 25 (at least that's what we used as a basis for calculating the equivalent cost in U.S. currency).

After the fish were caught, they had to be sorted because the varieties differed in value. Some could not be sold, at least not to more orthodox Jews like the unclean fish: those without scales or fins, such as catfish, eels and rays which were supposed to be discarded but were probably sold privately to Gentiles. This found its way into Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of heaven:

"Once again, 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" (Matthew 13:47-48).

St. Peter's Fish, barbels and sardines were the most sought-after types of fish in antiquity. Barbels were so known because of the barbs at the corners of their mouths; sardines and bread were staples of the local diet. Sardines were likely the "two small fish" that the boy brought to the feeding of the 5,000:

"Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?" (John 6:9).


Spotlight on Tiberias

The most important city in Galilee in the 1st century AD, Tiberias (Hebrew "Teveriya") was founded in 20 AD (Jesus about 25-years-old) by Herod Antipas, son of Herod "the Great" and tetrarch of Galilee. Antipas made it the capital of his realm in Galilee, replacing Sepphoris, near Nazareth, and named in honor of the reigning Roman Emperor Tiberius. To encourage Jews to settle in his new city Herod minted coins with its name on it as a means of propaganda. But, they refused because the presence of a old cemetery rendered the site ritually unclean. Antipas was forced to populate his new capital with non-Jews from rural Galilee and other parts of his domain. Antipas built a palace on the acropolis.

Tiberias plays only a small part in the biblical narrative. It is mentioned only once in the gospel of John: "Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks" (John 6:23). But, two other times, in John 21:1 and John 6:1, the lake is called the Sea of Tiberias, reflecting the city's prestige. However, there is no record that Jesus ever visited the city and none of his miracles or sermons there, if any, were written down.

At the southern entrance to modern Tiberias is Berko Archaeological Park (established 2008) which reconstructs Tiberias from its establishment in the 1st century AD up to the Arab period (11th century AD). Remains include the city's Roman-era southern gate, cardo (main street), marketplace, aqueduct and water reservoir. The area also includes remains of the city walls built in the 6th-7th century next to the towers of the Roman gate, the main bathhouse of the city built in the 4th century, a Byzantine basilica believed to contain the remains of the palace of Herod Antipas; and another basilica where the Sanhedrin met.

(Below left) modern Tiberias, view from the south; (Below right) artist's reconstruction of early Tiberias (note the south gate with its two round towers, the cardo maximus, the main north-south street, flanked by covered colonnades.

(Below left) preserved remains of the city's south gate (bases of two round towers, left). Attached to the gate are the Byzantine city walls. The Sea of Galilee is seen in the background; (Below right) Tiberias theater, which had a seating capacity of 7,000. It was first laid out when Antipas founded the city, then significantly enlarged in the 2nd or 3rd century AD.


Jesus' Life Home n Sea of Galilee towns: Magdala