ANCIENT HARBORS OF
THE SEA OF GALILEE
Jesus spent much time on and around the Sea of Galilee with His fishermen-disciples. These disciples, who gave up all to follow Him (Luke 5:11), were good sailors. They knew the lake and its harbors well. The Gospels often refer to their maritime activities and the harbors they used. Now, for the first time in recent history, information on the harbors used by Jesus and His disciples is coming to light. Sixteen harbors and anchorages have been identified and surveyed by Mendel Nun, a fisherman from Kibbutz Ein Gev (Nun 1989a). I am deeply indebted to him for sharing his wealth of knowledge concerning the lake and its history.
In this article I will discuss some of the lake’s ancient harbors and their implications for gospel geography. Five geographical “problems” will be examined. First, the location of the calling of the disciples (Tabgha, the fishing suburbs of Capernaum - Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; John 21:1-17). Second, the location of the casting of the demons into the swine (Gadara, the Kibbutz Ha’on harbor – Matt. 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-40). Third, the location of the feeding of the 5,000 (near the Aish Harbor, the probable fishing suburbs of Bethsaida-in-Galilee – Matt. 14:15-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14). Fourth, the feeding of the 4,000 (Kursi – Matt. 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-9). And finally, the location of Magdala / Dalmanutha (Matt. 15:38; Mark 8:10).
The History of Research
In the past, explorers have searched in vain for Sea of Galilee harbors from the New Testament period. They have been unsuccessful because two millennia of wind and wave action have eroded the harbor superstructures. Only the foundations remain, and they were, until recently, hidden beneath the water.
Mendel Nun has determined that the water level of the lake varied between 209.5 and 210.5 meters below sea level in antiquity. In 1932, a dam was built at the southern outlet of the Jordan River allowing the maximum level to be controlled. It is normally maintained at -209 meters. With the recent drought, however, the level has dropped to a dangerously low -213 meters (Nun 1991: 10). Since one-third of all the drinking water for modern Israel comes from the Sea of Galilee, this is a serious problem. There could be adverse ecological effects as well. For those doing research on the antiquities of the lake, however, the drop has proven to be a boon. Many ancient harbors are now exposed for the first time in the modern era.
The first ancient harbor to be found was at Kursi, on the eastern shore of the lake. Excavations were conducted here by the Department of Antiquities in the early 1970’s. The harbor was discovered in an underwater survey carried out by S. Shapira and A. Raban of the Society for Underwater Archaeological Research. During the ensuing summer, the water level dropped and the harbors became visible from shore (Tzaferis 1983; Nun 1989c). Nun has since surveyed the entire lake, documenting 15 additional ancient harbors and anchorages. We will consider several of these harbors as they relate to geographical “problems” in the gospel narratives.
Geographical Problems in the Gospel Narrative
The Calling of the Disciples
The first stop on our excursion around the Sea of Galilee is the “harbor of St. Peter” [as Mendel Nun has labeled it (1989a:22, 23)]. It is located just northeast of the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter in the area of Tabgha, on the northwest side of the lake. Visible only when the water level falls to -211.50 meters, the harbor is comprised of two breakwaters. The first, 60 meters long, is parallel to the shore and curves to the entrance on the east side. The second, perpendicular to shore, is 40 meters long.
Tabgha, the corrupted form of Heptategon, means “seven springs.” It is the winter fishing ground for fishermen from Capernaum (Pixner 1985:196-206). During the winter months its seven warm springs attract musht, commonly called “St. Peter’s fish,” to its shores. This would be the logical place for Peter and Andrew to have been throwing their cast nets during the winter of AD 28 when Jesus called them to become fishers of men (Matt. 4:19; Mark 1:17), more than a year after believing in Him as Savior (John 2:11).
Several months later, after the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord had to “recall” Peter while he was washing his nets along the shore in the morning after a long, unproductive night of fishing. The springs would be an ideal place for this activity. Jesus got Peter’s attention by a miraculous draught of fish. This was indeed a miracle because the net Jesus commanded Peter to let down was a trammel net. This type of net is used only at night and close to shore (Luke 5:1-11; Nun 1989b:28-40). The goodness of God led Peter to repentance. He confessed, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Following this experience, the disciples “left all to follow Him” (Luke 5:11).
An early church tradition places Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the disciples here at Tabgha (John 21; Nun 1989b:41-44).
Casting the Demons onto the Swine
In Matthew 8, Mark 5 and Luke 8 we have the account of Jesus exorcising demons from a man (or two men – Matt. 8:28) who lived in a cemetery near the Sea of Galilee. The location of this event has been uncertain (Nun 1989c). There is disagreement as to whether the text should read “Gergesa”, “Gerasa”, or “Gadara.” Personally, I believe Mark 5:1 and Luke 8:26 should read Gadarenes and Matt. 8:28 should be Gergesenes. Some have objected to these readings because Gadara, located at Umm Qeis about 6 miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee, is too far away to have a harbor on the lake. In 1985, as a result of the low water level, a harbor was discovered south of Tel Samra, now the campground of Kibbutz Ha’on. It is the closest point along the lake shore relative to Umm Qeis.
What is more, the Kibbutz Ha’on harbor is the largest on the east side of the lake. Its outer breakwater is about 250 meters long, with a 5 meter wide base. The quay, or landing area, is approximately 200 meters long. There is also a 500 meter pier along the shore (Nun 1989a:16-18). Nun surmises: “One can only assume that a splendid harbor such as this did not serve a small population. It is much more likely that it once had been the harbor of Gadara, located on the heights of Gilead above the Yarmuk River – the largest and most magnificent of the Hellenistic towns that encircled the Sea of Galilee” (1989a: 17).
Coins from Gadara depict boats commemorating the “Naumachia,” or naval battles reenacted by the people of Gadara. Several scholars have suggested that these battles took place on the Yarmuk River (Dalman n.d.: 178, 179). A more plausible setting is the Kibbutz Ha’on harbor. Here, there is sufficient room for maneuvering and the long pier would provide seating for spectators.
Recently, a Byzantine church was discovered at Tel Samra adjacent to the harbor (Nun 1989a:16). To whom or what was this church dedicated? Did it commemorate the demoniac event?
Assuming that the demoniac event took place at the harbor of Gadara, how does the geography fit the Biblical text? Jesus and His disciples landed at the harbor and were met by a demon possessed man who lived in tombs (Mark 5:2; Luke 8:27; Matt. 8:28 says there were two demoniacs). That there were tombs here is attested by the discovery of three sarcophagi in the area. The demons requested that they be thrown into a herd of swine which were “a good way off,” “on / near the mountain(s)” (the Golan Heights – Matt. 8:30; Mark 5:11; Luke 8:32). The swine then ran down a “steep place into the sea and drowned” (Matt. 8:32; Mark 5:13; Luke 8:33).
There are two possibilities as to where this event took place. The first is just behind Kibbutz Ha’on where a ridge coming down from the Golan Heights fits the description. The second is on the grounds of Kibbutz Ma’agan, about a mile to the southwest. Located here is the only cliff which drops directly into the sea.
After the demise of the swine, the predominantly Gentile population of the Decapolis pleaded with Jesus to leave their territory. One scholar has suggested that killing the pigs could have been an attack on the cultic practices of the Decapolis cities (Johnson 1989:49, 50). Jesus departed, but He left the delivered demoniac to proclaim the great things Jesus had done for him (Mark 5:20; Luke 8:39).
Feeding the 5,000
In the spring of AD 29, just before Passover, Jesus performed the miracle of feeding 5,000 men, plus women and children with five barley loaves and two small sardines. At Tabgha there is a mosaic commemorating this miracle. In addition, an early church tradition places the event at Tabgha (Shenhav 1984; Pixner 1985). But, does Tabgha fit the geographical data in the Gospels?
The Twelve were sent out to preach the gospel to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Upon their return (probably to Capernaum), Jesus took them by boat to a “deserted place” (Matt. 14:13; Mark 6:32) which “belonged to the city of Bethsaida” (Luke 9:10). The problem here is that there are two towns named Bethsaida. I believe this text refers to Bethsaida-in-Galilee, located at Tel el-Araj on the north shore of the lake (Laney 1986:81-82). The other Bethsaida is Bethsaida Julias, one of the capitals of Gaulanitis, which I believe, to be located at el-Mes’adiyeh, to the southeast of Tel el-Araj.
The multitude ran before the boat and arrived at the site of the feeding before Jesus and His disciples. There is no indication that they crossed the Jordan River, which would have been high due to the spring rains. Thus, the feeding of the 5,000 should be placed in Galilee, to the west of the Jordan River. I suggest it took place in the area of Moshav Almagor, between Capernaum and Bethsaida-in-Galilee, within the district of Bethsaida.
After feeding the multitudes, Jesus sent His disciples by boat to Bethsaida (probably Julias). Just below Moshav Almagor, to the east of Ammun Bay, which is rich in sweet water springs, is an anchorage at Aish, or Khirbet Osheh. It is located about one mile northeast of Capernaum and a little over one mile west of Bethsaida-in-Galilee. It had a 100 meter long promenade built of large stones and two parallel breakwaters, 20 meters apart, extending into the lake (Nun 1989a:23). It is likely that this was where the disciples’ boat was moored during the feeding of the 5,000 and where they departed to the “other side.” Possibly Jesus was concerned for their safety. Herod Antipas would not have been pleased with the idea of making Jesus “King of Israel” (John 6:15).
The area of Moshav Almagor and the Aish anchorage nicely fits the Gospel descriptions of the feeding of the 5,000. Placing the miracle at Tabgha was no doubt for the convenience of early pilgrims.
As the disciples were crossing the lake, a violent winter wind storm swept down from the Golan Heights. It was on this occasion that Jesus walked upon the sea and calmed the wind (Matt. 14:25-32; Mark 6:48-51; John 6:19-21). Eventually they landed on the west side of the lake at the “land of Gennesaret,” where they anchored in the harbor of Gennesar (Nun 1989a:23). The next day Jesus went to the synagogue of Capernaum about 3 miles away and gave His discourse on the “Bread of Life” (John 6:22-71).
Feeding the 4,000
The focus of Jesus’ ministry changed after the feeding of the 5,000. Now, He wanted to spend time alone with His disciples. They traveled to Tyre and Sidon where they spent much time together. After ministering to the Syro-Phoenician woman, they departed from the region and came to the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis (Mark 7:31). There Jesus healed many, primarily Gentiles, for three days. As a result, they “glorified the God of Israel” (Matt. 15:29-31; Mark 7:31-37). Toward the end of the third day the multitudes were fed with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. Although we can be certain that the event took place on the east side of the lake, exactly where is another matter.
Father Bargil Pixner places the event at Tel Hadar on the northeast shore of the lake. He has even set up a marker to commemorate the event. Tel Hadar, however, is in the region of Gaulanitis, north of the area of the Decapolis. The border between the Decapolis and Gaulanitis apparently was the Wadi Samak (Dalman n.d.:170). I suggest that the feeding of the 4,000 took place at the Kursi Church, excavated in the 1970’s, just south of the Wadi Samak. In fact, I believe the church was built to commemorate this event, rather than the casting of the demons into the swine as the excavators propose (Tzaferis 1983:43-48; 1989:44-51; Nun 1989c).
There are several reasons for this suggestion. First, as argued earlier, I believe the demoniac event took place at Gadara eight miles to the south. Second, there is no indication from the mosaics on the floor of the church that it commemorated the demoniac event. Third, early church sources and pilgrim accounts, while stating that the demoniac event took place on the east side of the lake, do not give a specific location. Fourth, the mosaic provides a hint that this is where Jesus fed the 4,000.
The church was built in the late fifth, or early sixth, century AD and lasted until the Persian invasion of AD 614 when it was destroyed. Approximately 60% of the mosaic floor survived the destruction. The central nave suffered the most. Except for some birds and animal medallions which were destroyed during an Islamic iconoclastic movement, the two side aisles are relatively intact.
The side aisles were made up of 296 medallions containing various depictions. Vassilios Tzaferis, the excavcator, describes them as follows: “[they] contained a variety of exotic and common birds, different types of fish, stylized flowers, plants, vegetables, harvest symbols and ceremonial objects. Within the row each motif was repeated four times. For the most part, the arrangement of the motifs alternated between rows of images such as birds, fish, everyday objects, or plant motifs” (1983:24).
What interests me the most are the fish (1983:Plate XI:1). Although they have been partially destroyed, Nun has identified them as barbel fish (1989c:24). The Gospel narratives state that the fish involved in this miracle were “small fish,” possibly the sardines for which the Wadi Samak is noted. There are also baskets in the mosaics (Tzaferis 1983:Plate X:5). They have handles as did those in the Gospel account. One basket is similar to the one on the mosaic floor at Tabgha.
To the southeast of the church, on the slopes of Wadi Samak, is an ancient tower. According to the excavator, this is the “chapel of the miracle of the swine” (Tzaferis 1983:49-51). Some have suggested it was built over the tombs in which the demoniac(s) lived. Nothing in the chapel, however, indicates to whom or what it was dedicated. It could just as well have been dedicated to the healing events which took place prior to the feeding of the 4,000. Matthew tells us that Jesus “went up on the mountain and sat down there” (15:29). Kursi, interestingly enough, means “chair,” a place for sitting down. For the convenience of pilgrims, the chapel was placed only a little ways up the slope of the mountain.
After feeding the 4,000 people, Jesus and His disciples went to Dalmanutha / Magdala on the west side of the lake. Some 300 meters to the west of the church is a small, 2.5 acre, site named Tel Kursi. North of Tel Kursi are the remains of an ancient harbor. Its breakwater curves for 150 meters and has a holding tank for fish, with an aqueduct for bringing fresh water from the Wadi Samak (Nun 1989a:20-21). This would have been the barbor from which Jesus left to go to Magdala.
Location of Magdala / Dalmanutha
Magdala is located about 3 miles northwest of modern Tiberias. Remains of a harbor have surfaced here (Nun 1989a:20-21). It consisted of two parts; an open dock for loading and unloading during the summer, and a basin, within a 70 meter breakwater to protect the ships from the winter storms. Mark’s Gospel calls the area the “region of Dalmanutha.” How is this to be understood?
It has been suggested that Dalmanutha is a transliteration of the Syriac word for “harbor” (Laney 1986:85). Magdala, also known as Tarichea, was noted as a place for salting fish. Possibly it got its nickname, “the harbor,” because fishermen brought their sardines here for salting. Josephus records that there were many ships at Magdala (230 or 330 depending on which account you read, Wars 2:635-637) during the battle of the First Jewish Revolt. He also hints that one of the other industries in the area was shipbuilding. The nickname could also derive from this activity.
In recent years, two important discoveries have been made at Magdala. In February 1986, the now famous first century AD boat was found in the harbor. The boat has been variously called “The Jesus Boat,” the “Disciples’ Boat,” or the “Josephus Boat.” It is now on display at Kibbutz Ginossar (Wachsmann 1988:18-33; 1990). Secondly, a first century AD synagogue has been excavated near the town square by the Franciscans (Corbo 1983:355-378; Strange and Shanks 1983:29). Perhaps this is the place where the Pharisees and Sadducees came to seek a “sign from heaven” from Jesus (Matt. 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-13).
Jesus and His disciples traveled the Sea of Galilee by boat, going from one harbor to another. Recent climatic conditions have resulted in the exposure of many ancient harbors around the lake. This has given scholars fresh data with which to resolve old problems.
The harbor at Tabgha confirms that fishermen from Capernaum fished there during the winter months. The harbor at Gadara (Kibbutz Ha’on) adds credibility to the reading of “Gadara” in the gospel narratives. Light is shed on the term “Dalmanutha” (“harbor”) as a result of new finds at Magdala. Finally, I have set forth two new proposals. First, the feeding of the 5,000 took place near Moshav Almagor with the disciples departing from the Aish harbor. Second, the Kursi church has been misidentified. Rather than being the place where Jesus cast the demons into the swine, I believe it to be the place where Jesus fed the 4,000.
For the last 2,000 years, pilgrims and tourists have been attracted to the Sea of Galilee to worship, understand and appreciate the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. I trust these ideas will serve to draw us closer to Him, encourage us to walk in His footsteps and be more like Him, day by day.
1983 La Citte Romana di Magdala. Studia Hiersolymitana 22. Jerusalem: Franciscan.
n.d. Sacred Sites and Ways. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
1989 Mark 5:1-20: The Other Side. Abstracts, American Academy of Religion, Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. Atlanta: Scholars.
Laney, J. Carl
1986 Geographical Aspects of the Gospels. Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost. Chicago: Moody.
1989a Sea of Galilee: Newly Discovered Harbours from New Testament Days. Kibbutz Ein Gev: Kinnereth Sailing.
1989b The Sea of Galilee and Its Fishermen in the New Testament. Kibbutz Ein Gev: Kinnereth Sailing.
1989c Gergesa (Kursi), Site of a Miracle, Church and Fishing Village. Kibbutz Ein Gev: Kinnereth Sailing.
1991 The Sea of Galilee. Water Levels, Past and Present. Kibbutz Ein Gev: Kinnereth Sailing.
1985 The Miracle Church of Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee. Biblical Archaeologist 48:196-206.
1984 Loaves and Fishes Mosaic Near Sea of Galilee Restored. Biblical Archaeology Review 10/3: 22-31.
Strange, James; and Shanks, Hershel
1983 Synagogue Where Jesus Preached Found in Capernaum. Biblical Archaeology Review 9/6: 24-31.
1983 The Excavations of Kersi-Gergesa. ‘Atiqot 16. Jerusalem: Department of Antiquities and museums.
1989 A Pilgrimage to the Site of the Swine Miracle. Biblical Archaeology Review 15/2: 44-51.
1988 The Galilee Boat – 2,000 Year Old Hull Recovered Intact. Biblical Archaeology Review 14/5: 18-33.
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This paper was first read at the Near East Archaeological Society meeting held at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans LA, November 16, 1990.
The article was published in Archaeology and Biblical Research, 4/4 (1991) 111-121.