During this episode I will take you on an audio tour to the Sea of Galilee where we will visit Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum, Tabgha and the Mount of Beatitudes. These are pilgrimage locations related to places where according to tradition Jesus lived, spoke to his followers, visited synagogues and did miracles.
Disclaimer: I am a trained tour guide at the Bethlehem Bible College, I am not a theologian and I do not belong to any religion. I am telling the stories the way they were told and explained to me by Palestinian Christians who still live in the land where Jesus lived 2000 years ago.
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Before I got really sick last week, and I am still recovering, I did my first private guided tour to the north with a couple from Singapore. He is a reverend and had asked the Bible College for a guide to take them to some of the pilgrim sites in the north and it was a good chance for me to practice because... the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism has FINALLY announced the exam to become licensed tour guides and it is taking place end of this month! So I am studying hard, well it was hard actually to study last week because I was overwhelmed with extreme fatigue due to this flu I had, but I still have two weeks to prepare and I am holding off any requests for work, interviews or other events that can distract me from studying.
I also have other good news and that is that I got accepted to the Tour Guide Program in Jerusalem that will start also end of this month and is a one year program that includes lectures and about sixty excursions to all the different sites all around the country. It is a very comprehensive program and eventually I will do an exam with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to get licensed to work all over historic Palestine.
So a lot of studying coming up again!
But for today's episode I was inspired to talk about the pilgrims sites around the Lake of Galilee as I have just visited several of those. The Lake of Galilee is usually part of any Christian pilgrim visit to Palestine. The reason for that is that most of Jesus' ministry, the time that he was active in preaching and when he did most of his miracles, was in this region. There are many places around the Lake of Galilee that are visited because of stories related to the life and the work of Jesus.
And I will make this disclaimer again, that I personally am not a follower of any religion. Actually the longer I live in the Holy Land the less I am attracted to monotheistic religions as I find them very exclusive and they rater pull people apart than that they make them realize how much we are all connected. But I do appreciate the story telling around those religions and those stories are intertwined with the landscape as well as they have often shaped the landscape. Especially also in the Lake of Galilee area.
For some listeners these stories may be very familiar and for others they may be new. I will just talk about things that relate to the sites of interest that we will be virtually visiting in this episode. But let's start with an introduction of our main character: Jesus.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem but it seems that Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth which is about 30 kilometers from the Lake of Galilee. As in those days people used to walk much more than now, a six hours walk would have been quite a normal distance and a good half day walk.
We don't know much about Jesus's first thirty years. Most of what we know about him happened in the last three years of his life, from the moment he started selecting his disciples and he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan river until he was crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven. This is according to the stories in the first books of the New Testament of the Bible.
The towns where Jesus used to preach in the local synagogues and where he did his miracles, around the Lake of Galilee, were not big towns, they were not the center of the region and they were definitely not the political center.
At that time the region was under Roman rule and the Romans had originally appointed a local client king, Herod the Great, whose territory was divided upon his death between three of his sons: Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus and Herod Philippi. They each ruled a different territory and had their own capitals.
The Romans also sent a Roman prefect when they realized that Herod Archelaus was not competent and this Roman prefect lived in Caesarea on the coast. The most famous of these prefects is Pontius Pilate, who was the one that allowed Jesus to be crucified.
We know that Jesus did go to Jerusalem, especially to join the Festivals like the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Passover, these were Jewish pilgrimage festivals to the Temple that Jews HAD to make. Jesus used to preach in the Temple, he also did miracles in Jerusalem and he criticized the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Jewish leaders.
But otherwise he did not visit the bigger cities in the area. Maybe because in most of the bigger cities there was a majority of gentiles, not Jewish population, Greeks, Romans, Edomites, Nabateans and other pagans.
But then again, his message was not only for the Jewish community, it was really also for the gentiles and that becomes very clear from some of his teachings and miracles.
What is clear to scholars is that Jesus spent his childhood in the quiet and not important town of Nazareth, where probably only around 100 houses were in that time, with a population of maximum 500 people. He was protected and hidden between the hills of Galilee until he was ready to start his work and his teaching.
And then his first miracle was performed when he turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. It was his mother who approached him when she noticed that the wine was finishing while the party had just started and even though Jesus said that it was not his time yet, he did safe the groom and his reputation by filling up big jars with water and turning them into wine.
When you drive from Nazareth towards the Sea of Galilee you pass through a Palestinian town called Kufr Cana and you will find a church dedicated to this miracle. Many tourists come here to remember this miracle and to repeat their marriage vows.
And continuing to the west you will start seeing the lake of Galilee from the tops of the hills. The lake of Galilee is often called the Sea of Galilee but it is a sweet water lake. And it is the lowest sweet water lake in the world, it is about 200 meters below sea level. It is situated in the same Rift valley as the Dead Sea, which is about 120 kilometers south. The Dead Sea is even much more below sea level, around 430 meters below sea level. The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are connected by the Jordan river. The Jordan river starts in the north of Palestine with melting water from Jabal es Sheikh in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, water from the Dan River and Hisbani river and from the Banias river that passes through the Huleh lake, a lake in the Rift valley that exists because of a natural basalt dam, although it was pumped dry by Israel and lost its importance as a lake. The Jordan river enters into the Sea of Galilee and then exists it to continue south to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea doesn't have an outlet.
The Sea of Galilee is around 53 kilometer in circumference, about 21 km long and 13 km wide.
The lake is also known as the Sea of Kinneret, named after and important bronze and iron age city called Kinneret that is excavated at Tell el Oreimeh.
In Arabic it is referred to as Buhayret Tabariyya, named after the town of Tiberias that is on the south western side of the lake.
Let's start up north
Jesus brought some of his disciples from a fishing village called Bethsaida: Peter, Andrew and Philip. According to the gospels he cured a blind man in Bethsaida and he also did one of his famous miracles just outside Bethsaida, he fed five thousands people with only two loaves of bread and five fish. But this miracle is commemorated today in Tabgha, so we will talk about it when we get there.
Jesus mentions Bethsaida and two other villages, Chorazin and Capernaum, when he says:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. "
There are actually two sites that have been pointed at for having been the Bethsaida of the time of Jesus. One is an archaeological site a few kilometers north east of the lake that is known as et-Tell. This has for a long time, since 1839, been the site that people thought was Bethsaida. They excavated houses there and findings that show the people in that time lived of the fish industry. But the site is quite far away from the lake, a bit too far to really be a fishing village. So they came up with suggestions, maybe the lake was bigger, maybe earthquakes and tectonic plate movements changed the landscape, maybe there was a bigger river that gave easy access to the lake.
But then in 2017 archaeologists found at another site at Al Araj, much closer to the lake, the remains of a Roman bath house, which first of all means that the lake was not bigger in the time of Jesus and thus did NOT reach to the first site of Bethsaida. It also means there was a village closer to the lake. And then when in 2019 they did another dig there and they found the remains of a Byzantine church, it became clear that this town had been venerated in early Christian times, probably as the town of the apostles Andrew and Peter. The latest discovery is a mosaic inscribed with a petition to the “head and leader of the heavenly apostles” (assumed to be St Peter), which strengthened el-Araj’s claim to be Bethsaida.
Still et-Tell, the original location thought to be Bethsaida, is interesting for archaeologists, as it has a much older Iron Age site beneath the Hellenistic-Roman village. They believe this city was the ancient capital of the kingdom of Geshur that was fortified with a massive city wall and a monumental gate. According to the Bible King David married one of the daughters of the King of Geshur, in his attempts for political marriages with neighbor nations.
The other two towns that Jesus cursed are Chorazin and Capernaum. It's interesting to know that the three towns were destroyed by a massive earthquake. Some would say this is the result of the curse. But earthquakes ARE very common in the region and almost every hundred years there is a devastating earthquake. The last one was about 100 years ago by the way...
You can visit Chorazin if you pay entrance fee to the national park. Most of what you see in Chorazin dates from the 3rd and 4th century, so several hundreds of years after Jesus' time. It is a well excavated village with a lot of remains of foundations of dwellings, a synagogue, a ritual bath and olive presses, all built up of the local natural basalt stone.
This is a very dark colored stone and is a remain of volcanic activity in the area.
Going down south the next stop on the lake of Galilee is Capernaum. In Jesus' time this was an important fishing village and market. But not only that, it was also a frontier post, meaning that it was on the border between the territory of Herod Antipas and the territory of his brother Herod Philippi and because the important Via Maris route, the trade route that connected Egypt to Damascus was going right through here, this was the place where traders had to pay taxes. And one of the tax collectors became a follower of Jesus. His Greek name was Matthew and his Hebrew name was Levi, we read both these names in the gospel but this is about the same one person.
It was very helpful for the quick spreading of Jesus' message and his miracles, that they happened right at this point where many traders passed by, because they would take the stories they heard about Jesus quickly to different ends of the region.
Jesus also made Capernaum his home after he left his family in Nazareth. He seems to have lived with his friends and follower Peter who was from Bethsaida and lived in Capernaum with his wife in the house of his mother in law.
It is written in the gospels that Jesus used to teach in the synagogue of the town and that the people were impressed by his teachings because he did not sound like a scribe, but like someone who spoke with authority, someone who really knew what he was explaining.
He did several miracles in Capernaum, the most known one is probably the story of the paralytic man that was lowered down on a mattress through a hole in the roof to reach Jesus inside the house, as it was too crowded outside to get the man in. You have to realize that the houses in those days did not have concrete roofs and ceilings. Most likely the roof was made of bunches of reeds and twigs so it was easy to make a hole to lower him down.
Jesus also healed the daughter of Jairus, who was the leader of the local synagogue. His daughter seemed to have passed away already but Jesus told her to get up, in Aramaic he said Tabitha or Talitha kumi. This is actually the name of the school where my children go.
When you visit Capernaum today, you pay an entrance fee of 5 shekel to enter the site that is administered by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.
You will see the excavated houses of the villages on your left and right in front of you, just like in Chorazin they are dark basalt blocks. The houses do not stand as one piece anymore, you mainly see the outlines of the foundations.
One of these houses seems to have been venerated since very early time by the followers of Jesus. As the archaeologists reconstructed it, it seems that the room where Jesus used to stay, in the house of Peter's mother in law, started to become visited after he had left this world. They found carvings of Jesus' and Peter's names. Jesus was mentioned as Lord and Christ, in the Greek language. People may have come together here as a sort of house church. And it seems that the room was not big enough to contain all the visitors so it was enlarged. In the 5th century an octagonal church was built around the house that was larger and could host more people. The octagon shape was very common in Byzantine time for shrines that commemorated a location in relation to Jesus's life. The octagon was called a Martyrium in Latin or Martyrion in Greek and that means a witness, it was a witness to an important biblical event. We see this for example with the first churches of Nativity in Bethlehem and Holy Sepulcher Church in Jerusalem, they were also octagons.
And this site, the room where Jesus is said to have lived, with the remains of the Byzantine octagon church, are now protected by a new building that also has the octagon shape but is bigger so it covers the whole site, but unlike normal churches that are built over ancient sites, this new building hovers over the archaeological site as if it is a flying ship. It gives us the opportunity to look at the archaeological remains from the ground level but we can also climb the stairs up into the building, that is made of steel and glass, with a glass floor, that gives us the opportunity to look down, straight into the room of Jesus in Peter's house.
And across from this modern building, that was opened in 1990, there is a 5th century synagogue. The synagogue was completely in ruins, after all the different earthquakes. After they excavated the site and they found many pieces that they could puzzle back together they have partially rebuilt the synagogue, which gives us a good idea of what it looked like. This synagogue is made of white limestone, that was imported from the southern part of Palestine, because as I said, in this area we only find the black basalt stone.
This is NOT the synagogue in which Jesus preached, this is a later synagogue. BUT it IS possible that the previous synagogue was here on the same location. It is clear that underneath the foundation of this white synagogue there is a layer of basalt that seems to be the foundation for a bigger, public building, so of course to pilgrims it is sold as the most possible location for the synagogue where Jesus preached.
The synagogue of Jesus time was built by a Roman centurion, which is quite interesting, but it seems that further away from the political center there were better relations between the Romans and the Jews. And this centurion also had strong believes in the power of Jesus. When he asked Jesus to heal his servant, he told Jesus that he didn't have to go meet the servant, he could just speak the words to heal him and it would be done. The same way he as a centurion would command his soldiers to do something and they would do it, the same way he believed Jesus could command his servant back a life. And Jesus praised his faith and his servant was healed. (from the book of Luke)
In Capernaum the collectors of the Temple tax ask Peter whether Jesus pays the temple tax of 2 drachme. Peter consults Jesus who tells him that they shouldn't have to pay it but he doesn't want to cause offense so he sends Peter to the lake and tells him to throw out a line and inside the fish that he will catch he will find a 4 drachme coin that he can use to pay the temple tax for Jesus and for himself. And that's what happens. And now if you go eat in one of the tourist restaurants in Tiberias or Magdala, you can order the Saint Peter Fish which doesn't really exist, nobody knows what kind of fish Saint Peter caught, but you will be served tilapia fish and lots of salads, if you pick the right restaurant you will enjoy it.
From here just a short distance away, closer to the lake you can see the red domes and white walls of a Greek Orthodox church dedicated to the Twelve Apostles. I think it is one of the more photographed than visited churches on the lake. It is dedicated to the twelve apostles, most of them came from this area and Jesus chose the twelve from his many followers on a mountain near the lake. The present building was built in 1931 on the location of a previous Byzantine church.
In 1948 when the State of Israel was created, the church found itself in a demilitarised zone between Israel and Syria. The local Palestinian Christians and foreign pilgrims had no access to this no-man’s land, so the church and the monastery fell into decay. The church was used as a barn by Druze residents of the area. After 1967 when Israel occupied the Golan Heights from Syria, the Greek Orthodox started the restoration of the church and they had to remove a thick layer of cow manure that was covering the floor!
Between 1995 and 2000 the church was redecorated by a Greek iconographer who covered most of the ceilings and walls with brightly-coloured frescoes and icons.
From here we continue south towards Tabgha.
The name Tabgha is an Arabic corruption from the Greek name Heptapegon, which means the seven springs. This is referring to warm water springs that entered the lake at this point and attracted fish especially in cold winters. So it was a very successful place for local fishermen to cast out their nets!
In the years before 1948 there was a Palestinian village at Tabgha that had about 330 inhabitants. They grew mainly wheat, citrus and bananas. On the 4th of May 1948 Zionist Palmach forces drove out the Palestinian population and destroyed their homes. Tabgha was completely ethnically cleansed. Only the existing churches and monasteries were left.
There are two places that pilgrims visit in Tabgha. The Church of Saint Peter Primacy and a bit further down is the Church of the Multiplication.
At the Church of Saint Peter Primacy they remember the first meeting of Peter with Jesus after he had denied that he knew him, THREE TIMES! In Jerusalem on the night that Jesus was arrested and crucified. It is the first time that Peter sees Jesus after his resurrection. So goes the story.
Jesus was on the shore preparing a fire to make breakfast for the disciples that had been fishing all night and who had no idea that Jesus was waiting for them. They had not been lucky at all, they didn't catch anything. Then Jesus called out to them from the shore and told them to try on the other side of the boat, to cast the net on the right side of the boat. And then they couldn't believe their eyes, they had a full net, 153 fish, they could barely bring them in the boat.
Inside the small basalt stone church there is piece of natural bedrock. The church is built around this particular piece of bedrock because it is believed this was the place where Jesus made them the charcoal fire and prepared for them the breakfast. It is called the Mensa Christi, the Table of Christ.
During the breakfast Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him and Peter answered him three times that he did. As if Jesus wanted to cancel out the three times that he had denied him. And then Jesus tells Peter three times to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep, to feed his sheep. Here it is understood that Jesus gave Peter the leadership over the church and over the other apostles, so that's why the church is called Peter's primacy. He became the first among the apostles.
In the episode about Banias and Caesarea Philippi I told you that Jesus had already said to Peter that he was given the insight by God himself that Jesus was the Messiah and then he called him the rock on which he would build his church. He said: I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. This is understood by most Christians quite literally and the pope is seen as the apostolic successor to Saint Peter and the head of the worldwide Catholic Church.
The other beautiful church to visit at Tabgha is the Church of Loaves and Fishes or the Church of Multiplication. This church commemorates the miracle in which Jesus wants to feed 5000 people who have followed him to listen to his teachings but who don't have any food on them. They only find a boy with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish (he must have had a great mother who made him a lunch package for the day and now Jesus takes it away from him to share it with 5000 people!!) He blesses the food and starts sharing it, breaking off pieces of the bread and the fish and it keeps going and they feed all the 5000 people and they even collect 12 baskets of leftovers after everyone is satisfied.
This miracle is said to have taken place on the other side of the lake near Bethsaida. But it seems that it was a bit more convenient for pilgrims in the Byzantine time to choose a place a bit closer to the other holy sites, so that they would not have to make the whole trip, on foot, to the other side of the lake, across the river Jordan. So this location, in Tabgha, is where the story has been commemorated since Byzantine times.
In the present church you can see the remains of a beautiful Byzantine church floor that they found and incorporated in the new church. The mosaics in this church are really pretty, there are many different types of animals, especially birds and different plants depicted and many of those are not from the region but are more common in the Nile delta in Egypt. There is even a very well preserved mosaic of the Nilometer that was an instrument used for measuring the waters of the Nile. It seems that the mosaic artists may have come from Egypt and they were inspired by what they were used to see.
The most known mosaic in this church is right in front of the current altar. It depicts a basked in which you can see two fish and four loaves of bread. This image is very often used in brochures and on postcards in the souvenir stores all around the country. I had seen it many times and I had never noticed that there were four loaves of bread, not five. So when I learned about this in the tour guide program, I was surprised to realize this was not by mistake. It is very symbolic. Because Christians believe that Jesus himself is the fifth loaf of bread, that his body is the living bread, that is consumed during the Eucharist in the church, when Christians eat a piece of bread and drink a sip of wine, that symbolizes or for some Christians it truly BECOMES the body and blood of Christ, who died to redeem the sins of the people. So the fifth loaf of bread is Jesus on the altar.
Now before we continue, it is also interesting to mention that the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish to 5000 people was mentioned in all the four gospels. But Matthew and Mark mention ANOTHER miracle of multiplication when Jesus was preaching on the south east side of the lake of Galilee in an area that was known as the Decapolis. This area had ten Greco Roman cities that were not inhabited by Jewish people but by gentiles, of Greek, Roman and other descent, who were sent there by the Greek and later the Roman empire, to form a kind of city state of Greek and Roman culture and architecture and trade relations on the border of the empire. So the inhabitants were not Jewish. And in this area he also had 4000 people coming out to listen to him preaching on the mountains on the other side of the lake of Galilee. And these people also became hungry and there were only 7 loaves of bread. And then Jesus blessed the food and shared it and they had enough and they had 7 baskets of leftovers.
Now this miracle is often explained by theologians as a sign that the message that Jesus brought was not only for the Jews but also for the gentiles. And because in ancient literature numbers usually are symbolic, they say that the number seven in this story is important because according to the Bible God created the world and he created it in 6 days and then had a rest day. So that's why a week has 7 days. And 7 is the number that represents completeness. So this emphasizes again the inclusiveness of Jesus' message for everyone.
For our final stop we will now go up to the top of the hill that gives a great view over the lake and from where we can look down on the sites that we have visited. Pilgrims refer to this hill as the Mount of the Beatitudes. This is where they remember the sermon on the mount. A speech that Jesus gave that can be found in the book of Matthew and that can be summarized as an important lesson about worldly power and possessions, that those are not important, that God takes care of people and especially of those who are struggling in this life. I want to quote from the Bible the eight beatitudes as they are called and you can also see these written down on big blocks of stones around the church of the beatitudes that is built on top of the mount. And you will find these eight beatitudes again in Latin script inside the church that is also build in an octagon shape, representing these eight beatitudes. And the church was built by the famous Franciscan architect Antonio Barluzzi that I have mentioned in previous episodes, who built nine churches in the holy land in the first half of the 19th century.
From the Book of Matthew chapter five:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
So it is not with any kind of certainty that Jesus spoke those words here on this mountain. The mountain by the way also is known as mount Eremos, a Greek word that means solitary or uninhabited. It is often said that this hill has so many rocks and stones that it was not suitable to be used for farming which is then used as an argument why Jesus would have chosen this uncultivated mountain for gathering large groups of people.
They also found 4th and a 7th century church remains down the slope of the hill that could attest to an early veneration of the mountain as the mount of beatitudes.
I don't think it really matters to most people whether it was here or on another mountain, pilgrims come here to enjoy the serenity of the location and the beautiful views over the valley.
We ended our pilgrimage day trip here just as the sun was setting which gave the Lake of Galilee that beautiful golden shine that Palestine is so famous for in the last hour of a sunny day, what we call the golden hour.