Standing by the boat, although it is carefully encased in a museum, takes the mind back to biblical times when our Savior stood in a boat to address the multitudes on the shore, when the disciples fished on the sea of Galilee, when Jesus slept in a boat as a storm raged about him.
Could Jesus have traveled in the recently excavated vessel, now dubbed the “Jesus boat?”
Although the Bible makes no mention of Jesus owning a boat, there are numerous references of boats used to transport Jesus and his followers around the lake.
The “Jesus boat,” was discovered in 1986 by two brothers, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, during a drought which lowered the water level in the Sea of Galilee below what they had ever seen before. First finding ancient coins, the brothers searched the area, where they discovered three large iron nails. It was then they noticed a faint line of wood in the mud.
The brothers notified the person in charge of the museum in their home town of Kibbutz Ginosar, and an expert on the lake and its history and an archaeologist were called to inspect the site. They declared the boat to be modern.
However, Yossi Stepanski of Israel’s Department of Antiquities was called in, and he contacted Shelly Wachsmann, one of the world’s foremost nautical archaeologists, and an expert on seacraft of the Ancient Near East.
When Wachsmann, the Meadows Assistant Professor of Biblical Archaeology in the Nautical Archaeology Program of Texas A&M University, got to the site, he said he saw nothing but a stretch of muddy land. “Where is the boat,” he asked. “You’re standing on it,” replied Yuval.
As Wachsmann cautiously scraped mud from the foot-long length of timber, the rectangular shapes of mortise scars appeared, and beneath each of the evenly spaced scars was the dark, round head of a locking peg.
Wachsmann had uncovered a part of the first ancient boat ever to be discovered in the Sea of Galilee. He now needed to determine the vessel’s approximate age, its state of preservation and its archaeological significance.
Close by, the diggers found a ceramic cooking pot, and on the port side of the boat, an oil lamp lying within the outline of the hull. But since the boat appeared to lack a cargo, and the pot and lamp could have been washed in by the sea, additional evidence was needed to date the boat more accurately.
Since the entire boat was made of wood, carbon-14 dating was utilized for determining when it was used. Yisrael Carmi of the Department of Isotope Research at Israel’s Weitzmann Institute of Science did 10 C-datings on timbers from the boat. The results varied from 130 B.C. to A.D. 80.
“The average date ,” Yisrael told Wachsmann after all the tests were completed, “is 40 B.C., plus or minus 80.”
The lamp and the cooking pot were given to two pottery experts, Varda Sussman and David Adan-Bayewitz. Sussman dated the lamp anywhere from about 50 B.C. to A.D. 50, and Adan-Bayewitz said the identifiable pieces of the cooking pot are typical of the period from about 50 B.C. to A.D. 70.
The excavation of the boat proved to be a tedious task. As much mud as possible was removed from inside the hull, and ground water was used to carefully cleanse the wood. It was determined the boat had to be moved as a coherent hull, because the nails were deeply embedded in the wood and the little corrosion that had taken place had permeated the wood, bonding the nails to the surrounding timber.
The question became how to move a 27-foot-long boat built of timbers that were as weak as wet cardboard.
Wachsmann’s friend Orna Cohen suggested spraying the entire boat with polyurethane and girdling it with fiberglass to keep the hull immobilized.
With care, it was lifted from the muddy shores, underwent a painstaking 10-year preservation process with a special liquid wax and, just this year, was placed in the Yigal Alon Museum north of Tiberius.
“Although the boat cannot be linked scientifically to the Gospel stories,” noted Wachsmann, “she is, as far as we can ascertain, a generic Sea of Galilee fishing boat that lived her humble life on the lake during an era of great events.”
Because the ancient boat provides a glimpse into the life of Jesus around the Sea of Galilee, it is must-see for visitors to Israel.
Dana Williamson is associate editor of the Baptist Messenger.