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Ancient Seafaring on the Sea of Galilee

Courtesy of The Original Jesus Boat Store, 25-year supplier of Holy Land gifts, inspriational jewelry, anointing oils and products from the Dead Sea, located in the Jesus Boat Museum.

Ancient Seafaring on the Sea of Galilee

By Shelley Wachsmann

Shelly Wachsmann, head archeologist of the Kinneret Boat aka Jesus Boat, excavation, places the Jesus Boat in historical context by discussing who the people of the Galilee were in the 1st century. He explains how the Ancient Galilee Boat fits into what archeologists know about the First Century and new information the boat has provided about this era.


The Sea of Galilee, or Kinneret as it is called in Hebrew, is not a sea, but a relatively small (12 by 21 km), freshwater, inland lake shaped like a lyre. During the first century A.D., it formed the backdrop for some of the most profound events in both Jewish and early Christian history. In that period, the lake was surrounded on all sides, but on the southeast were Jewish fishing villages with names like Kfar Nahum (Capernaum), Gennesar, and Migdal (Magdala). Jesus began his ministry among these villages, and the Jews fought a devastating war there a scant four decades later.

The physical remains of these sites still stand along the shores; remnants of their harbors are revealed at times when the lake’s water retreat. In 1986, especially low waters gave up a relatively well-preserved boat dating to the turn of the millennium, prompting nautical archaeologists to begin unraveling some of the lake’s mysteries.

Historical Background

Jesus’ first followers were the am ha’aretz, the rural folk of the Galilee, many of whom were fishermen and sailors dependent on the lake for their livelihood. The gospel stories largely revolve around the Kinneret and the lives of Jesus’ fishermen followers. Boats figure prominently in those passages: Jesus gave sermons from boats brought up to the shore (Mark 3:9; Luke 5:1-3); he met and called the first disciples as they fished with nets from the shore or as they prepared their boats for fishing (Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:4-11); and he sailed the length and the breadth of the Kinneret in the boats of his disciples (Matt. 8:23-28; 9:1; 14:32;, 34). A direct knowledge of these boats could only enhance our understanding of the gospel stories. The significance of the Kinneret seafaring vis-à-vis the inception of Christianity is obvious. Less well known, yet no less compelling, are the reasons that make first-century A.D. seafaring on the Kinneret of particular interest to Jewish history. In A.D. 66, the Jews revolted against their Roman overlords in what is termed the Jewish War. This revolt, following years of religious and economic oppression culminated four years later in the devastation of Israel and the destruction of the holy Temple in Jerusalem. The last remnants of Jewish resistance were extinguished with the fall of Masada in A.D. 73.

Josephus Flavius, one of the war’s major actors and its chief chronicler, was appointed magistrate over Galilee by the council of Jerusalem prior to the Roman advance. He was subsequently captured by the Romans and became an eyewitness to much of the fighting that followed.

The Roman legions, led by the general and soon-to-be-emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, began their conquest by first retaking the Galilee. Reaching the Kinneret from the south, they advanced along the lake’s western side. After some skirmishing the city of Tiberias capitulated. The Romans then advanced to a spot between Tiberias and migdal and began construction of a fortified encampment with more than the usual care, as Vespasian had considerable reason to expect prolonged fighting at his next objective – Migdal.

Migdal Nunya (Migdal of the fishes) had been the home of Mary Magdalene. Josephus refers to Migdal by its Greek name, Tarichaeae, which means “salted fish.” As both of its names imply, Migdal was a center for the fishing industry.

With the Loss of Tiberias, rebel forces had flocked to Migdal reinforcing its standing as the heart of the revolt in the region and, consequently, a primary objective for the Romans. At Migdal the Jews had prepared a fleet of boats “to evacuate them if they were defeated on land, and equipped for naval combat if necessary” (Josephus Flavius The Jewish War III:466). Confrontation was not long in arriving. The first naval encounter was an audacious “commando” raid led by Jesus ben Shafat, a former chief magistrate of Tiberias, who had already skirmished with the Romans before their entrance to the city. The Jews attacked on land, but were driven to the lake and forced to engage the Romans from their vessels, lined up a bow-shot’s length from the shore.

Meanwhile, back on the plain of Gennesareth, Titus fought an open battle with the Jewish fighters who had left the safety of Migdal and arrayed themselves for war. A pitched battle ensued. The Jews, facing a more organized force, were easily routed; the survivors fled to the city. Since Migdal was unfortified on its lake front, Titus was able to gain access by swimming his cavalry around the city’s walls. As the Romans massacred the city’s inhabitants, some of the Jews reached the boats in the city’s habor and rowed out to the safety of the lake. This safe haven was short-lived, for the Romans could not permit the existence of a floatilla that could attack their flank at will.

The following morning Vespasian ordered vessels to be built to engage the Jews on the lake (Josephus War III:522-531).

When the rafts were ready, Vespasian put on board as many troops as he thought adequate to cope with the fugitives on the lake, and launched his flotilla. Thus pursued, the Jews could neither escape to land where all were in arms against them, nor sustain a naval battle on equal terms. For their skiffs were small and built for privacy, and were no match for the rafts, and the men on board each were so few that they dared not come to grips with the dense ranks of the Roman enemy. However, they hovered around the rafts and sometimes even approached, pelting the Romans with stones at long range, then scraping alongside and attacking them at close quarters. But, in both these maneuvers, they got the worst of it; their shower of stones merely rattled on the armor which protected the Romans, while they themselves were exposed to the latter’s arrows; on the other hand, when they ventured to approach, they had no time to do anything before disaster overtook them and they were sent to the bottom, boats and all. Some tried to break though, but the Romans could reach them with their lances, killing others by leaping upon the barks and passing their swords through their bodies; sometimes as the rafts closed in, the Jews were caught in the middle and captured along with their vessels. If any of those who had been plunged into the water came to the surface, they were quickly dispatched with an arrow of a raft overtook them; if, in their extremity, they attempted to climb on board the enemy’s rafts, the Romans cut off their heads or their hands. So these wretched died on every side in countless numbers and in every possible way, until the survivors were routed and driven onto the shore, their vessels surrounded by the enemy. As they threw themselves on them, many were speared while still in the water; many jumped ashore, where they were killed by the Romans. One could see the whole lake stained with blood and crammed with corpses, for not a man escaped. During the days that followed a horrible stench hung over the region, and it presented an equally horrifying spectacle. The shores were strewn with wrecks and swollen bodies, which, hot and clammy with decay, made the air do foul that the catastrophe that plunged the Jews in mourning revolted even those who had brought it about. Such was the outcome of this naval engagement. The Dead, including those who earlier fell in the defense of the town, numbered six thousand seven hundred.

The Galilee Boat

In 1986, I directed an excavation for the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, of a 2,000-year-old boat that had been buried in the Sea of Galilee’s clay bottom. The boat had been found by Moshe and Yuval Lufan, members of nearby Kibbutz Ginosar, at a time of drought when the lake had retreated.

Upon the discovery, the vessel was in immediate danger of destruction by treasure-hunters and the curious. The boat was excavated in eleven days (and nights). During the excavation, the hull was studied in situ by J. Richard Steffy, ship reconstructor and Yamini Professor Emeritus of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. At the conclusion of the excavation it was decided to move the boat in one piece, rather than take it apart. The vessel was packed in in a fiberglass and polyurethane cocoon devised by Orna Cohen, the excavation’s conservator. It was then sailed up the coast to its conservation site at the Igal Alon Museum, near Kibbutz Ginosar, where a conservation pool was built for it. Since that time, the boat has become a popular tourist attraction as it undergoes conservation treatment.

The Galilee Boat has given us our first intimate view of seafaring on the Kinneret in the first century A.D. In her present state, the boat is 27’ long, 7.5’ at the beam, with a depth of 3.9’ (8.2 x 2.3 x 1.2 m). Based on considerations of its construction, a battery of radiocarbon dates, and pottery found in and around it, the boat is dated to between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D.

It was built in the usual Mediterranean fashion of the time; shell first, the frames being added only after the hull had been completed. The planks were held to each other with mortise-and-tenon joints, again typical of the period’s Mediterranean ships. Clearly its builder had either learned his craft on the Mediterranean or been apprenticed to someone trained there.

The boat had seen a long life of toil on the Kinneret and bore signs of many repairs; it was old even when it was pushed into the lake by some unknown hand 20 centuries ago. From the very beginning of the excavation, we noticed that the boat had been cannibalized in antiquity. Timbers missing included the stem construction, the sternpost, some frames, and all the upper structure of the boat. These timbers presumably were removed for use in other boats.

Even more curious was the fact that timbers of our boat had been reused from earlier craft. The starboard side of the forward part of the keel exhibited a row of mortise scars beneath the garboard strake. These had no functional purpose for the craft and may indicate that the timber had once been part of a seagoing ship’s wale that had been brought overland from the Mediterranean.

The planking pattern was also strange, with many exceptionally narrow pieces. Professor Steffy hypothesized that these strakes may have been taken from an older boat, their mortise scars removed along upper and lower edges before the planks could be reused.

Many of the frames were branches poorly fitted to the shape of the hull. Obviously, the Boatwright had made do with timbers that normally would have been discarded in a Mediterranean boatyard. This indicates an extreme wood shortage in which every possible scrap of wood was used in the boat-building process. Such a conclusion is supported by the consideration that although most of the strakes were made of Lebanese cedar and most frames of oak, five other types of wood (jujube, Aleppo pine, hawthorn, willow, and redbud), some rarely used for these purposes, were found in parts of the boat.

During the excavation, portions of two additional vessels were found, along with numerous fragments of strakes bearing the mortise-and-tenon scars. These discoveries strongly suggest the excavation area had been a site of ancient-boat-building. Old boats (trade-ins?) were brought to shore and stripped of all usable timber and then discarded in the lake. This makes the site of particular interest for further excavation.

Identifying the Kinneret Boat

Was the Galilee boat of the type used by the Apostles? or for that matter, by the Jews in the battle of Migdal? The answer to both these questions is affirmative. The manner in which this was revealed, however, is a story worth telling….

The fondest memory I retain of the entire excavation is from the first day that Dick Steffy arrived on the site. He walked around the boat, poking here and scraping mud there, following each observation with a meticulous entry in his spiral notebook. Presently he showed me a rough profile drawing of what he thought the boat had looked like. His sketch was similar to the sheer plan in his later lines drawing. Steffy explained that the boat probably had exhibited a fine, pointed cutwater bow and a full stern with a recurving sternpost. How many rowers would have manned a boat this size? Steffy felt that, considering the size of the boat, it probably would have required a complement of four rowers, two on either side. Did it have a sail? Steffy assumed that it had been driven by one, but initially was puzzled when he could not find a maststep. (He laterfound four nail holes and a discoloration on the central surface of the keel, indicating where the masterstep had been. It, too, had been removed in antiquity.)

Shortly after, two Franciscan fathers, Virgilio Corbo and Stanislau Loffreda, who had excavated at a nearby Capernaum and Migdal, visited the site. As I showed them around the boat, they mentioned a first-century A.D. mosaic depicting a boat which they had uncovered at Migdal, only a mile up the beach. I asked them to draw the boat in my notebook. Their sketch looked just like Steffy’s, with a pointed cutwater bow and a high recurving stern. It also had a mast, and a furled, square sail. After the Franciscan archaeologists left, I showed their drawing to Dick Steffy; he was certain that I was pulling his leg. It was identical to this preliminary reconstruction of the boat.

But the boat depicted in the mosaic had three oars on its portside. Because of this, I was initially disappointed, assuming that the boat depicted on the mosaic represented a larger type than the one rapidly being revealed in the mud.

Much later, while working on contemporaneous depictions of the boats, I studied the Migdal boat mosaic in greater detail. I noticed then that the first two oars were represented as narrow lines while the sternmost “oar” widened at the bottom, indicating that it was not an oar but a quarter rudder. Thus, the mosaic represented a boat with five-man crew, four oarsmen, and a helmsman, just as Dick Steffy had predicted for our boat.

The literary sources now came into focus. Josephus, in describing the manning of a “sham fleet” with skeleton crews against the city of Tiberias, notes that he placed only four sailors in each boat (Josephus War II:632-645); elsewhere he mentions the “captains” of these boats. Therefore, these vessels, which were no doubt the same ones used later in the battle of Migdal, also contained five-man crews.

During its excavation, the Galilee boat was termed “the Jesus boat” by the press. This is a journalistic canard, as to the best of our knowledge, Jesus never owned a boat, nor used the one found. However, the gospels do mention some specific boats. One of these belonged to te Zebedee family:

As he [Jesus] went a little farther, he saw James son of Zeb’edee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending their nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zeb’edee in the boat, with the hired men, and followed him. (Mark 1:19-20)

This boat also had a crew of at least five men: Zebedee, James, John, and two or more “hired men”. Yet another vessel described in the Bible, belonging to Simon Peter, carried a crew of seven fishermen (Luke 5:3).

We may conclude, therefore, that the Galilee boat is indeed a specimen of the boat-type described by Josephus and the Gospel writers and depicted by the artist who created the Migdal mosaic.

One question that we were asked repeatedly by visitors during the course of the excavation was whether or not the Galilee boat could have carried thirteen men. Could it have held Jesus and the twelve Apostles? I was surprised to find that nowhere do the Gospels state that Jesus actually sailed with all the Apostles (Acts 1:21-22), it is not possible to determine how many persons took part in the voyages recorded in the Gospels.

Josephus, however, comes once again to our aid in determining the maximum load capacity of this type of vessel. In describing his sham fleet, he notes that along with him in his own boat were seven soldiers and an undefined number of friends. Thus, together with the crew, there were at least 15 men in his boat. This number is repeated when later Josephus informs us that he took ten leaders of Tiberias on board one boat and sent it to Migdal. Here again, with a crew of five this makes a total capacity of 15 men.

This raises an interesting question. How much would 15 Galilean men of the first century A.D. weigh? Could our boat have supported their weight?

I put this question to Joe Zias, a physical anthropologist who works for the Israel Antiquities Authority. He explained that it is possible to calculate weight based on the average height of skeletons. The average height of Galilean males in the first century A.D., based on skeletal remains was 5’ 4 ½” (1.66 m). Current medical data for adult males of this height suggests a weight range of 137 to 145 pounds (62 to 67 kg). As an eastern Mediterranean population would have been of somewhat slighter build than of a modern North American one, the lower range of the scale, around 137 to 139 pounds (62 to 63 kg), probably would be more accurate. Thus, 15 males would have weighed about a ton (140 pounds x 15 [men] = 2,100 pounds). This is a weight that the Galilee boat easily could have carried.

Future Avenues for Research in the Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee carries enourmous potential for future archaeological research. The discovery of the Galilee boat indicates that more vessels may be preserved intact in its sediments. There is, for instance, every reason to believe that the remains of the hulls that took part in the battle of Migdal are still buried in the lake’s bottom; that fleet amounts to a nautical Masada.

But the value of such research does not stop there. We know virtually nothing about the development of water craft on any inland lake adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. Stone, anchorlike objects, known in Hebrew as shfifonim, are unique to the shores of the Kinneret. These date to the Early Bronze II Age and indicate that the Sea of Galilee’s seafaring history extends back at least 5,000 years. Now, as George Bass has often said of other areas, if during all that time, each year, only one boat sank….

Shelley Wachsmann
Institute of Nautical Archaeology
PO Drawer HG
College Station, TX 77841-5137


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