It’s Easter week in the Holy Land, and the birds start singing well before dawn at the Sea of Galilee. After 6 a.m. there’s no need to try and sleep, because day has begun on the waterfront.
No matter, though because the Israeli-style breakfast buffet served at 7 a.m. at the Radisson Moriah in Tiberias is well worth getting up for, and the ‘Jesus Boats” start shoving off about an hour later.
The wooden boats managed by Yehuda Smadar of Holyland Sailing and motorized and equipped with cellular telephones. But Smadar works hard to provide an authentic experience for the Christian pilgrims who come from all over the world to float upon the waters where Jesus walked.
Travelling north, it takes an hour and five minutes to cruise along the western shore of the sea from Tiberias to Ginosar, the biblical Genezareth. On the day before Good Friday, German schoolteachers on a tour sponsored by the Theological Institute in Bonn listened as their tour guide, an Austrian immigrant to Israel, lectured in their native tongue about the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth on and around the 132-square-mile freshwater lake.
Verena Flocke, who teaches English and religious education, said she knows Germans who are apprehensive about visiting Israel. Because of the Holocaust, she said, “some German Christians are afraid to come, because they’re afraid of how of how the Jews will react to them.”
But Bygones are bygones on the wooden ship christened “Matthew,” and the German flag is hoisted in honor of the 30-member study group. The sea is calm, and the scenery is stunning.
For those who brought their Bibles, the tour guides offer the pertinent scripture references. John 6:15-21 describes Jesus walking on the water; in Matthew 8:23-27 is the account of Jesus calming the sea.
“This is a highlight of the Christian pilgrimage,” one of the tour guides said. “This is a big experience.”
No one disagrees.
An amazing discovery in 1986 prompted Smadar and his business partner to build the wooden boats.
There was a drought that year, and the sea known locally as the Kinneret was at a record low. Yuval and Moshe Lufan, brothers who lived at the nearby Kibbutz Ginosar, a communal agricultural settlement, found buried in the newly exposed lake bed a wooden boat that archaeologists soon dated to between the first century B.C. and the second century A.D. The boat measured 26.1/2 feet long, 7.1/2 feet wide and 4.1/2 feet deep.
Israel’s Department of Antiquities and Museums officials called it the “ancient boat” and never suggested that Jesus himself likely traveled in it. But it was the only boat from that time period ever to be hauled intact out of the Sea of Galilee, and the nickname “Jesus Boat” soon emerged and stuck. It’s a small world in the specialized field of nautical archaeology, and a Texas A&M University professor played a role in the recovery and restoration of the boat. J. Richard Steffy, now professor emeritus of nautical archaeology at A&M University at College Station, was well known to officials at the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums,. With help from the U.S. government, Steffy was in Israel within days of the discovery.
“Nobody in Israel did hull reconstruction,” explained Shelley Wachsmann, who was then inspector of underwater antiquities for the antiquities department. “Dick Steffy was the preeminent scholar on ancient hull reconstruction.”
Wachsmann, who was studying at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University when the boat was found, was eventually reunited with Steffy. Wachsmann joined the A&M faculty in 1990 and is now Meadows assistant professor of Biblical Archaeology. One of his current graduate students, Bill Charlton, built a scale model of the boat. The model is now exhibited at the Yigal Allon Centre, the museum where the boat is being restored.
“To be, the boat was an indicator of the state of things in Israel as a Roman outpost,” Steffy said. “It shows how poor the Israelites must have been. Whoever built this boat was certainly far more limited in tools and wood than the Roman craftsmen. The workmanship was good, but the workmen had to use a poor selection of materials.”
Steffy stayed about a week and, among other things, helped the Israelis to date the boat.
Wachsmann, who was responsible for retrieving the treasure from the mud, remembers it as an exciting time. “We were over-awed,” he said.
“There are a lot of things in Israel that Christian pilgrims go to see, but very few date to the time of Jesus. This boat dates to 100 years either way. When you think of the Gospels, so much of the story of Jesus’ ministry is interwoven with boats and fishing and seafaring on the Sea of Galilee. This boat really deserves someplace it can be exhibited.”
The painstaking conservation process is nearly complete, and Wachsmann is helping to drum up support for a new wing at the museum in Ginosar, which would like to keep the boat. The wing would cost about $4.5 million, but a room sufficient to move the boat to can be built for about $400,000, Wachsmann said.
Wachsmann tells the entire story of the boat, along with a lively history of the waters where it was found, in his book “Sea of Galilee Boat: An Extraordinary2,000-Year-Old Discovery,” published by Plenum Press. He is also available for lectures can be contacted in care of the Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843-4352.
Among the local fishermen excited by the discovery was Mendel Nun, who founded the Sea of Galilee Fishing Museum at Kibbutz Ein-Gev, where he lives. Nun had spent a lifetime foraging for ancient stone anchors and fishing net sinkers, which he exhibits in his museum, but had only dreamed of finding a boat.
“It is the first actual and detailed message from the maritime and fishing history of the Kinneret which we have received from the past,” Nun writes in his book, “The Sea of Galilee and Its Fishermen.”
Orna Cohen, an archaeologist who worked with Wachsmann when he lived in Israel, has the choice job of directing the restoration of the boat. The 40 tons of synthetic wax needed to conserve the waterlogged craft were donated by Jacobson Agencies of Israel, an agent of Dow Chemicals, USA, she said.
“The project is really exciting because if the feedback we get from the tourists,” Cohen said. The boat is kept in a locked tank, but it can be viewed from behind a glass wall during guided tours.
The discovery of the boat and the two pieces of ancient pottery found beside it are fulfillment of prophecy, Cohen believes. Deuteronomy 33:19 reads in part, “for they shall suck of the abundance of the seas, and the treasures hid in the sand.”