Our history begins at the end of the first century, when a fishermen or ferryman abandoned his boat after realizing that he could repair it no longer. Ultimately, it sank in the mud, whose oxygen-free environment prevented the proliferation of bacteria and kept the boat remarkably intact.
It might have remained in oblivion were it not for a drought that caused the Sea of Galilee to recede. One day in January 1986, two fishermen from the lakeside village of Migdal (Magdala in the days of Jesus) were walking along the newly exposed section of the shore when they saw something protruding from the dry mud: the boat.
According to archaeologists and boat conservator Orna Cohen, the boat, measuring only 24 feet x 7 feet, was commissioned by a man of modest means, as evidenced by the various species of inferior wood used in its construction. “On the other hand,” she notes, “the craftsman who built this boat was a master.” The ship’s deep, round stern and bow are of fine design, and the planks were affixed to the shell with mortise and tenon joints, locked into place with tapered hardwood pegs.
Because of its first-century origins, the boat is a find that is extremely significant to both Christians and Jews. As Christian pilgrims gaze upon it, they are likely to recall New Testament passages such as this one: “Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he sent the multitudes away. And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. Now the evening came, he was alone there. But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea” (Matt. 14:22-25)
Jewish visitors may think of the last voyage of the boats exactly like the Galilee Boat – in the naval battle of 66, during the Jews’ Great Revolt against the Romans. In the aftermath, says Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, “the beaches were thick with wrecks.”
The Galilee Boat was not only a unique find – it was also a singular preservation challenge. Since its thin wood was almost totally waterlogged, the boat was immediately extricated with the greatest of care and encased in polyurethane foam to make its first voyage in two millennia – from its place of discovery to its future home at kibbutz Ginosar.
The craft was then placed in a giant bathtub to keep it from drying out and crumbling away. Immersed in ordinary water, it awaited the arrival of synthetic wax-based substance necessary to bind its waterlogged fibers. Through the good offices of Samuel Pickering, US ambassador to Israel at the time, Dow Chemical donated 60 tons of the substance.
Not all solutions were high-tech, Cohen recalls with a laugh. At one point, her team discovered to their horror that mosquito larvae had bored into the fragile wood. “One of the guys went home and got his aquarium, which was full of goldfish. He dropped the fish into the tub, saying that mosquito larvae were their favorite food.” The homemade biological weapon worked, and disaster was averted. “Later, we replaced the goldfish with St. Peter’s fish, which were more authentic.”
In 1995, the now-dry Galilee Boat emerged from its retreat. This year, it moves to a fine new exhibition hall, a fitting home for the only authentic object from Jesus’ time on display in its natural setting.