The Galilean Boat​—A Treasure From Bible Times

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN ISRAEL

THE Sea of Galilee witnessed some of the most exciting episodes of Jesus’ ministry. It was on this lake or by its shores that God’s own Son walked on water, calmed tempestuous waves, miraculously fed thousands, and healed the sick.

In 1986 a surprising discovery was made on the seabed near ancient Capernaum. It was a boat that had sailed this sea back in the time of Jesus’ ministry. How was it found? And what can we learn from it?

Revealed by a Drought

Years of below-average rainfall, followed by the harsh summer of 1985, had taken a severe toll on the Sea of Galilee, and this freshwater lake was also being tapped for crop irrigation. The water level had dropped dramatically, exposing extensive mudflats. Two men, fleshly brothers from a nearby kibbutz, saw a golden opportunity to look for hidden treasures. As they made their way across the mudflats, they spotted some bronze coins and a few old nails. Then they saw it​—an oval outline in the mud, marking the spot where an ancient boat lay buried. They had indeed found a treasure!

Archaeologists never expected to find a 2,000-year-old boat in the Sea of Galilee. They assumed that microorganisms would have long since destroyed any wood. Yet, both carbon dating and the coins recovered at the site led experts to date the find to the first century B.C.E. or the first century C.E. Incredibly, the hull was quite well preserved. How was that possible?

It appears that the boat was left in an undisturbed area, which allowed the entire lower section to be encased in fine silt. In time, the silt hardened. A piece of history was thus kept safe for some 20 centuries!

As news of the craft’s discovery spread, it was nicknamed the Jesus Boat. Of course, no one seriously suggested that this very boat was used by Jesus or his disciples. Still, its age and similarities to the boats described in the Gospel accounts make it of interest to historians and Bible scholars alike.

The boat is 26 feet [8.2 m] long and 7.5 feet [2.3 m] wide. Its builder used the shell-first method of construction. That is, instead of fixing planks onto a frame, he attached them directly to the keel and built up the sides of the boat to form a shell. This method was common in building boats meant for sailing the Mediterranean Sea. However, the Galilean boat may have been adapted for sailing on a lake.

Evidently, the boat was originally fitted with a single square sail. Its four oars indicate that it required a minimum crew of five​—four rowers and a helmsman. However, the craft was capable of carrying more than double that number of people. It is easy to imagine a similar-size boat when reading of the seven disciples who were out fishing when they saw Jesus after his resurrection.​—John 21:2-8.

The Galilean boat would no doubt have had a stern deck for the storage of large fishing nets. Beneath its planks, such a deck provided a somewhat secluded area where tired fishermen could rest. Jesus may have taken  advantage of such a feature when during a windstorm “he was in the stern, sleeping upon a pillow.” (Mark 4:38) It has been suggested that the “pillow” could have been a sandbag kept on board as ballast. *

Fishermen Around the Sea of Galilee

Imagine yourself a passenger on a boat like this one back in the first century. As you sail on the Sea of Galilee, what might you observe? There are fishermen, some in small boats and others wading in shallow water, casting their nets. With an expert’s ease, they use one hand to hurl these weighted circular nets, which were between 20 and 25 feet [6 and 8 m] in diameter. Splashing evenly onto the water’s surface, the nets sink, trapping fish. A fisherman retrieves his catch by dragging the net ashore or perhaps by diving to scoop up the net and its contents. Simon and Andrew are described in the Bible as “casting” their nets, perhaps in a similar manner.​—Mark 1:16.

You might also notice a group of fishermen and their lively chatter as they prepare a seine net. This net may be 1,000 feet [300 m] long, hanging vertically up to 25 feet [8 m] deep in the center, with towing lines attached to each end. The fishermen select their location, then half go ashore with one of the towing lines. The boat sails straight out into the lake, unfurling the net to its full length; then the boat turns, gradually pulling the net to form a semicircle against the shore. After this the rest of the fishermen disembark with the second towing line. As the two groups of fishermen draw closer to each other, they haul in their catch.​—Matthew 13:47, 48.

In the distance you spot a lone fisherman using a hook and line. Jesus once told Peter to cast a fishhook into this very sea. You imagine Peter’s astonishment on catching a fish and finding a silver coin in its mouth​—exactly what was needed to pay the temple tax.​—Matthew 17:27.

At dusk all falls quiet on the lake. Suddenly, the peace is shattered by fishermen pounding their feet and splashing their oars to make as much noise as possible. Why? They have arranged trammel nets in the water in such a way that the fish, frightened by the noise, head straight into the trap. This vertical net, invisible in the darkness, is designed in such a way that fish easily get entangled in it. The nets are lowered repeatedly throughout the night. In the morning they are washed and hung up to dry. You wonder, ‘Did the miraculous catch described at Luke 5:1-7 involve the use of a trammel net?’

Restoration Work

Let us return to modern times. What happened to the excavated boat? Though intact, its structure was scarcely tougher than soggy cardboard. Simply digging it out of the mud was not an option. How tragic it would have been if after having survived for so long, the boat had disintegrated during the recovery process! With the threat of the lake’s water rising again, a dike was built around the excavation site. Tunnels were built underneath the hull in order to insert fiberglass supports. Then, as the mud was carefully cleared, the boat’s structure was sprayed inside and out with a cocoon of polyurethane foam.

The next challenge was to transport this delicate package to a site 1,000 feet [300 m] away in order to begin conservation work. The polyurethane casing was strong, yet a sudden jolt could crumble the delicate wood it cradled. The team opted for an inventive solution. They opened up the dike and let the water in. For the first time in many centuries, the boat, now encased in a modern cocoon, floated on the Sea of Galilee.

A concrete tank was built to house the boat during the conservation process, which lasted 14 years. A problem arose when mosquito larvas infested the tank, making life unpleasant  for those who had to enter its water to work on the boat. However, the conservation team found a solution that was both original and timeless. They enlisted the help of a number of St. Peter’s fish, which ate the larvas and cleaned the water.

Soon it was time to dry the boat out. It was still far too delicate to be left to dry naturally. The water that saturated the wood had to be replaced with something. The team used a technique that replaced the water with a synthetic water-soluble wax, which enabled the wood to dry without changing shape.

With the conservation work complete, a relatively humble vessel was revealed. It was made with 12 different types of wood. Why? One possibility is that wood was scarce at the time. A more likely possibility is that the owner was not a wealthy man. The boat was repaired many times before it was eventually abandoned to the lake.

The Galilean boat may not have had anything to do with Jesus himself. Yet, for many it is a treasure. It offers the opportunity to look back many centuries and to visualize what life was like on the Sea of Galilee in the momentous days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

[Footnote]

^ par. 12 See the article “On the Sea of Galilee,” in the August 15, 2005, issue of The Watchtower, page 8, also published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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Workers painstakingly removed the mud from inside the boat

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Cocooned in polyurethane foam

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After nearly 2,000 years, the boat floated again

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Model of the boat as it might have looked in the first century

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The Galilean boat on display​—conservation completed

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All photos except model and sea: Israel Antiquities Authority-The Yigal Allon Center, Ginosar