Our tours today are all focussed around the Sea of Galilee, and the places where Jesus had the main part of his public ministry. Our first stop is at Capernaum, which we learn from Sayeed our guide, is pronounced with three syllables, not four. This is the place where Jesus lived after he left Nazareth, the place that was home to him. On our way we pass a sign pointing to a place called Migdal, which seems unremarkable until we are told that it is the hometown of Mary Magdalene, otherwise Mary of Magdala. There is visible from the road bypassing the village evidence of a major archaeological excavation in progress.
It started out in 2009 as a dig prior to the construction of a new hotel, but the exploratory dig uncovered the remains of an ancient synogogue, <http://tinyurl.com/oxxopfo> in the middle of which was a curious stone engraved with a menorah, and dated from the early Roman period, and thus the oldest find of its kind.
Our first visit today was to the Church of the Beatitudes which, apart from a stunning church and a spectacular view across the lake, has some beautifully kept gardens. Although we arrived there shortly before nine o’clock there were several coaches there before us, and yet unlike many of the sites we had visited it did not seem too crowded, and we were able to wander around quietly for a short time.
Then it was on to the lakeside Chapel of Mensa Christi, the place where, traditionally, after his resurrection Christ prepared breakfast for Peter and the others. It was the place of Peter’s rehabilitation after his denial of Christ. The chapel is Franciscan, and it seemed fitting somehow that swifts were busily flying around inside the chapel and feeding young in their nests in the roof. I did get a picture of the birds flying around but, sadly, it only makes sense in a large size, and would not reproduce well in this blog. There should be a large beach here, but the waters in the lake were so high that about thirty feet of the beach was under water, and we saw trees covered almost halfway.
Arriving in Capernaum we had a short, dusty walk from the coach
park to the synagogue in the centre of the village. This building is of the fifth (or, some say, fourth) century as it appears to have been built on the foundations of an older synagogue. It is this older synagogue which, it is thought, was the one built by the God-fearing centurion whose servant Jesus healed (Luke 7, 1-5). All the Synoptic Gospels record Jesus healing and preaching in and around Capernaum, and one story in particular, that of Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath and healing a man with an unclean spirit, (Luke 4, 31-36, Mark 1, 21-27) is unusual in that it is the only story recorded by both Mark and Luke which is not in Matthew.
It was in Capernaum that, for me at least, there was a new insight into many of the Bible stories. The large village is built on an axis of a broad(ish) north-south aligned road, with side streets, some connecting, some blind. In these streets were houses built so that extended families could live together, gathered round a central courtyard where the cooking etc was done. The group of dwellings was called an insula, and looking at the floorplan it was quite obvious why the householder in Jesus’ story was reluctant to get up and get some bread for his friend who had an unexpected visitor, (Luke 11, 5-9). To do so would mean disturbing the whole household, humans and animals, and yet Jesus told this story as an example of persistence in prayer!
From the materials used and method of construction, it is clear that these insulae were single story buildings, and archaeology has confirmed that their roofs were made of light timber beams and mud reinforced thatch. It was, therefore, relatively easy for the four friends of the paralysed man to get him on the roof, make a hole in it and lower him down to Jesus to be healed (Mark 2, 1-9). (As a youngster I was horrified by this act of vandalism, so I was greatly reassured to see that the householder would be easily able to repair his roof!).
The householder might, in fact, have been Peter himself, since we know that he offered hospitality to Jesus at least once, after Jesus had healed his mother-in-law, and in the 1968 excavations of the western part of Capernaum an exciting disovery was made. It was of a house which had been richly embellished in the fourth century CE, but was based on a first century BCE insula. From the archaeological evidence, and contemporary and near contemporary documentary evidence the archaeologists concluded that this was indeed St Peter’s house which had later been converted into a house church. Fuller details are at http://tinyurl.com/krvzvf2.
I could easily have spent more time at Capernaum, where some new archaeological excavation is underway, as well as some restoration of ancient walls, but it was time to move on to our next destination, the Church of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha.
It was here that we gathered together to celebrate the Eucharist at a lakeside chapel which, I have to say, was a very moving occasion as our ‘chapel’ had no walls and the sound of the lake, the call of the birds and the scent of the flowers all combined to make it special. One of our number, who sat at the front, actually saw a kingfisher come and perch on a branch in front of her!
We discovered, incidentally, that the other name for the Sea of Galilee, Lake Gennesaret (or on modern maps Kinneseret) comes from the Hebrew for harp or lyre, because it is that shape.
Lunch today was, unsurprisingly, fish at St Peter’s Restaurant near Capernaum. It was, in fact, St Peter’s fish (talapia) and we had the option of having it served whole or, for the nervous, boned. The restaurant is huge, has long tables, is very popular and crowded and is very noisy!
After lunch we travelled to Nof Ginnosar, where we embarked on one of the wooden boats to sail across the lake back to our hotel. Some of our number were quite hoping for a storm on the way, but although the water was a little choppy all was well. The boat hove-to in the lake and we had a short period of devotions before one of the crew demonstrated how the ancient fishermen used to cast their nets. After this we had a demonstration of Jewish dancing in which
most of us were inveigled into participating. Then, finally back to the hotel where the rest of the afternoon was free. I had a swim in the Sea of Galilee and then the hotel pool, followed by a spot of sunbathing, but it was too hot to stay out too long, even in the shade of the awnings.