Jesus spent most of his ministry around the shores of Israel’s largest freshwater lake, the Sea of Galilee, now peppered with ancient synagogues and Christian pilgrimage sites. Known as Kinneret in Hebrew (also called Lake Tiberias, and the Sea of Chinnereth or the Lake of Gennesaret in the Old Testament), it is 13 miles long, 8 miles wide, and about 720 feet below sea level. Today it reminds me of a beach destination, with families coming to swim or boat, with schools of young people learning how to wind surf.
But surrounding the Sea of Galilee are places where Jesus taught and healed. Jesus most likely came here after his time in the desert (following his baptism in the Jordan River). Galilee is a region of Israel/Palestine north of Judea, separated by Samaria and south of Lebanon. Herod Antipas, (21 BCE—39 CE), son of Herod I the Great (read about the Herodium) became tetrarch of Galilee and ruled throughout Jesus of Nazareth’s ministry. Jesus is reported as having referred to him with contempt as “that fox” (Luke 13:32).
The Jordan River is a 156 mile-long river that flows roughly north to south through the Sea of Galilee, continuing to the Dead Sea. Jordan and the Golan Heights border the river to the east, while the West Bank and Israel lie to its west. It is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, with the People of God crossing over it numerous times to reach “the promised land”: Joshua and the Israelites (Joshua 3:14-17); Elijah (2 Kings 2:8); Naaman’s leprosy is cured (2 Kings 5:1-14); John baptizes Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:29-34). Neither wide nor deep, today the river can be accessed off the beaten path where local fishermen continue to fish with rod and reel. It is marshy at its edges with muddy banks. The site where Jesus was baptized is most likely in Jordan at Al-Maghtas. Many pilgrims come to the Jordan River to renew their baptismal vows at a variety of locations.
Today Capernaum is an archeaological site of the 2nd century BCE to the 7th century CE along the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Most likely it had about 1,500 residents. This was one of the pilgrimage areas that made Jesus’ ministry come alive for me. If Jesus had a home anywhere during his ministry, it would have been in this area: “Leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum” (Matthew 4:13). Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen living in the village.
Excavations revealed one residence that stood out from the others. This house was the object of early Christian attention with 2nd century graffiti and a 4th century house church built above it. In the 5th century a large octagonal Byzantine church was erected above this, complete with a baptistery. Pilgrims referred to this as the house of the apostle Peter and a new church stands in its place today, with a clear floor to look down into the home.
The synagogue ruins nearby may not have been the actual building in Jesus’ time, but the ruins on the site are dated to the first century. Imagine Jesus being confronted by a demoniac while teaching here (Mark 1:21-27). In Capernaum we read that Jesus healed the servant of the centurion; this Roman official was credited with building the synagogue (Luke 7:1-4). Perhaps Jesus gave his sermon on the bread of life (John 6:35-59) in this synagogue.
Mount of Beatitudes: Matthew 5–7
Others who had previously visited the Mount of Beatitudes shared their disappointment in walking down the hillside that tradition says Jesus gave his sermon on the mount. Today it is a banana plantation, with a rocky and often muddy path to follow on our descent. However, when we reached the base (a main road) we turned around to see one of our fellow pilgrims (Bruce) still above, standing in a rocky grotto about 25 feet above us, 40 yards away. He began to read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” Despite motorcycles whizzing by we could hear him plain and clear as if he was standing right next to us. Could this have been how Jesus preached to the crowds over vast distances?
Two miles west of Capernaum is what Josephus referred to as the “well of Capernaum.” Springs of warmer water than the Sea of Galilee in this area produced algae, creating a great habitat for fish. This is the traditional location for the calling of the disciples; where Jesus walked along the shore and called out to Simon Peter and Andrew who were casting their nets into the lake. In John 21, Jesus met again with the disciples for the “last breakfast.” Here he restored Peter to himself after the disciple’s three denials by asking him three times if Peter loved Jesus. Catholic tradition associates this event with the naming of Peter as the singular leader of the church. At this site is a rock where tradition says Jesus stood and called out to the disciples.
The Church of the Multiplication of the Fishes is a modern church located here in Tabgha today, on top of what was once part of a church which commemorated Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. A Byzantine mosaic is preserved here showing the “loaves and fishes.” The Byzantine pilgrims were mistaken in locating this miracle here because scripture says that it took place in a remote place by Bethsaida. The artist was apparently unacquainted with the fish in the lake as none have two dorsal fins. Despite these inaccuracies, I loved seeing this mosaic as it has been a favorite of mine for years – never knowing that this is where it is located!