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Seeing Capernaum and the “Jesus Boat”: A Blast From the Past

I will be going to Israel with a tour group in October, and browsing through the blog I see that I made a number of posts from Israel last time I was there.  Here’s an interesting one from five years ago today about the town of Capernaum and an intriguing archaeological discovery made there in relatively recent times.

 

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I am typing just now on the third floor of the Scots Hotel in Tiberias, in a room with a glorious view of the Sea of Galilee. In the distance, across are the sea, are clearly visible the Golan Heights, where we spent a day or so, having lunch yesterday just 40 miles from Damascus. All may not be quiet on the Western Front (well, in this case, the Eastern Front) but we are safe and sound, and feel more secure than typically we do even in New York City (!).

Yesterday there were two highlights to our trip, for me. Capernaum has always been one of my favorite spots in Israel. It is one of those few places where the archaeological record is interesting and the literary texts are important at one and the same time. In terms of literary texts: according to the Gospels, this is the home town of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the first disciples of Jesus; and it is the place that Jesus used more or less as his base of operation for his public preaching ministry.

It was a fishing village right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Before going further with that, I should say, as many of you know, that the Sea is not really…

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Comments

  1. peterstone  May 6, 2018

    You don’t think the sermon on the mount happened? Is that a commonly-held position? And have you written about it before?




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      Yes, I talk about it in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.




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      • talmoore
        talmoore  May 8, 2018

        But you don’t mean to say, Dr. Ehrman, that Jesus never gave public addresses in which he discussed themes similar to the Sermon on the Mount. You simply mean that the event recounted in Matthew is unlikely to be historically accurate.




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        • Bart
          Bart  May 9, 2018

          I think a number of the saying in the Sermon on the Mount may well go back to Jesus (some of them are Q material).




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        • GregAnderson  May 27, 2018

          I personally think that one of the great weaknesses of Christianity, and one that puts the so-called sermon on the mount into stern question, is contained in Mark 6:30 through 6:44. Forget, for the moment, that you know anything about Christianity. I then assign you to read Mark 6:30 through 6:44, and I warn you, at the end, there will be a quiz!

          After you read, I ask you the single quiz question: What did Jesus preach?

          Bottom line: Reportedly, 5000 men heard a sermon, but not one of them recorded a single thought.




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  2. RonaldTaska  May 6, 2018

    Thanks for resharing this, especially about the boat. I agree that the Sermon on the Mount seems unlikely. How could an author accurately write down this sermon decades after it was given? How could an outdoor audience had even heard much of it? .




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    • llamensdor  May 18, 2018

      You don’t seem to be aware of people whose profession it was to recall spoken words with a high degree of accuracy. Bart doesn’t believe this and in fact has written a book debunking it. When I attended the Society of Bible Literature Boston convention last fall, I shared Bart’s thoughts with a number of clerics–Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. Every one of them not only disagreed, but was actually offended. My father, born in 1897, never matriculated beyond High School (which was a considerable achievement in his family), but on his deathbed, over 90 years later, he was able to recite whole sections of Caesar’s Gallic Wars from memory. I can personally attest to the existence of such abilities because I, myself, was able to recite virtually anything I had ever read (and wanted to memorize) many years later. In my first year of college, I was accused of cheating on a test because my answers were direct quotations (marked with quote marks by me) from the syllabus. I established my integrity by quoting from memory to the professor complete paragraphs succeeding the ones I quoted on the test. I retained this skill until I suffered a major illness at age 80, and found that my “photographic” memory was part of the casualty. I personally am confident that there were people with equivalent talents in all of history–recorded or otherwise. Thus, I must respectfully disagree with my teacher, Dr. Ehrman.




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      • Bart
        Bart  May 18, 2018

        Yes, that’s right. People who are able to read can memorize things verbatim much easier than people living in oral cultures. As to whether people in oral cultures do memorize, or even have any desire to do so, if you’re really interested I’d suggest you read the very interesting work of the experts who have devoted their lives to the question, starting with Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales and including the works of Jack Goody, Jan Vansina, and Walter Ong.




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  3. Judith  May 6, 2018

    What a treat this Sunday morning!




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  4. Judith  May 6, 2018

    Idea for Making More Money for the Blog:

    Double the membership fee for those of us who want the privilege of being able to forward certain posts to family and friends. (I understand this might be impossibly difficult for Steven but if not…)




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  5. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  May 6, 2018

    Good post! I have mentioned this here before but I have a Fundamentalist friend that is convinced that Jesus wasn’t a poor itinerant preacher but a wealthy itinerant preacher. He cites serveral examples from the gospels such as the gold given to him at birth and that the Roman soldiers played lots for his garments implying they must have been made of fine linens. My question is, do the events of being given gold at birth and his garments being gambled for, have any basis in the life of the historical Jesus?




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      No, htose acounts are almost certainly legendary.




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    • GregAnderson  May 27, 2018

      Well, there certainly is plenty of evidence that Jesus was a home owner: in Capernaum 😉




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  6. Tobit  May 6, 2018

    > one has the very real sense of being in touch with a historical moment by the grace of pure serendipity.

    It’s a miracle!




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  7. Stephen  May 6, 2018

    “…a monstrosity of a church…” That is certainly an apt description. The ambiance of the area would have definitely benefited from a bit of restraint. It was relatively new when I was there and they were very proud of it so I refrained from any editorializing. I did overhear one wit asking, “when was takeoff”? What are the logistics involved? Is there a governing body that grants permissions for this kind of thing? Who “owns” these sites?




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  8. ask21771  May 6, 2018

    how likely is it that pilate would have crucified jesus if he thought he was innocent but the crowd threatened to riot as depicted in the gospels




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      We don’t know. But I don’t think there was any threat of a riot over an unknown peasant from rural elsewhere.




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      • llamensdor  May 18, 2018

        I don’t think he was an “unknown peasant.” Bart is of the (very large) school who believe that Jesus was illiterate. I believe he was literate and that literacy was far more widespread among 1’st century Jews than Bart believes. Most scholars have agreed with Bart, but in recent years there has been a trend away from such thinking, and many more scholars believe the degree of literacy in ancient Israel was very substantial. Perhaps it is because I am Jewish that I believe Jesus was literate–there is a centuries old–even millennia old–belief of Jews in the importance of literacy. Further, although we have no written materials attributable to Jesus, there is no indication in any of the early Jesus literature that he was illiterate. In fact, you are required to disbelieve assertions in the gospels about Jesus reading from the bible in synagogues. In view of all of the recorded parables and other stories attributed to Jesus, many of which have a bible base, I consider the assertion that Jesus was illiterate to be utterly false. Further,as to being unknown, Jesus is supposed to have been teaching (preaching) in the Temple for days, and he can hardly have been unknown. He is also accused of creating a mimi-riot by overturning the carts of the money-changers. Jesus was certainly not an “unknown peasant.” By the way, if “peasant” is meant to imply Poor farmer, perhaps he wasn’t a peasant at all. But that’s another matter. Still, I don’t know why there has been so much effort, historically, to demean Jesus. Very peculiar.




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        • Bart
          Bart  May 18, 2018

          Yes, that is a centuries-old tradition. The problem is that it was a tradition that started centuries after Jesus himself. No reason to take my word for it! Just read the most authoritative account on the question, with full documentation, Catherine Hezser Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine.




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        • GregAnderson  May 27, 2018

          Correct me if I’m wrong but, is there any NT verse that claims “Jesus read …” anything?




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  9. Tempo1936  May 6, 2018

    I am listening to a series of lectures on the psychological significance of the Bible available on YouTube.
    the biblical stories are not literally or historical accurate but significant and truthful on a psychological level.
    For example the reoccurring theme of the Old Testament stories is that hell is associated with chaos ( lack of purpose )and that heaven (walking with God )associated with order.
    So many of the stories are eternally true As they reflect basic psychological truths that humans Will continue to study.




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  10. ardeare  May 6, 2018

    I did not know the Sea of Galilee was that small. Really cool and it makes so much sense.




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    • Hormiga  May 9, 2018

      > I did not know the Sea of Galilee was that small

      You can get a sense of the area from Google Earth and Google Maps. Google Street View (drag the little person in GE or GM to where you want to look) is available for the main road next to Capernaum and shows a ground-level view. E.g., https://tinyurl.com/ydaa2o26




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  11. mikezamjara  May 7, 2018

    Hi Dr Ehrman, In your debates you have said that there is evidence that the ancient town of Nazareth really existed. Can you give some reference to check it?. Thank you Dr Ehrman




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      I give it in my book Did Jesus Exist.




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      • talmoore
        talmoore  May 8, 2018

        But, to be clear, while there did exist a town or village in 1st century Galilee near the present day city of Nazareth, as to whether that ancient town or village was actually called Nazareth at that time, well, we don’t have evidence of that, do we? I mean, the first we hear of the name Nazareth outside of the NT is more than a century after Jesus — well within the Christian era.




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        • Bart
          Bart  May 9, 2018

          That’s right, they haven’t uncovered a brick with the town name on it. That’s true of virtually all towns everywhere that have been excavated.




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  12. Alfred  May 7, 2018

    Hmmm. carbon dating of what? If it is the wood it tells you the age of the tree, not the boat. There may be other evidence to date it, but timber used by humans is notoriously misleading when carton dated!




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      It’s usually thought that boats were made out of trees that had fairly recently been felled.




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    • GregAnderson  May 27, 2018

      Oh good grief. Carbon dating gives the date the wood was felled. In some areas, dendrochronology can increase the accuracy of that assessment. In either case, the felling date of the wood precedes the fashioning of the wood into a boat. Basic.




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  13. godspell  May 7, 2018

    That ‘church’ looks like more of a visitor’s center, which is what it is, in practical terms.

    It is sadly true that Catholic church architecture has done downhill since Vatican II. But other things have improved, and you have to take the bad with the good.




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    • SidDhartha1953  May 9, 2018

      The music has gone to schlock, in my estimate.




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  14. Steve  May 7, 2018

    Would it be fair to say that the concept of Christian salvation begins with the belief of original sin, which came from the anonymous Jewish writings of Genesis, which were written to the Jewish nation, explaining their Jewish history with God…..and if I’m not Jewish, then why would I need to believe in something that wasn’t my problem to begin with, i.e. Original sin?




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      No, the doctrine of “original sin” came only later. (The doctrine is not simply that Adam and Eve sinned)




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      • llamensdor  May 18, 2018

        And “original sin” is definitely not a Jewish belief and never has been.




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  15. rivercrowman  May 7, 2018

    Enjoy the tour! I’m confident you’ll have a camera. Hope you can “corral” some sheep and goats for a photo op. Keep an eye out.




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  16. jhague  May 7, 2018

    “this is the home town of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the first disciples of Jesus; and it is the place that Jesus used more or less as his base of operation for his public preaching ministry.”

    Do you think it is likely that since some of the disciples were from Capernaum and this was the base for the ministry that they normally were able to be home at night and continue to fish as time allowed so that they could support their families?




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      Interesting idea. I don’t know how to test it.




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      • jhague  May 8, 2018

        It seems like otherwise, their families would be left for begging or relying on extended family for support.




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      • SidDhartha1953  May 9, 2018

        That might be an assumption behind the detail in one of the accounts of the controversy over the Temple tax. Peter catches a fish that conveniently has swallowed exact change for Jesus and himself to pay up.




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        • Kirktrumb59  May 16, 2018

          One can see that fish–and PETER!!– in Masaccio’s “Tribute Money,” S. Maria del Carmine, Firenze. See it! Revolutionary art.




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  17. mannix  May 7, 2018

    I was there on a culinary event with my late wife (she was the chef). The event was held at a winery on the Golan Heights…I think that disappeared when Syria got the land back. We stayed in Tiberias as well…maybe the same Hotel. Anyway, we spent one evening on a party boat on that lake. I don’t mind saying it felt kind of funny feasting and drinking on that body of water.




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    • llamensdor  May 18, 2018

      It’s definitely a masterpiece and helps affirm the importance of Masaccio and Florence in the Renaissance.




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  18. fishician  May 7, 2018

    I have read conflicting things about synagogues. One being that synagogues came into existence after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Another that small towns, like Nazareth, were too small and too poor to have a synagogue, and certainly would not have had a set of the scriptures, as depicted in the gospels. Are these ideas correct or wrong? (Paul never mentions synagogues, but then he was reaching out to Gentiles, so maybe it didn’t come up in his letters?)




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      One needs to differentiate between the idea of a synagogue as an institution (a group of Jews gathered together for a sacred occasion involving prayer, reading of Scripture, etc.) and a synagogue as a building. The latter are later, and there was almost certainly not one in Nazareth in the days of Jesus.




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      • Johnpbrennan  May 11, 2018

        Not in Nazareth but surely you heard of the one they found in what some suggest might be the village of Magdala
        https://www.timesofisrael.com/archaeologists-in-galilee-unearth-synagogue-from-jesuss-time/

        Fascinating I hope you get a chance to see it on your trip




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        • Bart
          Bart  May 11, 2018

          Hadn’t heard of it. I’ll ask my archaeologist colleague Jodi Magness about it. One has to be careful with reports like this! But I’ll see.




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          • llamensdor  May 18, 2018

            There’s no doubt that a German team fairly recently excavated a synagogue at Migdal. I believe I sense a trend: there were more synagogues and more literate Jews in Second Temple times, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (With apologies to Shakespeare).




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          • Bart
            Bart  May 18, 2018

            I’m not sure what the existence of synagogues has to do with literacy rates?




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      • llamensdor  May 18, 2018

        There’s recently discovered evidence that there was a synagogue in Nazareth (Check BAR for reference). It has been established that around the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, there were 400 synagogues in and around Jerusalem.




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        • Bart
          Bart  May 18, 2018

          Established? I’d be interested in that. What is your source of information?




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        • GregAnderson  May 27, 2018

          “It has been established that around the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, there were 400 synagogues in and around Jerusalem.” — Source, please?




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  19. caesar  May 7, 2018

    Are there certain stories in the gospels that seem highly unlikely, anachronistic, etc?




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  20. ardeare  May 8, 2018

    I just remembered a book (I’ve only read the outline) that focuses on the sermon on the mount. The author puts forth an exegesis which basically says that the sermon on the mount may have been sayings of Jesus which were largely confined to synagogues and the temple. In this sense, they were taught by Jesus but then spoken in unison amongst Jesus’ earliest followers. Sort of like the creeds that are chanted in some of today’s religions. This sounds ritualistic but would account for the widespread knowledge of these sayings and their preservation. Do you have a position on this?




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    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2018

      We don’t have evidence of communal chants of Jesus’ words among the early followers.




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      • SidDhartha1953  May 9, 2018

        Is it true that the sermons of Jesus in Matthew are stylized to read like the literary prophets of the OT? I think I read that somewhere.




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    • Duke12  May 8, 2018

      I believe that’s the Eastern Orthodox Church’s take on more than just the sermon on the mount: that prior to the written Gospels, the sayings of Jesus and recollections of his life were ritualized and transmitted orally, possibly in a specific part of the communal worship. But then see Bart’s comment below about the lack of known evidence.




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