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Tiberias

Israel

The thriving resort of Tiberias, with its balmy climate, lakeside hotels and fish restaurants, is a popular base for Christian pilgrims exploring the Galilee that Jesus knew.

Tiberias

Modern Tiberias (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

Its location on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias in John’s Gospel) is within easy reach of the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum, Tabgha, Bethsaida, Chorazin, Magdala, Kursi, Cana, Mount Tabor, Nain and Nazareth.

Tiberias was a new city when Jesus began his public ministry. Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, founded it around AD 20 to replace Sepphoris as his capital.

Antipas — who would later behead Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist — chose a site just south of the present resort, taking advantage of 17 hot springs renowned since ancient times for their healing qualities. He named his new city after his patron, the emperor Tiberius Caesar.

Tiberias

Hot springs at Tiberias (David Q. Hall)

Because the site lay over ancient burial grounds, observant Jews refused to incur ritual impurity by living there. Antipas had to resort to compulsion and financial inducements to populate his city.

Though Jesus spent much of his ministry on and around the Sea of Tiberias, its inappropriate siting may explain why there is no record that he ever visited Tiberias.

 

Powerhouse of Jewish scholarship

Ritual purification of the city was carried out in the middle of the second century AD. The timing was opportune. The Second Jewish Revolt had failed, and the Romans had responded by banning Jews from Jerusalem.

Jews flocked to Tiberias, which became the major centre of Jewish culture and learning, with 13 synagogues. Even the Sanhedrin (the supreme court) moved from Sepphoris. “Preachers, poets, scholars and rabbis abounded,” wrote historian G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville.

Over the following centuries, it was this powerhouse of Jewish scholarship that compiled almost all of the Jerusalem Talmud — one of the two central texts of Jewish religious teaching and commentary that had previously been transmitted orally — and the fixed Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible.

Tiberias

Tomb of Maimonides (Bukvoed)

A Christian community was established in the 4th century, when Tiberias became a major destination for pilgrims visiting the Christian sites of the Galilee region.

In 1033 an earthquake destroyed Tiberias. The Crusaders rebuilt it about two kilometres further north, where the present city stands.

 

Rabbi’s body was carried from Egypt

Tiberias

St Peter in his boat, at St Peter’s Church, Tiberias (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

Thanks to successive conquests, modern Tiberias has fewer monuments or ancient ruins than other localities in the Holy Land.

Historic sites include the graves of several distinguished rabbis. These include the celebrated philosopher Maimonides, leader of the Jewish community in Cairo in the 12th century. In accordance with his will, his body was carried overland on the route believed to have been taken by Moses and the Israelites to the Promised Land, for burial in Tiberias (his grave is on Ben Zakkai Street).

One of the few remaining Crusader buildings is the Church of St Peter, hidden down an alley from the lakeside promenade. Erected around 1100, this Catholic church was a mosque, a caravanserai and a stable for animals before being rebuilt in 1870 by the Franciscans.

Remains of an older church, from the 6th century, have been discovered in a commanding position on Mount Berenice, west of the city. It is called the Anchor Church, because a huge stone with a hole in its centre was found under the base of the altar.

 

Coins found with likeness of Jesus

South of the modern city, where steam from hot springs rises above the ground, are a national park and an archaeological park.

The highlight of the national park is a 4th-century synagogue with a spectacular mosaic floor. It was discovered in 1921 during the first major archaeological dig led by Zionist Jews in Israel.

Tiberias

Ark of the Torah flanked by menorah, in synagogue mosaic at Tiberias (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

In a curious mix of Jewish and pagan symbols, the Ark of the Torah is flanked by a pair of menorah, but immediately below is a Zodiac circle revolving around the figure of the pagan sun god Helios riding his celestial chariot.

The archaeological park contains the remains of the old city of Tiberias.

Excavations have uncovered part of the cardo (main street), a bathhouse, an unidentified colonnaded building, a reservoir, a tower and the south gate complex.

Tiberias

Bronze coin with likeness of Jesus discovered at Tiberias

A treasure trove of bronze coins was discovered in 1998, hidden in pottery jars under the floor of a building. They included 58 bearing the likeness of Jesus, with Greek inscriptions such as “Jesus the Messiah, the King of Kings”, minted in Constantinople in the 11th century.

 

Hammat Tiberias National Park

Tel.: 972-4-6725287

Open: Apr-Sep 8am-5pm; Oct-Mar 8am-4pm (last entry one hour before closing time)

 

St Peter’s Church

Tel.: 972-4-6721059

Open: 8am-12.30pm, 2.30-5.30pm


References

Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Dyer, Charles H., and Hatteberg, Gregory A.: The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land (Moody, 2006)
Rainey, Anson F., and Notley, R. Steven: The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Carta, 2006)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Heinsch, James: “Tiberias Church of St Peter”, Holy Land, Autumn 1999.
Kochav, Sarah: Israel: A Journey Through the Art and History of the Holy Land (Steimatzky, 2008)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Shahin, Mariam, and Azar, George: Palestine: A guide (Chastleton Travel, 2005)

 

External links

Hammat Tiberias (BibleWalks)
Tiberias (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Tiberias — The Anchor Church (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Kursi

Israel

Kursi

Steep slope near Kursi (David Q. Hall)

 

A headlong stampede by a herd of demon-possessed pigs into the Sea of Galilee is remembered at Kursi, a picturesque site beneath the Golan Heights on the eastern side of the lake.

Three Gospels tell the story: Jesus steps out of a boat after crossing the lake and is confronted by a man possessed by demons. When Jesus orders the demons to leave the man, they beg to be allowed to enter a herd of swine grazing nearby. Jesus agrees, and the swine — numbering about 2000 — rush down a bank into the water and are drowned. (Luke 8:26-39; Mark 5:1-20; Matthew 8:28-34)

Kursi

Boulder at Kursi miracle site (Bukvoed)

The dismayed swineherds run off to spread the news, and the local people ask Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. The healed man begs to go with Jesus — but Jesus tells him to go home and tell his friends what has happened.

“And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed” (Mark 5:20). So this gentile man becomes the first person commissioned by Jesus to spread the Good News to non-Jews.

Kursi was an important place of Christian pilgrimage from the 5th century, when the lakeside towns of Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin — all three condemned by Jesus for their lack of faith — had fallen into decline.

Kursi is the site of the largest known Byzantine monastery complex in Israel, whose impressive remains have been partly reconstructed.

On the side of the hill behind the monastery are the remains of an earlier chapel, built into a cave. It overlooks a huge boulder enclosed in a retaining wall of stones — apparently identifying the site as the place of the miracle.

 

Location revealed by bulldozer

Kursi

Chapel overlooking boulder at site of miracle, with monastery in middle distance (Steve Peterson)

Kursi is 5 kilometres north of Ein Gev, near the junction where route 789 leaves the lakeside road (route 92) to mount the Golan Heights. Its name, meaning “chair” in Semitic languages, probably refers to the shape of the broad valley behind it.

Different Gospel manuscripts offer conflicting names for the area in which the miracle took place — the country of the Gadarenes, Gerasenes, or Gergesenes.

What is certain is that the location was in gentile territory. Because Jewish dietary laws forbid the eating of pork, no Jew would have been raising pigs.

The identification of Kursi with the place of the miracle was known to early Christian writers and pilgrims — among them St Sabas, founder of Mar Saba monastery, who prayed at the site in 491.

Kursi

Entrance to Kursi (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

Kursi lay unknown for many centuries until pieces of Byzantine pottery were noticed in the trail of a bulldozer constructing a new road to the Golan Heights in 1970.

As well as the monastery complex, excavators found an ancient fishing harbour — one of at least 16 around the Sea of Galilee — with a breakwater and a pool where live fish were kept to await sale.

 

Guesthouse for pilgrims uncovered

Kursi

Inside monastery church at Kursi (Bill Rice)

Kursi’s extensive monastery, built in the 5th century, covered 1.8 hectares. Around it stood a defensive stone wall with a watchtower. At its heart was a large church, with a spacious courtyard in front of it.

The church was divided by two rows of stone columns into a nave and two side aisles. Under a chapel in the right-hand aisle, skeletons of 30 monks were found buried in a crypt.

Kursi

Mosaic of grapes at Kursi (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

A large oil press was found in a side room in the left-hand aisle, suggesting that production of olive oil would have been a major source of income for the monastery.

As well as living quarters for the monks, a guesthouse and bath complex for pilgrims have been uncovered. A paved road led from the monastery to the harbour where pilgrims arrived.

The floor of the church was paved with mosaics depicting animal and plant life: Roosters, geese, doves, cormorants, fish, grapes, figs, pomegranates, watermelon and bananas.

When the monastery was abandoned in the early 8th century — after being damaged by fire and earthquake, and invaded by Persians and Muslims — it was used by local Arabs to live in and house their animals.

At that time all of the animal mosaics were obliterated to comply with the Islamic prohibition against human or animal representations.

 

Bench overlooked site of miracle

The chapel on the hill behind the monastery was probably built before the monastery, since its mosaic floor includes crosses. From the year 427, crosses were prohibited on church floors, by order of Christian emperor Theodosius II.

Kursi

Hilltop site of Hippos (David Q. Hall)

A stone bench in the chapel provided a view of the boulder that apparently marks the site of the miracle — and, beyond it, the Sea of Galilee.

Five kilometres south, on the hill directly behind the kibbutz at Ein Gev, stood the ancient city of Hippos (in Greek) or Susita (in Aramaic), both names meaning “horse”.

It would have been to this city that the swineherds ran to tell of the fate of their pigs. And it would have been the residents of this city who begged Jesus to leave their neighbourhood (Matthew 8:34).

Hippos may also have been the hilltop city Jesus referred to when he said, “A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14).

The remains of a Byzantine cathedral and four other churches have been found at Hippos, and a bishop from Hippos is recorded as attending the Church councils of Nicea and Constantinople in the 4th century.

 

In Scripture:

Jesus heals the man possessed by demons: Luke 8:26-39; Mark 5:1-20; Matthew 8:28-34

 

Administered by: Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Tel.: 972-4-673-1983

Open: Apr–Sep 8am–5pm; Oct–Mar 8am–4pm; Fridays and eves of holidays, 8am-4pm. Last entry to site one hour before closing time.

 

 

References

Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Dyer, Charles H., and Hatteberg, Gregory A.: The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land (Moody, 2006)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Pixner, Bargil: With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel (Corazin Publishing, 1992)
Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Tzaferis, Vassilios: “A Pilgrimage to the Site of the Swine Miracle”, Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1989
Nun, Mendel: “Ports of Galilee”, Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1999
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Kursi (BibleWalks)
Kursi: Christian Monastery on the Shore of the Sea of Galilee (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
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