Discovery of 2,000-year-old boat 'probably a miracle'
SEA OF GALILEE, Israel — After a severe four-year drought, in 1986, two fishermen were walking alongside the Sea of Galilee when they made an amazing discovery. Buried in the sea were the barely visible remains of an ancient boat. At its lowest level in memory, the Sea of Galilee was unveiling its tremendous treasure.
The brothers were shocked, however, to learn just how old the muddy boat turned out to be. Carbon dating and other techniques traced the large vessel to the time of Jesus.
"It seems impossible that the boat survived and that it was found," said Orna Cohen, archaeologist and conservator of the vessel that has come to be called "The Jesus Boat."
"If the drought hadn't lowered the sea so much and if these two brothers hadn't seen the nails of the boat and if they hadn't contacted an archaeologist, the boat might never have been found," Cohen said. "It was against all odds that these things happened."
Buried in and protected by the seabed's sediment, the boat was rescued in a painstaking and remarkable 11-day excavation. The delicate hull was then submerged in a chemical bath for seven years before being shared with the public.
The boat is 26.9 feet long, 7.5 feet wide and 3.9 feet tall. Adaptable to both sail and oars, the boat was used primarily for fishing but also could serve for transporting goods and passengers. "It would hold about 15 people," Cohen said.
Although there is no evidence to scientifically tie the boat to Jesus, Cohen noted that Jesus lived along the Sea of Galilee at the time and that boats played a large role in his life and ministry. The Gospels record that Jesus' first disciples were fishermen and that Jesus spoke to large crowds from aboard a boat. It is the Sea of Galilee that Jesus walked upon and where he calmed a storm.
"He was a fisher of men," Cohen said. "There were very few boats here at the time, and there are lots of reasons to believe that at least Jesus saw this boat and that he may have touched it or sailed on it."
Fourteen years after its excavation, the boat was moved to its permanent home in a new wing of the Yigal Allon Centre. Located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee near the city of Tiberias, The Ancient Galilee Boat museum recounts the discovery, excavation and preservation of the boat, called one of history's greatest archaeological finds.
Finding the boat
Word of the Bible-era artifact discovered by Yuval and Moshe Lufan on Jan. 24, 1986, spread fast. Scholars, scientists and people of faith around the world followed the recovery, restoration and preservation of the boat. Everyone knew that a great treasure had been discovered, Cohen said. But the concern now was the boat would be destroyed during the rescue process.
"The hull was in fairly good shape, but the wood was so spongy and soft, like wet cardboard, that your fingers would go right through it," Cohen said. "We were racing against time to move it."
The long drought-parched Galilee was deluged with rain almost immediately upon the boat's discovery. Not only was the sea closing in around it again, but exposing the boat to air was dangerous. "Air was its enemy," Cohen said.
Interestingly, had the boat been discovered a decade or two earlier, the technology wouldn't have been available to successfully excavate and preserve it. As it was, archaeologists were rushing to come up with new techniques as they worked to swiftly and safely excavate the artifact. Excavators packaged the weak hull in a cocoon of fiberglass and polyurethane foam and floated it to the nearby centre.
"That was the first time the boat had sailed in 2,000 years," Cohen said. "It was very exciting to see it on top of the water again."
To conserve it, the boat was submerged in a specially built pool in a solution of heated polyethylene glycol. The synthetic wax replaced the water in the wood cells. The hull was then allowed to dry slowly and cleaned of excess wax, preparing it for its present exhibition in an atmosphere-controlled museum.
Traced to the time of Jesus
"The boat is built in the typical ancient Mediterranean construction," Cohen said. "But it was unusual that it had 12 different types of wood, which indicate that it had a long life and many repairs. We estimate that the boat was used at least 20 years."
Because of so many repairs, the boat's owner was probably of meager means. When he could no longer use the boat, the owner must have removed everything of value and sunk the remaining hull to the sea bottom where sediment covered it. That is what helped preserve the boat as the centuries passed.
Carbon dating of the nails and wood placed the boat to the period when Christ lived. "It is from the time of Christ, definitely," Cohen said.
Some theologians wonder if the disciples could have abandoned the boat when they followed Jesus as recounted in the book of Luke. It certainly was the kind of vessel used by Jesus and his 12 disciples, Cohen said.
Normally, boats of that time period were constructed from two or three types of wood at the most. Twelve types of wood were unheard of until this boat was discovered. People of faith think that might be more than a coincidence. Twelve tribes formed the nation of Israel and Christ chose 12 disciples to help him introduce the Gospel.
"The boat is a national treasure," Cohen said. "I come from the scientific world, where we don't use the word 'miracle.' But it is most probably a miracle."
Israel Ministry of Tourism: (888) 77-ISRAEL, www.goisrael.com
Yigal Allon Centre: Located on the grounds of Kibbutz Ginnosar on the Sea of Galilee, the museum is named after Yigal Alon (1918-1980), member of Kibbutz Ginnosar, military and political leader, and believer in coexistence and peace. The museum hosts changing exhibits of art by Jews and Arabs. Its permanent exhibits showcase the history of the Galilee from ancient times to the present, the history of the pre-state force, the Palmach, and Alon's own story, and the famous 2,000 year-old Galilee Boat.
Getting there: Passport and Visa required. Always check "Know Before You Go" information from the Department of Homeland Security before any international travel, www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/vacation/
Easter in Jerusalem
Jerusalem is 68 miles from the Sea of Galilee. On Easter and the preceding Holy Week, the capital fills with pilgrims from all over the world. Christians gather at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where six historic denominations have marked the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus since the fourth century.
Those of Protestant faiths flock to the Sunrise Service at the Garden Tomb.
For Orthodox and Catholic Christians, Easter Sunday is celebrated with masses and processions at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.