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The Bearers of the Message , Israel


A brilliant church mosaic recently unearthed in Tiberias

A brilliant church mosaic recently unearthed in Tiberias further testifies to the presence of early Christians in the lakeside city whose inhabitants were among the earliest to witness the preaching of Jesus

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View over the Sea of Galilee from antiquities of Mount Berenice

“Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks”
(John 6:23)


According to the New Testament, Jesus never visited Tiberias. However, it can certainly be said that Tiberias came to Jesus. John, the only one of the Gospels to mention Tiberias (which he does three times), records that around Passover time a great crowd came to Jesus on “the far shore” of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus multiplied a few loaves and fishes – basically what must have been a little boy’s lunch – and fed the entire crowd.


This powerful story was recorded by all the Gospels in some form. However, only John records what happened the next day, describing the “boats from Tiberias” that landed near the place where the miracle of the loaves and fishes had occurred, looking unsuccessfully for Jesus. The boatmen finally found Jesus in Capernaum, where they heard an important teaching on the difference between food for the body and food for the soul: "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:26-27).


No one can say for sure why no visit by Jesus to Tiberias was recorded. Some say Jesus never went there because of the city’s Roman, pagan nature, as well as a tendency in Galilee to preach and heal in Jewish villages, such as Capernaum, BethsaidaKorazim and Nain rather than the main towns. Others say that Jesus may have indeed visited Tiberias because, as John 21:25 puts it: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”


It is clear from the archaeological evidence that has come to light in recent years that Tiberias, while mainly a Jewish community, certainly had a Christian component, people who must have promulgated the message their forebears had heard from Jesus. Among the many interesting aspects of the recently discovered church is its location in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood, a phenomenon that had not previously been known.


The colorful floor is adorned with geometric patterns and crosses, and contains inscriptions in ancient Greek with the names of those who contributed to the church, along with the words: “Our Lord, preserve the soul of your servant ...” Next to them is a medallion within which is a cross. The Greek letters alpha and omega also appear. These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, recalling the words of Revelation 22:13: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (mentioned two other times in Revelation).


The archaeologists who excavated the church for the Israel Antiquities Authority, Dr. Moshe Hartal and Edna Amos, have dated this church to the late fourth or the fifth century CE, making it is the oldest Christian house of prayer found so far in Tiberias. It joins other evidence of a vibrant Christian life in the town, including large commemorative coins found in previous years of excavation, which bear the image of Jesus and the inscription “Jesus Christ King of Kings.” They must have been brought to the city by Byzantine Christian pilgrims.


Also discovered near the church were other remains of buildings dating from the first century CE and until the 11th century, when the city was abandoned after an earthquake that engendered a wave of poverty. Among the ruins are large public buildings including a basilica, a bathhouse, streets and shops that reveal the town’s lively economic life.


Excavations continue to unearth the rich history of the city, justifying its nickname: “City of Treasures.” In the parking lot of the Holiday Inn south of the excavation area, remains were found of a glass factory and a pottery factory dating to between the eighth to the eleventh centuries. This indicates that Tiberias continued to grow beyond the walls of the Roman and Byzantine city, and eventually expanded to include the neighboring town of Hamat, which means “hot.” There you can visit another beautiful mosaic from a fourth-century synagogue, at Hamat Tiberias National Park.


Archaeologists have covered the newfound church mosaic for the time being in order to preserve it. It is hoped that it will eventually be restored so it can be shown to the public as part of a major archaeological park planned for the area.


Meanwhile, another highlight for Christian visitors to Tiberias stands on a mountaintop high above the excavation site, known as Mount Berenice, where a large church was built in the sixth century. There is no doubt that the spectacular view from the summit, taking in the area of Jesus’ Galilee ministry and the beautiful lake, played a part in the selection of the site. Under the altar, a smooth stone block weighing almost half a ton was found. Though it has a hole in the center, making it look like an anchor of the time, it is 10 times heavier than the average ancient anchor. Therefore, it probably had spiritual significance to the Christians of the day, based on the words in Hebrew “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb 6:19).



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