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The First-Century Galilee Boat

First-century boat discovered on the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee in 1986
First-century boat discovered on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in 1986

Thanks to the discovery in 1986 of a fishing boat from the first century, more details of boat making and fishing on the Sea of Galilee have come to light. During a dramatic drop in the Sea of Galilee’s water due to severe droughts, two brothers from the Kibbutz Ginnosar noticed the outlines of a boat buried in mud near ancient Magdala, and rescue operations began to recover and restore the boat before the rising water level covered it once more. Nearly two thousand years ago, the dilapidated 8-by-26-foot boat was stripped of its reusable parts and pushed offshore to sink. That covered it with silt and mud, encasing it in an anaerobic state and protecting it from bacteria and decay.

The hull’s construction and materials tell the story of an experienced boatwright with sparse resources. The craftsman lacked suitable raw materials for his craft, but was experienced, clever, and determined enough to keep the vessel afloat for some time. It was originally constructed from timbers salvaged from other boats as well as from inferior wood locally available. The forward keel was the only part of the boat made from appropriate wood, a piece of Lebanese cedar that had served the same function on an earlier boat—the cut marks from those earlier joints were still visible. Most of the planks were from low-quality lumber that no Mediterranean boatwright would have considered using, such as pine, jujube, and willow. The hull’s strakes and planks were joined with mortise-and-tenon joints, locked together with carefully measured oak pegs, around which pine resin somewhat sealed the wood; a frame hammered in with iron nails and staples stabilized the hull; and the whole underside was smeared with bitumen pitch.

Over time, however, the materials betrayed the boatwright as tenons snapped, timbers sprang, and pegs rotted. Stripped of its sail, anchor, and reusable parts, including even nails, the hull was floated away from the shore, where it quickly sank. Simple open and closed cooking pots and an undecorated local lamp date the boat to the first century, which carbon-14 dating on the wooden planks confirmed. Lacking proper materials, fishers on the Sea of Galilee worked hard to keep their vessels afloat, using this and that scrap of wood to replace rotting planks and eking out a living by casting or dragging their nets along the shoreline.

Excerpt from John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Text (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).

  • John Dominic Crossan

    John Dominic Crossan is an emeritus professor from DePaul University and author of numerous popular books on Jesus and the New Testament world. 

  • Jonathan Reed

    Jonathan Reed is professor of religion and dean for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of La Verne. He co-authored Excavating Jesus and In Search of Paul with John Dominic Crossan. Reed is an active archaeologist and directs a dig at Sepphoris. He has appeared on numerous television documentaries, and his work has appeared in National Geographic.