Fish form a central place in life around the Sea of Galilee. Israel’s only large scale source of fresh water has long been a magnet for those looking to make their living from its waters. Last summer on the Golan heights overlooking the Sea, a discovery connects fish from the Sea of Galilee to early Christian texts.
The Burnt Church is one of 7 Byzantine churches discovered by archaeologists from Haifa University in the city of Hippos/Sussita. This particular church, dated to the 5th century CE, was destroyed by fire which caused the roof to collapse. A blanket of ash protected the mosaic floor for 1600 years until researchers uncovered it last summer.
The archaeologists initially speculated that they had found the ancient synagogue in the city, but when they uncovered the mosaic floor, they were forced to think otherwise. The floor was filled with mosaics, depicting fishes and loaves, reminiscent of the miracle which is present in every gospel (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-14) in which Jesus feeds about 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. The people eat their fill and still 12 baskets of bread remain.
The mosaic floor of the Burnt church, excavated by Jessica Rentz of Catholic University of America on her first season managing an excavation area, is packed with mosaics. Of special interest, the apse of the church includes 2 fish which face each other. The 12 baskets on the mosaic carpet each contain exactly 5 loaves of bread of differing colors signifying different grains.
There are also fat fish, a symbol of early Christianity, and fruits including citrons/etrogs and pomegranates.
It is interesting to compare the floor found here with the floor of the church in Tabgha, near Capernaum. The mosaic floor of the Tabgha church shows the iconic image of this miracle with 2 fish flanking a basket 4 loaves of bread.
The mosaics in the Burnt church portray the miracle more in line with the text as compared to the floor of the church in Tabgha, which begs the question of where exactly did this miracle occur. No specific location is mentioned in any of the gospels, but it is clear that it was in the area of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew mentions that the location was “on shore” and Mark gives a bit more information giving the location as “on shore, opposite Bethsaida”. (The exact location of Bethsaida is currently under discussion by scholars and archaeologists, but agree that it is in the general area northeast of Capernaum.) Luke places the miracle in Bethsaida itself, while John says it is on the “other side of Galilee of Tiberias”. Hippos/Sussita is on the Golan Heights, directly opposite of Tiberias and above the eastern shore of Sea of Galilee, while Tabgha is southwest of Capernaum.
Hippos/Sussita is about 1000 ft. (320 meters) above the Sea of Galilee. While it is unlikely that the miracle happened at this height above the lake, the location of the Burnt Church in Hippos/Sussita on the far western edge of the town gave it a unique vantage point, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, for remembering this important event. Perhaps, even, the miracle occurred somewhere in the coastal area below which was controlled by the town. The mosaic floor does cement a strong connection to the biblical text and follows closely the account told there.
The connection between the Sea of Galilee, fish and early Christianity is strong. Whether we will ever be able to pinpoint the exact site of this event from Jesus’s life is highly speculative. With each discovery, however, we can better understand biblical accounts, and the history of Christianity and the early church.