The Sea of Galilee in the New Testament
The Name: Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee is the name 5 times given in the New Testament (Mt 4:18; 15:29; Mk 1:16; 7:31; Jn 6:1) to the sheet of water which is elsewhere called "the sea of Tiberias" (Jn 21:1; compare 6:1); "the lake of Gennesaret" (Lk 5:1); "the sea" (Jn 6:16, etc.), and "the lake" (Lk 5:1, etc.).
The Old Testament names were "sea of Chinnereth" (Heb: yam-kinnereth: Nu 34:11; Dt 3:17; Josh 13:27; 19:35), and "sea of Chinneroth" (Heb: yam-kineroth: Josh 12:3; compare 11:2; 1 Ki 15:20). In 1 Macc 11:67 the sea is called "the water of Gennesar" (the Revised Version (British and American) "Gennesareth"). It had begun to be named from the city so recently built on its western shore even in New Testament times (Jn 21:1; 6:1); and by this name, slightly modified, it is known to this day--Bachr Tabariyeh.
The sea lies in the deep trough of the Jordan valley, almost due East of the Bay of Acre. The surface is 680 ft. below the level of the Mediterranean. It varies in depth from 130 ft. to 148 ft., being deepest along the course of the Jordan. From the point where the Jordan enters in the North to its exit in the South is about 13 miles. The greatest breadth is in the North, from el-Mejdel to the mouth of Wady Semak being rather over 7 miles. It gradually narrows toward the South, taking the shape of a gigantic pear, with a decided bulge to the West.
The water of the lake is clear and sweet. The natives use it for all purposes, esteeming it light and pleasant. They refuse to drink from the Jordan, alleging that "who drinks Jordan drinks fever." Seen from the mountains the broad sheet appears a beautiful blue; so that, in the season of greenery, it is no exaggeration to describe it as a sapphire in a setting of emerald. It lights up the landscape as the eye does the human face; and it is often spoken of as "the eye of Galilee." To one descending from Mt. Tabor and approaching the edge of the great hollow, on a bright spring day, when the land has already assumed its fairest garments, the view of the sea, as it breaks upon the vision in almost its whole extent, is one never to be forgotten.
The mountains on the East and on the West rise to about 2,000 ft. The heights of Naphtali, piled up in the North, seem to culminate only in the snowy summit of Great Hermon. If the waters are still, the shining splendors of the mountain may be seen mirrored in the blue depths. Round the greater part of the lake there is a broad pebbly beach, with a sprinkling of small shells. On the sands along the shore from el-Mejdel to `Ain et-Tineh these shells are so numerous as to cause a white glister in the sunlight.
The main formation of the surrounding district is limestone. It is overlaid with lava; and here and there around the lake there are outcrops of basalt through the limestone. At eT-Tabgha in the North, at `Ain el Fuliyeh, South of el-Mejdel, and on the shore, about 2 miles South of modern Tiberias, there are strong hot springs. These things, together with the frequent, and sometimes terribly destructive, earthquakes, sufficiently attest the volcanic character of the region. The soil on the level parts around the sea is exceedingly fertile.
Naturally the temperature in the valley is higher than that of the uplands; and here wheat and barley are harvested about a month earlier. Frost is not quite unknown; but no one now alive remembers it to have done more than lay the most delicate fringe of ice around some of the stones on the shore. The fig and the vine are still cultivated with success. Where vegetable gardens are planted they yield plentifully. A few palms are still to be seen. The indigo plant is grown in the plain of Gennesaret. In their season the wild flowers lavish a wealth of lovely colors upon the surrounding slopes; while bright-blossoming oleanders fringe the shore.
Coming westward from the point where the Jordan enters the lake, the mountains approach within a short distance of the sea. On the shore, fully 2 miles from the Jordan, are the ruins of Tell Chum. About 2 miles farther West are the hot springs of eT-Tabgha. Here a shallow vale breaks northward, bounded on the West by Tell `Areimeh. This tell is crowned by an ancient Canaanite settlement. It throws out a rocky promontory into the sea, and beyond this are the ruins of Khan Minyeh, with `Ain et-Tineh close under the cliff. Important Roman remains have recently been discovered here.
From this point the plain of Gennesaret (el-Ghuweir) sweeps round to el-Mejdel, a distance of about 4 miles. West of this village opens the tremendous gorge, Wady el Chamam, with the famous robbers' fastnesses in its precipitous sides, and the ruins of Arbela on its southern lip. From the northern parts of the lake the Horns of ChaTTin, the traditional Mount of Beatitudes, may be seen through the rocky jaws of the gorge. South of el-Mejdel the mountains advance to the shore, and the path is cut in the face of the slope, bringing us to the hot spring, `Ain el-Fuliyeh, where is a little valley, with gardens and orange grove.
The road then crosses a second promontory, and proceeds along the base of the mountain to Tiberias. Here the mountains recede from the shore, leaving a crescent-shaped plain, largely covered with the ruins of the ancient city. The modern town stands at the northern corner of the plain; while at the southern end are the famous hot baths, the ancient Hammath. A narrow ribbon of plain between the mountain and the shore runs to the South end of the lake. There the Jordan, issuing from the sea, almost surrounds the mound on which are the ruins of Kerak, the Tarichea of Josephus Crossing the floor of the valley, past Semakh, which is now a station on the Haifa-Damascus railway, we find a similar strip of plain along the eastern shore.
Nearly opposite Tiberias is the stronghold of Chal`-at el Chocn, possibly the ancient Hippos, with the village of Fik, the ancient Aphek, on the height to the East. To the North of this the waters of the sea almost touch the foot of the steep slope. A herd of swine running headlong down the mountain would here inevitably perish in the lake (Mt 8:32, etc.). Next, we reach the mouth of Wady Semak, in which lie the ruins of Kurseh, probably representing the ancient Gerasa. Northward the plain widens into the marshy breadths of el-BaTeichah, and once more we reach the Jordan, flowing smoothly through the fiat lands to the sea.
Storms on the Sea of Galilee
The position of the lake makes it liable to sudden storms, the cool air from the uplands rushing down the gorges with great violence and tossing the waters in tumultuous billows. Such storms are fairly frequent, and as they are attended with danger to small craft, the boatmen are constantly on the alert. Save in very settled conditions they will not venture far from the shore. Occasionally, however, tempests break over the lake, in which a boat could hardly live. Only twice in over 5 years the present writer witnessed such a hurricane.
Once it burst from the South. In a few moments the air was thick with mist, through which one could hear the roar of the tortured waters. In about ten minutes the wind fell as suddenly as it had risen. The air cleared, and the wide welter of foam-crested waves attested the fury of the blast. On the second occasion the wind blew from the East, and the phenomena described above were practically repeated.
Fish in the Sea of Galilee
The sea contains many varieties of fish in great numbers. The fishing industry was evidently pursued to profit in the days of Christ. Zebedee was able to hire men to assist him (Mk 1:20). In recent years there has been a considerable revival of this industry. Four of the apostles, and these the chief, had been brought up as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Peter and Andrew, James and John.
The towns around the lake named in Scripture are treated in separate articles. Some of these it is impossible to identify. Many are the ruins of great and splendid cities on slope and height of which almost nothing is known today. But from their mute testimony we gather that the lake in the valley which is now so quiet was once the center of a busy and prosperous population. We may assume that the cities named in the Gospels were mainly Jewish. Jesus would naturally avoid those in which Greek influences were strong. In most cases they have gone, leaving not even their names with any certainty behind; but His memory abides forever. The lake and mountains are, in main outline, such as His eyes beheld. This it is that lends its highest charm to "the eye of Galilee."
The advent of the railway has stirred afresh the pulses of life in the valley. A steamer plies on the sea between the station at Semakh and Tiberias. Superior buildings are rising outside the ancient walls. Gardens and orchards are being planted. Modern methods of agriculture are being employed in the Jewish colonies, which are rapidly increasing in number. Slowly, perhaps, but surely, the old order is giving place to the new. If freedom and security be enjoyed in reasonable measure, the region will again display its long-hidden treasures of fertility and beauty.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain.