Even though we may think of boats when we think of some familiar Bible stories, there really aren’t that many boats in the Bible.
- There’s Noah’s ark, of course. This boat was very specifically made of gofer or gopherwood (Gen. 6:14). (No one agrees as to what type of wood this is). The same chapter for Genesis tells us that the ark was 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits and had a side entrance. (A cubit is about 18 inches in length.)
- Jonah used a boat to try to escape from God’s plan by heading away from Nineveh. He ended up thrown overboard.
- Baby Moses was saved in a very small boat — a basket of reeds (Ex 2).
- Later in the Bible, Paul traveled a lot by boat, and was even shipwrecked.
In between, the Gospels tell us a lot about fishing boats — specifically on the Sea of Galilee — during the time of Jesus and the first disciples.
Fishing was part of the local economy in Galilee during that time. The villages of Capernaum and Bethsaida (that name means “house of fish”) were located on the Sea of Galilee, as was Magdala, which was a fish processing town. The Sea of Galilee — which is only about 13 miles long and seven miles wide — is rich with fish, even today. Various sources claim that, in Jesus’ time, there were 18 to 37 different varieties of fish caught there. Today, three main types of fish are harvested from its waters, including the famous St. Peter’s fish, a type of tilapia, known to tourists and pilgrims.
Fishing in Jesus’ day was hard work, much as commercial fishing remains to this day. While Galilee’s fishermen sometimes used spears and hooks, most fishing was done with nets. These were either cast from the shoals or a boat, or dragged behind a boat.
While Jesus himself was not a fisherman, he used fishing boats as a means of transport and for preaching. Most often these boats belonged to fisherman like Peter and Andrew, James and John or their father, Zebedee.
But what did these boats look like? Unlike Noah’s ark, there’s no such description of Peter’s boat in the New Testament. However, in 1985, a first century fishing boat was discovered in the mud along the shore of the Sea of Galilee (which is called Kinneret by most people in Israel today). The water levels in the sea have been decreasing for several decades, due to drought and overuse in the last century, and are reaching their lowest level in a century. This drop in water level allowed the discovery of this boat. Two brothers, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, who were themselves fishermen and amateur archaeologists, discovered the boat, now officially called “the Ancient Galilee Boat.” Some people also call it “the Jesus boat.”
The boat, which had been old already when it was sunk, was so waterlogged and deteriorated that it took 11 years to safely remove it from the mud. This was done by encasing it in polyurethane foam. The boat — now restored and preserved — is on display at the Yigal Allon Museum at the Kibbutz Ginosar, near Magdala, not far from where it was found.
Whether or not the boat belonged to one of Jesus’ followers, it does tell us what boats of that time looked like. Since this boat was old and much repaired when it was abandoned, it had been stripped of anything useful, such as weights or oars or a mast.
According to the Yigal Allon Museum, the boat is 27 by 7.5 feet and about four feet deep. It was made of many types of wood, mostly cedar and oak. It used mortice and tenon joinery, which means its pieces were pegged together. It was large enough to hold about 15 people.
The Israeli government has confirmed that the boat has been carbon-dated to about the first century before Christ. Evidence of repeated repairs indicates that the boat had been used for several decades, perhaps nearly a century, before it was intentionally sunk.
The witness of this ancient Galilee boat reminds us that the Lord lived and worked among every day, working people, and it was these people he called to be disciples, “fishers of people.”
Sources: “Fishing Economy in the Sea of Galilee” at bibleodyssey.org; govisitisrael.com; seetheholyland.net; bible.org; biblestudytools.com; embassies.gov.il; christianitytoday.com; and “Fishing in the New Testament” at biblehistory.com