Sea of Galilee: The Scriptures

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Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?

(Mark 4:41)

(MT. 4:18, 5:1, 8:18, 8:23-34, 9:1, 11:21, 13:1, 14:13-34, 15:29-39; MK. 2:13, 2:16-20, 4:1, 35-41, 5:1-21, 6:32-53, 8:1-10, 8:22; LK. 5:1-11, 8:22-39, 9:10-17; JN. 1:44, 6:1-25)

Apart from several journeys, Jesus' entire activity before his final departure for Jerusalem was concentrated around the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 15:29; Mark 1:16, 6:31), also called Lake Gennesaret (Luke 5:1) and Lake Tiberias (John 6:1, 21:1), or just “the sea” in the Gospels. The Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius, states that the local inhabitants called the body of water “the lake of Gennesaret” (War 3:463). Indeed, it seems that the name “Sea of Galilee” was coined by the early Christian community, based upon their belief that Jesus' ministry by the lake was a fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1. They derived the componAents for the place name from the biblical verse, the only occasion in which the terms “sea” and “Galilee” are found together. Outside of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and John, the name Sea of Galilee does not occur again in Jewish or pagan literature until the Byzantine era. “Sea of Tiberias” appears also in rabbinical literature and is clearly posterior to the foundation of that city in AD 18-19. The first Apostles were fishermen; sometimes Jesus taught while standing in a boat, with the crowds listening on the shore. The Sermon on the Mount was delivered according to tradition near Capernaum (Matthew 8:1 and 5); the site is said to be located on the height just behind Capernaum. Only occasionally did Jesus upbraid the cities that refused to repent “Woe to you Chorazin, woe to you Bethsaida, Capernaum shall be brought down to Hades”  (Matthew 11:21-23; Luke 10:13-15). 

On the Sea of Galilee there are frequent storms. During one such storm, Jesus slept while sailing across the lake and upon his awakening the sea was suddenly calmed. In the only report of Jesus' travel to the eastern shores of the lake, the boat arrived near the ancient settlement of Gergesa (Mark 4:35-41; Matthew 8:23-27; Luke 8:22-24). The location of the incident of “the swine” has been much debated. Mark (Mark 5:1) and Luke (Luke 8:26, 37) describe it as “the region of the Gerasenes,” while Matthew (Matt 8:28) calls it “the region of the Gadarenes.” There is no history of the famous city of Gerasa, which lay nearly thirty miles south of the lake, ever possessing territory on the shores. The city of Gadara was closer, but it still lay some distance from the lake. It seems that at some point Gadara did possess a harbor on the southern end of the lake, but this location is too remote for our event. Instead, other Greek manuscripts of the New Testament event preserve the name, “the region of the Gergasenes.” In ancient Jewish sources Gergesa appears as the name of a small village east of the Jordan River and is thus evidence that a village by this name existed. It seems that the confusion regarding the place name is the product of a later Greek scribal tendency to exchange the more famous city names (Gerasa or Gadara) for a city name that was unknown to them (Gergesa). In the sixth century a large monastery was founded in the area. Gergesa (Kursi) was situated on the eastern lakeshore at the base of the steep slopes in the territory of Hippus. The inhabitants of Gergesa, being Gentiles, did not share Jewish scruples regarding the raising of swine. Indeed, swine were often used for sacrifices in pagan temples (1 Maccabees 1:47).  

Other events recorded in the Gospels pertaining to the Sea of Galilee and its surrounding are the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in “the lonely places” near the town of Bethsaida (Luke 9:10-17), the story of Jesus walking on the water, and Peter's attempt to follow his example (Mark 6:45-51; Matthew 15:22-23; John 6:15-21). Other journeys of Jesus include a visit to “Magadan” (Matthew 15:39); “Dalmanutha” in Mark (Mark 8:10); in both cases we should read Magdala, the most important townlet on the sea shore after Tiberias, and famous for its fishing-curing industry. This locality was the home of Mary Magdalene, who followed Jesus to Jerusalem; she was one of a group of women, “who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities who provided for him out of their means” (Luke 8:2-3).

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