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A Rare Byzantine Painting of Jesus’ Face Has Been Uncovered in Israel

A Rare Byzantine Painting of Jesus’ Face Has Been Uncovered in Israel

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Archaeologists in Israel have discovered a painting of the face of Jesus Christ from the Byzantine period. The find is exciting experts, who believe that the discovery can help us to understand Early Christian art because the depiction is not one that conforms to the traditional representation of Christ. Moreover, it can help researchers to better understand Byzantine religious culture and its development in the early Medieval period.

The painting was discovered by experts from the University of Haifa at a long-abandoned Byzantine village known as Shivta. This was once a significant settlement on the frontier of the Byzantine Empire , in the Negev desert in what is now Israel. Shivta was a large Christian village with several churches and was at its peak just before the rise of Islam (6th century AD). After the Islamic conquests of the Eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire, the village went into rapid decline and was abandoned during the 9th century AD. It was only rediscovered in the 19th century.

The Northern Church, Shivta. ( Dror Maayan )

Jesus’ Face

A team from the University of Haifa was studying the ruined village in order to understand the collapse of the Byzantine presence in the area in the aftermath of the Islamic conquest. According to Cambridge Core , they were examining ‘’the Shivta churches’ main features’’ when the painting was identified. The researchers were documenting the surviving artwork on the village’s southernmost Christian church’s apse wall when a team member saw the remarkable image of Christ, completely by chance.

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The painting high on the apse wall was first identified in the 1920s. However, such were the layers of dirt and grime on the Church walls, that no one was really sure what was depicted. The painting was known to be that of Jesus, but no one could really make out the image.

However, one member of the team, Maayan-Fanar, was studying the apse when with the right angle of the sunlight she saw a face looking back at her. By a stroke of great luck, she was able to see traces of the painting under deposits of grime because of the sunlight streaming into the interior of the church. The Western Journal reports that Maayan-Fanar stated that suddenly, “It was the face of Jesus at his baptism, looking at us.”

Remnants of the baptism-of-Christ scene (indicated by white arrow) on the apse of the Baptistery chamber. (Dror Maayan )

A Fortunate Discovery

The painting of Christ that was revealed is one which showed him as a young man who was beardless, had curly hair, a long nose, and expressive eyes. In the early centuries in some areas of the Byzantine Empire , Christ was regularly depicted as a youth. Fox News reports that this was a style of portraiture that “was especially widespread in Egypt and Syro-Palestine, but gone from later Byzantine art.” A similar image of the Christian Messiah has also been uncovered in Rome.

An image of a large figure who is shown with a halo was painted near the figure of Jesus. It is believed that this was possibly the figure of John the Baptist. According to Cambridge Core “the location of the scene—above the crucifix-shaped Baptist font—suggests its identification as the baptism of Christ.” The baptism of Christ was a popular subject in the early history of Byzantine Art, especially outside Byzantium.

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This 6th-century mosaic detail from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna depicts Christ with a halo of mother of pearl on a precious gold background. (Lawrence OP/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )

It is believed that Jesus’ face was once part of a larger scene in the apse, based on the discovery of paint fragments, and it is possible that more figures could be detected in the future. Experts want to continue to study the image and find ways of preserving it for posterity. The painting is extremely rare, as many early examples of Byzantine art were destroyed during the two periods of Iconoclasm during the 7th and 8th century AD. The scene is also helping experts to understand the development of Byzantine art in the regions of the Empire. It is also the only painting of Christ’s baptism that has survived in the region.

    Earliest Depiction of Jesus Christ in Israel Discovered. Here's What It Shows.

    Emma Maayan-Fanar was looking for shade from the desert sun when she saw the face of Jesus.

    The art historian from the University of Haifa in Israel had been studying crucifixes and other motifs on the stone lintels of the ancient churches and houses of the ruined city of Shivta in the Negev Desert.

    Although it was February, days in the desert can still get hot — and so Maayan-Fanar found some shade under one of the few pieces of roof still intact at the site, in the baptistery of the northernmost of three ruined churches in the ancient city.

    That's when she saw eyes looking out from the stones — the very faint remains of a portrait of Jesus Christ at his baptism in the Jordan River, painted on the ceiling of the building around 1,500 years ago. [See Photos of the Jesus Portrait and the Ruins of Shivta]

    "Everyone describes it as like a miracle, and it was, for a moment," she told Live Science.

    Maayan-Fanar called her husband, Dror Maayan, the photographer for the Israeli academic team working at Shivta, to take pictures of the painting on the stones of the baptistery ceiling. The results of their find in 2017 were recently published in the journal Antiquity.

    The heavily eroded painting is now thought to be the oldest representation of Jesus Christ found so far in Israel, and one of the very few images from that time that shows details of his face.

    The Christian ruins of the ancient desert city are thought to date from between the fourth and sixth century A.D.

    Early depiction of Jesus discovered in Israel: Curly hair, long face, 'not like Western image'

    A newly discovered artistic depiction of Jesus in the ruins of an ancient Israeli church portrays Christ differently from Western conceptions, with curly hair and a long face.

    Art historian Emma Maayan-Fanar told Haaretz that the painting was discovered in the ruins of Shivta, formally a Byzantine farming village in Israel's Negev desert.

    "His face is right there, looking at us," Maayan-Fanar said of the eroded painting found at the ruins of a church, meant to depict Jesus' baptism.

    She explained that unlike Western perceptions that often portray Jesus with flowing long hair, the Shivta painting depicts Him with short curly hair, a long face and an elongated nose.

    The exact date of the artwork is not yet known, though Shivta is believed to have been founded sometime in the 2nd century C.E.

    Another painting of Jesus in the ruins of Shivta discovered earlier symbolizes the transfiguration, but does not depict His face.

    Though the ancient village was first discovered in 1871 and has been the subject of much archaeological work, Maayan-Fanar believes she is the first to discover it is Christ's image underneath the centuries of dirt on the painting.

    "I was there at the right time, at the right place with the right angle of light and, suddenly, I saw eyes," the art historian recalled. "It was the face of Jesus at His baptism, looking at us."

    Dror Maayan, her husband, took hi-res photographs of the site, which further allow the image lost for over 1,5000 years to become clearer.

    The find is said to be "extremely rare," given that early depictions of Jesus' physical appearance are practically non-existent in Israel.

    The question of what Jesus really looked like has long been the subject of debate by historians and theologians. A book earlier in 2018 by Joan E. Taylor, professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King's College London, tackled that precise question, and looking at what His skin and hair color, height, and attire might have been.

    "The early depictions of Jesus that set the template for the way he continues to be depicted today were based on the image of an enthroned emperor and influenced by presentations of pagan gods. The long hair and beard are imported specifically from the iconography of the Graeco-Roman world. Some of the oldest surviving depictions of Jesus portray him as essentially a younger version of Jupiter, Neptune or Serapis," Taylor wrote in The Irish Times.

    He said that in reality, Judaeans of Jesus' time were closest biologically to modern-day Iraqi Jews.

    "In terms of a colour palette then, think dark-brown to black hair, deep brown eyes, olive-brown skin. Jesus would have been a man of Middle Eastern appearance. In terms of height, an average man of this time stood 166 cm (5 ft 5 in) tall," the author of What Did Jesus Look Like? suggested.

    2. Clothing

    At the time of Jesus, wealthy men donned long robes for special occasions, to show off their high status in public. In one of Jesus's teachings, he says, "Beware of the scribes, who desire to walk in long robes (stolai), and to have salutations in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets" (Mark chapter 12, verses 38-39).

    The sayings of Jesus are generally considered the more accurate parts of the Gospels, so from this we can assume that Jesus really did not wear such robes.

    Overall a man in Jesus's world would wear a knee-length tunic, a chiton, and a woman an ankle-length one, and if you swapped these around it was a statement. Thus, in the 2nd Century Acts of Paul and Thecla, when Thecla, a woman, dons a short (male) tunic it is a bit of a shock. These tunics would often have coloured bands running from the shoulder to the hem and could be woven as one piece.

    On top of the tunic you would wear a mantle, a himation, and we know that Jesus wore one of these because this is what a woman touched when she wanted to be healed by him (see, for example, Mark chapter 5, verse 27). A mantle was a large piece of woollen material, though it was not very thick and for warmth you would want to wear two.

    A himation, which could be worn in various ways, like a wrap, would hang down past the knees and could completely cover the short tunic. (Certain ascetic philosophers even wore a large himation without the tunic, leaving their upper right torso bare, but that is another story.)

    Power and prestige were indicated by the quality, size and colour of these mantles. Purple and certain types of blue indicated grandeur and esteem. These were royal colours because the dyes used to make them were very rare and expensive.

    But colours could also indicate something else. The historian Josephus describes the Zealots (a Jewish group who wanted to push the Romans out of Judaea) as a bunch of murderous transvestites who donned "dyed mantles" - chlanidia - indicating that they were women's wear. This suggests that real men, unless they were of the highest status, should wear undyed clothing.

    Jesus did not wear white, however. This was distinctive, requiring bleaching or chalking, and in Judaea it was associated with a group called the Essenes - who followed a strict interpretation of Jewish law. The difference between Jesus's clothing and bright, white clothing, is described in Mark chapter 9, when three apostles accompany Jesus to a mountain to pray and he begins to radiate light. Mark recounts that Jesus's himatia (in the plural the word may mean "clothing" or "clothes" rather than specifically "mantles") began "glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them". Before his transfiguration, therefore, Jesus is presented by Mark as an ordinary man, wearing ordinary clothes, in this case undyed wool, the material you would send to a fuller.

    We are told more about Jesus's clothing during his execution, when the Roman soldiers divide his himatia (in this case the word probably refers to two mantles) into four shares (see John chapter 19, verse 23). One of these was probably a tallith, or Jewish prayer shawl. This mantle with tassels (tzitzith) is specifically referred to by Jesus in Matthew chapter 23, verse 5. This was a lightweight himation, traditionally made of undyed creamy-coloured woollen material, and it probably had some kind of an indigo stripe or threading.

    3. De Charny’s granddaughter was excommunicated for selling it to Italian royals.

    In 1418, when the Hundred Years’ War threatened to spill over into Lirey, Geoffroi de Charny’s granddaughter Margaret de Charny and her husband offered to store the cloth in their castle. Her husband wrote a receipt for the exchange acknowledging that the cloth was not Jesus’ authentic burial shroud, and promising to return the shroud when it was safe. However, she later refused to return it, and instead took it on tour, advertising it as Jesus’ real burial shroud.

    In 1453, Margaret de Charny sold the shroud in exchange for two castles to the royal house of Savoy, which ruled over parts of modern-day France, Italy and Switzerland (the house later ascended to the Italian throne). As punishment for selling the shroud, she received excommunication.

    Ancient church found where Jesus said to tell Peter to establish Christianity

    Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

    One of the earliest churches in Israel has been unearthed at the foot of breathtaking waterfalls in the scenic Banias Nature Reserve in Israel’s north. The rare circa 400 CE Byzantine church was build on top of a Roman-era temple to Pan, the Greek god from whom the park takes its name.

    The 4th-5th century Christian builders adapted the Roman pagan temple to fit the needs of the relatively new religion, said University of Haifa Prof. Adi Erlich in a brief Hebrew-language video announcing the find.

    Erlich hypothesizes that the church was built to commemorate Jesus’s significant interactions with Peter — who recognized his teacher as the Messiah — that are documented to have taken place in the area, called “Caesarea of ​​Philip” during Jesus’ time.

    According to some Christian traditions, it is in this region that Jesus tasked Peter with establishing Christianity and said the famous phrase, “You are Peter and, on this rock, I will build my Church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” which is recorded in Matthew 16:18.

    The location of the excavation is unique in that it combines a cliff, a cave, springs and a terrace created in ancient times from the collapse of part of the cliff on which the temple was built, according to a press release. Erlich said that in circa 3rd century BCE, worship of the god Pan began near the cave and the spring. The temple was built in circa 20 BCE. It became an important Christian center with its own bishop from 320 CE.

    The highly stylized open-air temple, adorned with classic Roman architecture and a small pool in the center, is securely identified as a temple to Pan through a dedication inscribed on an altar to the satyr god of shepherds, music, and sex. The original Roman temple architecture structure was Christianized and turned into a church.

    Among the Christian finds were little crosses decorating the mosaic flooring of the church. The cross symbol became widespread in Christian iconography after the reign of Constantine, in the mid-4th century. One east-facing niche in the pagan temple that perhaps held a statue of Pan was reinvented as a church apse.

    Also discovered is a “very interesting stone,” said Erlich, which is dressed and dotted with etched crosses. They were most likely “I was here” graffiti incised into the rock by pilgrims who visited in the 6th-7th centuries.

    At one point in its existence, the church suffered damage through an earthquake but was renovated in the 7th century, according to a press release on the site.

    Israel Nature and Parks Authority head of heritage and archaeology Dr. Iosi Bordowicz said that the Banias National Park is filled with stunning archaeology, spreading from the Roman period through the Crusader era.

    The current excavation, conducted in cooperation with the University of Haifa, is part of a wide variety of activities being undertaken to preserve and conserve monumental archaeology that has been taking place in the past few years throughout the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, said Bordowicz.

    Bordowicz said the finds will be conserved and made accessible to the many thousands of tourists who — barring COVID-19 — visit the breathtaking waterfalls from all over the world.

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    Jesus image, hidden in plain sight at Negev church, is one of earliest in Israel

    Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

    An early depiction of Jesus was recently discovered in a circa 6th century Byzantine church deep in Israel’s Negev Desert. Dr. Emma Maayan-Fanar identified the Christian Messiah’s portrait from a few faint outlines with the help of a combination of conditions that was almost miraculous.

    Alongside Haifa University archaeologists and conservationists Prof. Guy Bar-Oz, Yotam Tepper, and Ravit Linn, art historian Maayan-Fanar is participating in a multi-year interdisciplinary research project called the Negev Byzantine Bio-Archaeology Research Program at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shivta. Its self-stated goal is to look into “the reasons for the collapse of a complex society in an environmentally marginal region 1,500 years ago.”

    Maayan-Fanar told The Times of Israel this week that during a recent visit to the North Church, one of three at the site, she glanced at the baptistery apse above her and immediately saw the face of Jesus staring down at her.

    “I was under the apse at the right place at the right time. It’s just so hidden — it’s impossible to see — but the conditions of the light were just right,” said Maayan-Fanar.

    In an article in the August edition of the journal Antiquity, the research team writes that the face, set in a larger depiction of Jesus’ baptism, is “the first pre-iconoclastic baptism-of-Christ scene to be found in the Holy Land.”

    Unlike the flowing robes and hair usually found in Western depictions, the Jesus seen here is youthful, with a cropped curly coif.

    In the Antiquity report, the researchers write, “Despite its fragmentary condition, it reveals a youth’s face depicted on the apse’s upper section. The figure has short curly hair, a prolonged face, large eyes and an elongated nose.”

    “Christ’s face in this painting is an important discovery in itself. It belongs to the iconographic scheme of a short-haired Christ, which was especially widespread in Egypt and Syro-Palestine, but gone from later Byzantine art. Early sixth-century texts include polemics concerning the authenticity of Christ’s visual appearance, including his hairstyle. Based on iconography, we estimate that this scene was also painted in the sixth century AD,” write the authors.

    To the untrained layman, the faint lines captured by her professional photographer husband Dror Maayan look somewhat like faint iron stains often found after a desert rain. As Prof. James Davila, a biblical scholar/blogger, put it, “To my unpracticed eye the new wall depiction of Jesus looks like one of those ‘Jesus on a piece of toast’ pictures that surface constantly on the internet.”

    The key, however, is to look at the outlines with a trained eye. In his post including the Haaretz article that broke the story this week, Davila added, “But I’m sure the art historians looking at the original wall can see it better than I can.”

    For the Antiquity article, Maayan-Fanar generated penciled reconstruction of the image on a high-resolution photograph taken by her husband. With her guidelines, the faint smudges become a portrait of a young man.

    According to Maayan-Fanar, there is little doubt. Early Christian art and iconography follow well-known formulaic patterns, she said.

    “Those who know the iconography of early Christianity can recognize such an image even from almost nothing,” she said.

    The location of the image, in the baptistery where remains of the cross-shaped stone baptismal basin still remain, increases her certainty.

    Maayan-Fanar has also identified a second, larger figure as John the Baptist. This combination of a large John the Baptist with a youthful Jesus is common in Christian art. “Paint traces throughout the apse suggest that these faces were part of a wider scene, which could contain additional figures,” write the researchers.

    The discovery of this painting is “extremely important,” they write.

    “Thus far, it is the only in situ baptism-of-Christ scene to date confidently to the pre-iconoclastic Holy Land. Therefore, it can illuminate Byzantine Shivta’s Christian community and Early Christian art across the region.”

    More research on the horizon

    Surrounding the face of Jesus are additional details at the scene’s center, hidden beneath an accumulation of dust and mud. According to the researchers, the dirt layer has protected the underlying paint from further deterioration.

    Conservationist Linn said the team is planning on using a variety of techniques and technologies to document as much information as possible about the painting. The trick is to see the unseen without touching it and causing any further deterioration.

    What is revolutionary in the field of archaeology, she said, is that much of this work can now be done in the field, rather than taking samples back to the laboratory.

    “We’re trying to get out as much information as possible onsite, but there’s not a lot to go on, I agree,” Linn said. She said the identification of the image as Jesus is much more than an “educated guess” based on parallel examples found elsewhere in early Christendom.

    Last year, the team publicized an additional Jesus image: a Transfiguration scene in the site’s mid-4th century CE southern church, which is only one of two figurative examples of the scene from the early Christian period, according to the researchers.

    The dating of the Jesus painting cannot be given with 100 percent certainty, but an inscription carved on the floor of the church dates the structure’s renovation to 640 CE. Armenian graffiti indicates the church was not abandoned prior to the 9th century.

    Using visible induced luminescence (VIL) imaging, the team mapped the distribution of Egyptian blue pigment in the painting and uncovered previously unseen starbursts of light emanating from the bodies of the Jesus and other figures found there.

    “Although this motif is an important part of the Transfiguration narrative and appears in most of its scenes depicted elsewhere, it had not been previously identified in this painting as it was undetectable by any other inspection technique,” write the researchers.

    Linn said the research and conservation plan for the new painting found this year in the northern church is still in formation. The team plans to examine each stone block individually, and as a whole.

    “Before doing anything, we need to know what we’re going to do and with what,” she said, adding that the image is just a small portion of the much larger ongoing bioarchaeology project.

    A 360-approach to archaeological scholarship

    The project is based at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology of the University of Haifa and headed by Bar-Oz, but includes scientists from a wide swath of disciplines. Previous publications have highlighted desert agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as other archaeological discoveries.

    “Shivta is the focal point in our ongoing project to explore the forces and processes which enabled a burgeoning urban and agricultural society to flourish during the Byzantine period in the arid region of the Negev, as well as to understand the factors that led to its decline,” write the researchers.

    Located deep in the Negev Desert, Shivta was settled, potentially by the nomadic Nabateans, in the early Roman period. According to the archaeologists, “The settlement was apparently first established by the Nabataeans in the 1st century CE, prior to the Roman annexation of the region (105/106 CE).” The few indications of Nabatean settlement there are only a handful of potsherds, which could have been brought there by others during the Roman period, said Tepper.

    The village reached its peak at a settlement slightly distanced from the Nabatean village during Byzantine times (5th–6th centuries CE). It was eventually abandoned soon after its cultural transition and transformation in the Early Islamic period (mid-7th–mid-8th centuries CE), only to be rediscovered by Holy Land archaeologists in the 19th century, writes the research team in a recent report, “Probing the Byzantine/Early Islamic Transition in the Negev: The Renewed Shivta Excavations, 2015–2016.”

    There were previous excavations at the site, including one that “briefly noted” the recently discovered Jesus face in the late 1920s, writes Maayan-Fanar in the August Antiquity article. But the documentation of the digs was partial — if at all — and the Haifa University team felt the field was wide open for further research.

    Interestingly, perhaps due to the chain of multicultural settlement, there is an urban legend that promotes site as a center for interfaith coexistence. This is not really borne out through archaeological footprints, according to the authors.

    “The presence of three large churches indicates that Shivta was a prosperous Christian community. By comparison, the single mosque is significantly smaller than the earlier monuments, pointing to a decline in population at the site,” they write.

    It appears, they write, that although the mosque is centrally located adjacent to the South Church and the public reservoirs, there was a sharp decrease in the village population during the Early Islamic period. According to the team’s findings, these early Muslims would have been primarily found “in abandoned and destroyed Byzantine structures,” which could indicate population replacement, rather than coexistence.

    Coexistence, agriculture, and even the face of Jesus are just a few of the puzzle pieces being examined by the 360-degree multi-disciplinary team.

    “We’re continuing the research and expect there will be many more interesting projects in the near future,” said Linn.

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    Average, short-haired guy

    According to Taylor's research, rather than towering over others in Judea, Jesus was about 5 foot 5 inches (1.7 meters) tall, or the average height seen in skeletal remains from males there at the time. People in Judea and Egypt tended to have brown eyes, black hair and olive-brown skin, based on surviving archaeological remains, historical texts and depictions of people seen in mummy portraits from Egypt, Taylor said in her book.

    There was interaction between Judea and people from Europe (who could have lighter skin) as well as Sudan and Ethiopia (who could have darker skin). But because Jews in Judea and Egypt tended to marry among themselves at the time, Jesus' skin, eyes and hair probably looked like those of the majority of the people in Judea and Egypt, Taylor found. Surviving texts say that Jews in Egypt couldn't be physically distinguished from the rest of Egypt's population around Jesus' time. [Proof of Jesus Christ? 7 Pieces of Evidence Debated]

    Historical records also showed that people in Judea tended to keep their hair (and beards) reasonably short and well-combed, probably to keep out lice, a big problem at the time, Taylor said. Jesus likely did the same.

    He could have used a knife to trim his hair and beard, Taylor said, noting that people in the ancient world tended to be more skilled with knives than people are today.

    Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as a carpenter who did a lot of walking but at times didn't have much to eat. This active lifestyle, but lack of regular food, meant that he was probably thin, but somewhat muscular, Taylor said. "Jesus was a man who was physical in terms of the labor that he came from," Taylor said. "He shouldn't be presented as [in] any way someone who was living a soft life, and sometimes that's the kind of image we get."

    Some aspects of Jesus' face, such as his mouth and cheeks, are anyone's guess, Taylor said. He may have had facial scars or skin damage from his work as a carpenter, but there's no way to tell, Taylor said.

    She said she is skeptical of depictions of Jesus that show him as being very handsome. If Jesus were handsome, Taylor said, the gospel writers, or other early Christian writers, would have said so, as they did for Moses and David.

    6 Things Archaeology is Telling Us About the Real Jesus

    When it comes to archaeology, there is evidence of Jesus. We have actual sites and artifacts that testify to the historical truth of Jesus Christ. Remarkably, over the last few decades, significant evidence revealing the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus has been uncovered! The evidence for Jesus starts with the place of His birth in Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity is generally considered a credible historical site, with the traditional cave of Christ&rsquos birth being marked by the ornate star of Bethlehem. In addition, surprising archaeological finds are breaking new ground in our understanding of Jesus&rsquo time &ndash and the revolution He launched 2,000 years ago. The evidence of archaeology really can help us interpret certain biblical texts, as well as providing an independent way to check the Bible&rsquos historical reliability. Many critics of Christianity continue to argue against the trustworthiness of the New Testament record but, in fact, every new archaeological find has been on the side of Scripture, not skeptics. Here are six things archaeology is telling us about the real Jesus.

    Have Archaeologists Found Where Jesus Fed the 5,000?

    Researchers with the University of Haifa in Israel claim that a newly unearthed mosaic may indicate where Jesus performed this miracle.

    Candida Moss

    University of Haifa

    Archaeologists excavating near the Sea of Galilee may have discovered the site where Jesus is said to have miraculously fed a crowd of five thousand people using only five loaves and two fish. The miracle, which is mentioned in all four of the canonical Gospels, is regarded by some historians as one of the more ancient traditions associated with Jesus.

    The new claim is based on discoveries made by scientists from the University of Haifa. During excavations at the Byzantine era “Burnt Church” in the Hippos National Park (the church is named because it was one of seven churches destroyed as part of the Sasanian conquest in 614 CE). Archaeologists uncovered a 1,400 year old mosaic on the floor of the church that depicts the feeding miracle.

    According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples withdrew to a “deserted place” in the Galilee region after the death of John the Baptist in order to rest (Mark 6:31). The location must have been relatively close to the shore of the Sea of Galilee because they used a boat to get there. Once the group came ashore they were swamped by a crowd of people who had followed them there. The ever-practical disciples advised Jesus to send the crowd away as it was growing late and there was nothing for people to eat.

    The miracle that follows is by biblical standards a rather low-key affair. Jesus had the disciples gather up the nutritional resources of the group. Then, Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the bread, and had the loaves and fishes evenly distributed among the people. “And all ate and were filled and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.” (Mark 6:42-44). The story is repeated in Matthew, Mark, and John. There’s even a similar incident in Mark and Matthew known as the Feeding of the Four Thousand and even more food is left over.

    Traditionally, people have believed that the feeding of the five thousand miracle took place in Tabgha, Capernaum, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. There’s even a church there, called the Church of the Multiplication, that celebrates the event. The earliest evidence of Christian worship in Tabgha dates to the mid-fourth century but the mosaics that refer to the feeding of the five thousand come from around 480 A.D.

    Hippos, the site of the newest discovery, is on the southeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The history of the city there dates back to the turn of the era and there’s some evidence of occupation there as early as the third century B.C. There are several mosaics from the Burnt Church that appear to refer to the miracle story. The first depicts Jesus performing the miracle the second shows twelve baskets filled with bread and fruit. Dr. Michael Eisenberg, who oversaw the excavation on behalf of the University of Haifa, noted that these may be a reference to the baskets of bread that were left over after the multitude had eaten.

    Eisenberg cautiously hypothesized that perhaps Hippos was the place that the miracle supposedly took place. He told The Jerusalem Post:“Nowadays, we tend to regard the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha on the northwest of the Sea of Galilee as the location of the miracle, but with careful reading of the New Testament, it is evident that it might have taken place north of Hippos within the city’s region.” If Eisenberg’s theory is correct this would mean that Christians had been, to borrow a phrase from Indiana Jones, celebrating the miracle ‘in the wrong place.’

    Before jumping to conclusions, however, it is important to evaluate precisely what kinds of evidence we have for both the site in Hippos and that in Tabgha. Both sites contain mosaics of the miracle of the multiplication and these mosaics (and the churches that contained them) date to the fifth century.

    The earliest evidence for Christians visiting any site associated with the miracle comes from the Pilgrimage diary of Christianity’s first female travel writer, Egeria, who visited the Holy Land ca. 381 A.D. According to her diary, the site she visited, “where the Lord fed the people with the five loaves and the two fishes” was near Capernaum. Even if the Church of the Multiplication is the same place visited by Egeria (and it is likely to be in the general vicinity), she was still traveling some 350 years after Jesus is reported to have performed this miracle. None of the archaeological or literary evidence can confirm either that the miracle took place, or where it took place.

    What we do have evidence for is a trend in the artistic and theological program of late fifth century Christians living in the Holy Land. Whether or not those who commissioned the mosaics intended to claim that this was where the feeding miracle was performed, they are both very interested in this story about the divine provision of food. (Interestingly the artist who produced the mosaic in Tabgha was not a local fisherman: the mosaics there show the fish with two dorsal fins while fish from the Sea of Galilee only have one dorsal fin).

    Both these churches were constructed during a period in which Christians made pilgrimages to religious sites looking for the alleviation of physical suffering. This suffering was usually related to sickness but people also asked for help with the hardships that resulted from crop failure, famine, taxation, and conflict. Perhaps what we have here are different religious centers that competed for and catered to the needs of pilgrims and tourists. These churches might have been equally appealing to members of the local fishing industry, who relied upon good hauls of fish in order to sustain themselves and their families. Bread and fish are evocative symbols for early Christians, but, for those who lived around the Sea of Galilee or were agrarian workers they also had a great deal of practical economic significance.

    Equally, the discovery of multiple churches claiming a connection to the feeding of the five thousand story might just be directing us to the importance of food in ancient religion and religion in general. We tend to define religion as about religious books and prayers, but food has often played an important role in our relationship with the cosmic and supernatural order. As Meredith Warren, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield and author of Food and Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Literature, told the Daily Beast “Eating is one of the most fundamental ways that humans interact with the world, so it is no surprise that food and meals feature so prominently in the creation of meaning by early Christians.”

    Have we discovered where the feeding of the 5000 actually took place (assuming that you believe that it happened)? Probably not. But archaeologists may well have unearthed another location where Christians genuinely believed Jesus had performed this miracle and remembered and commemorated that event. The discovery of these new mosaics can tell us a great deal about was important to Christians living in the region, the Bible stories that appealed to them, and the ways that various religious centers competed with each other.