The “Jesus Boat”

Senior Editor Mandy Katz reports from Israel in her fourth blog post:

Never mind Warren Buffett. If you need proof Israel is a creative, culturally dynamic, technologically advanced economy, there’s a 2,000-year-old boat I’d like you to see up in the Galilee.

The “Jesus Boat” is actually just the 28-foot-long keel and partial hull of a wooden fishing craft. Its crew of local Jews would have used it to troll the inland sea for St. Peter’s fish and other species. But it either sank or was abandoned about two millenia ago. Its remains were preserved in the mud bottom until a drought in 1986, when two kibbutzniks from nearby Ginosar noticed an odd shape in the exposed lake bed.

Their find drew the attention of conservators from around Israel who, with help from colleagues abroad, began to fashion a plan to keep it from falling apart while they dug it out. The boat now makes its home in the specially built, climate-controlled Yigal Allon Museum, built around eight years ago by Kibbutz Ginosar, with marble floors and picture-window views of the Galilee, or Kineret. (The museum was named for a Ginosar member who in 1941 helped found the Palmach – the pre-independence Jewish paramilitary brigade.)

What can this old wood tell us about modern Israel? Not much by itself, but plenty if you consider how it got from the Galilee muck to its swanky current quarters. Its discovery relied on a fair deal of happenstance (“The nail was attached to some wood,” its discoverers explained in a museum video, that was attached to some other wood), but its continued survival involved anything but.

Whether by water or by air, the boat seemed fated to disintegrate after leaving its protective earthen bed. Water levels began rising almost as soon as it was found (the region should be so lucky today), so a crude mud dike was created to keep the excavation site dry. But drying out was an equal danger; to protect the newly exposed wood as the mud was dug away, volunteers spritzed the boat’s beams and flanks around the clock with water. To enable work inside the hull without having to step on it, a hammock-like scaffold was suspended down the center. Once the boat was exposed, conservators encased it anew by spraying in polyurethane foam. At a distance, the stuff looks like surf scum on a polluted beach. To get beneath the hull, they hollowed out tunnels running port to starboard (or vice versa), one at a time, and sprayed on the foam before exposing another strip.

At this point, with the whole relic sealed, the problem remained of floating her to shore. The dikes were broken, and a channel dug toward land. Then, like Volga boatmen, a team of about a dozen pulled and prodded the boat to her onetime shore, where a crane was brought in to lift the whole package, ever so delicately, out of the water.

This all took about 11 days. The next stage took ten years. That’s how long the boat was soaked in a carefully concocted bath of preservatives until it could withstand exposure to museum air. While the boat wallowed, tests showed it to contain at least 19 different varieties of wood – testament to an early, need-based commitment to “reduce, re-use, recycle.”

All that seat-of-the-pants engineering and scientific precision was pretty impressive – you wonder, for instance, how they even knew which chemicals to pour into the tub. But here is where the final stage of Israeli ingenuity comes in. The kibbutz and its curators could have called their new exhibit “the 2,000-Year-Old Boat.” They could have built their museum around dioramas of how our Jewish ancestors lived. But, as operators of a 170-room hostelry, they knew that most foreign visitors to the Galilee are mostly interested in one specific Jew. So they called their ancient craft “the Jesus Boat” and allowed that Jesus may have, might have, well, could have sailed on it.

Now, along with Capernaum, the fishes and loaves church and the Mt. of Beatitudes, pilgrims to the Holy Land have a new online mall and another stop on their Galilee bus tours. And the world has one more glimpse of how we all lived back in Jesus’s time.

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4 responses to “The “Jesus Boat”

  1. There’s something quite lyrical about “Galilee muck.” Nothing quite so historically poetic in this county… the U.S.

  2. Oh c’mon! What about “Jersey beaches”…or…nahh, you’re right.

  3. We stopped in recently – besides being really interesting (the video as much as the boat itself) the museum was air conditioned and offered a great cup of coffee. It was fun to see how the kibutznikim figured out the preservation puzzles as they went along. I guess we didn’t even notice the Jesus part.

  4. The muck (black clay, really) is somewhat less romantic when you’re in it, Dave. But my kids liked it: Made an excellent “body rub” they thought, and was also good for snowballs (muckballs?).

    Hi, Skokie. I wish I’d known about the good coffee because it’s been pretty weak at the hotels! I totally agree that it’s the “puzzle-solving” aspect of the boat’s restoration that fascinates. Acc. to an article in this online Christian publication — — had the boat been found earlier, conservators might have lacked some of the knowledge used to save it.

    I’m not sure what to think though, of the comment (in the same piece) from Yuval Lufan, one of the brothers who found the boat. He theorized that the boat lasted this long because “Jesus touched it.” Thankfully, the museum exhibit sticks to the knowable and doesn’t even begin to go there!

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