'Jesus Boat' Causes Ripples

By Abraham Rabinovich
(The 2000-year-old boat found at the bottom of Lake Kinneret was to start the new millennium on display at the Vatican. Not any more)
The resurrection, as could be expected in these awkward times, has become mired in bureaucracy.

The resurrection in this case is of the 2,000-year-old "Jesus Boat," excavated 13 years ago on the shores of Lake Kinneret. It was an astonishing emergence from the tomb of a vessel that may have plied the waters of the Sea of Galilee in Jesus' time. Publicity-wise, however, it proved but a minor miracle. While sailing trips aboard replicas of the "Jesus Boat," built by enterprising tourism operators, have become highly popular with Christian visitors to the Kinneret, only 70,000 persons a year come to see the original boat at the Yigal Allon Museum at Kibbutz Ginossar on the lake shore.

A grander fate was planned for it by the Israel Antiquities Authority which negotiated the boat's display in the halls of the Vatican next year, Holy Year, where millions would see it. The boat was to return after three months to its native shore with worldwide awareness of its existence and, hopefully, the blessings of the pope, ensuring its future as a major pilgrimage attraction.

"It would be good for the Vatican and good for Israel," said Amir Drori, chairman of the Antiquities Authority, on Tuesday. "The boat is an important cultural treasure, not just our own culture but world culture." However, the following day the project was apparently dashed when the Vatican informed Israel's ambassador to the Holy See that it had decided not to exhibit the boat. The Vatican gave no reason for its change of mind but Antiquities Authority officials believe it was a direct result of the opposition to the boat's journey voiced earlier in the week by Israeli political figures and conservationists. They warned that the trip could endanger the fragile vessel. There were objections as well to the boat's absence for three months during the millennial period when Israel itself hopes to draw mass pilgrimage. "It's plain why they canceled it," said an authority official. "They read about this dispute in the home country and say 'why get involved?'"

THE veteran boatwright who cobbled together the eight- meter-long fishing boat would probably have been amused by the furor his rough handiwork would create two millennia into the future. According to an American expert, Prof. J. Richard Steffy, he was a professional boat builder who had learned his trade on the Mediterranean but had adapted the techniques used there to the calmer waters of the lake and to the crude materials available. The boatwright used timber of inferior quality salvaged from other boats. In the course of time, the boat required extensive repairs. The quality of wood used for these was no better than that used originally.

The boat's bottom was nearly flat, permitting it to be used for fishing close to the shore. The net kept on the large stern deck would have been dropped into shallow waters and then pulled ashore by ropes attached to it.

The shallow-draft design was similar to that employed by pirate ships in the Mediterranean which could escape pursuit by larger craft and be easily beached. The completed boat was smeared with pitch brought from the Dead Sea, the nearest source. A square sail was provided on the single mast, but the boat could also be rowed - the four rowers sitting in staggered order.

The craft may have been built at nearby Migdal, which was a boatbuilding center at the time. It had probably been ordered by a Jewish family, since the lake was ringed by Jewish settlements.

Built from junked boats, the vessel ended its life as junk.

Stripped in a boat graveyard of its mast, its deck and other usable parts, the hull was pushed out into the lake where it sank into a time warp. It was swiftly covered by mud which prevented bacteria from eating away at the wood. Surfacing 2,000 years later, it was threatened with rapid disintegration if its waterlogged cells dried out. The vessel had to be inserted into a chemical bath for seven years before it could be exposed to air once again.

The boat's humble construction does not diminish its value as a historic relic. Vatican patronage would doubtless have added to its image as a quasi-religious relic as well. Much of Jesus' ministry was spent on the lake shore with fishermen. There can be no evidence that Jesus ever laid eyes on the boat - nor, of course, that he didn't - but he would have seen boats on the lake that were very similar. The wood cut for the boat has been dated to 40 BCE, plus or minus 80 years, by Carbon-14 testing. Since the wood used in the "Jesus Boat" was taken from junked boats, it would have been built somewhat later. Jesus preached in the area around 30 CE.

NEGOTIATIONS on the Vatican exhibit began three years ago, says Jacob Fisch, director of the Antiquities Authority's program of traveling exhibits. The Authority had already participated in an exhibition of Dead Sea Scrolls in the Vatican library. The talks this time were held not with the Vatican but with an organization, Palazzo Grassi, which carries out cultural programs for the Fiat auto company. "They have excellent relations with the Vatican," says Fisch. "We discussed an exhibition on the archeology of the Holy Land at the Vatican in the year 2000, when they're expecting 30 million pilgrims."

Among the possible exhibition items discussed was an ossuary found a few years ago in Jerusalem inscribed with the name of Caiaphas, the high priest before whom Jesus was brought the night before his crucifixion. Another possibility was a stone marker found at Caesarea bearing the name of Pontius Pilate. "In the end, the decision was to base the exhibition on one major object - the boat," says Fisch.

According to Authority officials, Fiat was to invest $1.5 million in the project, including the construction of a cradle for the boat that could be used after its return to the Yigal Allon museum as well.

Opposition to the boat's journey was voiced by both the Ministry of Education, in whose domain the Antiquities Authority lies, and the Ministry of Tourism - which in protest suspended construction of the new exhibition hall it is building at the museum to house the boat.

Drori hoped, however, that the government would, upon further consideration, conclude that the Vatican exhibition would be good for Israel's image and for tourism to Israel. He said that Italian and American experts have given assurances that the boat would not be damaged by the flight to Rome if it were carefully encased.

The boat would be away from January to March, low tourism months, but be back before Easter. It would then remain at home "forever," he said, in its elevated new status.

The director of the Yigal Allon museum, Nitza Kaplan, admitted to being of two minds about it. "Drori is right about the publicity and the increase in the number of visitors we're likely to have here afterwards, but I'm still afraid the boat might be damaged. If it were up to me, I would prefer not to see it go."

If the boat does not go to the pope, there is a chance that the pope might come to it. A papal visit to the Holy Land in the coming year is a possibility. "It depends on his health and the health of the peace process," says Msgr. Eugene Nugent, first secretary of the Apostolic Delegation in Jerusalem.

Fisch remains hopeful that second thoughts will permit the boat's journey as planned. "We've still got a year," he noted.

© Jerusalem Post 1999

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