Nobody knows the story of how one particular wooden boat got buried in the muddy shore of the Sea of Galilee during the first century AD. The Romans could have sunk it in a famous battle. A fisherman could have tied it up near a wadi and returned to find it buried by a flash flood. It could have belonged to one of Jesus' friends. We don't know its story. We do know that wooden boats simply don't last in fresh water. Yet this one was miraculously protected from oxygen and parasites by closely packed mud.
While the origins of this boat are a mystery, we can know the story of the discovery of this one-of-a-kind artifact "on a clear, chilly day" in January 1986. And the story of its careful removal from its muddy grave. And the story of the resourcefulness, inventiveness, and generosity of those who preserved its fragile shell despite a dearth of funding and equipment. These tales are populated by treasure-hunters, voracious larvae, and self-sacrificing kibbutzniks.
There's no Indiana Jones in Christian Stillman's story, but there is no shortage of heart-stopping moments. The hull was so fragile that it was held together by pressure from the mud in which it was buried. How do you excavate something so flimsy without it collapsing? The boat was exposed because a drought had caused the waterline to recede. But when the rains started again and the waters threatened to submerge the boat, how would the excavation continue? After the boat was moved to a preservation shed, thousands of larvae, hatched from 2000-year-old eggs, began to feed on its wood. How do you kill the worms without harming the boat? In every chapter of Stillman's account, the boat meets a new threat and the reader is treated to a miracle or a display of human ingenuity—or both.
During the first century AD, Galilee was a hotbed of resistance to Roman rule. So when Jesus came preaching that God's reign was at hand, it was more than a comforting platitude. The message had political punch. Jesus himself didn't foment rebellion, but it wasn't too many years after his death that violence erupted. One of the most bloody slaughters of the Jews by the Romans occurred in AD 67, at the battle of Migdal. And Migdal is precisely where this boat was found. Was it among the many vessels sunk at that time? The evidence is ambiguous. But the boat is a reminder of Galilee's tinder-box political atmosphere as much as it is a symbol of Jesus' ministry on and around these waters.
The story of this "Jesus Boat," as it was dubbed by the news media in 1986, was told in a 1995 book by nautical archaeologist Shelley Wachsmann (The Sea of Galilee Boat: An Extraordinary 2000-Year-Old Discovery, Plenum Press). Wachsmann has updated his book twice with short epilogues to cover the boat's removal from its preservative bath and its placement in the Yigal Allon Museum. But Stillman's book tells the story's full sweep at a faster pace. Read Stillman's 205 pages first, then go to Wachsmann for 442 pages of deeper detail.
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The Jesus Boat is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
David Neff also did an interview about the "Miracle Boat" for Christianity Today.
Previous articles on archaeology and history include:
Archaeology: What an Ancient Hebrew Note Might Mean | Scholar says five lines of ancient script on a broken piece of pottery confirm Kingdom of Israel's existence in 10th century B.C. Others are cautious. (January 18, 2010)
Finders of the Lost Ark? | Why some amateurs are stirring up dust and little else. (May 5, 2008)
Looking Back | Claims to new Sodom locations are salted with controversy. (March 12, 2008)
Wall Eyed | Some archaeologists wonder how lucky a colleague can be. (January 14, 2008)