A mosaic depicting fish, birds and baskets of what may be bread, newly uncovered near the Sea of Galilee, may commemorate the historic location of the miracle recorded in the New Testament in which Jesus miraculously feeds a multitude, according to the lead archaeologist at the site, Haifa University’s Dr. Michael Eisenberg.
The colorful mosaic was uncovered in the ongoing Hippos-Sussita Excavation Project at the Sussita National Park’s South-West or Burnt Church. The 15-meter by 10-meter mosaic carpet is bursting with fish, birds and 12 baskets filled with fruit, flowers and — arguably — bread. The traditional location of the miracle is across the sea at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish in Tabgha, which houses a famous mosaic depicting two fish on either side of what is thought to be a bread basket.
It is the Sussita church’s combination of fish and bread baskets that has led Eisenberg to believe that the mosaic could be a record of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and a clue hinting at a historic location for the feat.
In conversation with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, Eisenberg said that this miracle, as well as a multitude of Jesus’s other miracles, occurred under the direct gaze of the church — located near the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He believes that they are all symbolically depicted in the mosaic.
“The symbolism behind [the mosaic] and the position of the church in the perfect place, overlooking Sea of Galilee where most of his miracles took place, means I’m rather sure that the people recognized and interacted with the geographic, physical places where the miracles occurred,” he said.
Depicted in the mosaic, said Eisenberg, are fish, two of which occupy an important “heraldic” position in the church apse, as well as 12 baskets, some of which are filled with pomegranates and probably one with apples and flowers. Other baskets, he said, more directly harken to the well-known miracle and are filled with round loaves of bread: one with five loaves, one or two with seven loaves, and two with six loaves, he said.
As reported by The Times of Israel in July, the Burnt Church was constructed in two phases, in the second half of the 5th and 6th centuries, said Eisenberg, and the mosaics — including at least three inscriptions — are likely from the 6th century. The archaeologist hypothesizes that it was razed during the Persian Sassanian conquest of the land in the early 7th century. None of the other six churches excavated at the site show such destruction.
One of the unique aspects of the Burnt Church’s mosaic, he said, is that it is “very simple, naive, even charming in its nativity. It was ordered by the local people, which is why there are more interesting depictions,” he said. Another 20 percent of the mosaic is yet to be excavated.
The miracle of the loaves and fishes actually appears in two New Testament stories, said Galilee-based priest Dr. Francesco Giosuè Voltaggio, who holds a PhD in archaeology. Jesus did two separate multiplications of loaves and fishes, both along the Sea of Galilee.
“According the Gospel and the old Christian tradition there are two multiplications and two places,” said Voltaggio. A passage in Mark 8:16-21 refers to two loaves and fishes miracles in one dialogue.
The first involved five loaves and two fish that became enough food for some 5,000 Jewish men (women and children were not counted) on one side of the Sea of Galilee. Its location is traditionally placed at Tabgha. The other, said Voltaggio, was conducted for some 4,000 pagan men and occurred on the side of the lake. That miracle, chronicled in Mark and Matthew, involves seven loaves of bread and “a few small fish.”
In the first multiplication for Jews, said Voltaggio, the apostles took away 12 baskets of loaves (for the 12 tribes); in the second one, there was enough leftover food to fill seven baskets. The numbers seven or 70 are symbols for non-Jews, he said.
“The pilgrims keep the memory of this second miracle in Tel Hadar,” Voltaggio explained, which is about 10 kilometers north of the location of ancient Hippos/Sussita where the Burnt Church mosaic is found.
Archaeologist Eisenberg acknowledged that the first miracle is traditionally tied to Tabgha on the west side of the sea, but he suggested that a careful reading of the text tells a different story. “Jesus walked on the sea towards Tabgha after the miracle of the loaves and fishes: How could the miracle have happened there?” he asked.
Eisenberg hypothesized that it could have happened on the northern edge of Hippos domain, what the Romans called the Hippos Territorium, which stretched from the southern part of the Sea of Galilee, and almost reaching the northern corner, north of Kursi, which is very close to Tel Hadar. “I think the miracle happened there,” said Eisenberg.
Although the miracle is recorded in two of the four books of the gospels, there are those that don’t believe the second miracle historically occurred.
“For some scholars, the second multiplication is a merely symbolic duplication,” said Voltaggio, who heads a seminary in the Galilee. The new discovery, he said, “reevaluates the historicity of the two miracles,” which according to the gospels occurred on both sides of the Sea of Galilee.
“The two locations, Tabgha and Sussita are not opposed,” emphasized Voltaggio.
Not everyone agrees with Eisenberg’s identification of the bread baskets, however. Archaeologist Dr. Anat Avital, an expert in mosaics of the Byzantine period who is not connected to the Sussita excavation, does not support Eisenberg’s position.
After studying thousands of mosaics in the region and parts of Europe and North Africa, she firmly suggested that the so-called bread loaves are in fact fruit.
“It could only be fruit, on the size scale of apples. I have seen many other mosaics with almost exactly the same baskets, which usually contain fruit, sometimes flowers,” she told The Times of Israel.
“Another great sign and clue that the artist meant to show fruit is that you can see a pruning tool depicted beside one of the baskets,” said Avital. The artists, she said, “want to tell us that we took this small curved knife for the picking of the fruit.”
The only other known location with a depiction of a basket of loaves is Tabgha, but while she would not touch a traditional reading, also there she is not entirely convinced.
Like other mosaics in Israel and Jordan, she said, the carpet is meant to be taken very literally and show that “if you come to the church, believe in God and you will have very good fruits to eat,” she said. The mosaic’s depiction of bounty is “symbolic of one of the most fundamental things in our lives, we need to eat,” she said.
In the Byzantine era, she said, it is rare to find symbolic art in churches. Rather artists “show terrestrial living, the most immediate things you need — air, water, food and protection against enemies/beasts, etc.”
Likewise, there is nothing significant in the number of baskets or medallions in the mosaic, said Avital and adding layers of meaning is an a-historic anachronism. “We must understand that the people were illiterate, most of them.” Mosaics depicted themes “in a way that is easy to understand, not in clues, not like today,” she said.
Avital qualified that until the mosaic artist rises from the grave, we’ll never really know his intentions, but she hypothesized that when the final 20% of the mosaic is uncovered, the team will likely see something else.
Lead archaeologist Eisenberg praised and welcomed the “healthy debate.” “Where is exactly the line between religion, decoration and symbolism?” he asked. He said the team will continue to discuss the mosaic’s meaning.
“We have enough miracles for everybody,” laughed Eisenberg.