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Lake Genesaret and Tabgha: the Church of the Primacy of St Peter

J. Gil

Tags: Faith, History, Pope, Holy Land, In the footprints of our Faith
In the footprints of our Faith

Few places in the Holy Land are so directly linked to the New Testament as Lake Gennesaret (Genesareth), also known as the Sea of Galilee and Lake Tiberias. In other places, two thousand years of history have brought dramatic changes to the topography – churches, shrines and basilicas have been built, destroyed, rebuilt, enlarged or restored; many villages and towns have become large cities, while others have disappeared; roads both small and large, and motorways, have appeared… But while the surroundings of Lake Gennesaret have not escaped such changes altogether, the landscape remains almost unaltered; the contemplation of the scene brings repose to the eyes and refreshes the spirit, filling the soul with an indescribable sense; the memory of Jesus and the echo of his words, which still seem to linger in the air, lift the traveller beyond the present moment.

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However, the area has not always been so peaceful. When Jesus walked these paths, no fewer than ten towns stood around the lake, either on its shores or in the surrounding hills. There was a thriving business between them all, sustained by countless boat crossings. None of these bustling towns has survived to the present. Only the modern city called Tiberias recalls the Roman city of that name, which was founded at the beginning of the 1st century and situated further south. We can get some idea of the towns that Jesus knew, but only from their ruins.
At the beginning of Jesus’ public life, he made Capernaum his second hometown

The wealth of the region was due in the first place to the abundance of fish in the lake, which measures twenty-one kilometers from north to south and twelve kilometers at most in width, with an average depth of forty-five meters. Its waters come mainly from the River Jordan, plus some springs that flow close to its shores or even underwater in the lake itself. The commonest type of fish is the tilapia, also known as “St Peter’s fish”.

The other main means of subsistence was agriculture. Lying 210 meters below sea-level, the area has warm winters and springs, with extremely high temperatures for much of the summer. The historian Flavius Josephus testified to the fertility of the region in the 1st century: “its soil is so fruitful that all sorts of crops can grow upon it, and the inhabitants accordingly plant every kind of tree there; for the air is so temperate that it agrees very well with many different species. Walnuts, which generally belong to a cooler climate, flourish there in abundance. There are palm trees also, which grow best in hot climates; and fig-trees and olives grow near them, which require more temperate air. It could be said that here nature herself takes pride in forcing those plants that are naturally enemies to one another, to agree together; it is a happy contention of the seasons, as if every one of them laid claim to this country; for it not only nourishes different sorts of autumnal fruit beyond men's expectation, but preserves them a great while; it supplies men with the principal fruits, with grapes and figs continually, during ten months of the year, and the rest of the fruits as they become ripe together through the whole year; for besides the good temperature of the air, it is also watered from a most fertile fountain. The people of the country call it Capharnaum. Some have thought it to be a branch of the Nile, because it produces the Coracin fish as well as that lake does which is near to Alexandria” (Josephus, The Jewish Wars, book 3, chapter 10).

The most notable traces of our Lord’s presence in this area are to be found on the north-west side of Lake Gennesaret, around Capernaum. At the beginning of his public life, leaving Nazareth, Jesus made Capernaum, a little fishing-town where some of the Twelve or their relatives lived, into his second hometown. There are so many different places in the area deserving of attention that several articles will be devoted to them in the course of the year.
The lake. Photograph: Jon Lai Yexian (Flickr)
The lake. Photograph: Jon Lai Yexian (Flickr)

West of Capernaum
The present tour will begin in modern-day Tabgha. This is a zone three kilometers to the west of Capernaum, extending a few hectares inland from the shore of the lake, to the surrounding hills. The Arabic name “Tabgha” appears to be derived from the Byzantine name Heptapegon, Greek for “Seven Springs”, owing to the springs that flowed then as they do today. According to traditions kept alive by Christians living there ever since the time of Jesus, this was where he multiplied five loaves and two fishes to feed a vast multitude (cf. Mt 14:13-21; Mk 6:32-44; Lk 9:12-17; Jn 6:1-15); it was here that he gave the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:1-11; Lk 6:17-26); and it was here too that he appeared to his Apostles after the Resurrection, bringing about the second miraculous catch of fish and confirming St Peter as Head of the Church (cf. Jn 21:1-23). These three episodes in our Lord’s life took place within 100 meters of each other.

This place recalls the spot where Jesus confirmed Peter as supreme shepherd of his Church
An account attributed to the pilgrim Egeria (or Etheria), who visited Palestine in the 4th century, offers an eloquent testimony to the Christian memories of Tabgha. “Not far from Capharnaum may be seen the stone ledges on which the Lord sat down. There, near the sea, is an open space covered with grass and many palm trees, and near that same place seven springs with plentiful water flowing from each of them. In this place the Lord fed a multitude with five loaves and two fishes. The stone on which Jesus set the bread has been made into an altar. Past the walls of the church runs a roadway where Matthew had his tax-collector’s bench. Upon the nearby hill is the place where the Lord went up to pronounce the Beatitudes.” (This text comes in the Liber de Locis Sanctis, written by St Peter the Deacon, a monk at Monte Cassino, in 1137.)

Photograph from the end of the 19th century showing the kind of boat formerly used on Lake Tiberias. Photograph: Chatham University JKM Library – Flickr.
Photograph from the end of the 19th century showing the kind of boat formerly used on Lake Tiberias. Photograph: Chatham University JKM Library – Flickr.
We can now look at the first of the places listed by Egeria, “the stone ledges on which the Lord sat down”. This tradition refers to the place from which the Risen Jesus told the Apostles in the boat to cast the net out to the right, as narrated at the end of St John’s Gospel. “Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat; but that night they caught nothing. Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, have you any fish?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead” (Jn 21:2-14).

Archaeological excavations confirm that under the Church of the Primacy of Peter are the remains of two churches dating from the 4th and 5th centuries. Photograph: Alfred Driessen.
Archaeological excavations confirm that under the Church of the Primacy of Peter are the remains of two churches dating from the 4th and 5th centuries. Photograph: Alfred Driessen.
Egeria’s account mentions a church on the lake shore where Jesus appeared, and a late text dating from the 10th or 11th century attributes to the Empress St Helena the building of a church dedicated to the Apostles, on the spot where the Lord ate breakfast with them. Some documents, going back to the 9th century, call it variously Mensa Domini, Tabula Domini, the Church of the Twelve Thrones, or the Church of the Charcoal Fire, all names recalling that meal. From a mediaeval account we also know that the church was dedicated specifically to the Prince of the Apostles: “At the foot of the hill is the Church of St Peter, very beautiful but derelict,” said the Anglo-Saxon pilgrim Saewulf in 1102 (Saewulf, Relatio de peregrinatione ad Hierosolymam et Terram Sanctam). After various vicissitudes, the church was finally destroyed in 1263. The present one was built by the Franciscans in 1933 on the foundations of the ancient chapel, and is called the Church of the Primacy of St Peter to mark the place where Jesus confirmed Simon Peter as the supreme shepherd of his Church. “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’” (Jn 21:15-17).

Archaeological excavations in 1969 confirmed that under the Church of the Primacy of St Peter lie the remains of two older churches. One, dating from the end of the 4th century, still has some fragments of white-plastered walls; the second, built of basalt a hundred years later, can be recognized in the perimeter walls. Both churches were centered on a rock which the pilgrims called “Mensa Christi” or “The Table of Christ”, which is still venerated today before the altar, as the place where Jesus breakfasted with his Apostles. The stone ledges referred to by Egeria can be seen outside, to the south of the chapel, protected by a verge.

Dialogue with Jesus
The rock where according to tradition the Risen Lord had breakfast with his disciples, is preserved in the church. Photograph: Berthold Werner – Wikimedia Commons.
The rock where according to tradition the Risen Lord had breakfast with his disciples, is preserved in the church. Photograph: Berthold Werner – Wikimedia Commons.
St Leo the Great, who was Pope from 440 to 461 AD, wrote a commentary on the dialogue between Jesus and Peter that we have just considered. He stressed the fact that Peter’s care was directed especially to his successors. “In Peter is fortified the strength of all, and in such a way is the help of divine grace ordained, that the firmness granted to Peter through Christ is given to the other Apostles through Peter. Therefore after the Resurrection, the Lord, to make manifest the threefold confession of eternal love, after having given the blessed Apostle Peter the keys of the kingdom, in a way filled with mystery, says three times: feed my sheep. He does this unhesitatingly now, and the devout shepherd commands that the commandment of the Lord shall be fulfilled, confirming us with exhortations and praying for us unceasingly, that we may not be overcome by any temptation. If he shows this care out of his devotion towards the whole of the people of God, and everywhere, as we must believe, how much more will he not deign to grant his help to us, who were directly instructed by him, who are close to his final resting-place, where his holy body lies?” (St Leo the Great, Homily on the Feast of St Peter the Apostle).

At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI also talked about the mission of watching over the Church that our Lord entrusted to Peter and his successors, and begged the faithful three times over to pray for him and his ministry. “One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ whom he serves. ‘Feed my sheep’, says Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, he says it to me as well. Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence, which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament. My dear friends – at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more – in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Let us pray for one another, that the Lord will carry us and that we will learn to carry one another” (Benedict XVI, Homily at the solemn inauguration of his pontificate, 24 April 2005).