A crowded mosaic on the floor of an early Christian church overlooking the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel apparently depicts the Miracle of the Multiplication, in which Jesus fed a multitude of 5,000 followers with just five loaves of bread and two fish.
Going by Byzantine standards, the floor art in the so-called Burnt Church in Hippos-Sussita is of mediocre workmanship with regard to both the mosaic tiles and the scenery depicted, acknowledge the archaeologists excavating the site. But standing amid the ruins on the windswept hilltop, there is a palpable sense of the early followers of Christ, who worshipped here with a view of almost all of Gennesaret, today called Lake Kinneret.
“Looking down, they must have thought of the miracles and works of Jesus around the lake just below,” says Dr. Michael Eisenberg, co-director of the Hippos-Sussita excavation together with Arleta Kowalewska, both of the Zinman Institute Archaeology at Haifa University.
And looking at the church floor, the faithful may have been reminded of one specific miracle.
The Burnt Church, one of at least seven Christian houses of worship in Antiochia-Hippos, as the city was called by the Romans, or Sussita, as it was called in Aramaic, was unearthed in July. Ceramics and other indications date its construction to the fifth century. It was called thusly because it ended its life in conflagration, its roof collapsing. The resultant blanket of ash actually protecting the mosaics from centuries of blazing Middle Eastern sunlight.
Most of the mosaics in the Burnt Church, which decorate the nave, the apse and the side-aisles, were preserved from fading and weathering by this fortuitous catastrophe.
In the weeks after its discovery, more than 90 percent of the Burnt Church’s mosaic carpet was cleaned and conserved by the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Yana Vitkalov, head of on-site conservation. Observed for the first time in about 1,600 years, the mosaic’s colors are bright and its subjects unmistakable. Their interpretation is another matter.
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Down the nave of the Burnt Church are two triplets of fish – six in total. Each set consists of a small fish, a medium-sized one and a big, fat one. The big, fat fishes seem to be smiling. The mosaic in the apse features exactly two fish, in keeping with the tale of the Feeding of the 5,000. The two fish are facing each other in the heraldic position – facing one another, while the six fish along the nave are not.
As for the bread element, the baskets shown on the Burnt Church mosaic carpet each contain five loaves of different colors. “There are definitely five loaves, not three or six,” says Eisenberg. “Their colors may reflect different types of flour, wheat and barley. Then there is the pair of fish on the mosaic in the apse. The association that came to mind was the miracle of the loaves and fish.”
As reported previously in Haaretz, the archaeologists excavating the Burnt Church also found inscriptions in Greek spelled so poorly that they suspect the locals simply didn’t speak fluent Greek any more, though they did manage to decipher that the entire church had been built as a martyrion in memory of one Theodoros. Who that was is not clear. All told, the archaeologists’ finds in the 20th excavation season of the Decapolis city reinforce their contention that Hippos was the dominant Christian influence in the region during the Byzantine period. (Today Hippos is part of the Sussita National Park, managed by the Nature and Parks Authority.)
The excavation of the church, in the western part of the city, was managed by Jessica Rentz. “The city goddess of luck, Tyche, must have been smiling on Jessica,” Eisenberg quips. “Exposing a Byzantine church with its colorful mosaic ‘carpet’ during her very first season managing an excavation area is astounding. And finding a mosaic that may be associated directly with a miracle ascribed to Jesus in her first season is like a miracle itself.”
“It was my hope to find an inscription that provided important context of the community, their beliefs, and piety,” Rentz told Haaretz. Indeed, in the 2019 excavation season, the archaeologists found just that.
One fish, two fish, many fish
The artist or commissioner of the Burnt Church mosaic seems to have had an aversion to empty space. The floor is densely populated with various birds, plump fish – emblematic of secretive early Christianity – and twelve baskets brimming with bread and fruits, including etrogs (citrons) and pomegranates, a revered fruit going back thousands of years before Christ.
Fish feature in the story of a miraculous catch reported in the gospels of Luke and John. As they tell it, with a few discrepancies, Jesus’ future disciple Peter began his life as a Jewish fisherman named Simon, who lived in Capernaum. Observing (whether from the lakeshore or in the boat) Simon’s poor luck at fishing one night, Jesus told him to lower his net again. Simon then caught so many fish that his boat was in peril from their sheer mass. Afterward Jesus is said to have told him, “From now on you will catch men” (Luke 5:10).
Then there are two miracles in which Jesus is said to have fed multitudes of people with a mere handful of bread and fish: Feeding the 4,000, recounted by Mark and Matthew, and feeding the 5,000, a story that appears in all four gospels.
The first miracle involved followers who refused to leave his side to seek sustenance for three days. Concerned that they would starve in their remote desert location, Jesus miraculously fed 4,000 men – the figure doesn’t include women and children – with just seven loaves of bread and “a few small fish.” The second miracle similarly involved feeding 5,000 men – plus women and children – using five loaves of bread and two fishes, somewhere by the Sea of Galilee.
“Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he … blessed and broke the loaves … and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled … Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.” (Mark 6:41-44)
“Which means that including the women and children, the five loaves and two fishes would have fed more than 12,000 people,” Eisenberg remarks.
Where exactly the Miracle of Multiplication is supposed to have happened was not told, but tradition has marked Tabgha, across the lake from Hippos, as the site. There is however a school of thought that maybe, perhaps, just possibly, the miracle happened within the region under Hippos’ control.
Red fish, blue fish, Nile fish
Eisenberg does not necessarily embrace the theory that the miracle of the 5,000 happened at or in the proximity of Hippos.
The mere presence of a mosaic showing bread and fish in a church in Hippos is not overwhelming evidence in and of itself for the Hippos region as the venue of miracles. But Eisenberg points out that the depictions in the Hippos church show five loaves of bread, exactly in keeping with the gospels.
Tabgha is home to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, a modern Roman Catholic house of worship built in 1982 over not one but two ancient churches said to mark the spot of the miracle. The oldest one dates to the fourth century C.E., and a section of the original Byzantine mosaic there also features a basket, but it has only four loaves.
Which means what? Only that the decorations in both churches, in Hippos and Tabgha, were characteristic of the ancient Christian world of symbolism, Eisenberg says.
“We can’t know why these adornments and motifs were chosen,” he says. “They could convey deeper meaning beyond mere decoration or depiction. It can be hard to draw the line between where art ends and symbolism and religion begin.”
“Taking the five loaves and the two fish ... he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over” (Matthew 14:16-20)
All told, the Burnt Church in Hippos features 12 baskets, some bearing bread and some fruit. Eisenberg notes that after feeding the masses, enough bread was left over to fill 12 baskets – again indicative that the mosaic really does show the Miracle of the Multiplication.
The Tabgha church is possibly more faithful to the legend, showing the fish with the bread in the same basket, but that basket is missing a loaf, Eisenberg points out.
What the artists in antiquity had in mind cannot be known: merely to represent a miracle that happened somewhere in the vicinity, or to claim some kind of direct affiliation with it. Eisenberg says that they are working on cleaning up the last 10 percent of the nave mosaic, which may teach us more. He adds that the mosaic is undergoing preservation and is being documented, including by drone photography. One goal is to create a 3D model of the church using new technology that can help archaeologists discern details they might have otherwise missed while squinting in the burning sun.
Though the mosaic seems to strongly suggest the Miracle of the Multiplication, Eisenberg stresses that fish symbols weren’t unique to early Christianity. In the ancient Levant, possibly going back as much as 5,000 years, fish were more than a meal. In other words, interpretation of artworks created 1,600 years ago should be done with caution, Eisenberg sums up.
Another snag is that the fish portrayed in the Burnt Church don’t look like anything living in the Sea of Galilee, one expert points out.
The indigenous species in the Sea of Galilee is a cichlid tilapia called amnun in Hebrew, moosht in Arabic, and St. Peter’s Fish in English. Prof. Moshe Gophen, an expert on mosaic portrayals of fish around the Sea of Galilee, including the one at Tabgha, says the ones found at Hippos aren’t local finny friends.
“Without a doubt, they’re not local. They probably came from the Nile,” Gophen suggests. “The fish shown here have a split dorsal fin and the lake fish have a single dorsal fin.”
Alternatively, the artisan could have hailed from ancient Egypt. Or the local workshop was using an Egyptian-style catalogue and reflexively used the stylized fish typical of the Nile.
The bottom line is that the floor decoration of the Burnt Church is strongly reminiscent of the Miracle of the Multitudes, but its interpretation remains open.
That said, according to the gospels, after feeding the 5,000 plus the women and children, Jesus sent his disciplines back to the western side of the Sea of Galilee by boat – toward Capernaum, according to John. Jesus himself stayed behind to pray. But as the night descended and the winds rose, the lake grew rough and the disciples waxed fearful, a feeling not assuaged by the sight of Jesus walking toward them on the water.
If the disciples were sent across the lake to Capernaum after the feeding of the multitudes, that argues in favor of the multitudes having been fed on Hippos’ side of the lake, Eisenberg points out: naturally not in the mountaintop city itself, but below it, in its area of influence.
Tyche may have smiled on Rentz and the archaeologists of Haifa University, but the city of Hippos-Sussita itself ran out of luck in the year 749 C.E. It was one of the cities shaken to bits by an earthquake measuring roughly 7 on the Richter scale that struck the Holy Land. By that time, however, the Burnt Church had already been relegated to history. The archaeologists are confident that it burned down, probably earlier, during the Sassanian-Persian conquest of the region. The original church at Tabgha also burned down at the same time, leaving behind charred ruins and a mystery that may never be solved – the location of the Miracle of the Multiplication.