A History of the Church of Loaves and Fishes: Burned Down, Again

Originally built in the 4th century, the ancient church was lost to time, rediscovered in the early 20th century and rebuilt – only to be badly damaged by fire last week.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Tabgha mosaic of fish and bread.
Tabgha mosaic of fish and bread.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

On Wednesday night, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, suffered serious damage that the police suspect was caused by arson: Hebrew graffiti found on the site read “False idols will be smashed.” The church was only 33 years old, but was built on the same site of the first church built to mark the spot more than 1600 years ago.

The story of the Church of Loaves and Fishes begins in the New Testament. Of the many miracles attributed to Jesus in the scripture, only two are recounted in all four gospels: The resurrection, and the feeding of the 5,000.

According to the Gospels (Matthew 14; Mark 6; Luke 9; John 6), Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 men (plus women and children), who had come to hear him talk, with only five loaves of bread and two fish.

The gospels do not say exactly where this miracle happened, beyond Luke’s account that it was in “a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida.” We are not sure where Bethsaida was either. But during the first three centuries of the Common Era, a tradition developed among local early Christians that the rock formation by the side of the road on the northwestern corner of the Sea of Galilee was the site of the miracle.

First church, 4th century: Founded by the convert Josepos

In the middle of the 4th century CE, a small church was erected on the site, possibly by a convert named Josepos.

Josepos was born to a rich Jewish family from Tiberias, but while on mission to Asia Minor, he met a bishop – and became a follower of Jesus. Writing of their encounter, the bishop relates that Josepos founded four churches in the Galilee during his life. One was apparently the original Church of the Loaves and Fishes.

The first record of this small church is in the writings of a pilgrim from Iberia named Egeria, who visited the Holy Land in the late 4th century, and wrote about her experiences in a letter, part of which survived. She wrote of visiting a church near Capernaum, whose altar is situated on the rock on which Jesus fed the multitude. Egeria also commented on the seven springs flowing by the church, which confirms that the place she was speaking of was Tabgha, was then called Heptapegon - the Greek for "seven springs".

Second church, 5th century: The Egyptian custom

During the second half of the 5th century, a much larger Byzantine church was built on the site of the original church. The patron of the construction project was Martyrios, the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Martyrios was a native of Egypt, which may explain why the church was built according to the custom in Egypt at the time, rather than that common in Palestine.

The Church of the Loaves and Fishes contains a number of mosaic floors. They are believed to have been made by two separate artists, both probably from Egypt, since one of the main themes portrayed in the mosaics was wildlife found in the Nile Valley, not in the Galilee - mainly aquatic birds by stylized papyrus.

But the most famous mosaic in the church is the loaves and fish. It was made by an artist probably called Saurus, who was a terrible speller, even misspelling his name, according to scholars.

The grand Byzantine edifice was destroyed in the first half of 7th century, when Persian armies, and after them Arab armies, invaded the Holy Land and conquered it from the Byzantine Empire. In time, the ruins of the church were covered by soil and forgotten, and as the local population abandoned Greek, the name Heptapegon gradually became Arabized into Tabgha.

Third church, 1933: Arising to protect the ancient mosaics

The first official record of the town of Tabgha is in Ottoman tax records dating from the end of the 16th century. It was a small town, with a mere 44 houses, and small it remained. The last town census, taken by the British in 1931, records 53 houses and a population of 245.

By this time, the site of the ancient church had been lost.

In 1889, a plot of land near Tabgha was purchased by the German Palestine Society from an Arab effendi in Safed. That same year, the society dispatched Gottlieb Schumacher, an American civil engineer, architect and archaeologist, to survey the land ahead of building a hostel for pilgrims. Schumacher noted that at the edge of the plot, near the largest of the seven springs, was a field where Bedouin regularly pitched their tents, beneath which antiquities lay.

In 1911, a German professor named Paul Karge began to excavate the site. He uncovered the outline of the church, the altar, and even the famous mosaic of the loaves and fishes, but the Ottoman government put a stop to the excavation. (He also claims to have found a stone at the church inscribed with the name 'Josepos,' but if so, it has been lost.)

Many years would pass before excavation could resume. World War I erupted, then ended; and the Holy Land fell to the British, a dispute over the boundaries of the territory erupted between the German Palestine Society and the Italian Society for the Holy Land, which had bought a plot of land abutting the German plot.

Only once the legal dispute was settled could excavation resume in 1932. Two Catholic archaeologists headed the dig, which uncovered the Byzantine structure and the beautiful mosaics. To protect these a rickety wooden structure was erected in 1933 - the new Church of the Multiplication. During work to restore the mosaic, the more ancient church beneath it was discovered in 1936.

Tabgha is destroyed

In 1948, ten days before the founding of the State of Israel and the official start of the War of Independence, Israeli militias, acting on orders from Palmach commander Yigal Alon, raided Tabgha, expelled its population, and blew up the houses. The church was spared.

When Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land in 1964, he came to the site and visited the small church, but even then, plans were underway to erect a beautiful new one in its stead.

Two German architects were brought in to do the job - Anton Goergen and Fritz Baumann. They studied the site and existing Byzantine churches and drew up plans to rebuild the church along the lines of the church that was destroyed in the 5th century, using as much of the original material as they could. Construction began in 1980 and lasted two years.

The result was a masterpiece of architecture, from the magnificent ancient mosaics on the ground, to the columns expertly carved from Italian marble, to the red roof tiles - also brought in from Italy - resting atop. Its reconstruction after the fire is projected to cost millions of dollars.

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