Inscription on Slab Points to Ancient Jewish Community on Israel's Lake Kinneret

The Hebrew letters apparently commemorate a leader of the community.

Lettering on a marble slab pointing to a Jewish community on Lake Kinneret at least 1,500 years ago.
Jenny Monroe

An inscription on a marble slab excavated this week near Lake Kinneret suggests the existence of a Jewish community there at least 1,500 years ago, archaeologists say.

The slab found by University of Haifa researchers is the first evidence of a Jewish community at Kursi, at the present-day Kinneret National Park.

The archaeologists found the marble, believed to be a commemoration tablet, in a structure that apparently served as a synagogue. The Hebrew letters inscribed begin with “remembered for good” and are thought to date from 500 C.E.

Kursi is mentioned in the New Testament as one of the places Jesus visited, and where he performed the Miracle of the Swine. Christians believe he healed two men possessed by demons by driving the spirits into a herd of pigs that rushed down the bank into the sea.

The archaeologists believe that the inscription on the 150-by-70-centimeter slab is evidence of a Jewish or Judeo-Christian community at Kursi. From this they conclude that the community was all Jewish 500 years earlier.

“Until now we had no evidence that Jewish communities that disappeared over the years existed in that period on the Kinneret shores, apart from Migdal,” said Prof. Michal Artzi of the University of Haifa’s Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies. She was referring to the Migdal Synagogue, discovered in 2009.

Artzi is running the excavation with Dr. Haim Cohen, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Nature and Parks Authority.

The scientists also identified the words amen and marmaria – probably meaning marble – but some believe it refers to Mary, Jesus’ mother.

Commemoration tablets in that period were made of mosaic and built into the floor. The inscription is the first of its kind to be engraved in marble that had been especially ordered from Greece, Artzi said.

The eight-line inscription is particularly large, so the person it commemorates must have been very influential. “There’s nothing similar to such a detailed and expensive dedication in archaeological findings discovered in Israel so far,” Artzi said.

In the 1960s archaeologists found remnants of a large breakwater under sea level on the Kursi shore, indicating the existence of an ancient community. Nearby they found remains of a Christian town from the fifth century C.E.

In 1980 Kursi was declared a national park, consisting of the remnants of a fishing village from the Mishna and Talmud eras and a Byzantine monastery.