A colorful mosaic, full of well-preserved decorations – including inscriptions and descriptions of bread and fish baskets, was recently unearthed in excavations by University of Haifa archeologists at the Burnt Church in Sussita in northern Israel. 

Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg

According to the Israeli researchers, the descriptions of the mosaic – together with the location of the church overlooking the Sea of ​​Galilee (Kinneret) – suggest a connection to the “miracle of bread and fish” that, according to the New Testament, Jesus performed in the area.  “Certainly, there may be different explanations for the mosaic of bread and fish descriptions, but it is also impossible to ignore the resemblance to the description in the New Testament,” said Dr. Michael Eisenberg, head of the excavation mission to Sussita from the university’s Zinman Institute of Archeology.  

For example, he explained, this is because the New Testament has a description of five bread loaves in the basket or the two fish described in the apse (semi-circular recess covered with a hemispherical vault or semi-dome), said Eisenberg. 

Sussita, located on a hill about two kilometers east of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), is in Sussita National Park of Nature and Parks Authority. It was the central city in the eastern Sea of ​​Galilee and the southern Golan during the Roman period. The ancient city has been exposed over two decades years by archeologists on behalf of the Institute Zinman Institute at the University of Haifa, which allows the National Parks and Nature Authority to develop the park for public visits. 

A few weeks ago, researchers uncovered the “burnt church” that was built in the Fifth Century CE (Common Era) and apparently burned during the Sasanian occupation of the early seventh century The Sasanian Empire, officially known as the Empire of Iranians, was the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. Named after the House of Sasan, it ruled from 224 to 651 CE.

The church, which was partially exposed about a decade ago, had to wait for Eisenberg and his colleague Arleta Kowalewska, who is co-director of the institute, to manage the excavation and reveal the mosaic. 

Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg

Precisely due to the fire, the church was well preserved, as the roof system burned and collapsed on the church floor, covering it with a layer of ash that protected it. When the researchers returned to reveal it, they discovered a spectacularly preserved mosaic. The excavation of the church was entrusted to Jessica Rentz of the US, who unearthed the inner area of ​​the church, which measured 15×10 meters. During the excavation of the main doorway, she uncovered within the remains of the charred doors a rigid pair of doors in bronze, cast in the shape of roaring lions. 

During the preservation process, most of the mosaic floor was cleaned and preserved, and most of its decorations and two inscriptions were exposed. The first tells of the two ancestors of the church, Theodorus and Peter, building a shrine to a martyr, while the second, housed in a medallion in the center of the mosaic, reveals the name of the saint Theodorus.

According to Eisenberg, those who ordered the mosaic sought to create a very bold and dense color quite cheaply, including models and descriptions of poultry, fish, and fruits that do not leave empty spaces. In some baskets, the researchers discovered five or more loaves of different colors (some claim that these are not loaves but “unidentified fruits”), which together with the fish recalled for them the “miracle of bread and fish” described four times in the New Testament. According to this text, Jesus performed the “miracle” in an isolated area probably in northeastern Kinneret, where he fed five loaves of bread and two fish to about 5,000 men, without mentioning the women and children. 

Then, as told, he performed the miracle of walking on the water and reached the northwestern part of the Sea of ​​Galilee, where today’s Kibbutz Ginosar/Tabgha was established as early as the 5th century CE, as the Church of the Bread and Fish, and according to Christian tradition, this is where the miracle took place. 

Roaring lion in the charred remains of the front door of the church (Photo: Jessica Rentz).

Eisenberg continues to be cautious about interpreting the new mosaic, but he points out that there are a few points worth noting: “Today, the Bread and Fish Church in Tabgha in the northwest part of the Sea of ​​Galilee claims to represent the location of the miracle, and indeed, the ancient tradition links the event to the site. But reading the New Testament with caution suggests that this might actually have occurred just north of Sussita in an area that the city controlled.”

Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg

After the “miracle, according to the New Testament, Jesus crossed the water on its northwest side, to the Tabgha /Ginosar area – so that the miracle should have taken place where he started the crossing and not where he ended it,” Eisenberg noted. 

“In addition, the mosaic in the Church of Bread and Fish has a description of two fish and a bread basket containing only four loaves – 

while in all places in the New Testament, the numbers were given as five loaves, as found in the mosaic in Sussita. In addition, the mosaic in the burned church depicts 12 baskets, and also in the New Testament, the apostles describe that at the end of the miracle, there remained 12 baskets with bread and fish. Descriptions of bread loaves in mosaics is very rare, so if they are indeed loaves described here, similar to the mosaic in the Church of Bread and Fish, you cannot help but wonder about the relationship between them and Jesus’ miracles near the shores of the Sea of ​​Galilee,” Eisenberg said. 

However, he is also aware that there are also differences between the description of the Burnt Church mosaic and the description in the New Testament. For example, some of the mosaic baskets are full of fruit and not only bread, and elsewhere there are three fish next to each other and not just two. 

“The church is right on the western end of Mount Sussiya and is the westernmost in the city. Then, as today, it overlooks the Sea of ​​Galilee and where Jesus was. The local community certainly knew the ‘two miracles of bread and fish’ and perhaps even knew better than us about its approximate location. The theory that an artist or those who ordered the work wanted to create a connection to the miracle that took place not far away is logical. We will complete the dig and clean the remaining 20% percent of the mosaic and carefully test this hypothesis. The fish themselves have a few more symbolic meanings to the Christian world, so much caution is required,” he concluded.