Israeli researchers find mosaic with Christian miracle scenes in Hippos

The Byzantine artwork was discovered by University of Haifa archeologists at the Burnt Church site.

Mosaic decoration depicting a basket with five loaves. (photo credit: DR. MICHAEL EISENBERG)
Mosaic decoration depicting a basket with five loaves.
(photo credit: DR. MICHAEL EISENBERG)
Colorful mosaic scenes, including a basket with loaves of bread, a peacock and fish, were discovered by University of Haifa archaeologists in Hippos near the Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) at the Byzantine ‘“Burnt Church” site, according to the University of Haifa.
A peacock in the mosaic floor/ DR. MICHAEL EISENBERGA peacock in the mosaic floor/ DR. MICHAEL EISENBERG
Hippos, which is near Kibbutz Ein Gev, was an ancient city ruled by, among others, Herod the Great. A wealthy city, it was home to hundreds of columns made from red Egyptian granite. As such, it was often thought to be the “city set upon a hill” described in the New Testament.
The Burnt Church is a Byzantine-era church that Israeli, Polish and American archaeologists have been studying since 1993. The excavation is within Hippos National Park. It is likely that the church was set on fire during the Sasanian conquest of the city in 614 CE. Officially known as the Empire of the Iranians, the Sasanian empire was the last Persian empire before the arrival of Islam to the Middle East.
Excavations at the site are overseen by Dr. Michael Eisenberg, head of the excavation team in Hippos, on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. He and his partner, Arleta Kowalewska, were the first to partially expose the church a decade ago.
Further excavation of the church was placed in the hands of junior area supervisor Jessica Rentz. She exposed the entire internal area of the church, an area of 10x15 meters, as well as a pair of door knockers in bronze casting in the form of roaring lions.
Lion-shaped door knocker immediately following its exposure/ DR. MICHAEL EISENBERGLion-shaped door knocker immediately following its exposure/ DR. MICHAEL EISENBERG
Eisenberg said the finds were preserved in excellent condition thanks to the fire that covered them with ashes.
Inscriptions linking the church to the martyr Theodore Stratelates were found on location, too.
The highlight of the findings, though, is the mosaic.
During the preservation process, headed by Yana Vitkalov from the Israel Antiquities Authority, most of the mosaic area was cleaned and preserved, and most of its decorations and two inscriptions in Greek were exposed. The first one tells about the two fathers of the church, Theodoros and Petros, constructing a sanctuary for a martyr, while the second one, which is located inside a medallion at the center of the mosaic, exposes the name of the martyr Theodoros.
The usage of the loaves of bread might be a reference to the miracle described in the New Testament in which Jesus is able to feed thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Other mosaics depict 12 baskets full of bread, just as the New Testament describes the disciples of Jesus not only being able to feed everyone but also possessing a full basket each after the miracle.
Another miracle that may be connected with the site is the Miracle of the Swine in which Jesus forced demons to leave two men and enter a herd of swine instead.
Later, as the story goes, he performed the miracle of walking on water and reached the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. At this place, around modern-day Tabgha, the Church of the Multiplication was built already in the fifth century. According to early Christian tradition, this is where the miracle took place.
Eisenberg said that while he is cautious about the interpretation of the new mosaic, there are a number of points worth paying attention to.
“Nowadays, we tend to regard the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha on the northwest of the Sea of Galilee as the location of the miracle, but with careful reading of the New Testament, it is evident that it might have taken place north of Hippos within the city’s region,” he said.
“The fish themselves have a number of additional symbolical meaning in the Christian world,” Eisenberg continued. “There can certainly be different explanations to the descriptions of loaves and fish in the mosaic, but you cannot ignore the similarity to the description in the New Testament.”