During our Day 5 tour of Caesarea, Megiddo and Nazareth, we will be staying two nights in the area of the Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. In comparison to the antiquities of most places in the region, Tiberias is fairly young, being established in and around 20 AD. When Herod Antipas (see genealogical flow chart below) came into power, he built the city to rule (as a capitol) his tetrarchy of Galilee and Perea. It was strategically located on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee (also referred to later as “Lake Tiberias) between the Sea to the east and the hill country to the west. Hot springs were nearby (which had been described as hot enough to cause injury) and the region was noted for its excellent produce of figs, wine, wheat and barley, which were sold in the Tiberian market.
As the construction of the city ensued, tombs were accidentally discovered which caused alarm for the Jews involved. Declaring the site as “unclean,” most of the Jews refused to participate in the construction. Therefore, Antipas used a blend of Gentiles, some Jews who were willing to stay, and slaves who had been freed. Some of these people were landless, so the attraction to work and live in a new city was obvious. Josephus wrote of the odd mix of the poor and foreigners that were used to populate the city. Antipas named the city in honor of Emperor Tiberius and minted coins at the city with one side stating, “Of Herod The Tetrarch,” and on the other, “Tiberias.” The earliest dates on the coins are 24 AD, which correlates to the completion of the construction.
Within the city, Antipas built markets, a stadium, baths and an elaborate royal palace perched overlooking the city. He decorated the palace with statues of animals that Jews took particular abhorrence. During the First Jewish Revolt, it was the first building to be destroyed. It also housed what would be referred to as the “finest synagogue in Galilee.”
Herod Antipas would eventually be exiled by Emperor Caligula in 39 AD and replaced with Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great and Mariamne (see below). Agrippa suddenly died and the region and title went under the Roman authority from Caesarea. By 61 AD, Nero gives the control to Herod Agrippa II, son of Agrippa I. Though he technically ruled Tiberias and neighboring lands to the end of the century, he was ousted by the Jews heading into the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 AD), because he sided with Rome.
When Vespasian takes the throne in 69 AD as Emperor, he leads a charge against Tiberias to which they easily surrendered. He spared the city and returned the control to Agrippa. But in the process, the Vespasian orders 12,000 refugees from Taricheae to be executed in the stadium. An additional 6,000 were sent to build Nero’s canal at Corinth, and 30,400 were sold as slaves. Agrippa subsequently dishonored the city by moving the capitol to Sepphoris. In the Second Jewish Revolt, Emperor Hadrian will abolish Jewish municipal government altogether in Judea.
In spite of the wars, Tiberias retained its position for marketing to the Roman Empire. Agriculture and fishing, along with many other goods and services flowed through the city. Tiberias was also known for exceptionally clear glass production. By the 2ndc AD, Jews began returning and the city became a Jewish center for education and study. In an ironic twist, the city once declared as “unclean” became one of the 4 pillars of the sacred community. In 150 AD, the Sanhedrin is moved from Sepphoris to Tiberias. Institutions of rabbinical learning were established and eventually, the Mishnah is compiled there (220 Ad). The Tiberian form of vowel pointing was invented and the Palestinian Talmud was written in the 4thc AD.
The Talmud spoke of 13 synagogues existing in Tiberias. Within the synagogues was a form of Jewish denominationalism, with Babylonian Jews meeting separately from the “Jews of Tarsus” who met separately from the special synagogue of the city council. Though Constantine built the first church recorded there and established a bishopric over the city, Christianity never really took hold, even after Emperor Justinian (527 AD) passed a law that banned all Jewish government in Tiberias and handed it over to Christian authorities. The Persian Invasion of 614 AD, followed by the Muslim Arabs in 636 AD changed the religious landscape to what it largely reflects today.
However, one interesting fact remained throughout this time of occupation; Tiberias became the center for a group called “The Masoretes.” These are the scholars who are largely responsible for what is referred to as the “vocalization” of the Hebrew Bible. What this means, is that they inserted vowels between the consonants of the Hebrew words (which are otherwise assumed in pronunciation). In doing so, otherwise single scrolls were doubled in length, turning them into 2 scrolls. This is why we have 1st and 2nd scrolls of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.
Throughout Tiberias history, it has largely been subject to severe earthquakes. It was almost completely destroyed on January 1, 1837.
- John 6:1, 23; 21:1