Tiberias

TIBERIAS (tī-bē'rĭ-ăs, Gr. Tiberias). A city of Herod Antipas, built between the years a.d. 16 and 22 on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, or the Sea of Tiberias, as John, writing for non-Jewish readers, calls the lake (John.6.1; John.21.1). It was named, of course, after the reigning emperor, Tiberius, reflecting the pro-Roman policy consistently followed by the Herods. The city is said to have occupied the site at Rakkath, an old town of Naphtali, and since Rakkath means “strip” or “coast,” this may have been the case. Jewish rumor said Tiberias was built over a graveyard, and the place was therefore dubbed unclean (Josephus, Antiq. 18.2.3). Macalister is of the opinion that this proves that no earlier city occupied the site (HDB, p. 934), but Herod could easily have included the burial place Rakkath in his larger foundation. Herod built ambitiously. The ruins indicate a wall three miles (five km.) long. He built a palace, a forum, and a great synagogue, for the foundation illustrates strikingly the dual Herodian policy, which sought to combine pro-Roman loyalty with effective patronage of the Jews. Jewish boycott, however, compelled Herod to populate his new town with the lowest elements of the land. Defended by its strong acropolis, Tiberias survived the passing of the other lakeside towns. Saladin took Tiberias in 1187. The hot springs and baths lay south of the city wall. Their healthful nature is mentioned by the Elder Pliny (H. N. 5:15), and a coin of Tiberias of Trajan’s day shows a figure of Hygeia (Health) feeding a serpent (sign of Aesculapius, god of healing) as she sits on a rock over a spring.——EMB


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TIBERIAS tī bĭr’ ĭ əs (Τιβεριας). Tiberias lay, and still lies, on the western shore of Galilee, halfway down the coast of the lake. Herod Antipas founded Tiberias between the years a.d. 18 and 22. Sir G. A. Smith (Historical Geography of the Holy Land) rests his dating conjectures on coinage. A coin of Tiberias, issued in the principate of Claudius, is dated in the thirty-third year of the town. Claudius died in a.d. 54, and this would take the foundation back to a.d. 21. Two coins of Tiberias, issued under Trajan, are dated in the eightieth and eighty-first year from the foundation. Trajan acceded in a.d. 98, and on this basis dating can hardly precede a.d. 18. On a third coin of Trajan, also dated in the eighty-first year, the emperor is called Germanicus only, and not Germanicus Dacicus. He won the second title only after the Dacian war in a.d. 103. This gives a.d. 22 for the upper limit. The argument appears conclusive.

Herod named the town after the reigning emperor, Augustus’ successor, Tiberius. The name was subsequently extended to the lake, esp. in Gentile nomenclature. John’s gospel, for example, written for an international audience, employs the term (John 6:1; 21:1). An old town of Naphtali, named Rakkath, which means “strip,” or “coast,” once occupied the site, and Jewish legend said that this place had become a graveyard before Herod appropriated it for a town and for a site of royal residence (Jos., Antiq. XVIII. ii. 3). This may be supposed a propaganda tale aimed at the fact that Herod peopled the new town with Gentiles. Macalister (HDB, rev. p. 999) is of the opinion that the story of a burial ground proves that there was no earlier city on the site, but it is not at all impossible that Rakkath had a burial ground in its vicinity, and that this area was included by Herod in his appropriation for the new foundation. He was planning on ambitious lines. The wall was three m. long, and the civic amenities included a forum and a large synagogue, Roman and Jewish features curiously illustrative of the dual policy of the Herodian house. The synagogue, however, appears never to have been used, for a Jewish boycott compelled Herod to populate Tiberias with aliens. Herod himself found security there. He built a lakeside palace, and the eminence behind the town was an admirable acropolis, a fact illustrated by Saladin’s failure to reduce it after his complete success in the battle of Hattin made the defenders’ position hopeless. This took place in a.d. 1187.

Tiberias was also a famous spa. Hot springs lay S of its walls, a feature noticed by Pliny the Elder, who remarked on their health-giving quality, and commemorated it in coinage. A coin of Tiberias exists showing Hygeia, the goddess of health on one side and the Emperor Trajan on the other. The goddess, feeding a serpent, the totem of Aesculapius, god of healing, sits on a rock above a spring. In the Rift Valley, and Galilee is part of its long depression, salt beds lie deep down, the site of ancient seas. Underwater springs at Tiberias, part of the thermal system that gave the hot water, add appreciably to the salinity of Galilee and of course, the Dead Sea, the ultimate terminus of the Galilee water. This fact was an element in the abortive Jordanian measure in 1966 to divert some of the fresh water sources of the Jordan at Banias and deflect the water into the Lebanese Litani. This would have left the springs at Tiberias free to increase the salinity of Galilee to a danger point.

Christ seems to have avoided Tiberias in the course of His Galilean ministry. There were crowded Jewish centers all along that shore of the lake, esp. to the N, and this abstention was in accordance with his declared program—to minister first to Israel. After the subjugation of Pal. in the Great Rebellion, Tiberias remained intact, and became by the irony of history the main center of surviving Jewish scholarship. The Mishnah and the Palestinian Talmud were both put together in Tiberias in the 3rd and 5th centuries.

Of the nine towns that once occupied the lake shore, none of them under 15,000 inhabitants, Tiberias alone has survived in spite of the fact that in ancient and medieval times the site was unhealthy. A freak formation of the coast kept the prevailing wind that blows down the lake offshore, and Tiberias “the strip,” as its predecessor was called, lacked the healthy movement of air. It was, no doubt, its acropolis and the prestige of the royal abode that insured survival. Today it remains the chief center on that shore of the lake.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

About the middle of the western shore of the nodetitle, the mountains fall back from the coast, and leave a roughly crescent-shaped plain, about 2 miles in length. The modern city of Tiberias (Tabariyeh) stands at the northern extremity, where the ground begins to rise; and the Hot Baths (Hammath) at the south end. On the southern part of this plain Herod Antipas built a city (circa 26 AD), calling it "Tiberias" in honor of the emperor who had befriended him. In clearing the ground and digging foundations certain tombs were disturbed (Ant., XVIII ii, 3). It may have been the graveyard of old Hammath. The palace, the famous "Golden House," was built on the top of a rocky hill which rises on the West to a height of some 500 ft. The ruin is known today as Qasr bint el-Melek, "Palace of the King’s Daughter" The strong walls of the city can be traced in almost their entire length on the landward side. Parts are also to be seen along the shore, with towers at intervals which guarded against attack by sea. The ruins cover a considerable area. There is nothing above ground older than Herod’s city. Only excavation can show whether or not the Talmud is fight in saying that Tiberias was built on the site of Rakkath and Chinnereth (Neubauer, Geog. du Talmud, 208). The Jews were shy of settling in a city built over an old cemetery; and Herod had trouble in finding occupants for it. A strange company it was that he ultimately gathered of the "poorer people," foreigners, and others "not quite freemen"; and these were drawn by the prospect of good houses and land which he freely promised them. With its stadium, its palace "with figures of living things" and its senate, it may be properly described as a Greek city, although it also contained a proseuche, or place of prayer, for the Jews (BJ II, xxi, 6; Vita, XII, 54, etc.). This accounts for it figuring so little in the Gospels. In his anxiety to win the favor of the Jews, Herod built for them "the finest synagogue in Galilee"; but many years were to elapse before it should become a really Jewish city.

Superseding Sepphoris, Tiberias was the capital of Galilee under Agrippa I and the Roman procurators. It surrendered to Vespasian, and was given by Nero to Agrippa II, Sepphoris again becoming the capital. During the Jewish war its inhabitants were mainly Jewish, somewhat turbulent and difficult to manage. In 100 AD, at Agrippa’s death, the Romans assumed direct control. After the fall of Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin retreated to Galilee, first to Sepphoris, and then to Tiberias. Here, some time before 220 AD, under supervision of the famous Rabbi Jehuda ha-Nasi’, "Judah the Prince," or, as he is also called ha-qadhosh, "the Holy," the civil and ritual laws, decrees, customs, etc., held to be of binding obligation, handed down by tradition, but not having Scriptural authority, were codified and written down, under the title of "Mishna." Here also later was compiled the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi), as distinguished from that compiled in Babylon (Babhli). The city thus became a great center of Jewish learning. Maimonides’ tomb is shown near the town, and that of Aqiba on the slope of the mountain, where it is said 24,000 of his disciples are buried with him.

In Christian times Tiberias was the seat of a bishop. It fell to the Moslems in 637. It changed hands several times as between the Crusaders and the Saracens. It was finally taken by the Moslems in 1247.

The enclosing walls of the modern city, and the castle, now swiftly going to ruin, were built by Tancred and repaired by Daher el-`Omar in 1730. There are over 5,000 inhabitants, mostly Jews, in whose hands mainly is the trade of the place. The fishing in the lake, in which some 20 boats are occupied, is carried on by Moslems and Christians. Tiberias is the chief inhabited place on the lake, to which as in ancient days it gives its name, Bachr Tabariyeh, "nodetitle" (Joh 6:1; 21:1). It is the market town for a wide district. The opening of the Haifa-Damascus Railway has quickened the pulse of life considerably. A steamer and motor boat ply between the town and the station at Semach, bringing the place into easy touch with the outside world. The water of the lake is largely used for all purposes, although there are cisterns for rain water under some of the houses.

After a residence of over five years in the city, the present writer can say that it does not deserve the evil reputation which casual travelers have given it. In matters of cleanliness and health it stands comparison very well with other oriental towns. Sometimes, in east wind; it is very hot, thermometer registering over 114 Degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. The worst time is just at the beginning of the rainy season, when the impurities that have gathered in the drought of summer are washed into the sea, contaminating the water.

The United Free Church of Scotland has here a well-equipped mission to the Jews.