For sure, no-one knew for certain how exactly the Galilean boat of Jesus era looked like and how many crew members and passengers it could accommodate. The deepness of the controversy of this issue was emphasized during the periods of renaissance and enlightenment.
Three famous paintings spread over four centuries failed to portray the same image of the boat’s appearance and size of crew and passengers. These were Raphael’s The Miraculous Draught of the Fishes (16th century), Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (17th century), and Delacroix’s Christ on the Lake of Gennesaret (19th century).
However, this controversy was to be resolved during the 20th century when two brothers discovered a two-millennia-year-old boat on the lake’s bottom south of Kibbutz Ginosar. The old boat spoke volumes about her owner, too.
Indeed, the Sea of Galilee served as a boat graveyard in which owners dumped old boats. However, the boat’s owners could unbury the boats, and reuse their parts for secondary purposes when they ran out of money. Usually, the stem-post and stern-posts were reused as sails or oars.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, it seemed that the lake’s sedimentation buried the old boat beyond the owner’s reach. When it was found some two thousand years later, the boat’s timber was waterlogged such that it was as structurally weak as a soaked floral foam. The boat was sensitive to sunlight and touch.
The local community did what they could to preserve the boat, and later repackage and transport it to the nearby museum. Even though the boat’s discovery occurred when the Land of Israel was hit by a severe drought, it was a blessing, because it helped solved a difficult puzzle.
In a rare occurrence, two experts, one in hull construction and the other in excavation, could draw exactly the same side view picture of the boat. The lines drawings agreed on one fact: the boat’s crew size was not more than four sailors or oarsmen. The accounts of the Gospel writers and Josephus Flavius seem to support the lines drawings; hence, confirming the truthfulness of the accounts. That’s what this article’s all about.
Reference to one Helmsman and a Four-man Crew
Josephus Flavius’s emphasis that the boat had one helmsman and a maximum of four sailors or oarsmen is seen in the following account in Life of Josephus XXII:
I then summoned the heads of families and ordered each of them to launch a vessel, bring the steersman with them, and follow me to Tiberias.
Same can be said of his accounts in Jewish War II:
As the boats were successfully filled, he ordered the captains to make with all speed to Tarichaea and to lock the men in prison.
The Gospel Accounts
The Gospel supports the Flavius’s claim the boat was steered by not more than four sailors (or rowers) and one helmsman, but they required extra hands for fishing and other passengers. This can be seen from Simon Peter’s account in the book of John 21: 2-3:
Gathered there were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee and two others of his disciples, Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
This account gives us the following equation:
1 (Simon Peter) + 1 (Thomas) + 1 (Nathanael) + 2 (Zebedee’s sons) + 2 (unnamed disciples) = 7 passengers.
The Boat’s Capacity
What we’ve been discussing all along has been the number of people who propel the watercraft. However, a five-man crew boat can accommodate more people (i.e. fishermen and other passengers). Hence, the biggest question here is whether the boat could carry Jesus together with all his 12 Disciples. However, the New Testament doesn’t mention of any instance in which all the disciples accompanied him on his seafaring missions. It’s difficult to determine how many people accompanied Jesus during his trips.
If you examine Josephus’s accounts, you can get a picture of the maximum number of people the boat could carry at one go. Assuming that the crew size is maximum (four oarsmen + one helmsman = 5), and assuming that all passengers can’t sail, we can deduce the following from Josephus’s account in The Jewish War II:
Ten citizens, the principal men of Tiberias, came down; these he took on board one of the vessels and carried out to sea.
This account and assumptions lead us to the following equation:
1 (helmsman) + 4 (rowers or sailors) + 10 (“principal men of Tiberias”) = 15 men
Based on Flavius’s account, it’s possible that Jesus could have traveled with all the disciples had he wished to do so.
One thing is certain: the first-century Galilean boat was steered by a maximum of five people (one helmsman + a maximum of four rowers). However, what’s not certain is how many people in total it accommodated exactly. From Gospel’s accounts, we are sure that the boat accommodated more than five people. On the other hand, Flavius’s accounts give us an estimation of the boat’s maximum passenger capacity, which is around 15 men or so.