Tabgha is a sleepy little area in Israel. Found above the northwestern corner of the Sea of Galilee, It is known for its springs and is a favourite local fishing spot with sportsmen. But there are surprises around every corner in the Holy Land, and this seemingly sparse area is no exception! Tabgha is also the home of the Church of the Multiplication, a church with an incredible connection to the life and ministry of Jesus and celebrates one of his most inspirational miracles.
As you might have guessed by the name, The Church of the Multiplication honors the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5000. As recounted in Mathew chapter 14, Jesus was so distraught upon hearing of the death of John the Baptist, he retired to a remote location to pray and contemplate on what happened. But upon hearing this a large crowd followed him. Despite his own pain, Jesus took compassion on the group, which included many sick and afflicted seeking his blessing and began to minister to them and heal the sick among them. As night fell, his disciples asked him to send the crowds away to go and buy food since they were in such a remote and barren location.
But Jesus said they could stay; he would feed the crowd himself. When the only food his disciples could produce was five loaves of bread and two small fish, this was no obstacle for the son of God. Giving thanks to the Lord, Jesus began to break the loaves and fish apart and distribute them among the people. Miraculously, not only did five loaves of bread and two skinny fishes feed a crowd of thousands, but they had over a dozen baskets full of leftovers. There are many lessons to take from this story, but it stands as one of the most powerful and direct testaments to God’s ability to provide for us in our time of need in the bible.
Ranking miracles is an exercise in futility, each one is, by definition, wholly unique and equally impressive to every other miracle. But there is something that speaks to the heart about Jesus’ ability to feed the five thousand. It is one of only two miracles mentioned in every gospel (the other being the resurrection of course) and one of the most immediately accessible and reassuring moments in Jesus’ ministry. Even when he himself is suffering, Jesus chooses compassion towards others. Even when the situation seems hopeless (how can you feed thousands with only a small lunch’s worth of food?) the power of Christ doesn’t just find a way; it makes the impossible look effortless! That compassion and that power to change things has never gone away, Jesus cares about you and can work miracles in your life as well. What an absolutely beautiful message.
This is why the Church of Multiplication is so special. It is said to be built over the location of where this miracle took place! Of course, the church we see today is far from the first church to have been built at that location. To know the whole story, we have to go back to the 4th century.
Records dating back to the first church are somewhat spotty, but it is widely believed that a convert name Josepos built it. Born into a wealthy family, Josepos became a follower of Christ and used his family’s money to found at least four churches in the Galilee area. We are familiar with him and his works from the writings of a Spanish nun and pilgrim named Egeria who toured the Holy Land and documented her journey. She wrote about the small church built over the rock where the Lord broke bread and fed the multitude. Her writings name the location as exactly the same spot we see the church today.
But Josepos’ church was not to last. In the 5th century the small chapel built over a rock was replaced by a much more elaborate Byzantine church. Built in an ornate style, the church featured magnificent tile mosaics floors. Speculated to be the works of two different artists, the mosaic tiles feature wildlife and food (notably most of which is Egyptian in origin which fuels speculation that the artists were originally from Egypt) among other things. The most impressive mosaic of course depicts the miracle of the multiplication, a priceless work of art commemorating the event that makes the church so special.
This church stood until the 7th century when the Persian invasion of 614 sealed its doom. The beautiful church was destroyed by the Persian army and in the resulting upheaval the area itself became deserted. Soon the ruins of the church were covered in sand and lost to time. Almost.
In 1889, land near Tabgha was purchased by the German Palestine Society. They sent an American archaeologist to survey the land who noted several promising spots, including what would later be confirmed as the site of the Church of the Multiplication. In 1911 another archaeologist began preliminary excavations and discovered the first remnants of the church, including, miraculously, the mosaic depicting the miracle! Somehow after more than 1000 years and the ravages of war, these historical mosaics survived to confirm what the archaeologists surveying the site had dreamt of.
Despite the excitement of this discovery, the site would lie dormant for years. World War 1 interrupted any kind of excavation effort as all involved had much more pressing concerns. Then ongoing post-war territory disputes involving multiple parties would prevent anyone from digging for decades. It wasn’t until 1933 that work to restore the mosaic would take place.
Many more upsets (including another world war) would prevent more ambitious work on the site until 1980, when finally it could be safely redeveloped. The church was rebuilt incorporating as much material from the ruins of both the Byzantine church and Josepos original church as possible and the new church was designed to infuse design elements from what churches in those times would be like.
Today the church is a magnificent building. The millennia old mosaics (two of the earliest known examples of figurative floor mosaics in Christian art in the Holy Land) have been restored and are a main feature of the church. The foundations of the original churches can also be viewed (safely protected behind glass). As can the very limestone slab it is claimed Jesus multiplied the bread and fish for the miraculous meal! Imagine it, Jesus laid his hands on that slab and today we have the privilege to be able to see it with our own eyes. Incredible.
While not an ancient church like some of the historical temples and shrines dotting Israel, the Church of Multiplication stands atop a rich history. It is another important connection to the life and work of Jesus, the kind of which can only be found in the Holy Land.