The amazing city of Tiberias was built by Herod the Grater and named in honor to his friend and patron, Caesar Tiberius, the roman emperor. Today it is a very vibrant city in the modern State of Israel. Tiberias is the second city most visited in the Holy Land by travellers and pilgrims.
“Howbeit there came other boats from Tiberias nigh unto the place where they did eat bread, after that the Lord had given thanks”
John 6:23 KJV
“After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias.”
John 6:1 KJV
Early History and Composition of Tiberias
There is no information as to the size or population of the town during these early years. Avi-Yonah estimated the city to have been less than 1 kilometer square by the third century and to have had less than 40,000 population (Avi-Yonah, 164–65).
Herod Antipas built a palace for himself in Tiberias, which, contrary to the law of Moses (Ex 20:4) had representations of animals on it (Josephus Life 65 §12). It also had a roof made partly of gold, which Josephus says was later set on fire by a man named Jesus, son of Sapphias, a ringleader in the demolition of the city just prior to the revolt against Rome. He hoped to “obtain from it large spoils” (Josephus Life 66 §12). Tiberias had functioned as the capital until A.D. 61, when the Roman emperor Nero gave it to Herod Agrippa II (Josephus Ant. 20.8.4 §159).
Herod also built a stadium (Josephus Ant. 2.21.6 §618; Life 63 §330; see Arenas) that was used for public assemblies. When Tiberias opened its gates to Vespasian and sided with Rome against the Jewish revolt that broke out in A.D. 66, Vespasian put to death twelve hundred Jewish captives in this stadium who were elderly and considered “useless” (Josephus J.W. 3.10.10 §539).
On this occasion (September 67) Vespasian also sent “6,000 of the most robust” to Nero to work on the attempted construction of a canal through the isthmus near Corinth. However, Nero eventually gave up on the mammoth project, which was not completed until 1883 (McRay, 314). The rest of the multitude of prisoners (30,400) at Tiberias, Vespasian sold, except those of whom he made a present to Agrippa, who also sold them into slavery (Josephus J.W. 3.540–42).
Antipas built a synagogue, which was “a huge building, capable of accommodating a large crowd” (Josephus Life 54 §277) and in which people were gathered for political as well as religious assemblies. Here, Josephus says, the people of Tiberias were gathered to hear accusations against him by a delegate from Rome (Josephus Life 54 §§277, 280). In these references the synagogue is called, as is typical of the time, the place of prayer, a designation used by Luke in Acts 16:13, 16.
Josephus built a wall around Tiberias, except on the east side by the sea, which he later found himself attacking after his defection to the Romans (Josephus J.W. 3.10.1 §465; 2.20.6 §573). When Josephus used Tiberias as the headquarters of his campaign in Galilee, he set up a group of seventy older men “from the nation” as a court (perhaps patterned on the Jewish Sanhedrin) to have jurisdiction over all Galilee. (Whether the word nation here refers to Jews or Gentiles is not clear. It is regularly used in the NT to refer to Gentiles.) He also appointed smaller groups of seven men in each city to “adjudicate on petty disputes,” reminiscent of Acts 6:1–3 (Josephus J.W. 2.20.5 §§570–71).
Even though the representation of human forms was forbidden by Jewish law, when Caligula replaced Antipas with Herod Agrippa in A.D. 39, Agrippa began to mint coins in Tiberias with himself and Caligula depicted on them. Tiberias continued under Agrippa’s rule until his death in A.D. 44 (Acts 12:22–23), at which time it was placed under the jurisdiction of the Roman procurators rather than Herod’s son Agrippa II, because of his youth (Josephus Ant. 19.9.2 §§360–66; see Roman Administration). This lasted until A.D. 61, at which time Nero put Tiberias under the rule of Herod Agrippa II. After this, the name of Agrippa with the title of king appears on his coins.
Under the emperor Trajan (A.D. 98–117) Tiberias became an autonomous city attached to the Provincia Judea. On coins of the period Tiberias is designated as Tiberias Claudia in honor of the emperor Claudius, perhaps in gratitude for some remembered benevolence. By A.D. 170 the official Roman name of Tiberias, appearing on coins, was Tiberias Claudia in Syria-Palestina.
Tiberias was paganized by the emperor Hadrian, who put down the Second Jewish Revolt in A.D. 135, but in the second and third centuries the city became an important center of Jewish rabbinical study. Evidence of their presence can be found in the Talmud. A famous rabbinical academy was founded, and tombs of the rabbis here are still venerated. The Mishnah, though codified in Sepphoris in 200, took its final form in Tiberias. In the fifth century A.D. the Palestinian Talmud was largely compiled in Tiberias, and in the seventh century it was the center of Masoretic work on the text of the Hebrew Bible. In the opinion of many, Tiberias became in this period “perhaps the greatest intellectual center of ancient Judaism” (Strange, 548).
In addition to excavations in 1921 and 1961 that revealed several superimposed synagogues at Tiberias, dating from the fourth to the eighth centuries, work in the 1970s in the area south of the synagogues revealed a paved road and city gate from the time of the founding of the city by Antipas. The gate consisted of two round towers, 23 feet in diameter, which projected to the south. Several courses of stone are preserved. Leading northward out of the gates the road is paved with rectangular slabs laid parallel to each other near the gate and then obliquely further north (Foerster, 1171–76).
Excavations of the city are currently underway directed by Y. Hirschfeld for the Israel Antiquities Authority (Hirschfeld 1991). Evidence of what may be an imperial villa have been found. On Mt. Berenice, above Tiberias, a Byzantine church has been found, and it is not earlier than the sixth century. It has also been shown that no palace had stood on the summit of the hill (Hirschfeld 1994b, 33).
“Tiberias,” DNTB, 1236-1237.