credit: Jennifer Munro
About two thousand years ago, a thriving harbour town on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee ordered a marble slab from Greece or Turkey, engraved with Hebrew words for the floor of their public building. It was such an extravagant and highly unusual purchase, that they must have had a very special reason for doing so.
An earthquake struck the town in the intervening years, collapsing the building and scattering marble tiles, limestone blocks, mosaic and roof tiles in every direction. The people of the time must have abandoned the it, and moved elsewhere. Kursi, in the Land of the Gedarenes, lay silent and deserted except for the cormorants, the mongooses and the fishermen…for over fourteen centuries. Reeds grew 18 feet tall, brambles covered the ground and the water retreated, leaving the harbour high and dry. The nearby river flooded, bringing silt and stones with it, until eventually the harbour was covered, and only an oddly placed heap of basalt rocks told the story of ‘something’ that lay beneath.
Two men, Avnor Raban of the University of Haifa and Mendel Nun from the nearby kibbutz of Ein Gev, noticed the rocks after a fire burnt off the dense vegetation, and explored the site during a general survey of the ancient harbours of the Galilee. They drew maps and pointed out what they thought was the general lay of the land. Once again, the land lay undisturbed, this time for thirty years, until the Parks Authority and the Israeli Antiquities Authority approached Professor Michal Artzy of the Hatter Laboratory at the Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies of the University of Haifa, and veteran archaeologist of Tel Nami, Tel Akko and Tel Abu Hawam, to put together a team to explore the site.
She chose Dr Haim Cohen, one of her Phd students, to lead the expedition, and it was due to his perseverance that the money for the excavation was raised.
At about 4.30pm on the 8th of December 2015, the team of the Kursi Beach Excavation led by Dr Haim Cohen of The University of Haifa, were trowelling and sweeping an area next to a straight line of stones, in line with Dr Cohen’s instructions, when they uncovered the first Hebrew letter, peeping through the dirt of the centuries. The inscription saw the golden light of a Galilee afternoon for the first time since the earthquake, to the wonder and excitement of the volunteers and Dr Cohen. ‘The Merciful’ were the first words the team saw.
Experts from some of the highest posts in the Israeli archaeological world puzzled over the slab for hours. Some pieces are missing, but the sensational message that seems to be emerging is that the slab commemorates, or is dedicated to, someone called Marmaria (son of or Mr of Mary).Bearing in mind that Jewishness is always handed down through the female line, this becomes very significant indeed. Some experts say that ‘marmaria’ refers to marble, which the slab is made of, but this is not confirmed as of now.
We received this letter from Mary Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania:
Significance of December 8
Roman Catholics in every country have honored Mary, the mother of Jesus, beginning with the earliest followers of Christ. Among the 10 holy days of obligation in the cannon of the Universal Catholic Church, three are dedicated solely to Mary including the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception celebrated annually on December 8. This feast honors her purity as the only human being conceived without original sin. For those devoted to the Blessed Mother, it is significant that “Marmaria”, the first word to emerge on the marble slab uncovered at Kursi Beach, came to light on the feast of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
Mary Ellen Dahlkemper
Saint Patrick Church, Erie, Pennsylvania, USA
January 4, 2016
http://www.cmri.org/94prog9.htm (“Why Catholics Honor Mary”)
Whoever the son of Mary was, he must have made a huge impact on the town, if indeed the inscription refers to ‘mamaria’ as a person . There are no other imported marble slabs engraved with Hebrew letters anywhere in Israel. The expense, at the time, must have been enormous. Scribes and engravers with the skill and knowledge to do such work were a rarity. Marble was costly – usually mosaic was used for such purposes.
As it happens, the gospels tell us that Jesus, the son of Mary, came ashore in this very place with his disciples and was met by a naked, demon-possessed man who lived in the graveyard, where he regularly cut himself with stones and ran wild amongst the tombstones. Restraining the man with chains had proven futile: each time he escaped and ran off. He was too strong to be forced to do anything, and so the townspeople gave up, and let him roam; howling and crying like an animal – day and night.
Upon seeing Jesus, the man ran towards him and asked, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to come out of him, but the ‘spokesperson’ for the demons begged him not to torment them before their time, but to cast them into a nearby herd of swine. Jesus asked for the name of the demon. The answer was, ‘Legion – for we are many’. He then cast the demons into the pigs, and the pigs rushed down a steep bank and into the sea, where they drowned. It goes without saying that Jesus, as a Jew, had strong beliefs about the wisdom of herding and eating pigs!
The swineherds ran off to tell the townspeople what had happened, and when they found Jesus, he was sitting with the exorcised man at his feet who was, by then, clothed and in his right mind. The people were afraid, and asked Jesus to leave, but the healed man begged Jesus to take him along. Jesus told him, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.”
Did the demoniac do just that? Did he do it so well that a town ordered a vastly expensive marble inscription to commemorate the time when they were the chosen location for a miracle of Christ? Mark says the man proclaimed it in the Decapolis, a group of ten gentile towns in the area, and the people were amazed.
We will never know for sure, but what we can know is that the marble is unparalleled anywhere in Israel, including in Jerusalem. It is so unusual that scholars will study it and marvel at it from here on. It is proof of a Jewish settlement on the east bank of the Sea of Galilee, going back centuries.
The words, ‘the merciful’ were actually uncovered, not by a great archaeologist, but appropriately, by two men who resemble Jesus in their humility and selflessness – Shmuel Grassiani and Steve Roth.