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Cedar of Lebanon

November 2014 | by Julian Evans OBE

In this article, we are looking not so much at trees themselves, as sourcing the wood for Solomon’s great temple, and also seeing what we can learn from a discovery 30 years ago.

This discovery was the substantial remains of a first century fishing boat, in the mud of the Sea of Galilee. Boats and fishing, mentioned about 50 times in the Gospels, were so much a part of Jesus’ ministry that it is remarkable that we have the kind of boat, preserved, that he and his disciples would have been familiar with.

Prized wood

Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) is the finest tree in the Levant and was prized for millennia by the ancients. It was the timber of choice for palaces, temples and fine buildings.

As far back as 2500 BC, cedar was imported into Egypt from Lebanon and Syria, by rafting logs along the eastern Mediterranean coast and up the River Nile.

Many of the invasions westward by the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians in the first millennium BC were over this scarce resource of cedar timber (and probably that of cypress and juniper), to build ever more impressive palaces.

In the Louvre, Assyrian bas-reliefs show logs being hauled and galleys towing rafts of cedar. Every king and potentate wanted to outdo his rivals and predecessors. Cedar it had to be.

Yet the natural forests of cedar are confined just to Lebanon, Syria (Amanus to the ancients) and the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey (old Cilicia). This restricted natural distribution led to over-exploitation as early as 1000 BC.

A thousand years later, things had become so bad that the Emperor Hadrian reserved for Rome, the four best tree species found in these mountains. Rock inscriptions can still be found marking where forests once were and what was reserved for the Emperor.

Solomon’s temple

This places in context the Bible chapters of 1 Kings 5–8 and 1 Chronicles 22 and 2 Chronicles 2–7. In these, King David builds a palace and makes preparations for the temple; and his son, King Solomon, builds an even more impressive palace and the all-important temple itself.

Cedar is not native to Israel and, as for other rulers at the time, imports had to be made. In David’s and Solomon’s case, negotiations were held with King Hiram, who organised the tree felling and transport of logs, including by raft to the port of Joppa.

The imports were paid for largely with food, olive oil and wine, though Solomon appears to have provided some of the labour force as well. So much cedar was imported to Jerusalem that the city is described as awash with it and the logs too many to count (1 Chronicles 22:4).

Cedar was sought after for both practical and symbolic reasons. It is a readily worked timber that is durable, and trees grew to sufficient stature to provide the timber lengths required for beams and great doors. It also takes nailing well.

The temple was panelled throughout with cedar, which itself was overlain with beaten gold in the most holy inner sanctuary. All this cedar would have added a further dimension — a wonderful aroma or fragrance to meet the worshipper, at least until the daily sacrifices and use of incense displaced it.

Without doubt, cedar was the finest timber fit for the most important of all buildings.

Galilean boat

The great African drought of the early 1980s affected Israel too. By 1986, the Sea of Galilee was at an all-time low, with much seabed exposed.

While beachcombing, two fishermen brothers from the nearby Kibbutz Ginosar found Roman coins (the widow’s mites of Mark 12:41-44) and, later, digging in soggy sand, came across ancient nails and a mud-encrusted ‘strake’, a piece of wooden rim.

Initially thought to be from a boat that had sunk about 200 years ago, more careful investigation of this rim by a marine archaeologist declared it as ancient.

The Department of Antiquities in Jerusalem confirmed it as likely first century, because the boat had two ancient features: mortice and tenon joints; and outer planking of the hull that had been put in place first and then attached to the ribs or frame (today, it’s done the other way round).

Carbon-dating showed that the trees used for the timbers were felled between 130 BC and AD 90, give or take 100 years. Taken together, it confirmed beyond doubt that the boat was first century and contemporary with Christ.

Exceptional find

It was an exceptional find. The wooden boat, 8.2m long and with a beam of 2.3m, was salvaged with incredible care. For eight years, it was immersed in preservation fluid to replace the water in the sodden timbers with waxes and other chemicals, in order to add strength and stabilise it when exposed to air. Today it has pride of place in the Yigal Allon Centre, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Wood from twelve different tree species were found in the boat. The planks were cedar, doubtless chosen because of its ease of working and natural durability; the ribs mainly of Tabor oak; and the keel part carob and part Christ-thorn wood. Other species were represented by small pieces of wood only, probably used when repairs were made.

The boat was lightly built. The planks of the hull were less than an inch thick, not like a sturdy sea-going vessel which would have had timbers three times the thickness.

It was constructed in two stages, first to a high standard and then finished off with inferior workmanship relying on plenty of nails! Several of the timbers were secondhand and being re-used, suggesting wood was scarce and costly, that the boat had a long working life, and perhaps that the owner was not wealthy.

If experts can deduce all this 2000 years on, imagine Jesus, the skilled carpenter, smiling as he felt a lovely, snug-fit mortice and tenon joint; or tut-tutting over shoddy work made good by extra nails!

Of course, Jesus may never have sailed in this particular boat, but unlike relics with highly questionable provenances, here is an artefact dated from the time of Christ and at a place where he ministered.

Julian Evans OBE

Professor Evans is a forest scientist and currently President of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. He has written many books on forestry, but recently Day One (Leominster) have published his God’s trees — trees, forests and wood in the Bible, in coffee-table format.