How Did the Crowds Hear Jesus?
THE Gospel of Matthew reports that on one occasion Jesus Christ “went aboard a boat and sat down, and all the crowd was standing on the beach. Then he told them many things by illustrations.” (Matthew 13:1-35; Mark 4:1-9) In their book Come See the Place: The Holy Land Jesus Knew, Robert J. Bull and B. Cobbey Crisler raise some interesting questions regarding this account. They ask: “How could one have been heard by ‘a great multitude’ without the benefit of some sort of voice amplification? And is it possible to find a seashore spot with acoustical properties that would produce such amplification?” Perhaps you too have wondered about this.
Well, note their answer: “Among several coves near Capernaum, there is one that has recently been found to have just such sound characteristics of a natural amphitheater. Acoustical tests have been carried out on this site to show that ‘a great multitude’ of some five thousand to seven thousand people, assembling here, could indeed have both seen and clearly heard a person speaking from a boat located at a spot near the cove’s center.” And how were these acoustical experiments carried out? Virginia Bortin, a writer on archaeological topics, explains in The San Juan Star, a newspaper in Puerto Rico.
According to Bortin, archaeologist B. Cobbey Crisler, coauthor of the above-mentioned book, and acoustical engineer Mark Myles conducted tests “near Tell Hum, site of ancient Capernaum.” There “the land slopes gently upward from the Sea of Galilee to a modern road more than a football field away.” Crisler waded out into the cove and stood on a large rock there. Then he inflated balloons of the same size to produce a uniform sound and punctured them at measured intervals of time. Myles, using an electronic volume meter, registered the decibel levels as he walked upward toward the road. Crisler then came to shore and repeated the balloon puncturing there. Result? The sound intensity was greater from the rock out in the cove than from the shore! Interestingly, while Crisler was out in the cove, several automobiles with tourists stopped on the road above him. He could clearly hear one person ask: “What’s he doing down there?” Another answered: “I don’t know. He’s just standing there holding some red balloons.”
Evidently, when people are standing or seated on one level, the sound of a projected voice is absorbed by bodies, hair, clothing, vegetation, and space. However, if they are on a hill or an incline as near Capernaum, the speaker, at an appropriate distance below and away from them, can be heard, his voice being greatly amplified. Of course, not to be discounted is the quiet, rapt attention paid by the audiences then and the marked absence of modern-day background noises from jet airplanes, cars, trucks, and so forth.
But what about other occasions on which the Bible reports that Jesus spoke to large crowds? Crisler and Myles theorize that Jesus and other Biblical personalities who addressed large audiences deliberately “sought out open areas known for their natural amplification properties and used them for mass communication.”
Crisler and Myles have also made investigations “to determine how many people could clearly have seen Jesus the day he spoke there.” Assuming it was a bright, cloudless day, they estimated that “an audience of 5,000 and 7,000 could have heard and seen Jesus speaking from offshore.” This caused newspaper writer Bortin to conclude that “this supports Gospel accounts of large crowds from throughout Palestine that flocked to Galilee to witness the miraculous healer as he addressed them in parables. The Capernaum location with its bowl-shaped natural amphitheater indeed allowed everyone to observe him clearly.”
Of course, it cannot be stated dogmatically that Crisler and Myles have discovered the actual site of Jesus’ shoreside lecture. Yet, it is interesting to note that the proposed site is a place where thornbushes and rocks abound, with yellow mustard flowers growing among them. Jesus’ featuring them in his illustrations would have thus added to his teaching. In an area of such fine acoustics, Jesus’ command to “listen” would also have been most appropriate. (Mark 4:3) Similarly, his use of the word “ears” and the many forms of the verb “to hear” could easily have been appreciated by all his listeners in such a place. Yes, all present there in that “natural amphitheater” not only could have heard and seen Jesus quite clearly but also could have grasped the full impact of his illustrations simply by looking around.
[Map on page 25]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
2. Plain of Gennesaret
4. Exit of Jordan River to the south
5. Mount Tabor
Sea of Galilee
Based on a map copyrighted by Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est. and Survey of Israel
[Picture on page 24]
Looking to the northeast along the Sea of Galilee toward Capernaum; seen from the edge of the Plain of Gennesaret
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.
[Picture on page 26]
Northwestern corner of the Sea of Galilee. Likely, it was near Capernaum that Jesus spoke to the crowd from a boat
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.