Ever wonder why the Sea of Galilee is called the “Sea of Galilee”? It is, after all, a lake not a sea. Everybody knew that who lived in the region as it is pretty easy to distinguish fresh water from salt water.

Having been reading the Bible in some form or another for my entire life, it never occurred to me to question the name “Sea of Galilee.” I know it is a lake. But calling it the “Sea of Galilee” is as right as calling it the “Sermon on the Mount”, even though it is rather gratuitous to call most of the hills in Palestine mountains. The name is just right.

Reading this morning in the Catena in Joannem (I don’t know what you do when you are laying in bed not wanting to get up in the morning, but now you know what I do), my eyes were opened to the oddity of this name from a cultural insider’s point of view.

The Catena

The Catena is a collection of comments made on the NT by several important early church writers. Catena means “chain” and it describes the chain-like linking of the different commentators’ thoughts together throughout the work. The various Catenas (or, to be more Latin, the Catenae) are a major source of early Church comments on the Bible.

Chapter 8 of the Catena in Joannem deals with the 2 loaves and 5 fishes, aka the feeding of the 5,000. This section of the comments picks up at what is now referred to as John. 6. I quote here the text of 6.1 to set the mood:

Μετὰ ταῦτα ἀπῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πέραν τῆς θαλάσσης τῆς Γαλιλαίας τῆς Τιβεριάδος

After these things, Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, [the sea] of Tiberias. (or, the Galilean Sea of Tiberius, to distinguish it from the bazillion other bodies of water sycophantically named after the emperor, one supposes)

Here is our old familiar name “Sea of Galilee” for the largish sized (but still small if like me you think of the Great Lakes as the best exemplar of a lake) body of fresh water.

In the Catena one of the commentators took it upon himself to explain a historical oddity for his readers (my translation is quite loose, but gets the point across)[1]:

240.30 {Ἄλλως.} Τῆς λίμνης φησὶν, ἔθος γὰρ τῇ γραφῇ, φησὶ, τὰ τῶν ὑδάτων συστήματα θάλασσαν καλεῖν.

“It is speaking of the lake, for it is the custom in the Scriptures to call gathered bodies of water “a sea.”

What prompts the intrepid commentator known to us as Ἄλλως[2] to proffer the explanation that “sea” = “lake”? Having cut my Greek-reading teeth on the NT it has never seemed strange to see θάλασσα used for this body of water as well as for others like the Aegean or Mediterranean Sea. But normal Greek users did not refer to smallish/largish bodies of fresh water with θάλασσα. Consider the lexical entry from BrillDAG (all the important glosses are in bold, red text):

θᾰ́λασσα, Att. θάλαττα -ης, ἡ sea Il. 1.157, al. etc.; κατὰ θάλασσαν by sea Hdt. 5.63.2, al. etc.; κατά τε γῆν καὶ κατὰ θάλατταν by land and by sea Plat. Menex. 241a; τῆς θαλάσσης τὸ κράτος domination by sea Plut. Per. 28.8 | τό or τὰ παρὰ θάλασσαν the shore, the coasts Hdt. 2.12.2, al.; οἱ περὶ τὴν θάλασσαν the men of the sea, sailors Aristot. H.A. 598b 24, al. etc. | ἥδε ἡ θάλασσα this sea, our sea = the (eastern) Mediterranean Hdt. 1.1.1, al. etc. = ἡ παρʼ ἡμῖν θ. Plat. Phaed. 113a = ἡ θ. ἡ καθʼ ἡμᾶς Pol. 1.3.9 (= mare nostrum of the Romans); ἡ ἔσω θ. … ἡ ἔξω θ. the internal sea … the external sea = the Mediterranean, the Ocean Aristot. Meteor. 350a 22, al. etc.; ἡ μεγάλη θ. the great sea, the ocean Plut. Alex. 73.1; ἡ Ἀτλαντικὴ θ. the Atlantic ocean Plut. Sert. 24.2 | ἐς θάλασσαν … τὴν τοῦ Εὐξείνου πόντου in the Euxine Pontus = the Black Sea Hdt. 2.33.4; πέλαγος θαλάσσης open sea Ap. 2.608 | analog. salt lake Aristot. Meteor. 351a 9 | fig. κακῶν δʼ ὥσπερ θάλασσα like a sea of trouble Aeschl. Sept. 758 (prob.) ‖ extens. seawater, brine Pol. 16.5.4 Plut. Aet. phys. 914d Diosc. 2.83 etc.; ἔστω δὲ ἐν χαλκῷ ἡ θάλασσα put the brine in a bronze vessel Hp. Coac. 2.427 | ἐλαίη τε καὶ θάλασσα an olive and a spring of brackish water, in the Erechtheion on the acropolis at Athens Hdt. 8.55; θ. Ἐρεχθηίς brackish fount of Erechtheus Apollod.7 3.14.1 ‖ sea voyage: ἐκ μακρᾶς θαλάσσης after a long voyage Charit. 2.2.2, al.; πρὸ τῆς θαλάττης before setting sail Hld. 5.20.7 ‖ later canal, runnel (of sea water) VT 1 Kgs. 18:32 | basin (metal) VT 2 Sam. 8:8.

What jumps out from a brief perusal of this entry is that all the usages of θάλασσα are tied to bodies of salt water. BrillDAG does not even throw the customary bone to readers of NT Greek by citing a specific (often idiosyncratic) usage of a word in the NT (neither does LSJ, by the way).

The commentator in Catena in Joannem indicates that this usage is peculiar to the Scriptures. The NT lexicon BDAG makes the same point, stating that the usage of “θάλασσα” for “lake” is a Semitic idiom. Using θάλασσα for an inland non-salty body of water is not unknown in the Ancient World. Even Aristotle makes a similar note on the usage of the word:

ἀλλ᾿ ἥ γε ὑπὸ τὸν Καύκασον λίμνη, ἣν καλοῦσιν οἱ ἐκεῖ θάλατταν· αὕτη γὰρ ποταμῶν πολλῶν καὶ μεγάλων εἰσβαλλόντων οὐκ ἔχουσα ἔκρουν φανερὸν ἐκδίδωσιν ὑπὸ γῆν κατὰ Κοραξούς, περὶ τὰ καλούμενα βαθέα τοῦ Πόντου·

But there is the lake beneath the Caucasus, which the inhabitants call a sea: for this is fed by many great rivers, and having no obvious outlet runs out beneath the earth in the district of the Coraxi and comes up somewhere about the so-called deeps of Pontus[3]

Aristotle’s description that “the people who live there call it a ‘sea'” could indicate he finds the usage abnormal.

So there you have it. The Greeks did not call lakes seas, though I expect these bodies of water are just as fresh either way. The pervasive usage of θάλασσα in this way in the NT and LXX was just one of the many cultural curiosities which recipients of the NT and LXX had to deal with as Christianity spread around the Roman Empire.

This has been a brief little foray into lexicography. I found it interesting that what I have assumed for my entire life—that “Sea of Galilee” is a normal name—took quite some time becoming established as a household idiom by the Greek-speaking Bible-readers of antiquity.


If you are interested in reading in the Catenae, you can read them free through the Diogenes reader (among other places). Check out here for how to get it.

[i] Catenae (Novum Testamentum), Catena in Joannem (catena integra) (e codd. Paris. Coislin. 23 + Oxon. Bodl. Auct. T.1.4) (4102: 005) “Catenae Graecorum patrum in Novum Testamentum, vol. 2”, Ed. Cramer, J.A. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1841, Repr. 1967.

[ii] In the Catena the name of the commentator is usually given within squiggly brackets (at least in the edition I have access to). Most of them are obvious names, like Cyril of Alexandria, Origin, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and so forth. I have no idea who is meant by Ἄλλως, or if it even is signifying a specific individual or not.

[iii] Translation from LCL, Aristotle. Meteorologica. Translated by H. D. P. Lee. Loeb Classical Library 397. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952.