|Written by Stephen Langfur|
According to Matthew 11: 20-24, Jesus performed most of his miracles in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. This evangelist tells us that “leaving Nazareth, he came and lived in Capernaum” (4:13) and later he singles out the village as “his own city” (Mt 9:1). Many references in the gospels place Jesus very centrally here.
Why did Jesus choose Capernaum as a base? The Bible gives no reason, and we shall probably never know. The principles of historical geography apply mainly to large groups; in the case of a teacher and a handful of students, more particular motives may come into play.Yet one possibility may be suggested. Jesus comes to live in Capernaum right after the imprisonment of the Baptist: “Now when Jesus heard that John was delivered up, he withdrew into Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he came and lived in Capernaum…” (Matthew 4:12-13). Here he begins his public mission. Is there a connection, we may ask, between John’s arrest by Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, and Jesus’ choice of Capernaum? The suggestion is this: Jesus did not want a similar fate to interrupt his mission at its start. By using Capernaum as his base, he could remain in a region that was largely Jewish, but if Antipas went after him too, he could quickly move by boat to the nearby territory of Antipas’s half-brother and rival, Herod Philip. Capernaum was the closest town on the lake to Philip’s domain on the other side of the Jordan River, as you can see by enlarging the map above. What’s more, in Matthew, Mark and Luke – the Synoptic Gospels – Jesus is very reticent about his messiahship. He goes all the way up to Caesarea Philippi, Philip’s largely pagan capital, for a conversation that lets his identity out, and he warns his disciples not to tell anyone.At its height in the Byzantine period, Capernaum probably did not have more than 1500 people. It spread over 15 acres, stretching for 300 yards along the north shore of the Lake of Galilee. Graves mark its northern limit at less than 200 yards inland. (Jews do not bury inside their towns.) The sole village on this shore, it included within its sphere of influence the springs of Tabgha almost two miles to the west and the mouth of the Upper Jordan three miles to the east.
Although the Franciscan archaeologists at the site found walls and pavements dating from the second millennium BC, they discovered nothing from the entire Israelite period (1200 – 587 BC). This makes good geographical sense: in that time, there were as yet no bridges in the land, so the Great Trunk Road could not cross the mouth of the Upper Jordan en route to Damascus. Instead it stretched due north to Hazor, from which one could either head east to ford the river or farther north to circumvent its springs.
The Romans introduced bridges. As a result, the trunk road could make a major shift, following the northern shore of the lake and crossing the mouth of the Upper Jordan. To this shift the village of Capernaum owed its blossoming. (Indeed, 100 yards to the north of its shoreline a Roman milestone was found.) Thus, if you were using the trunk road coming from the tetrarchy of Herod Philip, this was the first town you encountered in the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas.Coins and imported pottery indicate that the village’s commercial contacts were mainly with the north: the Upper Galilee, the Golan, Syria, Phoenicia, Asia Minor and Cyprus. There was hardly any contact, it seems, with the central or southern parts of the country.
The village had other advantages, apart from the road. The northern shore is a favorite haunt of tilapia galilaea, today called Peter’s fish, a culinary favorite then as now. Tilapia is found in nature only here and in the lakes of eastern Africa, such as Lake Victoria. It prefers the warm springs at Tabgha not far from Capernaum. They are probably the springs that Josephus meant, when he wrote of a spring called “Capernaum, which some consider to be an offshoot of the Nile, because it breeds a fish very like the perch caught in the lake of Alexandria.”
In addition, the natural rock cover is a type of basalt that has just the right texture for grinding grain. Many millstones, some unfinished, were found at Capernaum, suggesting that it may have manufactured them for export.
If you want to view this material on a live tour guided by Dr. Steve Langfur, please start here .
The Houses at Capernaum
Much of Capernaum remains to be unearthed, but what we have shows a town planned roughly according to the Hippodamic pattern: the streets ran either parallel or perpendicular to one another, forming regular squares or insulae. Within these blocks, small houses surrounded an open courtyard.
Typically, an extended family would have lived in the complex, sharing the courtyard, where most days of the year the members would have done their cooking, eating and household work — and perhaps also much of their sleeping. In Mark 2, Jesus is teaching in a house while a crowd of sick people waits outside in the courtyard.
The floors were roughly paved with stones, probably smoothed with soil and straw. The houses had basalt-stone walls about nine feet high but lacked solid foundations. They had one-story only. The roofing probably consisted of branches topped by thatch. According to Mark 2, the people bearing the paralytic made a hole in the roof through which they lowered him.
At various places on the site one can see remains of staircases leading up to the roofs: after a rain, it would have been necessary to roll the water out of the thatch. (One can also occasionally spot part of a stone “roof roller.”) Spanning the middle of large rooms, there are often lines of basalt slabs that look like windows (as in the picture above). It may be that the family could not afford to build an arch, and it needed an intermediary wall in order to catch the roofing material; the “windows,” then, would have served for air circulation.
The House of Peter
One of Capernaum’s housing complexes may be glimpsed beneath the large modern church that today dominates the site. The Franciscan archaeologists Corbo and Loffreda have identified a room in this complex as the house of St. Peter mentioned in the Gospels. Several considerations led them to this conclusion:First, textual evidence: Later Jewish sources preserve a tradition of the sects (minim) at Capernaum. (See also Kimelman. ) Some scholars (not Kimelman, however) believe that the term refers to Jewish Christians. If so, we may posit a presence of Jewish Christians in the village from the time of Jesus until the establishment of the first church on this spot in the fourth century. They would have honored the house that the Gospels mention.
Second, archaeology: Alone among all the houses yet excavated on the west side of Capernaum, this one received a plastered floor (see photos above and right), which Corbo and Loffreda date to the late first century AD. They claim, on this basis, that the room was then already marked out for Christian devotion. Yet Joan E. Taylor questions so early a dating. She also points out that such floors were found in houses from the early Roman period on the eastern side of the village (today in the Greek Orthodox section). The family living here may simply have been richer than others on the western side.
In the late fourth century, builders retained the old house’s walls while surrounding the whole insula with a further wall. They repaved the floor, erected a supporting arch down the middle, and put in a roof of strong mortar. Pieces of wall plaster with graffiti were found, 175 in number, of which at least 151 were in Greek. They include references to Jesus and Peter. The local language, however, was Aramaic. Most, if not all, of the graffiti were probably written by pilgrims from elsewhere in the Byzantine Empire.
This house-church was no doubt the one that the 4th-century nun Egeria saw during her pilgrimage: “The house of the prince of the Apostles in Capernaum was changed into a church; the walls, however, are still standing as they were.” A century later a full-scale octagonal church supplanted it.
Was this then the house of Peter? Possibly.
It is certainly the most appropriate place we have at which to remember the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and later of the paralytic.
The Synagogue at Capernaum
By far the grandest ancient structure at Capernaum is the partly restored synagogue, which towers in white limestone above the basalt environs. On the basis of dates on some 30,000 coins (deliberately embedded, it would seem, in the mortar of the floor), Corbo and Loffreda dated the building to the late 4th century AD. Magness, however, holds that the embedding occurred in the sixth century and that the structure dates from that time at the earliest.
The two main rooms are a prayer hall and an adjoining courtyard to its east. Under the central part of the prayer hall, the archaeologists discovered the pavement (now covered again) of another large building, which they date to the time of Jesus. In such a village, a lone public building would most likely have been a synagogue. It has always been the practice in this land, moreover, to erect a new shrine on the site of the old, since the spot itself is deemed sacred. Standing in the middle of the prayer hall, then, one is near the setting of the stories in Mark 1 and John 6.
But how can we be sure that the white building from the 6th century was a synagogue? First, despite its unusual grandeur, the form and southward orientation are similar to those of several other undoubted synagogues in Galilee. Also, among the decorative elements exhibited in the grounds (whose exact position in the structure the restorers did not know), we find a seven-branched candelabrum carved (secondarily at an angle) on a capital, together with an incense shovel and a ram’s horn. These three together functioned in antiquity as the primary symbol of Judaism. (The Star of David achieved its specifically Jewish connotation very much later.)
Some also like to identify a unique stone carving as the ark of the covenant, but it might better represent an imperial triumphal procession, in which a building is being wheeled. Yet why would Jews represent such a thing?
That question may relate to another: It is a puzzle how the Jews of Capernaum could have dared to build so grand an edifice, with limestone imported from miles away, at a time of Christian emperors — and with a modest but important church thirty yards to the south. People told Jesus that a Roman centurion funded the synagogue. Perhaps this later edifice too was financed by a foreigner: the Emperor himself, so that Christian pilgrims, seeking the sites of Mark 1 and John 6, would not be disappointed. Logistics for a visit to Capernaum
The site is open from 8.00 until 16.00, although one should arrive by 15.00. Modest dress is required. There is little shade, and the place can be quite hot. Bring a hat and water.
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