Capernaum
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The location of Capernaum (or Kfar Nahum in Hebrew) is along the border of the territories of Zebulon and Naphtali (Matthew 4:13) on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Its location is 2 1/2 miles from the point where the Jordan River enters the Sea of Galilee and about 10 miles from present-day Tiberias.

The present name of the site, Talhum in Arabic or less correctly Tell Hum, seemingly arises from its name in medieval Jewish manuscripts, Kefar Tanhum, or simply Tanhum, for there is no real "tell" on the site (Loffreda and Tzaferis: 1993:292). One scholar proposed that the word "tell" may come from teloneion the Greek word for "customs house", while the Hum may be a remnant of the original Hebrew name of the town, Kfar Nahum.

The crest of a ridge of hills, just to the west of the ancient town, is the mountain of Capernaum (Matthew 28:16, Mark 6:46) referred to the Byzantine pilgrim Egeria as Eremos (Pixner 1992:34). The town received no mention in the Hebrew Scriptures and it only appears in the New Testament in the Gospel accounts. Matthew refers to Capernaum as Jesus' "own city" (Matthew 9:1).

Scripture Summary

Since Capernaum lay on the political border separating Herod Antipas' tetrarchy of Galilee from Gaulanitis, ruled by his brother Philip, it was the location of a customs house (Matthew 9:9). There was also a small military garrison, quartered to the east of the Jewish town, under the command of a centurion probably one of Herod Antipas’ mercenaries (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). The garrison's quarters included a representative Roman bath with caladium, frigidarium, and tepidarium. Josephus recounts that he was brought to Capernaum, or Cepharnome, en route to his headquarters at Tarichea, after injuring his wrist when his horse fell into a quagmire in a battle near the Jordan river during the First Jewish Revolt, CE 66-70, with imperial Rome (Josephus, Life 72; Whiston 1957:26). He also wrote of the springs of Heptapegon as the springs of Capharnaum (Josephus, Wars 3.10.8; Whiston 1957:736).

The town proper, whose existence is from the Early Roman Period, lies in a very fertile area and it was a busy place. Located on the highway from the Mediterranean coast to Damascus, the Via Maris, merchants would bring silk and spices from Damascus and take back the dried fish and fruits of the plains of Gennessaret. Despite its relative prosperity (augmented by local fishing in the Sea of Galilee), the town was evidently quite small but large enough for a small synagogue. Its population was likely no more than 1000 to 1500 people. The town, in Jesus' day a poor fishing village, extended along the actual lake shore only for a distance of about 1600 feet. Apparently the Jewish inhabitants could not afford their own synagogue and they praised the Gentile Centurion, who held the Jewish people in high regard and seemingly sought to maintain good relations with the local townspeople, for building it (Luke 7:5).

Jesus made Capernaum, mentioned repeatedly in the Gospels, his dwelling place or headquarters after he abandoned Nazareth (Matthew 4:13). He often returned to the town, after preaching in the the countryside along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which he regarded as his home (Matthew 9:1; Mark 2:1), apparently as a guest of his disciple Peter and his wife. Paul attests to Peter still having a wife, a believing one at that, who accompanied him on his travels, ca. CE 55 (I Corinthians 9:5). Presumably, Peter's mother-in-law also resided in the house (Mark 1:31). Peter and his brother Andrew, originally from Bethsaida (John 1:44) had settled in Capernaum (Mark 1:29).

Jesus performed many miracles here (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:34). From this town he chose his first four disciples (Peter, Andrew and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John) and later he chose the publican Matthew, also known as Levi, as well (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27). The latter, who became the author of the first Gospel, worked at the customs house (Matthew 9:9). The duties performed by publicans commonly included the levy and collection of duties or tolls from merchants traveling along the Via Maris, taxing fishermen on fish caught in the Sea of Galilee, and maintaining some semblance of public order (Pixner 1992:35). The Centurion, commander of the military garrison in service to Herod Antipas, sought Jesus help in the healing of his servant (Luke 7:1-10). Jesus commends this Gentile officer for understanding that Jesus could heal from far off and his physical presence in a ceremonially unclean Gentile compound was not necessary. This kept Jesus from becoming ceremonially defiled according to the Mosaic Code.

Chronological Summary

ca. 20
Basalt synagogue built by the Roman Centurion commanding the garrison at Capernaum.
ca. 27
Jesus' discourse in the Basalt Synagogue.
ca. 70
Destruction of the Basalt Synagogue.
ca. 250/300
White Synagogue constructed.
ca. 90
Peter's house, no longer a family dwelling place, becomes a house-church exclusively functions as a place of meeting and worship.
ca. 350
Egeria visits the domus ecclesia, the house-church, integrating the structure of Peter's original house.
ca. 400
The Byzantines erect the Octagonal Church at Peter's house
ca. 500
Presumably the White Synagogue falls into disuse as a result of Roman persecution of Jews.
ca. 570
The pilgrim of Paicenza visits the town.
ca. 640
City destroyed and abandoned with the Arab conquest.

In later rabbinic texts, Pharisaic rabbis referred to Capernaum as a center of minim, a term usually applied to Judeo-Christians (Pritz 1992:102-103). These sources attest to a significant Judeo-Christian presence in Capernaum as early as the second century CE. Other rabbinic sources from the 4th century contain polemics directed against the inhabitants of Capernaum as archetypal sinners (which, if they were Judeo-Christians, they certainly were from the Pharisaic point of view).

Capernaum appears to have largely escaped destruction during the First Jewish Revolt (CE 66-70), and by the 4th century CE, the town had increased in size, expanding towards the nearby hills. Despite the critical remarks of 4th century rabbinic sources, the community's Jewish and Christian inhabitants appear to have coexisted rather peacefully. Presumably most of its Jewish residents were not observant Jews and somewhat oblivious to the rhetoric of the emerging rabbinic Judaism of the Pharisees.

Whether or not the archaeologists have established sufficient evidence for the identification of Peter's house is an open question. Loffreda (Loffreda 1993) and Finegan (Finegan 1992) write as if this was a foregone conclusion. What is known is that Greco-Roman Christians, both clerics and laity, from about CE 325 understood the traditional site of the House of St. Peter as authentic. How they arrived at this conclusion we know not. There appears to be sufficient evidence, graffiti and the like, to conclude that it is more probable than not that this traditional site is the actual house of Peter. This means that there is reasonable doubt in the matter. The archaeological evidence available is not scientific but from a strong hermeneutic tradition. One leading Israeli archeologist told our editors that from the scant evidence available the site may have been nothing more than a fishing warehouse located close to the lake.

Egeria, who visited the Holy Land including Capernaum in the latter part of the 4th century, noted in her Journal that while the Christian focus was the traditional "House of St. Peter" (which quite early had been converted into a "house-church" that is, a domus ecclesia), the magnificent White Synagogue served the needs of the town's traditional Jewish inhabitants.

The Byzantines erected an octagonal memorial church to place their mark on the site. This structure was along the same design as the Church of the Apostles in Jerusalem built ca. 382 by Theodosius I. Coin and ceramic evidence reportedly dates construction of the octagon at Capernaum to approximately the middle of the fifth century (Finegan 1992:110). The building more likely belonged to the end of the fourth century with construction at about the same time as that of the octagon at Jerusalem. The octagons appear to be part of the same building program.

The Byzantines militantly sought to seize all Judeo-Christian "holy sites" as part of the over all attempt by Greco-Roman Christianity to stamp out Sabbath and festival observance and other forms of nonconforming and heterodox Christianity. Christian Passover celebration on Nisan 14, weekly Sabbath observance, and High Day observance became criminalized under Roman law following the Council of Nicea. So-called Judaizing was made illegal in Roman jurisdictions. The confiscation of the property of Judaizers was morally and legally correct in Greco-Roman Christian understanding. Zealous Byzantines spread their gospel of anti-Semitism and religious intolerance throughout the Roman world creating a legacy that still permeates Western culture.

Judeo-Christians in the Levant did not escape. Peter's house at Capernaum and the Mother of All Churches site in Jerusalem were too significant to be allowed to remain in Judeo-Christian hands and we suggest that Byzantine zealots eagerly constructed the octagonals in righteous fury. The conduct of Byzantine zealots was somewhat similar to that witnessed in Iran in the days of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Greco-Roman Christians sought to eliminate all vestiges of Judeo-Christianity prompting a general movement of Judeo-Christians to regions outside Roman reach. The Alps of central Europe and western Asia received refugees.

The anonymous pilgrim of Paicenza, who wrote about his visit to the Holy Land in CE 570, referred to "the house of St. Peter, which is now a basilica" but made no mention of the White Synagogue. Presumably this is indicative of a deterioration in the status of the Jewish inhabitants. Recent archaeological study of the site, confirms this architectural evolution of the "House of St. Peter". Presently a large church providing a view looking down into the remains of the House of St. Peter, the domus ecclesia, and the octagonal memorial church, occupies the site.

Both Jewish and Christian habitation at Capernaum ceased at the time of the Arab conquest (ca. CE 640). Jesus had denounced Capernaum as unrepentant and condemned it to Hades (Matthew 11:23; Luke 10:15). Not only did the name Capernaum disappear, but later pilgrims and residents of the area retained no knowledge of the location of the site. Only in recent times, with the advent of archaeological investigations by the Franciscan Order, was the exact location of this important New Testament town and early Christian center recovered.

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Above is the White Synagogue at Capernaum a Jewish synagogue dating from the late third century. A BIBARCH™ Photo by Julianna Egedus.

The most impressive archaeological remains at Capernaum are those of the beautiful White Synagogue, now partially reconstructed, made of dressed stones. Many decorative fragments once ornamented its facade. Presumably, this was a traditional Jewish synagogue probably dating from the late third century. No uniquely Christian symbols or graffiti appear in its remains and its identity as a traditional Jewish synagogue is free of reasonable doubt.

The magnificence of the structure may, but probably does not, reflect the prosperity of the town's Jewish inhabitants. Its size and opulence, extensive and elaborate inner and outer ornamentation, presumably was made possible through the financial support from Pharisaic Jewish donors residing outside Capernaum. The synagogue's splendor, uncharacteristic of and out of place in a minor fishing village and Christian pilgrim site, suggests some intentional vying with the Christian community and its popular, but humble, "House of Peter" shrine. The two facilities are immediately across from each other. Moreover, sociologist Rodney Stark asserts that "Jews continued as a significant source of Christian converts until at least as late as the fourth century and that Jewish Christianity was still significant in the fifth century" (Stark 1996:49). As the majority of Jews in the second and third centuries were not observant then emerging Pharisaic rabbinic Judaism and Judeo-Christianity competed for the same people as converts.

The actual date of the White Synagogue is a matter of some controversy. The original idea was that the synagogue dated to the first century CE and was, therefore, the one in which Jesus taught. Archaeologists abandoned this notion but they remain of divided opinion. Some support a second or early third century date and others a date in the 4th or early 5th century.

Visible below certain sections of the walls of the White Synagogue are the remains of an earlier synagogue, built of basalt, dating to Jesus' day and presumably it is the one in which Jesus taught (John 6). The elders of Capernaum in Jesus’ day referred to this earlier structure as having been by built by the Roman centurion garrisoned there, whom they held in high esteem (Luke 7:3-5). It is doubtful whether a minor fishing village the size of Capernaum, where the inhabitants looked to a Gentile to build a synagogue for them, could support more than one. No other candidates have come to light.

Considering the available evidence, and remaining mindful of Occam's Razor, it seems, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the small basalt synagogue is the one in which Jesus spoke. This conclusion does not have a basis in science, however, it is a working hypothesis open to further investigation and scrutiny. The White Synagogue lies above only portions of the earlier basalt synagogue of Jesus day. In CE 69, the Romans destroyed this earlier basalt synagogue in the course of the First Jewish Revolt.

For additional reading we suggest:

  1. the article "Capernaum" by Stanislao Loffreda and Vassilios Tzaferis in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land,

  2. Bargil Pixner's With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel,

  3. Jack Finegan's sections related to Capernaum in his The Archaeology of the New Testament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church, and

  4. Ray A. Pritz's Nazarene Jewish Christianity: From the End of the New Testament Period Until Its Disappearance in the Fourth Century.


    Page last edited: 04/06/06 09:18 PM


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