Along the Shore of the Sea of Galilee:
Capernaum, Jesus' Adopted Home
From the Cove of the Sower/Bay of Parables we head a short distance east (.6 mile to be exact) to the small palm and cypress-shaded archaeological site of Capernaum. Located about 10 miles north of Tiberias, on the northern edge of the Plain of Gennesaret, this ancient place is without doubt the most famous of the biblical towns on the Sea of Galilee.
In the footsteps of Jesus...
Until a few decades ago, little was known about Capernaum; even its location was open to question.
Though traces of occupation were discovered dating to the 13th century BC, the history of Capernaum begins in the 2nd century BC. Originally a small Jewish fishing village, it grew to become an important town. But, it was never fortified and had no entrance gate like that discovered at Tiberias. It lay on a narrow plain with the black basalt hills rising behind, some 750 feet above the shore of the lake (which lies about 700 feet below sea level). The lakefront at Capernaum (below, as it appears today) was the scene of constant activity as boats from other fishing villages stopped there because of the rich fishing grounds between it and Bethsaida, some three miles to the east.
Capernaum is not mentioned in the Old Testament; it appears in the biblical record only in the gospels where it is mentioned 16 times in connection with Jesus' Galilean ministry. This is not a place where "tradition" says significant events related to Jesus' life occurred. It was his adopted home (Mark 2:1), where he lived, slept and ate. Matthew 9:1 refers to Capernaum as his "own town." People from Tiberias and elsewhere around the lake came here seeking him, and he went out from here to the synagogues of other towns. Although we are not told his itinerary for many of these journeys, we know that he went to Gennesaret, Korazin and Bethsaida. Here, too, he called some of his disciples, taught in the synagogue and performed many healing miracles.
The blue and white sign at the site entrance (below left and right) reads "Capharnaum the town of Jesus" (an explanation of the spelling follows). Why, at the age of 34, by one reckoning, did Jesus, an artisan-craftsman from the small highland village of Nazareth, move 20 miles to the northeast to take up life as itinerant preacher in Capernaum? While Matthew says it was because the people of Nazareth lacked faith (Matthew 13:58), Jesus probably selected Capernaum due to its location and the quality of its lifestyle.
Capernaum has a subtropical climate and although summer temperatures lingered around 90º-95º F, water was plentiful. To the south lay the fertile plain of Gennesaret, fed by several small springs; one, called Ein-et-Tin ("fountain of the fig"), passed the south edge of the town. The city stood on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, three miles west of the inlet of the Jordan River. It was prominently situated on the Via Maris, the main trade road running northward from Egypt along the Mediterranean coast to Caesarea. At Caesarea the route split, one branch continuing north into Lebanon, the other passed through the Jezreel Valley and on to the Sea of Galilee. The route went around the west side of the lake by Capernaum, then on toward the Golan Heights, Damascus and Mesopotamia (Road 90 north of Tiberias uses the same route).
Capernaum, belying its modest size, controlled all trade along the international highway. It was sufficiently apart from the larger towns of Galilee and lacked the strong Roman political pressures of Sepphoris (the former Galilee administrative center) and Tiberias (the new capital of Galilee, built in Jesus' lifetime). It was also located on the route between territories ruled by the tetrarchs (from Greek tetrarches, literally "governor of a fourth part") Herod Antipas and Herod Philip, the sons of Herod "the Great." Thus, Jesus had easy access to other towns around the lake and inland to other parts of Galilee. He could easily cross the border into a different political jurisdictions without running into trouble too soon with secular and religious leaders. In contrast to his Jewish-only home village of Nazareth, the population of Capernaum was highly varied and less conservative: fishermen, farmers, artisans, merchants, tax collectors, Roman soldiers, all apparently living in harmony.
Eye-opening revelations await pilgrims seeking insights into Jesus' life and ministry years. Amid a jumble of stone flour mills, olive presses, ovens, mortars and pestles and old chunks of columns are the foundations of homes (below left and right) built of the black lava rock (basalt) that is characteristic of the area. This gave the town a rather somber appearance, quite unlike the illustrations seen in many children's storybooks, drawn by illustrators who have never visited today's archaeological site.
The Galilee region was once volcanic; the Sea of Galilee was formed by a lava flow that dammed the Jordan River. The walls of the humble homes consisted of large, unhewn basalt stones, mortared with mud and pebbles; only the stones in door jambs and sills were dressed. Archaeologists use the term "insula" to describe the style of homes in Capernaum. An insula (a kind of city block) consisted of several small roofed rooms clustered around a large open courtyard. The squat rooms were too small for gatherings; they were used solely as shelters for belongings and for sleeping in the rainy season. The courtyard functioned as a combination living room, kitchen, dining room, workshop, garage and storage area. Many daily activities took place there. Flour mills (for grinding large quantities of grain) and ovens were always found there. Here women fixed meals; here artisans worked and probably here too people slept in the summertime on mats stretched on the ground. Parents would sleep with their small children in the middle, snuggled together to keep warm. Adjacent to the inner wall of the courtyard was a bench where people could sit; above might be a thatched eve for shade. During the long summers, oppressive heat hovered over the town. Families then made tents of branches and slept on the roof, which was, in fact, a very important part of the house. Sometimes a trellis was put on the roof to support grape vines. The roof was also used for drying fruit, grain, fish and fishing nets.
(Below left) Olive crusher (left) and oil press (right); (Below right) mills for grinding grain into flour
Judging from the partially reconstructed homes there was little difference between the rich and poor classes, no mansions in contrast to small dwellings. Along with the fishing industry, and farming on the nearby plain of Gennesaret, there was also a stone-working trade. The area's abundant lava rock (basalt) was carved into mortars, pestles, olive-presses and mill wheels for extracting valuable oil for cooking and lighting, as well as for soap, medicine, ritual anointing and religious rituals. The city was self-sufficient and prosperous, and work was available. In all, it must have been a pleasant place to live. It is certainly a pleasant site to visit!
Origin of the name
Capernaum is actually a composite of two Semitic words: caphar (also spelled kafr), meaning "village," and nahum (with the "h" dropped), meaning "village of nahum." While Nahum is listed as one of the so-called minor prophets, and the Old Testament book of Nahum is named for him, the origin of the town's name is uncertain. Nahum was a common Hebrew name at the time, meaning "comfort" or "consolation." Therefore Capernaum can also be translated "village of comfort," appropriate for a place that welcomed Jesus after his rejection in his hometown of Nazareth.
Ancient Capernaum (right, satellite view of the Capernaum site) stretched east to west nearly 1000 feet along the lake shore and some 600 feet from the lake shore to the hills (south to north). At its maximum size during the Byzantine period, Capernaum numbered some 1,500 inhabitants, far inferior to some of the cities around the lake. Nearby Magdala, for example, had a population of some 40,000 at the time of the First Jewish Revolt (according to 1st century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, but likely exaggerated). But, as an economic center in the Galilee it was more significant than tradition has allowed. Capernaum controlled at least 5 miles of the lake shore and was important enough to have a contingent of Roman soldiers (most likely mercenaries) stationed there to guard the border between the territories of Herod Antipas and Herod Philip. It was commanded by a centurion (Matthew 8:5-8) who, although a pagan (but not necessarily a Roman), contributed greatly to the building of a synagogue for the town's Jewish community, while the elders reciprocated in kindness and pleaded earnestly with Jesus asking him to heal the centurion's servant. They told Jesus, "This man deserves to have you do this because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue" (Luke 7:4-5).
Capernaum also had a customs house where new arrivals paid tolls to Herod Antipas' tax collectors. These officials were reviled by the Jewish inhabitants, who saw them as collaborators in a harsh and corrupt political system. They collected taxes on everything imported and exported; taxes for using a main road, a market, a harbor, for entering a walled town, also on animals, carts, wheels and axles. Undoubtedly the fishermen/brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, took up residence in Capernaum to avoid paying high tolls when crossing the border when coming from their native town of Bethsaida, to the east in the territory of Herod Philip. One of these hated officials was named Levi (Matthew). One day, Jesus passed by his tax booth and said, "Follow me," forever changing his life and calling. While feasting in Matthew's Capernaum house (Matthew 9:10), Jesus was criticized for associating with "tax collectors and sinners," but he responded with "it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:31-32)
Exploring the site of Capernaum
(Below) artist's rendering of a 1st century AD Capernaum house, based on those excavated by the Franciscans. Home life was centered around the courtyard, where families ate and slept, children played and livestock were kept. A house of this kind, entered from the public street through a single doorway, was probably shared by two or more families. The image of everyone living and working harmoniously in their "insula" dwellings made up of numerous small rooms provided Jesus with the perfect picture of heaven as he taught the people in John 14:2-3:
"In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am."
Light came from a series of windows facing the inner courtyard. However, the lava-rock walls were not strong enough to support a tile roof (no red ceramic tile fragments have been found at the site). Instead, roofs were made by laying beams across the width of the walls, and placing smaller beams at right angles across them. Thick layers of straw and reeds were placed on the beams to protect them from dampness, and everything was covered with packed mud for additional insulation. The whole structure was made firm by using a stone roller. A ladder or outside staircase gave access to the roof. In fact, we note a partial flight of stone steps alongside the remains of one structure, leading nowhere, perhaps to the long-gone roof of a home. This brings an incident in Mark 2 vividly to life:
A few days after healing a man with leprosy at an unspecified location in Galilee, Jesus returned to Capernaum. Even though Jesus had sent the man away with a strong warning not tell anyone, he talked freely. News of the miracle spread like wildfire and as Jesus sat in a home responding to questioning by a group of suspicious and curious "teachers of the law," the street outside became so crowded with people wanting to hear or catch a glimpse of him that "there was no room left, not even outside the door" (Mark 2:2).
As Jesus taught in the overcrowded room, four men carrying a paralyzed man on a pallet tried to enter to house, but found the crowd so densely packed that that there was no possibility of bringing their friend into the presence of the one they believed could heal him. As they stood at the edge of the crowd pondering their dilemma, one had an inspiration. The four men climbed up on to the roof and dug through the roof of the crowded room. As the dust and small pieces of clay and straw began falling on those gathered inside, they must have questioned the sanity of anyone attempting to unroof the house. As the faithful four began lowering their friend through the opening, Jesus looked up toward them:
"When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven...'" (Mark 2:5)
*Luke's version of this account is marked by an adaptation to the evangelist's Greek audience. When the men go up on the roof, they lower their paralyzed friend down "through the tiles." Both versions, however, focus on the determination and faith of the helpers, and the compassion of Jesus.
In the Jewish
culture of Jesus' time, a connection was made between sins and physical
suffering. Some of the more conservative of the religious leaders sitting there
thought to themselves: "Who does this man think he is. Only God can forgive
Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to them:
"Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins..." He said to the paralytic, 'I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.' He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, 'We have never seen anything like this!'" (Mark 2:9-12)
Here, Jesus accepts the link between sin and the man's disability and, by forgiving his sin, makes possible a total cure of both mind and body. He thus shows that his power is the power of God, proving his divinity.
The prosperity of this ancient Jewish community is apparent in its synagogue, whose restored remains are seen in northern part of the excavations (see photos below). It was built in the center of the town and was surrounded on all sides by streets. In striking contrast to the private houses of black basalt stones, the synagogue was built almost entirely with white limestone blocks — apparently polished to resemble marble — brought from quarries several miles away, the heaviest being almost four tons. Like most synagogues in Palestine, it faced south toward Jerusalem, reflecting the practice of offering prayers toward the Holy City as related in the Old Testament:
"When your people go to war against their enemies, wherever you send them, and when they pray to the Lord towards the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your name" (1 Kings 8:44).
(Above left) north wall in the prayer hall of the partially reconstructed 4th-5th century AD synagogue, built with white limestone.
(Above right) black basalt stones of an earlier synagogue under the white limestone blocks of the later synagogue; probably the foundation of the synagogue where Jesus taught.
The synagogue had four areas: a prayer hall, an eastern courtyard, a southern porch, and a side-room near the outer corner of the prayer hall. On the side facing the lake (south) the synagogue had three doors and a large window. The interior was more than 70 feet long and 50 feet wide and it had an upper floor intended for women. Rows of columns ran between the three aisles and along the front end. Along the left side were stone benches. A Greek inscription on one Corinthian column reads: "Herod, son of Monimus, and his son Justus, with their children, erected this column."
(Right) Artist's reconstruction of the "white synagogue"
However, this "white synagogue" was not the one Jesus taught in, as related in Mark 1:21ff. This was proven by several seasons of excavations. Beneath the synagogue floor, archaeologists found more than 10,000 Roman coins from the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Further digging revealed a black basalt wall running underneath the limestone block. At first it was assumed that it was a foundation, but at one corner, the basalt wall did not align with the limestone structure above. After more digging below the synagogue's limestone paving, a cobbled floor of black basalt was found, scattered with potsherds (pieces of broken pottery) dated to the 1st century AD. The floor measured 60 feet wide by 79 feet long, too large to have been a private dwelling. Taking into account the fact that the Jews of the ancient world customarily built new synagogues on the sites of older ones, it was probably the one built by the Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-5) and the place where Jesus often taught and delivered sermons. One of his most important sermons here concerned the bread of life:
"I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty." (John 6:35)
The prayer hall and the side-room were built in the late 4th century AD; an eastern courtyard was added later and was completed after the mid-5th century AD; at the same time the southern porch was remodeled. The synagogue remained in use from then on until its abandonment during the 7th century AD.
The home of Simon Peter?
In Mark 1:23-27 Jesus casts an "evil spirit" out of man while in the synagogue, then enters the house of Peter and Andrew, with James and John. This indicates that the house was nearby. That brings us to the southern part of the Capernaum excavations. About 84 feet south of the synagogue and very near the lake, is a bulky octagonal concrete church (right). In the foreground are the remains of "Insula II," between the synagogue and the Catholic church. These private houses lie between two parallel east to west streets (left to right in photo) and a broader "main" street between them (also refer to the aerial view at the top of the page).
Constructed by the Franciscans in 1990, one guidebook sarcastically calls it "an ugly chapel that resembles a flying saucer hovering above the ruins!" It was built over the remains of a domestic dwelling of about 25 square feet with an outer courtyard.
Sometime towards the end of the 1st century AD the home had been transformed into a house-church for the local community of Jewish-Christians (their synagogue). Possibly it was the earliest church in the Holy Land and it appears to have been the same building described by a Spanish pilgrim, the Lady Egeria, who visited the site sometime between 381-384 AD during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land: "The house of the prince of the Apostles (St. Peter) in Capharnaum was changed into a church; however, the walls (of that house) are still standing as they were (in the past)."
Excavators found no household utensils from this period, but the walls had been replastered at least three times and on the white plaster were some 131 inscriptions in Aramaic, Greek, Syriac and Latin with such words as "Jesus," "Lord," "Christ," "Peter," "Amen" and "Kyrie Eleison." One phrase is a prayer reading: "O Lord Jesus Christ help...and..." (the two missing names are indecipherable). There were also painted floral motifs in different colors, namely red, pink, dark red, yellow, dark brown, green, blue and white. The decoration consisted of branches, trees, flowers, figs, pomegranates, Eucharist symbols and a sign of the cross. No human or animal images were used. Fish hooks were also discovered there.
In the 4th century AD this primitive house-church/synagogue was enlarged by adding a covered portico on the east. An arch was built in the main room to support a heavier roof, and the complex was also set apart from the rest of the town by an imposing wall to form a sacred precinct. These changes took place concurrently with construction of the "white synagogue" mentioned above. It seems both the Jewish and Judeo-Christian groups coexisted peacefully.
Then, in the second half of the 5th century AD, a church was built over it, consisting of a small central octagon (above left) — the preferred form for a memorial at the time — surrounded by a larger octagon and another outer partial octagon (5 sides), that served as an entrance hall. This is similar in form to the rotunda of the original church of the Holy Sepulcher built by Constantine (4th century AD) and the Muslim Dome of the Rock on the Haram esh-Sharif (the Temple Mount) in Jerusalem. The central octagon had a mosaic floor dominated by a peacock — an early Christian symbol of the resurrection, and thus of immortality — its body encircled by its colorful tail. It was beneath this mosaic that excavators uncovered the one-room house believed to have been the home of Simon Peter (above right, foundation stones of the original house of Peter between walls of later structure). In the 6th century, the Piacenza Pilgrim wrote, "The house of St. Peter is now a basilica." Like the nearby synagogue, the octagonal church was destroyed early in the 7th century AD, possibly at the time of the Persian invasion (614 AD).
Because this house was regarded with such exceptional reverence by the earliest Christians, there is a real possibility that this was indeed the dwelling of Peter and his family. If so, Peter and his brother Andrew needed to walk only a short distance south to the lake to begin their work-night (fisherman on the Sea of Galilee worked their trade after dark, refer to Luke 5:5). More significantly, it was where Jesus frequently stayed, and where he cured Peter's mother-in-law of a fever:
"When Jesus came into Peter's house, he saw Peter's mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him. When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick" (Matthew 8:14-15).
Here, too, Jesus would have shared many a meal with Peter, his wife and his
in-laws. Unlike in the villas and palaces with their elegant dining rooms and
banquets for show, meals in Capernaum and other 1st century AD Galilee villages
were family affairs. In the short rainy and cold season, they took place in one
of the larger rooms; in the hot summers everyone gathered in shaded portions of
the courtyard. Stews of olive oil, lentils, beans or vegetables were ladled on
pita bread. Olives and perhaps bits of cheese or fruit were passed around.
Naturally, there was fish — salted, dried or grilled — and a local wine to take
the edge off a hard day's labor.
If nothing else, "Peter's House" is a good visual aid to help picture Jesus' life in Capernaum.
The Capernaum site
also includes an open-air archaeological museum to the right and left of the
entrance. Among the relics on display:
A mosaic panel from Magdala showing a boat of the type that once sailed on the lake (see previous page "Galilee ministry - part 5" of this virtual tour for photo).
2nd century Via Maris "mile marker" (below left) with an inscription reading:
F[ILIUS] DIVI NERVAE [N]EP[OS]TRAI
Translation: "The Emperor Caesar, son of the divine Trajan who conquered the Parthians, grandson of the divine Nerva, Trajan Hadrian Augustus."
The open-air museum also displays several stone reliefs that once decorated the synagogue, all reflecting the Greek influence so strong in ancient Galilee, and a liberal interpretation of Jewish law, which prohibited carved images (there are no human depictions). The images inclued rosettes (rose of Sharon, according to our guide) and a variety of plants mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8 (grapes, pomegranates, date palms and olives). One stone is carved with a six-pointed star commonly called the Star of David. It was not a Jewish symbol 2,000 years ago, and its proper name is "Magen David," an expression dating from the 14th century AD, meaning "Shield of David." The six points represent creation, redemption and revelation, humanity, the world and God. Yet another relief depicts a Greek-style temple on a cart and is thought to represent the Ark of the Covenant (above right), as in 2 Samuel 6:3: "They set the ark of God on a new cart."
Jesus' Life Home n Continue following Jesus' Galilee ministry: Korazin and Bethsaida