There is a hymn that starts with the words, “I walked today where Jesus walked, In days of long ago. I wandered down each path He knew, With reverent step and slow.” If you want to walk where Jesus walked, Capernaum, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, is the place to do it. Jesus lived in Capernaum and used it as the hub of his public ministry (Matt. 4:12). It is referred to in the scriptures as “his own town” (Matt. 9:1) and when he would come back the scriptures say he “had come home.” (Mark 2:1)
When Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, his will divided up his kingdom among three sons. This division was approved by the Roman Emperor Augustus. Archelaus became a king and Antipas and Philip got the lesser title of tetrarch. Archelaus ruled Judea, Idumea and Samaria; Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea; and Philip ruled Gaulanitis (the Golan Heights), Batanea (southern Syria), Trachonitis and Auranitis.
Herod Antipas established the city of Tiberias around 20 CE as the capital of Galilee. He named it after his patron, the Emperor Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus in 14 CE.
The Via Maris was an ancient trade route that linked Egypt with Syria, Anatolia and Mesopotamia. It followed the coastal plain before turning east and crossing through the Jezreel Valley until it reached Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Then it turned northward along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, passing through Migdal, Capernaum (10 miles from Tiberias), Hazor, through the Golan Heights and then northeast into Damascus.
Capernaum was established in the 2nd century BCE during the Hasmonean period. It extended along the Sea of Galilee, from east to west, for about 1600 feet and had a population of 1000 to 1500 people during the time Jesus was alive. It was built next to the Via Maris which passed it on the north side. Capernaum was built in straight lines with a north-south main street parallel to the Via Maris, with districts bordered by small cross-sectional streets and no-exit side streets. Villagers were mainly fishermen, farmers and people that provided services to the Via Maris, which by this time was a Roman road. Josephus, who spent some time in Capernaum, described its soil as fruitful. Grapes and figs were available ten months during the year and other fruits and nuts were available seasonally, such as olives, dates and walnuts. A cemetery was about 200 meters north of the synagogue beyond the inhabited area of the village.
Homes in Capernaum were built of local basalt, a hard, black volcanic rock. The stones were not dressed and no mortar was used. Each house had a courtyard with small dwelling rooms around it, often separated from the courtyard by a wall with a row of windows to allow air and light to enter into the interior. The courtyard had one opening to the street and usually no windows in the outer walls to maintain privacy. Ovens and stores for cooking were in the courtyard and a stone staircase gave access to the roof or, rarely, a second story. Roofs were constructed by placing light wooden beams across the opening and then a thatch of briar branches mixed with mud. When the mud hardened it provided a nice hard surface. The roofs were used to dry fruit, and in warm weather, people often slept on them. The floors were cobbled stone. People often lived communally, using the same courtyard and door-less internal passages. The houses had no drainage or bathroom facilities. Objects found by archaeologists were mostly clay pots, plates, amphoras and lamps; fish hooks, weights for fish nets, striker pins, weaving bobbins and a few basalt mills for milling grain and pressing olives.
|Framing for a row of windows internally to let in air and light. An opening to the street is toward the upper right.|
|The housing was shockingly compact and similar. The fence between the Franciscan and Greek Orthodox compounds is at the very back.|
|The remains of the white synagogue are to the far left. Some internal windows are left and a basalt container is front center.|
Capernaum was partially destroyed in the Persian conquest in about 640, including the synagogue and the basilica church over Peter’s home. What was left of Capernaum was completely abandoned by the 11th century. In modern times, the Franciscans purchased about two-thirds of the area of Capernaum in 1894 and the Greek Orthodox Church purchased the other one-third. The Franciscans have opened up their portion of Capernaum to visitors. The Greek Orthodox Church of the Seven Apostles, part of a contemplative monastery, now stands on the other site, and no visitors are allowed.
|The Greek Orthodox Church of the Seven Apostles as viewed from a distance from the Franciscan compound.|
Jesus began his public ministry in the synagogue in Capernaum where he taught as “one who had authority…” That first day he commanded an impure spirit in a man to “Come out of him!” and the spirit left “with a shriek.” (Mark 1:21-28)
While teaching in the synagogue Jesus told the people he was the bread of life. Their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, yet died. He was the living bread come down from heaven and whoever ate that bread would live forever. (John 6:25-59)
He healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath. To the Pharisees, he said this man was more valuable than a sheep that had fallen into a pit which could be lifted out on the Sabbath. (Matt. 12:9-14)
A man named Jairus, a leader in the synagogue, had a dying 12 year old daughter. He fell at the feet of Jesus and pled that he would come and put his hands on her and heal her. By the time Jesus got to the home, the daughter was dead and people were crying and wailing. Jesus went into the home with Jairus, his wife, and Peter, James and John, took her by the hand and told her to get up. She immediately stood and began to walk. (Mark 5:21-43)
The partially re-constructed remains of a synagogue, made of imported white limestone, are found in Capernaum today. The white limestone contrasts starkly with the black basalt and makes it really stand out. It is a basilica-type plan, oriented north/south, with a small terrace on the south side and three entrances, one large, and two small, all on the south side. The west, north and east walls are lined with columns that supported wooden beams, which in turn, supported a pitched, tiled roof. A door in the east wall leads to a courtyard. The floor is covered with large flagstones and stone benches line the east and west walls. It was decorated with carved stone reliefs, many concentrated on the south façade and around doorways and windows.
|An aerial view of the synagogue. The south entrances are to the lower left. The courtyard is on the right. From biblescienceguy.wordpress.com.|
|The synagogue from near the left front door. Note the rock benches on the west wall and the columns which helped support the roof.|
|A view of the northwest side of the synagogue from the east side and another set of columns.|
|The main entrance on the south side as viewed from the north. The opening to the left (east) goes to the courtyard.|
|Wording on a column.|
|Corinthian capitals on columns - viewed from outside the west wall.|
|What remains of the south facade. Remains of the basalt home structures are in front and to the right.|
One of the most interesting stone reliefs is what appears to be a representation of the ark of the covenant. It is represented by a wheeled structure with engaged pilasters, a pitched and tiled roof and a double-paneled door.
|Decorative, non-weight bearing, columns.|
The dating of the synagogue is problematic. Its style and orientation suggest a date around 200 CE. But coins and pottery were found under the floor from the 5th century and diverse architectural elements suggest that maybe it consisted of successive synagogues which were then dismantled in the 5th century by Christian pilgrims who rebuilt it as a Christian shrine.
Most importantly, from a Christian standpoint, on the west side the foundation consists of a black basalt layer which many archaeologists believe belonged to the original synagogue which was here at the time of Jesus. In 381, a pilgrim named Egeria wrote, “the synagogue where the Lord cured a man possessed by a devil. The way in is up many stairs, and it is made of dressed stone.” Egeria clearly visited the white synagogue, but like Peter’s house, it may have been built by or taken over by Christians because of the connection of Jesus to that site. It is believed the original synagogue was destroyed by the Romans in 69 CE during the First Jewish Revolt.
|The white limestone layer sits on the black basalt foundation on the west side.|
|This may be the foundation of the synagogue from the time of Jesus.|
A small military garrison was east of Capernuam under the command of a Roman centurion, who would have been under the command of Herod Antipas. A Roman bath has been found there. Luke 7:5 notes that the synagogue in Capernaum was built by the centurion, a gentile, who “loves our nation.” The centurion had a servant, apparently in the garrison, that was sick and about to die and reached out to Jesus through others to ask him to heal his servant. He expressed his faith that Jesus could heal his servant even without being present. The centurion’s faith was rewarded and his servant was healed. (Luke 7:1-10) This healing from afar shows how astute the centurion was and likely part of the reason Jesus was so impressed with him as it allowed Jesus to remain ceremonially clean. Had Jesus gone to the gentile compound, he would have become ceremonially unclean.
Matthew (Greek, or Levi in Hebrew) was sitting at a tax collector’s booth in Capernaum when Jesus told him to “follow me” and he became one of Jesus’s disciples. (Matt. 9:9) As mentioned previously, Capernaum was located on the Via Maris, and merchants traveling that road brought goods such as silks and spices from Damascus and dried fish and fruits from the Galilee region when going back the other way. The custom-house or tax collector’s booth was probably located on the road and Matthew and other publicans (derived from the Latin publicanus for a man who did public duty) collected duties or tolls from the traveling merchants. Customs were exacted on things such as axles, wheels, pack animals and pedestrians and collection points were often located near provincial borders. Capernaum was located near the provincial border between Herod Antipas’s tetrarchy of Galilee and Herod Philip’s tetrarchy of Gaulanitis. The border was the Jordan River, just 2 ½ miles to the east. The customs raised at Capernaum went into the treasury of Herod Antipas and he used “tax-farmers” who purchased the right to collect taxes in advance. The collection of sums above and beyond that were the tax collector’s profit which led to abuses. This is what led John the Baptist to tell “tax collectors [who] came to be baptized” not to “collect any more than you are required to...” (Luke 3:12-13) Matthew and other publicans probably also collected duties for fish caught by fishermen in the Sea of Galilee.
Publicans were excluded from religious fellowship by the Jews and their money was considered tainted and defiled anyone that accepted it. This is why Jesus’s association with Matthew was so scandalous. Matthew had a house in Capernaum and held a banquet for Jesus with other tax collectors, sinners and Jesus’s disciples in attendance. (Matt. 9:10-13, Luke 5:27-32)
While in Capernaum, Jesus may have lived with Peter in his house, along with Peter’s wife (1 Cor. 9:5), mother-in-law (Mark 1:30-31) and brother Andrew (Mark 1:29). It was there Jesus touched the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law and healed her of a fever and where the sick were brought to be healed and those possessed with demons brought to have them driven out. (Matt. 8:14-16)
When Peter was approached by the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax about whether Jesus paid the tax, it was in his home where Jesus told Peter to go to the lake and throw out a line, take the first fish he caught, open its mouth and find a four-drachma coin, enough to give to the tax collectors for both Jesus and Peter. (Matt. 17:24-26)
It was also there that a paralyzed man, carried by four other men, was brought to be healed by Jesus. Jesus was surrounded by so many people as he taught that there was no room to get the paralyzed man to Jesus. So these four helpers, with the paralyzed man in tow, climbed the stairs to the roof, “made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” Jesus forgave the paralyzed man of his sins, then said to the man, “get up, take your mat and walk.” (Mark 2:1-12)
Archaeologists have found what they believe to be the house of Peter. Just south of the synagogue, a 5th century church was located with a central octagon with eight pillars, another outer octagon, and a portico that led both into the interior of the church as well as into a complex of related buildings. The central octagon had a mosaic floor with a strip of flowers, schools of fish with small flowers and a circle with a peacock in the center. The floor of the outer octagon had mosaics of plants and animals and the floor of the portico had mosaics that were geometric, with four rows of contiguous circles and small crosses. This octagonal memorial church is similar to the Church of the Apostles in Jerusalem built in 382 by Theodosius I and coin and ceramic evidence put the dating of the structure to the mid-5th century.
|The inner octagonal structure and the outer octagonal structure beneath the modern church.|
|This mosaic of a peacock inside a circle found on the grounds appears to match the description of the mosaic found on the floor of the central 5th century octagonal church.|
Archaeologists, convinced this was a shrine to something earlier, removed the mosaic tiles to preserve them and excavated beneath the floor. They found large quantities of painted plaster on which quite a bit of graffiti was preserved. This encouraged them to go deeper and they found increasingly older ceramics, an intact pot that had never been used, oil lamps from the time of Herod and a succession of different pavements.
They determined that the church covered some basalt structures, which were small rooms, grouped around two courtyards. Coins, oil lamps and fish hooks dating to the 1st century CE were found. In the latter part of the 1st century CE, the house was modified. The walls and floor of the main room were covered with plaster and the walls were covered with inscriptions. No domestic ceramics were recovered, but many large storage jars and oil lamps were. It appeared that the function of the room had changed from a residence to a place for communal gatherings.
Then in the 4th century a thick-walled and slightly trapezoid enclosure was built around the original walls. A central archway was added to support a roof and the north wall was strengthened with mortar. New pavement was installed and the walls and floors were plastered again. Etchings in the walls say thing like, “Lord Jesus Christ help they servant” or “Christ have mercy.” There were also etchings of small crosses and even a boat. The Spanish nun, Egeria, wrote of this structure sometime between 381 and 395: “And in Capernaum, what is more, the house of the prince of the apostles [Peter] has been turned into a church, leaving its original walls however quite unchanged.”
This 4th century structure was then later replaced by the 5th century octagonal church described above, which completely tore down the original house walls and covered the location with mosaic tiles. The internal octagon in the 5th century structure is centered over Peter’s house. The octagonal church was meant to preserve the location of Peter’s house, not preserve the house itself. The 5th century church was mentioned by an un-named pilgrim around 560 to 570, when he wrote: “And so we came on to Capernaum to the house of Saint Peter, which is now a basilica.” The basilica was destroyed by the Muslims in about 640.
In about 1990, the Catholics built a church over and above the archaeological site of Peter’s home. It has a glass floor that allows you to look below into the remains of the old 5th century church.
|The view of the modern church over Peter's house, as viewed from the south end of the synagogue.|
|Cobblestones in Peter's house viewed through the floor of the modern church.|
|A modern wood carving from the life of Jesus inside the modern church.|
|Another woodcarving inside the modern church. Perhaps Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.|
The Ministry of Jesus and Miracles in and near Capernaum
Two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John, were fishermen living in Capernaum at the time Jesus issued calls to them to follow him and become fishers of men. (Matt. 4:18-22). As previously mentioned, Matthew was a tax collector living in Capernaum at the time of his call.
|These are the remains of a 1st century CE boat found near Capernaum. The boats of the disciples would have been similar. They were very shallow to allow them to get close to shore, could be rowed and could also handle a sail.|
More miracles of Jesus happened in and around Capernaum than any other place.
A woman who had been bleeding for 12 years touched the cloak of Jesus while he stood in a crowd. Her bleeding immediately stopped. Jesus felt power go out of him and asked who had touched his clothes. The woman fell at his feet, trembling and told him her story. Jesus responded, “Daughter, thy faith hath made the whole.” (Mark 5:25-35)
Jesus walked through grainfields on the Sabbath and picked and ate grain with his disciples, a practice questioned by the Pharisees. (Matt. 12:1-8)
Jesus forgave the sins of a paralyzed man and then told the man to get up off his mat and go home. (Matt. 9:1-8)
Frederic Farrar wrote a book called Life of Christ in 1874. I was reading it this morning after nearly completing this post and was struck by how much archaeology has added to our understanding of the life of Jesus and the Holy Land. In discussions of Capernaum, the archaeological remains had not been discovered yet and Farrar was speculating it was at one of two tels. He noted the tips of a white synagogue on one of the tels and speculated it may be the synagogue in Capernaum during the time of Jesus. He also speculated it would be just one of many synagogues in that town.
Our walk where Jesus walked has been greatly aided by these archaeological discoveries.