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Ruins of First Century Capernaum in front of the Fourth Century Synagogue.

Capernaum (Hebrew: כפר נחום, Kfar Nạkhūm; Greek: Καφαρναούμ, Kapharnaoum; "Name means::Nahum's village") was a village inhabited by Jews and Christians on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee from approximately 150 BC to 1100 AD.

The ancient ruins of Capernaum have been thoroughly investigated by archaeologists revealing, most notably, an ancient Jewish synagogue and Christian church located at the site of the house of Simon Peter.[1]

It is best known from many Biblical references, including being the home of Jesus in Galilee, referred to in Matthew 9:1 as "his own town". It was the place where he began his ministry and called his first disciples; Peter, Andrew, James, and John who were fishermen living in the village[2], and Matthew who was the tax collector.[3] Jesus taught at the synagogue in Capernaum and performed a great number of miracles there, but as a result of their failure to repent from their sins, Jesus later gave them a most severe chastisement.[4]

History and discovery

Sea of Galilee.png

Capernaum was established during the 2nd Century BC and was a large Jewish village during the time of Jesus' activity in the Galilee. It was located on an important artery that linked Galilee with Damascus and became a prosperous town inhabited by fishermen, farmers and merchants. In the Late Roman and Byzantine periods the town occupied about 13 acres. It continued to prosper through the 7th-8th Centuries, then declined and was abandoned in the 11th Century and remained largely unoccupied for more than a millennium.[1]

Although tradition held that the ruins of Capernaum were there on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, it wasn't until 1838 that the American scholar Edward Robinson correctly identified the remains of a synagogue.[5] Robinson referred to the place as desolate and mournful, but upon finding the ancient synagogue describes it as "the prostrate ruins of an edifice which, for expense, labour and ornament, surpasses any thing we have yet seen in Palestine". [6]

The English archaeologist Charles W. Wilson partially excavated the site between 1865 and 1866, describing the synagogue and two monumental tombs 200 m north of the synagogue. In 1894 the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land acquired a large area of ancient Capernaum from the Bedouins, including the synagogue, and fenced off the area to protect against vandalism.[6] In 1905 the Franciscans allowed a more extensive excavation of the site by Heinrich Kohl and Carl Watzinger, and then by Wendelin von Menden (1906–1915).[5]

In 1921, the synagogue was partially restored by the Franciscan Gaudentius Orfali of Nazareth, who also partly uncovered the octagonal church and exposed the town in between the synagogue and the octagonal church. After the death of Orfali, no work was conducted on the site for nearly 40 years. From 1968 to 1991 the Franciscan archaeologist Virgilio C. Corbo and the writer Stanislao Loffreda conducted excavation for nineteen seasons concentrated first on the two public buildings of the town, namely on the octagonal church and the synagogue. It is these latter excavation that ultimately resulted in the sensational discovery of the house of Simon Peter and the 1st Century synagogue built by the Roman centurion.[6]

Main structures

Fourth century AD limestone synagogue was built on the remains of first century AD synagogue base made of basalt that would have been in existence at the time of Christ.


Archaeological excavations of the site have revealed two synagogues. The white limestone structure seen in the picture at right was built on top of an older synagogue that dates to the time of Christ (first half of the 1st Century AD). Some portions of the older synagogue still remain including foundation walls made of black basalt, gray marble column fragments and a cobblestone floor.[5] The New Testament records Jesus Christ teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum and is the location where He cast out an evil spirit. After the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, Jesus delivered perhaps his most famous discourse at this synagogue where he states in John 6:25-59 , "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".

"They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law." - Mark 1:21-22

Post 1st Century

The synagogue was built almost entirely from white limestone brought from quarries several miles away. The heaviest of the building blocked weighs nearly four tons and included decorative cornices, lintels, and capitals. The structure is made up of a prayer hall which measures (23 by 17.28 meters), a trapezoidal courtyard to its east, southern porch, and a side-room near the northwest corner whose purpose remains a subject of debate. The prayer hall was open to the eastern courtyard through a large doorway. The courtyard was surrounded on three sides by a roofed portico and had three doorways in its north wall and two on its south.[7]

Although the original archaeologists who worked on the site believed that it was the famous 1st Century synagogue, today all agree that it is not the synagogue from the time of Jesus Christ. Opinions differ regarding the date of construction, but according to most, the unique Galilee synagogue type dates to the Roman period (2nd and 3rd centuries AD). However, Franciscan archaeologists found some remains of the village in the foundations on which the synagogue stood, which included pottery and Roman coins. They assert, based on these findings, that the structure should be dated no earlier than the 4th Century.[1] It is further argued that the courtyard was added later and completed some time after the mid-5th Century AD. The structure appears to have remained in use through the whole Byzantine period and was abandoned during the 7th Century AD.[7] This later date for the synagogue at Capernaum is not accepted by all researchers especially given the hostile attitude of the Byzantine administration towards the Jewish population. The structure is clearly of a Roman architectural style, which is a sharp contrast to the modest Byzantine-style buildings also found there. Some have found these later dates surprising and warn that it could have far-reaching archaeological and historical repercussions.[1]

1st Century

Scholars assumed the limestone synagogue was constructed on the same site as the building that was used during the time of Jesus, which was confirmed by the work begun by Corbo in 1969. Through his efforts, all of the area surrounding the white synagogue was exposed and several trenches were dug inside the building to characterize the foundation. Structures belonging to private homes were found outside the prayer hall, including under the courtyard and porch area. But under the central area of the prayer hall, basalt stone pavement was found that traced dating back to the 1st Century AD.[8]

Several points argue in favor of this basalt foundation being the remains of the 1st Century synagogue. The area covered by this stone pavement was much larger than would be expected for a private residence and more consistent with the scale necessary for a public building, such as synagogue. It was also customary for religious structures to be rebuilt on the same site sacred area and perhaps for this reason pilgrims held that the 1st Century synagogue existed in the area of the white synagogue. A "basalt stone wall" was likewise found both under the peripheral walls of the fourth century prayer hall and under the stylobate. This wall predates the 4th Century synagogue and is best understood as structures that were reused as foundations when the synagogue was rebuilt.[8]

House of Peter

Franciscan church built in 1990 over the House of Peter.

The location of the house of Simon Peter is known from the historic use of its location by the early Church. It was generally square and one wall is still preserved for more than a meter n height that measures 8.35 m in length. His house, like others in Capernaum, was part of a small cluster of rooms that shared a large courtyard. It is suggested that several families may have lived together in this manner.[9]

Excavation trenches of the room that is believed to be Peter's house revealed occupational layers which contained evidence of daily life, such as jars, cooking pots, bowls, lamps, that were dated from the 2nd Century BC to the late 1st Century AD. Above these layers was found at least six superimposed layers of white plaster and some painted fragments of plaster that had originally decorated the inner walls of that room. The only evidence of occupation at this level was a good number of tiny little pieces of Herodion lamps that were embedded in the white plastered pavements and along the inner walls that can be dated typologically in the second half of the 1st Century AD, and not later than the beginning of the second century. It is also noteworthy that the superimposed plastered pavements were kept scrupulously clean, wherein no occupational soil was found, and an almost complete absence of daily life vessels. This room is very unique in that it is the only one found from all of the living quarters excavated at Capernaum with plastered pavement and walls. These special conditions have led scholars to conclude that the traditional house of Peter was used for community gatherings as early as the third quarter of the 1st Century AD.[9]

During the late 4th Century AD the cluster of homes where Peter lived was modified into a Church, while leaving Peter's house standing as a focal point for the gatherings. Several of the houses adjacent to Peter's house were torn down and an impressive enclosure wall built encompassing a perimeter, which measured 112.25 m. Peter's home itself (which measured 5.80 by 6.45m) received some significant renovations including a new polychrome pavement, an arch was added in order to subdivide the space in two units, one of the walls was rebuilt along with the roof, and lastly an atrium and side-chamber were added. Inner walls of the house were then plastered and decorated with colorful geometric patterns and floral motifs. Graffiti in the form of symbols and monograms were found in several languages including Greek, Paleo-Estrangelo, Aramaic, and Latin. The graffiti found at the house of Peter offers clear testimony that the site was used by early Christian. The name and the monograms of Jesus occur in several instances including the description of Him as the Lord Christ, the Most High, and God.[10]

Remains of a Byzantine Church built over the House of Simon Peter.

In the 5th Century octagonal Byzantine Church that was build on the site to preserve the location of St. Peter's house, the foundation of which is clearly visible at the site today. The structure was constructed with a smaller and larger concentric octagon. The foundation of the smaller central octagon were set exactly upon the walls of the square room attributed to the house of Peter. In a second phase of construction a baptismal was added.[11]

The history of Peter's house, can be summarized as follows:

  1. Late Hellenistic period - original house was built.
  2. Late 1st Century AD it became a house for religious gatherings.
  3. 4th Century AD it was renovated, enlarged, and walled-off.
  4. Second half of the 5th Century AD an octagonal church was built and remained in use until the 7th Century AD
  5. 1990 Franciscan church was built over the House of Peter.[12]

Biblical events

The primary Biblical events that occurred in Capernaum were the calling of the first disciples of Jesus Christ and a great many miracles including healing the sick and crippled, and casting out evil spirits. Following performing these many wonder, the inhabitants of Capernaum still refused to repent of their sins and except Jesus as the Messiah for which they were chastised harshly

Calling disciples

Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee (between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900).

Jesus began his ministry in Capernaum and it was from there where he appoints his first disciples with opt quoted call "Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men." It is this statement that led to the use of the Ichthys (Jesus fish) as an iconic symbol of Christian faith. Jesus initially calls Simon Peter and his brother Andrew to service who were casting nets into the waters of the Sea of Galilee. Secondly he asks two other fishermen (James and his brother John) to follow him as they were preparing nets in a boat. All four men immediately left their nets and followed Jesus.[2]

Jesus later calls Matthew, a tax collector, while he was sitting at a his collection booth (referred to as Levi in Mark 2:13-17 and Luke 5:27-32 ). Jesus then proceeds to Matthew's house who prepared a banquet for Him, inviting many other. When the tax collectors and sinner to attend. Upon seeing that Jesus was eating with sinners, the Pharisees complained that Jesus was eating with sinners, he replied "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.".[3] This statement provided an apt summary of the ministry of Jesus, as coming to call the sinners to repent.

Healing many

Jesus is described as healing many people in Capernaum and casting out many demons.[13] Indeed some of the best known examples of Jesus' healing ministry took place in in this small fishing community. Mark 1:32 says the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.

Jesus healing.jpg

Jesus raised the 12 year-old daughter of a ruler of the synagogue from the dead.

"While Jesus was still speaking, someone came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. 'Your daughter is dead,' he said. 'Don't bother the teacher any more.' Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, 'Don't be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.' When he arrived at the house of Jairus, he did not let anyone go in with him except Peter, John and James, and the child's father and mother. Meanwhile, all the people were wailing and mourning for her. 'Stop wailing,' Jesus said. 'She is not dead but asleep.' They laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But he took her by the hand and said, 'My child, get up!' Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up. Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat. Her parents were astonished, but he ordered them not to tell anyone what had happened." - Luke 8:49-56

Heals a paralytic who is lowered through the roof after forgiving his sins.

"A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven.' Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 'Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?' Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, 'Why are you thinking these things? 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 2:1-12

Woman is healed after touching the garment of Jesus.

"And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. 'Who touched me?' Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, 'Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.' But Jesus said, 'Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.' Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, 'Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.'" - Luke 8:43-48

Others include:

Failure to repent

After Jesus spend much time in Capernaum and other cities in the region, he chastised them for their failure to repent from their sins, and ultimately told them they were going to hell where they would receive an even harsher punishment than those who were from Sodom.

"Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you." - Matthew 11:21-24

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  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Capernaum - City of Jesus and its Jewish Synagogue Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nov 26 2003.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Matthew 4:13-22
  3. 3.0 3.1 Matthew 9:9-13
  4. Matthew 11:21-24
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Capernaum by Donald D. Binder
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Capernaum: Surveys and Excavations by Fr. Stanislao Loffreda, Franciscans of the Holy Land and Malta.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Capernaum: The Synagogue - (4th cent. AD) by Fr. Stanislao Loffreda, Franciscans of the Holy Land and Malta.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Capernaum: The Synagogue - (1st cent. AD) by Fr. Stanislao Loffreda, Franciscans of the Holy Land and Malta.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Capernaum: Insula Sacra - The Private Houses by Fr. Stanislao Loffreda, Franciscans of the Holy Land and Malta.
  10. Capernaum: Insula Sacra - The Domus-Ecclesia by Fr. Stanislao Loffreda, Franciscans of the Holy Land and Malta.
  11. Capernaum: Insula Sacra - The Octagonal Church by Fr. Stanislao Loffreda, Franciscans of the Holy Land and Malta.
  12. Capernaum: Insula Sacra by Fr. Stanislao Loffreda, Franciscans of the Holy Land and Malta.
  13. Mark 1:29-34