Site of Capernaum in 1894

What Archeology Has Revealed About Capernaum, Jesus’ “Own City”

(This is the second of three articles on the ancient city of Capernaum, Jesus’ “own city” (Matthew 9:1). The first article examined the question of why Jesus choose Capernaum as his base of operations for the first part of his ministry. This article and the next will explore the fascinating results of over 100 years of archeological investigation into the ancient city.)

In 1894 when the Franciscan friars who purchased the site of ancient Capernaum walked through their new property, evidence of former habitation was everywhere (See photo above). Right up until the purchase, the Bedouin people had set their tents among the ruins. The remains of white limestone columns and elaborate Corinthian capitals gave silent testimony that a monumental structure had once stood there. But what structure? Would it prove to be a building known from the 4 Gospel books? In fact, it would!

Several buildings in Capernaum are mentioned in the Gospel accounts. There is the tax office of Levi the tax collector, who became an apostle of Jesus better known as Matthew (Mark 2:14). The first Gospel bears his name. Some Bible translations render “tax office” as the “place of toll“, “customhouse office“, “tax booth” or “tax collection booth“. Such a building may not have been very large.

This Roman milestone discovered in Capernaum dates to the time of the Emperor Hadrian. An important highway passed through ancient Capernaum.

This Roman milestone discovered in Capernaum dates to the time of the Emperor Hadrian.

As discussed in the first article on Capernaum, Matthew may have had the responsibility of assigning contracts with local fishermen for the lease of fishing rights in the Sea of Galilee. Or if the translation, “place of toll” or “customhouse office” is correct, Matthew may have been collecting toll fare or duties from those travelling on the “Via Maris” highway. While the tax office (or booth) is lost to history, visitors to Capernaum today can see a Roman mile marker (milestone) discovered in 1975. The milestone gives evidence of the important highway which once passed through the city. The milestone dates back to the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian early in the second century C.E.

More than one private residence in Capernaum is mentioned in the Gospels. There is the home of a “presiding officer of the synagogue” named Jairus (Luke 8:41). It was at this home Jesus resurrected the daughter of Jairus who had come to Jesus to seek his help (Luke 8: 54, 55).

There is the home of an unnamed royal official or “nobleman”, evidently of the administration of Herod Antipas who was “Tetrarch” of Galilee. Although Antipas was not in fact a king he was commonly called as such by the people in his jurisdiction. Jesus cures the nobleman’s sick son without even visiting him at his home.

Another home mentioned is the home of an unnamed army officer or “Centurion” who is described by the Jewish people of Capernaum as a worthy man who, “loves our nation and he himself built our synagogue.” (Luke 7: 5) The officer although not being Jewish asked Jesus to cure a beloved slave who was close to dying. Again, Jesus effects the cure without having visited the house.

After Levi (Matthew) the tax collector is invited by Jesus to become one of his apostles, he immediately abandons his tax office and follows after him. Before leaving Capernaum, he invites his friends and fellow tax collectors to come meet Jesus at his home. Jesus is soon criticised by the religious Pharisees after attending Levi’s feast for eating with “tax collectors and sinners“. (Luke 5: 29, 30)

Perhaps the most famous home mentioned in Capernaum is the home of the apostles Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew. The brothers share this home with the mother-in-law of Simon (Peter) who is sick with fever when Jesus visits. Jesus cures her instantly. Many Bible scholars think it likely that Jesus made this home his base of operations for his Galilean ministry and that he likely slept there whenever he was in the vicinity of Capernaum.

Of the first four homes mentioned (the home of Jairus, the home of the nobleman, the home of the unnamed centurion and the home of Matthew the tax collector) none can be identified with any certainty with regards the homes excavated up till now in Capernaum. Of the house of Simon (Peter) and Andrew, a strong contender has emerged. (We will return to this house in our next article.)

The White Synagogue

Foremost of all the buildings excavated in Capernaum is the large monumental structure constructed out of white limestone mentioned at the outset of this article. Even before excavations and reconstruction began early in the twentieth century, it could already be identified as the ruins of a once grand synagogue, possibly the grandest ever discovered from ancient times.

This white limestone synagogue in Capernaum dates to the late 4th to 5th century C.E.

This white limestone synagogue in Capernaum dates to the late 4th to 5th century C.E.

In the Gospel account, Jesus is known to have visited a synagogue in Capernaum.

“And they went into Capernaum. As soon as the Sabbath began, he went into the synagogue and started to teach.” (Mark 1: 21)

It is while at this synagogue that Jesus famously expels a demon from a demon-possessed man. Evidently, this is the same synagogue that was built by the unnamed army officer from Luke 7:5.

So the obvious question is whether the ruined synagogue purchased by Franciscans in 1894 is the same synagogue spoken of in scripture and visited by Jesus. The answer, is both yes and no.

The interior of the partially reconstructed white synagogue in Capernaum. Did Jesus preach here?

The interior of the partially reconstructed white synagogue in Capernaum. Did Jesus preach here?

It should not be surprising if Jesus had ministered at this synagogue, for the Gospel accounts plainly say that it was Jesus custom to visit and preach in all the synagogues in the Galilee region.

Then he went throughout the whole of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the good news of the Kingdom and curing every sort of disease and every sort of infirmity among the people.” (Matthew 4: 23)

It being very unlikely that a city the size of Capernaum would have had more than one synagogue, it seems on the face of it that this must be the very synagogue visited by Jesus and spoken of in scripture.

5th Century Synagogue

Artist’s reconstruction of the monumental white limestone synagogue in Capernaum which dates from the late 4th to the 5th century C.E.

However, archeologists who examined the site and partially reconstructed the ruins date the white limestone structure to a date much later than during the life of Christ. Opinions vary but experts generally have dated the white synagogue to between the late 4th to late 5th century C.E, about 350 to 450 years after the death of Christ! These dates are based on the dating of coins discovered under the synagogue floor as well as pottery uncovered at the site. So where is the synagogue of Jesus time?

Under the floor! It was common practise for early synagogues (as well as churches) to be constructed on the foundation of older ones. Underneath the white limestone floor are thick foundation walls constructed with black basalt. Interestingly, every other home or structure uncovered in Capernaum is constructed of black basalt which would have been readily available. Only the synagogue is built of expensive white limestone which would not have been available locally and would have had to have been transported to the site.

Black Basalt Foundation

The black basalt foundation walls which the white synagogue rests on date back to the original first century structure.

The black basalt foundation walls are of a slightly different alignment but are close enough that they could serve as a foundation for the newer structure. Archeologists are in general agreement that the black basalt walls represent the remains of an earlier synagogue. This earlier, much plainer synagogue likely would have been the original first century synagogue, built by the unnamed army officer and that had the distinction of having Jesus preach within its walls.

Although no documentary evidence exists, it seems likely that this humble synagogue was destroyed by the Romans during the Jewish Revolt (sometimes called the First Jewish-Roman War) between 66-70 C.E. Or it may have been destroyed during the later Bar Kokhba Revolt (132 – 136 C.E). Reconstruction likely followed. A great earthquake is known to have devastated the Galilee region in 363 C.E. The white limestone synagogue seems to have been built after that time.

This white synagogue was much grander than the one (or ones) that had preceded it. A second floor reached by a staircase was added to the main hall which some historians believe served as a women’s gallery. An enclosed courtyard was added to the east and a large porch faced south. This synagogue was not just larger than the humble original but the materials were richer and the stonework was richly ornamented with decorative carvings.

A firsthand account by a woman named Egeria records her pilgrimage to the Bible lands which occurred at some point between the year 381 – 384 C.E. Of her visit to Capernaum she writes:

“There is also the synagogue where the Lord healed the man possessed by demons; one goes up many steps to this synagogue which was built with square stones.” (Travels of Egeria)

This would certainly seem be the white synagogue of the 4th century. This synagogue was likely destroyed and rebuilt after yet another great earthquake in 749 C.E. Writing during the Crusader era in 1283, a Dominican friar named Burcardo reported that little remained of Capernaum at that time:

…towards the east, is Capernaum, which at one time was very famous but today is without importance; it has only seven houses belonging to poor fishermen. There the word of Jesus came true: And you, Capernaum, which are exalted to heaven, shall be thrust down to hell.” (Descriptio Terrae Sanctae)

After that at some point even the seven remaining homes were abandoned. Capernaum lay in ruins for long centuries until the purchase of the area by the Franciscan friars in 1894.*  Today visitors flock to see the beautiful white synagogue and the ruins of what had once been the town of Jesus. In addition to the Synagogue, another ruin attracts the attention of visitors. A large round church consecrated in 1990 was built on stilts directly over-top of the ruin. It looks unnervingly like a UFO hovering menacingly above it. The Roman Catholic church claims that the ruin under the church is the very home of the Apostle Peter where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and where Jesus stayed while in Capernaum. What evidence supports that claim? Our next article will examine that question.

 

* Approximately one third of the site of ancient Capernaum was purchased by the Greek Orthodox Church. Although an Orthodox Church and monastery have been built there, the archeological ruins on this property have never been excavated. Aerial views of the property plainly show the outline of many ancient homes and buildings underneath the surface of the ground. What exciting discoveries may yet be made in Capernaum?

 

Image Credits:

Site of Capernaum in 1894. Photographed by Daniel B. Shepp in 1894. {PD} Source: Wikimedia Commons

Roman Milestone. (CC BY-SA 3.0) Source: Wikimedia commons

White synagogue exterior. Photo by author.

White synagogue interior. Photo by author.

Artist’s reconstruction of the Byzantine synagogue. (CC BY-SA 4.0) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Black basalt foundation. Photo by Konrad Summers. (CC BY-SA 2.0) Source: Wikimedia Commons

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