(This is the last of three articles on the ancient city of Capernaum, Jesus’ “own city” (Matthew 9:1). The first article considered the question of why Jesus choose Capernaum as his base of operations for the first part of his ministry. The second article explored the fascinating results of over 100 years of archeological investigation into the ancient city, particularly its beautiful white synagogue. This final article examines what many claim to be the personal home of Peter the Apostle.)
Writing in the fourth century (circa 380 C.E), a wealthy woman named Egeria (or Etheria) from France or possibly Spain (opinions vary) visited the Bible lands on a religious pilgrimage. Upon visiting Capernaum, Jesus’ “own city” (Matthew 9:1), she wrote,
“And in Capernaum, what is more, the house of the prince of the Apostles has been transformed into a church, with its original walls still standing. Here the Lord healed the paralytic.” (Travels of Egeria)
As discussed in our last article, by the time of the Crusaders in the middle ages (centuries after the visit of Egeria), Capernaum was virtually uninhabited save for, “seven houses belonging to poor fishermen”. (“Descriptio Terrae Sanctae” written circa 1283 C.E) The city had been rendered uninhabitable by a series of invasions and destructive earthquakes.
In 1894 Franciscan friars purchased the site from the Bedouin families that lived among the ruins. Even by that time, the ruins of a beautiful white synagogue had been identified. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a Franciscan friar named Gaudenzio Orfali took over the excavations of Capernaum. In 1926 Orfali was killed in a car accident while on the way from Capernaum to attend an international archeological congress being held in Beirut, Lebanon. Before his untimely death, Orfali discovered in the ruins of Capernaum an octagonal 5th century Byzantine era church. The church was found a very short distance from the white synagogue, only 25.6 meters (84 feet) to the south of the structure. After the death of Orfali, it would be 4 decades before archeological work would resume under another Catholic priest named Virgilio Corbo.
The House Underneath
Corbo’s team discovered underneath the Byzantine era church the ruins of a modest home that they dated back to the first century B.C. Whose home had they found? The archeological team proposed that the humble complex was once the very home of the fisherman turned apostle of Jesus named Peter.
It has been said that “extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence“. So what evidence is there that this ruin was once the home of the Apostle Peter? If true, it would surely be one of the greatest discoveries in Biblical archeology! If their claim is correct, than the Franciscan archeologists have identified the very home that once served as the base of Jesus’ great Galilean ministry, the home Peter once shared with his mother-in-law and his brother Andrew. It was in this house that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of her high fever (Luke 4:38, 39). It would be the same home where Jesus healed the paralytic. In that famous account, the crowds that pressed in on the home were so great that the only way to bring the paralytic to Jesus was to lower him into the house through a hole that had been opened in the roof:
“However, after some days he again entered into Capernaum, and the word spread that he was at home. And so many gathered that there was no more room, not even around the door, and he began to speak the word to them. And they brought him a paralytic carried by four men. But they could not bring him right to Jesus because of the crowd, so they removed the roof above Jesus, and after digging an opening, they lowered the stretcher on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic: “Child, your sins are forgiven.”” (Mark 2: 1-5)
The archeological team of Virgilio Corbo found that the octagonal church discovered decades earlier had been built directly over the foundations of the much older home underneath. The home itself the team dated to the first century so it would have been standing during the life of Christ. The home was in no way unusual for the time and area. It was a complex of a few small rooms built around two open air courtyards. The rough black basalt walls held up a roof made of branches, straw and mud. This was not the home of a wealthy family! A complex like this may have been home to a number of related families with each occupying one of the rooms. It is easy to imagine Peter’s family living in the complex along with Andrew’s family and possibly other relatives.
The archeological team was interested in what happened to the home after the first century C.E. Their work revealed that the home seemed to have undergone a series of renovations before being largely replaced by the eight sided church in the late 5th century C.E.
The first significant change was to the largest room in the complex. At some point, possibly as early the late 1st century, the room’s walls had been completely plastered from floor to ceiling. Plaster on the walls of a poor persons home would have been very unusual for the time and it certainly was for Capernaum. In the same space, instead of finding pottery associated with common household activities such as cooking as one would have expected, the archeological team found instead only oil lamps and large storage jars. These changes the Franciscan team surmised indicated the function of the room had changed. They surmised that the room was no longer used as a household living space but now served a place for hosting gatherings. It is well know that the early Christian community met discreetly in the private homes of believers rather than in specially built places of worship (examples found at Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19). Did this room once serve a place of worship for Capernaum’s Christian community?
Did Capernaum Have A Christian Community?
That Capernaum had a Christian community towards the end of the 1st century cannot be known for certain. Jesus himself had powerfully indicated that his preaching had born little fruit in this city. His words reveal that the people of Capernaum had been unmoved by his preaching and even his miraculous works:
“And you, Capernaum, will you perhaps be exalted to heaven? Down to the Grave you will come; because if the powerful works that took place in you had taken place in Sodom, it would have remained until this very day.” (Matthew 11:23)
Peter the Apostle evidently did not return to Capernaum and there is no evidence that he ever lived at the humble home again. After the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, the newly renamed Paul stayed with Peter in Jerusalem for 15 days (Galatians 1:18). Evidently, Peter was living in Jerusalem at this time. Peter is seen again in Jerusalem again in 49 C.E when the apostles and older men went to Jerusalem to discuss the issue of whether Gentile Christian converts had to undergo circumcision (Acts 15). Peter travelled to and preached in Samaria (Acts 8:14) and the Apostle Paul once encountered him in Antioch, Syria (Galatians 2: 11-14). The last mention of Peter in the Christian scriptures is found in his two letters, likely written circa 62-64 C.E. Peter writes near the conclusion of his first letter, “She who is in Babylon, a chosen one like you, sends you her greetings, and so does Mark, my son.” (1 Peter 5:13) Many regard this greeting as evidence that Peter had at least visited Babylon. Others contend that the use of “Babylon” here is a code name for Rome, but that doesn’t seem to be the case as other Roman provinces are named in Peter’s first letter by their own name, so why would Rome be any different? And it should be noted that in the first century, Babylon had an enormous Jewish population, so it would have been a natural place for a Christian apostle to visit. Finally, Catholic tradition tells us the Peter died a martyrs death in the city of Rome during the persecutions of Roman emperor Nero (circa 64 C.E). There is no Biblical support for Peter having visited Rome but the tradition seems to have been widely accepted amongst early Christian writers. Also, Jesus did indicate to Peter that he would die a martyr’s death (John 21: 18,19). If Peter had been brought to Rome it seems likely he was not there for long before his execution.
And what of Peter’s brother Andrew? The Bible is silent on Andrew’s later life. The last Biblical mention that we have of Andrew is shortly after the ascension of Jesus to heaven. At this time, Andrew was in Jerusalem (Acts 1: 13). Various non-Biblical traditions recorded in later centuries have Andrew preaching in central Eurasia before suffering martyrdom in western Greece.
Did any relatives of Peter or Andrew remain in or return to Capernaum? We can only speculate. We can imagine a plausible scenario where relatives of Peter and Andrew, possibly the new owners of the home embraced Christianity and made their home available for Christian meetings. While certainly plausible, this remains only a theory.
In the fourth century, the house undergoes a dramatic transformation. The complex is enlarged, a new entrance courtyard is built and paved with white limestone. In addition, the central room is enlarged and an arch is constructed to support the roof. The room is plastered again and painted decoratively with colourful flowers, fruits and geometric patterns. Evidently, the room had become a place of pilgrimage and was likely the church that the intrepid pilgrim Egeria visited circa 380 C.E. Religious pilgrims scratched messages into the plaster in Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin showing that they had come from all over. This religious graffiti was clearly of a Christian nature saying things like “Lord Jesus Christ help thy servant” or “Christ have mercy.”
The final phase was the transformation of the complex into a full fledged ecclesiastical structure, a church as we would recognise it. This happened in the 5th century, perhaps a hundred years after the pilgrimage of Egeria. The original complex was torn down and replaced by a much grander eight sided church with a portico built around it. A beautiful mosaic floor now adorned the interior. The central area was built directly on top of the room from the original housing complex that seems to have been used for worship purposes. The church remained in use until the 7th century when it was likely destroyed by the Islamic armies that conquered the region circa 635 C.E.
That the home was a place of Christian pilgrimage after the 4th century cannot be disputed. There remains a frustrating evidentiary gap between 1st and 4th centuries. Was the 1st century plastered room used as a house church during that time? A case can be made but hardly a definitive one. Was there even a Christian community in Capernaum in the three centuries after the death of Christ? A fourth century Greek bishop named Epiphanius of Salamis in his treatise “Panarion Against all Heresies” wrote of the region of Galilee between 374 and 377:
“There, in fact, no one had ever been able to build churches, because no Greeks, Samaritans nor Christians were to be found in their midst. This rule of no having people of any other race among them is observed especially at Tiberias, at Diocaesarea (also known as Sepphoris), at Nazareth and at Capernaum.“
It seems plain from his writing that at least at that time there were no Christians living in Capernaum. In fact he seems to be indicating that only Jews were allowed to live in Capernaum in the early 4th century and that no Christian had been able to build a church there. This would seem to weaken the case that there was an unbroken Christian connection to the Capernaum home from the 1st to the 4th centuries C.E.
And yet it remains possible. Epiphanius could have been mistaken. The final word belongs to the Gospel writer Mark. In his account, Jesus and some of the apostles leave the synagogue in Capernaum:
“And immediately they went out of the synagogue and went into the home of Simon and Andrew with James and John.” (Mark 1:29)
A literal rendering from the Greek into English has it thus:
“And at once out of the synagogue having gone forth they came into the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John”
The language seems to suggest that the home of Peter and Andrew was quite close to the synagogue, if not directly across from it. As mentioned near the beginning of this article, the house in question is a mere 25.6 meters (84 feet) to the south of the synagogue. If this isn’t the home of Peter, it is certainly in the right neighbourhood.
In the 1980’s, the Catholic Franciscans who now own and had lovingly excavated the site wanted to build a memorial church to Peter the Apostle which would also serve to preserve the ruins of what they firmly believe to be the home of Peter. A large modern structure was built on pillars directly above the ancient ruins. Visitors can still see the foundations of the 5th century octagonal church and the 1st century home foundations underneath it either from outside at street level or by entering the church and peering down through the glass floor. The Italian architect of the church wanted to convey the impression of a ship whose hull would seem to hover above the home of Peter, the fisherman turned Apostle of Christ. The church was dedicated in 1990.
Octagonal ruins underneath the new church. Photo by author.
Artist’s reconstruction of the 1st century home in Capernaum. Artist unknown. Image from signage in Capernaum.
Octagonal Church Ruins. Photo by Garo Nalbandian. Source: Biblical Archaeology Society
Modern St. Peter’s Church, Capernaum. Photo by author.