The “Why” Series (by Dr. Kyle Keimer)
This blog series focuses on five biblical sites and considers, why this site? Why was the specific site important? Why was the site important to the biblical author(s) and/or their audience? And, why, or does the site’s significance continue until today? The sites that will be highlighted included: Jerusalem, Shechem, Bethlehem, Capernaum, and Megiddo. Each has a story to tell for us today. As we listen to these stories, it is my hope that we will peek into the mindset, the worldview, and the lived experience of biblical authors and audiences, and that we will better understand our own place in these stories.
In this installment of the “Why” Series, we look at the site of Capernaum. Famous as the home base for Jesus’ ministry recorded in the New Testament, Capernaum is located on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee (Jesus’ teachings in Mark 2-4 all appear to be set in Capernaum—in the town or along the shore; cf. Matt 9:1-13:52). The name Capernaum is a transliteration of the Hebrew kaphar nahum, “the village of Nahum.” Most scholars do not think this is the prophet Nahum after whom a biblical book is named, but there is no evidence one way or the other to know how the name originated. From the archaeology, we learn that Capernaum was occupied at various stages of the Bronze Age (ca. 3000-1200 BC), that the site was re-established in the 5th century BC, and that it grew to its largest extent in the late Roman and Byzantine periods (4th – 7th centuries AD).
Capernaum was a small but strategic village in the days of Jesus.
Top: View of Sea of Galilee from Capernaum, looking southwest
Bottom: Aerial view of Capernaum
In the days of Jesus in the 1st century AD, it was a small but strategic village (roughly 10-12 acres in size with a population of around 1500 people). The main north-south international highway connecting Egypt and Damascus ran right past the site (this highway is often misidentified as the Via Maris, but that route ran between Damascus and Tyre), which collected customs taxes. Fishing, agriculture, and trade all combined to make the site an important, albeit minor one. Additionally, Capernaum was located near the border between the territories of Herod Philip (to the east) and Herod Antipas (to the west)—it was in Antipas’ territory. The former had a largely Gentile population while the latter had a largely Jewish population.
When one visits the site today, there are two features that are highlighted: 1) the “house of Peter,” and 2) the synagogue. The identification of the former has been accomplished through a combination of archaeology and textual references to Capernaum (especially pilgrim accounts). Peter’s house is located today underneath a massive modern church with a cut away floor to enable the archaeological remains to be viewed. These remains include three phases of construction, the earliest of which are part of a typical domestic complex that was built in the 1st century BC and continued in use through the 1st century AD. In the late 1st or early 2nd century AD, Room 1 (the largest of the complex) was renovated and had a plaster floor added—something that does not appear anywhere else at Capernaum. The pottery from this room also changed from that of a typical domestic assemblage to one dominated by lamps and storage jars, indicative of a shift from daily activities to one of communal gathering. What was once a simple house became a gathering place, an early house church for followers of Jesus.
In the 4th century AD, a domus ecclesia, or “house church” was built over this original domestic complex. When the complex was converted, the walls of Room 1 were plastered and decorated with images. There is ample evidence of pilgrims visiting this location throughout the 4th century—inscriptions in Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Hebrew are etched into the plaster. Then, in the late 4th or early 5th century an octagonal church was erected over this earlier house church. The archaeological remains, coupled with pilgrim accounts provide a strong indication that the location known today as the “house of Peter” may have been the disciple’s house, where Jesus performed several miracles.
Capernaum was a middle-sized village with middle-class workers in Jesus’ day, but Jesus’ selection of Capernaum for the home base of his ministry was purposeful and meaningful.
Top: Aerial view of Capernaum showing modern octagonal church over St. Peter’s house.
Bottom: Aerial view of the 5th century synagogue. Many believe the synagogue from Jesus’ day lies beneath.
Just to the north of Peter’s house, there is a massive synagogue. The one standing on the site today was built in the 5th century AD (and reconstructed in the 20th century). In probes beneath the synagogue there are remains as early as the late Hellenistic period (2nd century BC), with some large paving stones. These stones have been identified as the floor of an earlier synagogue below (dating to the days of Jesus), but the remains are so fragmentary that it is difficult to determine if these earlier remains were those of a synagogue or of some other domestic structure; scholars are divided on this point. Regardless, the New Testament records that there was a synagogue in Capernaum in Jesus’ day. If it isn’t located under the later 5th century building, then perhaps it has not been excavated yet (there is much of the site that has not been excavated).
So, why Capernaum? It was a middle-sized village with middle class workers. It was not one of the more prominent port cities on the Sea of Galilee (like Magdala, Tiberias, or Kursi), nor was it as prominent as the larger cities of the region such as Sepphoris or Tiberias. But neither was it a poor and obscure village. Jesus’ selection of such a site as the base of his ministry mirrors God’s selection of similar sites of insignificance wherein He worked his master plan in the Old Testament (e.g., Shiloh and Jerusalem).
Interestingly, Capernaum does not appear to have been connected to prevailing political affiliations, much in the same manner as neither Shiloh nor Jerusalem were at first. We can contrast this with the important port of Magdala, which was established by the Hasmoneans. Or the city of Tiberias, which was founded by Herod Antipas—both sites carried with them power statements about which worldly ruler (or rulers) was in charge. (As an aside, Herod the Great (died 4 BC) did not spend any effort building in the whole of Galilee (except perhaps a palace at Sepphoris)). Thus, the political views one espoused were amplified by the location in which those views were expressed.
So, for Jesus to choose Capernaum to spread his key message that the kingdom of God was at hand was yet another way that he was overturning what people thought about political power, who had that power, and how that power would manifest. A site that lacked political affiliation would allow this message to go forth unhindered by the political structures of the day. In Jesus’ day, Rome was the supreme power; either one submitted to their authority or rebelled against it in the hopes that a Jewish golden era akin to David’s kingdom 1000 years earlier would be birthed. But Jesus offered a third option (cf. John 4 where he does the same thing with the Samaritan woman at the well)—God’s kingdom is defined neither by human minds or aspirations, nor pride or haughtiness. Instead, humility and a recognition of God’s power and love were the ideals to which to aspire; when expressed through faith in Jesus, they allow us to draw close to God. Jesus’ selection of Capernaum, as God’s selection of Shiloh and Jerusalem before, was a physical manifestation of the biblical message God continually calls people to throughout the Bible: stop your worldly aspirations and come to me. It is not by might or power, but by God’s spirit that things are done (Zech 4:6, which is given in the context of rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple and regaining access to God).
Much of the early research on Capernaum was published in Italian and/or French, but there are now some solid and recent summaries in English (albeit with different interpretations of the archaeology):
Grey, Matthew J.
2014 “Simon Peter in Capernaum: An Archaeological Survey of the First-Century Village.” Pages 27-66 in The Ministry of Peter, the Chief Apostle. Edited by Frank F. Judd Jr., Eric D. Huntsman, and Shon D. Hopkins. Provo: Deseret.
A pdf is available online at: https://rsc.byu.edu/sites/default/files/pub_content/pdf/Simon_Peter_in_Capernaum_An_Archaeological_Survey_of_the_First-Century_Village.pdf
De Luca, Stefano
2013 “Capernaum.” Pages 168-180 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology. Edited by Daniel M. Master. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
A pdf is available at on his Academia.edu page (once a free profile is created).
Mattila, Sharon Lea
2015 “Capernaum, Village of Nahum, from Hellenistic to Byzantine Times.” Pages 217-257 in Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods: The Archaeological Record from Cities, Towns, and Villages. Volume 2. Edited by David A. Fiensy and James Riley Strange. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
A pdf is available at on her Academia.edu page (once a free profile is created).