Capernaum is not mentioned in the Old Testament. Although we cannot say for certain, it is probable any local population would have been killed or otherwise displaced in the Assyrian invasions in the 8th century BC. In fact there is little material evidence of human settlement before the 2nd century BC. Later Jewish writers refer to Capernaum as “Kefar Nahum” (the village of Nahum—not likely the biblical prophet). Apparently, Capernaum was the site of some of Jesus’ earliest miracles, a fact that didn’t escape the hometown crowd in Nazareth (Luke 4.23). Matthew tells us that Jesus healed the centurion’s son from a distance in Capernaum and went on to heal Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt 8.5, 14). He healed a paralytic after four of his friends peeled back the roof of a modest Capernaum house and lowered him in front of the Savior on his mat (Mark 2.1; Matt 9.1-8). It was in Capernaum that Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, implored Jesus to raise his daughter after the mourners had already gathered to grieve (Matt 9.18-26). Despite all the miracles Jesus performed there, he still prophesied destruction against the village and people there because of unbelief (Matt 11.23).
Capernaum is described in the Gospels as “his own city” (Matt 9.1), but the text is silent on why Jesus chose Capernaum as the center of his public life. Perhaps it was the ease of travel on the flat plain along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps it was the speed of passage across the lake to the Gentile cities of the Decapolis. Perhaps it was because Capernaum sat at some distance from Antipas’ seat of power. It was Antipas after all who had John beheaded, and Jesus’ fate was supposed to end in Jerusalem not Galilee. Still for reasons known only to him, Jesus chose Capernaum, and now for centuries Christian pilgrims have made their way to the place where Jesus first proclaimed with power the rule of God.
Modern visitors to Capernaum can explore the remains of a beautiful synagogue built in the Byzantine era. It is one of the best preserved ancient synagogues in the Holy Land. The large, white limestone blocks and columns stand in sharp contrast to the native stone which is a black basalt (volcanic) stone. The Byzantine synagogue was apparently built over the site of an earlier synagogue whose floor archaeologists uncovered a few years ago. It measures 60 feet wide by 79 feet long. Since building materials were hard to come by, builders often incorporated stable parts of earlier foundations and walls into later structures. This both concealed and preserved the earlier buildings. Although we cannot say for certain, this may well be the floor of the synagogue where Jesus preached and exorcized evil spirits in Capernaum (Luke 7.1ff; Mark 1.21-28).
In the fifth century AD Christians built an octagonal church building south of the synagogue. Byzantine Christians loved the octagonal form and often used it to commemorate places they considered holy. The building with its lovely mosaic floors had been constructed over the remains of a 4th century structure (likely a church) that had in turn been built over a first century house. A particularly strong tradition holds that this is the Capernaum residence of Peter, one of the twelve. The house of Peter, as it is called, was a modest, one-story house. Its roof would have been made of branches, thatch and mud, not unlike the roof that was dug out to allow the paralyzed man access to Jesus (Mark 2.1-12). The plastered walls of the large, central room contain over 150 inscriptions scribed like graffiti in the walls in the various languages of the early church: Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac and Latin.
To preserve the house where tradition has it that Peter lived, believers have constructed a new church over the site. Like its ancient counterpart the modern structure has eight sides, but it sits several meters above the site atop eight pillars that describe eight sides. It hovers above the Byzantine remains preserving and protecting the precious material culture of the past from Capernaum’s warm summers and winter rains. Today Christian pilgrims, like their spiritual ancestors 1500 years ago, make their way to Capernaum to see the place where Peter lived and where Jesus began to turn the world upside down.
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