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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.
When Jesus heard that John the baptizer had been imprisoned, he left the Jordan valley and went north toward the district of Galilee (Matt 4.13). His baptism by John in the river had been the turning point of his life. From here on everything would be different. Jesus had lived a private life; now he would become a public person. He had earned his living as a carpenter selling his goods in Nazareth and likely Sepphoris, a larger, more affluent city a few miles away; now he would become a preacher of the Kingdom of God, healing and making disciples throughout Galilee, Judea, Samaria and the Decapolis. He had grown up in Nazareth; now he would leave behind his hometown and settle in Capernaum.
But why did Jesus go north to Galilee? Why didn’t he head straight for Jerusalem, the city of prophets? Well, the answer is simple. He was guided by Scripture. Hundreds of years before Mary labored and gave birth to her male child, the prophet Isaiah had foreseen a day when hope returned to the land mortally wounded by invaders from the north. He prophesied:
Isaiah 9:1-2 (NASV) But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. 2 The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them.
Jesus knew the Scriptures. He understood that the renewal was to begin up north, in the ancestral lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, districts known in his day as Galilee. That was only right in the justice of God because it was these regions that fell first to Assyrian and Babylonian aggression. The villages and towns first to fall and walk in darkness were to be the first to have the light shine upon them. Jesus was that light. Capernaum would become his city.
Rather than return to Nazareth, his hometown, the Gospels tell us that Jesus “moved” to Capernaum and made it the headquarters of his ministry. Capernaum was a village on the north-west corner of the Sea of Galilee. It was the home of two sets of brothers–Simon and Andrew, James and John. Fishing provided their families a living on the Sea of Galilee. The sea also provided plenty of fresh water for the people residing there. Population estimates during Jesus’ day for the village have conservatively been set between 1200-1700 inhabitants. Although most of Capernaum’s citizens were Jewish, there is evidence some non-Jews also made it their home. Still this is no thriving city. Unlike larger cities it had no wall to protect it, no aqueducts, no colonnaded streets, no administrative buildings and no theater. Its only significant public space was a synagogue that served as both a place of worship and a community center. Had Jesus not made Capernaum his base of operations, it is likely most would never have even heard of it.
Join me next for Part 2 of Jesus and Capernaum.
The first generation of Christ followers gathered regularly in house churches for instruction, encouragement and worship. A central part of these gatherings was the chanting and singing of hymns. Explicit reference to the use of hymns in the Christian church is found in Paul’s admonition to sing psalms (psalmoi), hymns (humnoi) and spirituals songs (ōdē) with gratitudeto God (Col 3:16; cf. Eph 5:19-20). These three terms likely refer to the practice of using the biblical Psalter along with distinctly Christian compositions. The worship of God with hymns had its immediate background in Jewish synagogue practices. Psalms, particularly messianic psalms, were used by early believers to express uniquely Christian perspectives on God’s recent actions in the world. Likewise, Eph 1:3-14 is constructed on a Jewish hymn-pattern known as the berakah (“blessed is . . . “). While the pattern is clearly Jewish, the author used it in a way that is explicitly Christian. Gentile believers too would have also been accustomed to hymn-singing in the ethos of Greco-Roman religion.
Scholars have detected hymns and hymn fragments throughout the Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation utilizing various criteria including introductory phrases (e.g., “therefore it says,” Eph 5:14), poetic parallelism, special uses of relative pronouns and participles, the presence of unusual vocabulary and rhyming features, and disruptions to the context. Although not all scholars agree, there is a general consensus that the following passages represent early Christian hymns: Rom 11:33-36, Phil 2:6-11, Col 1:15-20, 1 Tim 3:16, 1 Pet 2:21-24, Heb 1:3-4, Rev 4:8-11 and 19:1-4. These hymns may have been preformed traditions quoted or alluded to by a writer or spontaneous compositions understood to be Spirit-inspired. Some hymns are so clear and self-contained that later generations of Christians name them (e.g., the Magnificat = Luke 1:46-55; the Benedictus = Luke 1:68-79). The New Testament contains both hymns to Christ and to God the Father demonstrating a binitarian shape to early Christian devotion. Furthermore, the content of early Christian hymns is directed to soteriological themes such as creation, incarnation, and redemption. For early Christ believers hymnic praise was essentially a response to God’s saving actions in Christ.
Though not all agree, many scholars think that the earliest extant Christian hymn is the hymn to Christ found in Phil 2:6-11. The hymn consists of two parts. The first narrates the descent and humiliation of the pre-existent Jesus to become a man and to suffer a merciless death on the cross. The second describes the ascent and exaltation of the crucified Jesus by God to receive the adoration of every creature and confession “Jesus Christ is Lord.” This hymn functioned to recall the essential story and therefore had a didactic purpose. Paul utilized it further to make Jesus the lordly example of humility and service (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-24).
By its nature poetic or hymnic language appears to affect those who use it in significant ways. Whether it was chanted or accompanied with musical instruments, hymns were easier to memorize and recall than other forms of instruction. Therefore, it seems that early Christians used NT hymns for several purposes: (1) to instruct, (2) to express praise and thanks to God, (3) to confess faith, (4) to form communal identity, and (5) to provide an example for proper behavior.
Dr. Jonathan Pennington, associate professor of New Testament and director of the doctoral program at Southern Seminary, has written an important, new book on the Sermon on the Mount. The title is The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Baker Academic, 2017). You can find a link to Amazon here. The book is not exactly new; I’ve known about it for about a year now. But it is new to me and perhaps to many of you.
Pennington is regarded broadly as an expert on the Gospel of Matthew. Now, on the way to writing the prestigious Pillar Commentary on the whole Gospel, he paused and wrote an extensive theological commentary on the Sermon. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is probably the best known sermon of Jesus. Oscar Brooks called it “the inaugural address” of Jesus because it laid out the platform for the kingdom of God.
At the heart of Pennington’s book, as the title shows, is an interpretation of the beatitudes and the Sermon as what we would call today “human flourishing.” Essentially, what wisdom is needed and what virtues must be cultivated in order for humans–or in this case, Jesus-followers–to flourish. He begins by re-translating the beatitudes (Matt 5.3ff) in a manner like: “Flourishing are the poor the spirit, . . . “; “Flourishing are those who mourn, . . . ” You get the idea. He moves the Greek word makarios out of the category of “happy” or “fortunate” or “blessed.” While the term “human flourishing” may be anachronistic, it is heuristically valuable and gets at the heart of what is the good life and good society.
One of the most important features of the book is Pennington’s commitment to join together the Jewish wisdom tradition with Greco-Roman virtue ethics. Rather than seeing these as discrete aspects of Galilean/Jewish culture, Pennington invites us to see these as mutually instructive. He makes a good case for it. But wisdom here is not just “this worldly,” it also has an eschatological dimension as well. It is thoroughly Christ-centered and kingdom-focused.
Pastors and scholars have been writing on the Sermon for years. My first encounter with a book devoted largely to it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship. I am not sure the trend will end, but I do think that Pennington’s book is likely to become one of the most significant books on the sermon for years to come.
First appeared in print in Christianity Today, December 2018, under the Title “Prepare for the ‘Day of the Lord'” (p. 76)
Matthew Aernie & Donald Hartley. The Righteous & Merciful Judge: The Day of the Lord in the Life and Theology of Paul. Studies in Scripture & Biblical Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018.
These days it is out of fashion to talk about judging and judgment. Ours is a much more “tolerant” day—or so we’re told. But as our authors, Aernie & Hartley, correctly describe, throughout the counsel of Scripture the idea of God coming in judgment to right all wrongs and settle all scores is at the heart of God’s revelation. Yet the specter of Marcionism is still with us in the church especially when we divide the Scriptures into parts and imagine that the first is dominated by justice and wrath, the second by mercy and grace. As our writers point out, such mischaracterizations undermine the unity of Scripture and subverts the true story of God in the world. Some of the most wonderful passages of forgiveness, restoration, and grace are found in the Old; some of the most unsettling about justice, wrath, and judgment are found in the New.
The project Aernie and Hartley pursue in this book is to consider the theme of “the day of the Lord” in Paul’s letters. They argue that it is not some subsidiary crater to Paul’s theology, but it stands as a major motif in his thinking. They stop short of calling it the center, but they do make it central by arguing that “every aspect of his theology was in some way affected by the concept” (p. 5) So their book examines the theme of “the day of the Lord: in scholarship, the Old Testament, extracanonical Jewish literature, Paul’s call/conversion on the Damascus Road, and the language of the day of the Lord and associated themes in Paul’s letters. As a result, they shed much needed light on an ignored and marginalized feature of Paul’s theology.
Like most scholars Aernie and Hartley pursue their task systematically working through time, asking first: where this concept came from? But, of course, scholars don’t tend to agree on much and that includes how and where the notion of “the day of the Lord” entered into Jewish consciousness. Some think it came from the holy war tradition; others from enthronement ceremonies when YHWH is installed as King. Some think it came from within Israel itself; others imagine it was adopted and adapted from the Canaanites or the Babylonians. The starting point remains elusive. What is clear is that the OT is rich in associations around the notion that God will visit the nations, including Israel, in judgment, power, and restoration.
While the phrase “the day of the LORD” is not found in the Books of Moses, our authors claim the theme sits just beneath the surface in passages that portray YHWH as coming to visit his people in blessings and curses. The prophets developed the language of God’s visitation into the language we know, “the day of the LORD.” Only later, among the prophets does the phrase “the day of the LORD” become a technical term for a day of final judgment. As such, depending on how a people are currently situated toward YHWH—whether faithful to the covenant or not—it is a day that prompts fear or a day awaited with joy.
In the past, periods of famine, scarcity, war and ultimately exile could be construed as “days” of judgement in typological patterns of what is to come: the final, definitive, eschatological day of the Lord. When that day comes, God will make the world right. In the final assize of history anything wrong in Israel or the nations must be judged. All that is right is destined to be redeemed and restored. These patterns are found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures but they are also present in later Jewish collections such as the Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls. This was the symbolic world that Paul inherited.
One of the more interesting features of the book is how Aernie and Hartley interpret Paul’s Damascus Christophany as “a proleptic day of the Lord.” In other words, Paul had his own day of judgment when he encountered the risen Lord. Instead of getting what he deserved, i.e., wrath, he found mercy. Instead of being marked out for destruction, he was transformed, converted, and called to a new mission. In this encounter the persecutor replaced the false identity of Jesus he had developed for the true identity as Messiah, Son of God, and Lord. Now that the moment of Paul’s own judgment had arrived and he had found grace, he began to think that the final judgment for all was closer than he ever imagined.
The last portion of the book goes deeply into Paul’s language associated with “the day of the Lord.” For Paul, “the day of the Lord (YHWH)” had become “the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5.2) or more simply “the day of Christ” (Phil 1.10). Words of coming (Parousia), “revelation” (apocalypsis), and “appearing” or “manifestation” (epiphania) season his discourse as he likens the coming of Jesus to judge the living and dead to various manifestations of God in the Scripture. The final chapter offers the most detailed exegesis in the book.
The big idea Aernie and Hartley pursue offers an important corrective for the academy and the church. The current western mood is to avoid anything that smacks of judgment. We want a merciful, forgiving, anything-goes kind of god, not one who demands something of us and will ultimately judge us. We cannot adequately deal with Paul’s life, mission and theology until we grasp where he believed the telos toward which history was moving. The next thing we await is the final, definitive coming of Christ in glory, power, and judgment.