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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.
How Did Simon Peter Die?
I traveled recently to Edinburgh, Scotland. The university where I teach, Houston Baptist University, is looking into the possibility of establishing a study-abroad agreement with the University of Edinburgh, and I was there to help make that connection. While there, I attended some lectures on Simon Peter sponsored by the Center for the Study of Christian Origins (CSCO). Founded by Professor Larry Hurtado (now retired) in the late 1990s, the center is today ably run by Dr. Helen Bond. I heard a number of good papers on the apostle Peter; though he is the best known of Jesus’ “twelve,” he is often neglected by Protestants (Protestants tend to favor Paul).
One paper in particular stood out. It was given by (retired) Professor Timothy D. Barnes. He is a world class historian who is known for being a bit feisty. He began his lecture recognizing full well that he was about to ruffle a few feathers.
Many Christian scholars have thought that Simon Peter died in Rome by crucifixion. There are a variety of early Christian reports that seem to indicate this (Tertullian, Praescr. Haer. 36.3; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.1.2). In one tradition, Peter asks to be crucified upside-down because he is not worthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus, his Lord (Martyrdom of Peter 8.3-4).
Professor Barnes, however, reads the evidence differently. He takes his cue from John 21.18-19. Here is how these verses are translated in the New American Standard:
Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go. Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!” (Joh 21:18-19 NAS)
The problem with this translation, Barnes says, has to do with the Greek word translated “gird yourself.” It is typically taken to refer to tying a belt around your waist and hitching up your outer garment for travel, work or possibly battle. Barnes argues that the Greek verb actually means “dress yourself.” A number of modern translations agree (English Standard Version, New Living Translation). Here is how the NLT renders the verses:
“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.” (Joh 21:18-19 NLT)
Notice. This saying of Jesus let’s Peter (and John’s readers) in on the way in which Peter was going to die. When Peter is old, he will stretch out his hands, someone else will dress him, and take him where he would rather not go. Some have taken this as an image of crucifixion. John goes on to say that this refers to the kind of death he would die and thereby glorify God. A careful reader will recall that earlier in John’s Gospel, the crucifixion of Jesus is his hour of glory. Some have taken these verses as a reminder that Peter had been crucified (The Fourth Gospel was probably written 25-30 years following Peter’s execution).
For Barnes the problem with the crucifixion of Peter theory is this. Men were always crucified stark naked. You would not be dressed for it; you would be undressed (Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 2.53). You may recall how the soldiers divided Jesus’ garments as he suffered on the cross. Jesus may typically be depicted with a loin cloth around his waist, but that is a matter of piety and modesty not history. Jesus hung on the cross stark naked. If Peter had been crucified, he would have been stripped as well. But according to Barnes, he was not.
So how did Simon Peter die? From John’s Gospel Barnes directs our attention to Tacitus (Annals 15.44.4) and the madness of Nero. After Rome went up in flames in AD 64, Nero wanted to make an example of the Christians whom he thought were a despicable lot. He knew the public was already against them so it was convenient to make them the scapegoats. Nero, who was always a bit of a showman, wanted a spectacle; he rounded up the Christians who lived in what was left of the city and slaughtered them. Here is how Tacitus describes it:
And, as they perished, mockeries were added, so that, covered in the hides of wild beasts, they expired from mutilation by dogs, or were burned fixed to crosses for use as nocturnal illumination on the dwindling of daylight (Barnes’ modification of the translation by A. J. Woodman).
Barnes thinks his case is “rock solid” (a phrase he used with me over dinner after his lecture). Peter, who was present in Rome at the time, was apprehended with the rest of the Christians. He was bound by authorities and dressed in a tunic dipped in a flammable substance. He was taken and fixed to a mock cross near the banks of the Tiber River, his hands extended, and then he was set on fire. If Barnes is correct, Peter died in the persecutions that followed Rome’s burning in AD 64 by burning not by crucifixion. Crucifixion was a slow, agonizing death by asphyxiation that took up to three days in some cases. Peter’s death would have come much more quickly but the sight everyone would remember would be his charred body, formed like a cross, smoldering by the Tiber.
Barnes makes a compelling case; it is historically plausible if not likely. Still it is always difficult to move from the general to the particular. While it is true generally that many Christians died during Nero’s persecution in this way, it is not “rock solid” (with apologies to the apostle) that a particular person named Simon Peter died on that day in that way. More evidence is needed. There is no physical evidence you consider as you might have with a modern crime scene investigation. Still, Barnes has a good bit to teach us.
On this occasion, the Romans wanted to mock their enemies. You can almost hear one of them thinking: “These despicable people love their crosses. Let’s see how much they love them after they’ve been burned to death on them.” It wasn’t enough to put these poor souls to death; they increased the humiliation—as the Romans would have seen it—by wrapping the martyrs in animals skins or fixing them to crosses.
But what the Romans failed to recognize was that the cross had already become a fixture in early Christian devotion. The crucifixion of Jesus was central to their confession. Rather than being a place of disgrace and death; it had become a symbol of honor and life. It is no wonder that later generations of believers continued to imagine that Peter died with his arms stretched wide, embracing the world.