Christian and Jewish Themes at Capernaum

(Published originally in the Jerusalem Post)

The masses of tourists flocking to Israel each year are largely Christians. Beyond Jerusalem, their main destinations are around the Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee.

The Christian sites of the Sea of Galilee are clustered near the northern end of the lake. One of the greatest magnets for Christians here, if not the greatest, is Capernaum. Referred to as “his own city”(Matt 9: 1; Mark 2: 1), Capernaum is frequently mentioned in the New Testament as the place where Jesus gathered his disciples and the base for his activities in the region. Purchased by the Franciscan order in the late nineteenth century, Capernaum(“Cfar Nahum”–the village of Nahum–in Hebrew) is the most fully excavated of the Galilee Christian sites, probably the most clearly authenticated historically and archaeologically, and perhaps the easiest for a tourist to imaginatively recreate.    

For Jews, Capernaum offers an example of a first-century Jewish fishing village, typical of those which hemmed in the bustling lake during the 1st century CE. The rough-hewn basalt walls and paths at the level of the first-century village show how crowded, small and jammed together the houses would have been, with thatched roofs.

But though the dawns and sunsets would have been as stunning then as they are now, the surrounding hillsides as green and lush and flower-speckled in spring, and the lake as brimming with fish, the thousands of Jewish residents around the lake were entwined in a mesh of oppression, injustice and economic exploitation pulled taut by imperial Rome and its appointed local rulers, especially Herod Antipas, son of the first Herod. By Capernaum ran a road that crossed the Jordan River and political districts, which meant that travelers had to pay up at the local Capernaum customs house(Matt. 9: 9).

A major attraction and the main building in Capernaum is the large 4th-century synagogue. While all the surrounding buildings were built from local basalt, this building, with its evidence of an upper(women’s?) gallery, was constructed of limestone which had to be hauled in a considerable distance at great expense. Elaborate incised stone ornamentation on the lintels and cornices–palms, vines and pomegranates(three of the seven agricultural species used for offerings in the temple in Jerusalem), flowers, a Star of David and other geometrical motifs–graced both the inside and outside. A portable ark, a relief of which can be seen along the southern fence of the archaeological site, was rolled out from a rear room during prayers and brought to the front. Facing the ark, the worshippers would also have faced Jerusalem, as with all post-Temple synagogues. Also found were Greek and Aramaic inscriptions announcing who contributed specific features to the synagogue, like the plaques in American temples–some things never change.

But puzzling questions surround this synagogue, which, after all, was built during the early Byzantine period when Christian sovereignty was spreading and solidifying throughout Israel. How did it manage to stand contemporary with and adjacent to a Byzantine church(which we’ll see momentarily)? Perhaps it was built during the reign of the anti-Christian emperor Julian in the mid-4th century. Or perhaps, as some have speculated, it was a church built to resemble a synagogue. Or perhaps in Capernaum, with its rich symbolism of Christian beginnings and its distance from the seat of local church power in Jerusalem, there was greater tolerance.

The questions only deepen when examining the foundation of this synagogue, for its white limestone blocks clearly, visibly sit upon the basalt base of an earlier, separate building, which dates back to the 1st-century level. Given the Jewish law and custom of building only a synagogue on the remains of an earlier synagogue, that would make the lower building, very possibly, the base of Capernaum’s synagogue at the time of Jesus. The Franciscan researchers labeled it as the synagogue of Jesus, and for many Christians, standing there becomes the emotional peak of their trip.

Before the synagogue spreads a crowded area of 1st-century houses and workshops, and beyond that a modern church on posts, looming like a hovercraft over a Byzantine church, comprised of several concentric octagons, which marks the traditional site of the house of Peter, where Jesus lived and healed during his stays in Capernaum(Mark 2). The floor of the innermost octagon was covered with detailed, colorful mosaics of flowers and shell-shaped figures, and in the center was a beautiful peacock, an early Christian symbol of immortality.

This central octagon sat directly upon the remains of an earlier building which apparently had been used as an early house-church, for some 300 years from perhaps the second part of the 1st century. It would have contained a series of rooms centered around two courtyards. Religious graffiti and changes in the structure that set it apart suggested to the excavating  archaeologists that from an early point this was venerated as the house of the disciple Peter.     

Beyond the church to the south, lie the remains of the port of Capernaum itself. The foundations of ancient jetties are visible just offshore.  We must imagine a thriving 1st-century port with boats moored along the harbor’s piers,  protected by curved breakwaters from the buffeting waves of the sudden storms that arose in the lake. And parallel to the shore ran a stone promenade some 800 meters long, where fishermen would prepare their nets with lead sinkers and various craftsmen undoubtedly plied their trades.

Later, the town with the synagogue and church facing each other survived into the 7th century. At least one scholar, John Murphy-O’Connor, pictures a scenario in which local Jews joined with Persian invaders in 614 to destroy the octagonal church, the symbolic source of their grievances. But when the Byzantine Empire regained control 15 years later, Christians sought revenge by destroying the synagogue.

Perhaps, in this ancient village where Jewish and Christian remains and themes mingle, that is something to remember in the 21st century.

There is a nominal entry fee. No shorts are allowed for men or women.

By: Allan Rabinowitz