Capernaum (Hebrew for Kfar Nahum – “Village of Nahum”) is an ancient fishing village on the North Western shores of the sea of Galilee. The site owes its fame to Jesus. After being rejected in his hometown, Nazareth, he decided to move to Capernaum, which was also a small village, by the Sea of Galilee. Why he chose to settle here is not clear. Being next to a road system, perhaps Jesus considered Capernaum to be a strategical location spread his messianic messages. Or perhaps he favored Capernaum as it was sufficiently apart from administrative centers. And maybe he was simply welcomed here.
Jesus spent at least three years in Capernaum, and performed here many acts. In Capernaum he chose his first disciples and preached several times in the local synagogue. Nearby, he healed the mother-in-law of Peter, as well as a man possessed by the devil. In Capernaum he even raised from the dead the daughter of a man called Jairus.
Capernaum Lost – and Rediscovered
The followers of Jesus in Capernaum formed the earliest congregation of this new movement. Their center was probably the house-church (Domus Ecclesia) of Simon Peter and Andrew. In the Byzantine period (4th-7th century CE) the house was transformed into an octagonal church. Next to it a synagogue was also built, in grand scale.
The village flourished until the 8th century CE. Under Arab rule Capernaum was gradually abandoned. After the Crusader period even the location of Capernaum was forgotten. Some pilgrims visiting the Holy Land in the 15th-17th centuries reported visiting Capernaum – but said it was near Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast.
In the 19th century some scholars suggested Capernaum was located at Khirbet Minya, a fortress near Genesserat. The American Scholar Eduard Robinson was the first to suggest correctly that Capernaum was at Tell Hum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. At the site Robinson noticed “the prostrate ruins of an edifice which, for expense, labour and ornament, surpasses anything we have yet seen in Palestine”. During a second visit he correctly identified that building as a synagogue.
In 1894 the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land purchased the western part of the site, fenced it, and even covered parts of its ruins, to protect them from looting. The eastern part was owned by the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. In 1905 the Franciscans granted a permit to two German scholars, Kohl and Watzinger, to excavate the synagogue. In the following years, the German archaeologists revealed the whole synagogue, as well as the nearby house of Peter and Andrew. To this day the Franciscan continue to excavate at the site, uncovering more of the ancient village.
Today Capernaum is a very popular destination to any Christian group touring Israel. The ancient site covered 6 hectares. The main structures exposed are the synagogue and the reputed house of Peter and Andrew (or the house of the Mother-in-law of Peter). The whole village was designed in an orthogonal way, with streets intersecting one another in straight angles.
The White Synagogue
The ancient synagogue uncovered in Capernaum was built in the 4th cent CE and is the most conspicuous structure in the village today. In striking contrast to the private houses, all built of black basalt, the synagogue consists almost entirely of white limestone blocks, imported from a distant quarry. Being so, it became known as the “White Synagogue”.
The synagogues’ walls and doorways were lavishly decorated with bas-reliefs, which are all presented today near the entrance. The plentiful decorations include floral and geometric designs as well as objects of ritual significance, such as the portable Ark of the Covenant. The main hall inside the synagogue is rectangular. Three rows of columns along the walls of the main hall held the ceiling and an upper gallery. Two columns bear inscriptions which praise ancient donors, while a third commemorates the reconstruction of the building by the Franciscans.
To the east of the main hall is a colonnaded courtyard, perhaps a gathering area for the community, or for the village council.
The Synagogue Jesus knew
While the “white” synagogue of Capernaum is grand in size, it dates to the Byzantine period, centuries after the time of Jesus. So where is the synagogue of Capernaum that Jesus knew? Probes dug under the “white” synagogue in the 1960’s revealed the remains of an earlier synagogue. Most scholars argue these are the remains of the 1st century synagogue that Jesus knew.
The House of Simon Peter
According to the scriptures, Simon and Andrew’s house should be near the synagogue (Mark 1:29). Indeed, 25 meters south of the synagogue archaeologist uncovered a house that was later leveled, and an octagonal church was built over it. It’s floor was decorated with mosaics. The aisles bore geometric and lotus-flower designs. The central octagon was decorated with a motif of a peacock, symbol of immortality. Although the archaeologists did not find any inscription, it is believed this was the house belonging to Peter and Andrew, two of Jesus’ disciples, and turned into a house-church (Domus Ecclesia), perhaps already by the end of the first century CE.
In 1982 the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land constructed a modern octagonal church over the ancient one. It is suspended over the old church and house, enabling visitors to view the antiquities as well as pray in the modern hovering church.
The Other Capernaum
The eastern part of ancient Capernaum is the property of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. In 1931 they constructed a Greek-style church in their property. The area around the Greek-Orthodox church was excavated in 1979-1982 by a former Greek monk who became an archaeologist – V. Tzaferis. Sadly, the discoveries made here are not maintained well. On the other hand, the interior of the Greek-Orthodox church was totally renovated in 2003. Artists painted the walls with colorful scenes in Byzantine style. Especially enchanting is the description of the judgment into after-life which covers the entire inner wall of the entrance.
Just outside the Greek-Orthodox property, hidden under a jojoba tree, is a Mausoleum from Roman times. By local Christian tradition, this is the tomb of the Centurion who financed the construction of the synagogue of Capernaum. By Jewish tradition it is an ancient tomb of a Rabbi.
Book a Private Tour to Capernaum
Capernaum is located on the North Western Shore of the Sea of Galilee, and is about 3 hours drive from Tel-Aviv.
Contact us for a proposal of a full day tour of Galilee, that will also include a visit to Capernaum.
Presenting Capernaum to “The Watchman”, 2019
Points of Interest in the Area
|Mount of Beatitudes|
|Day Tour to the Galilee|