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5. Capernaum

Capernaum is today a site of antiquities on the northwestern short of the Sea of Galilee, along the road connecting the Golan Heights and the Galilee.

Capernaum means “the village of Nahum”, although it is not known to after which Nahum is the village named.

Capernaum owes its fame to Jesus, who left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum after his baptism (Matt 4:12). Why he chose to settle in Capernaum is not clear. One possibility is that because it was located on an important road, Jesus was able to spread his messages here more successfully than in isolated Nazareth. Another suggestion is that Capernaum was sufficiently apart from administrative centers, like Tiberias, where Herod Antipas had his capital.

Jesus spent at least three years in Capernaum, and performed here many acts: In Capernaum he chose his first disciples; he preached several times in the local synagogue; near by 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 Jairus(Mark 1:21-34; 2:1-12; 5:21-43).

The crowds that flocked around Jesus in Capernaum formed the earliest congregation of the new sect. Their centre 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, and the Synagogue was rebuilt on a grand scale. The village flourished until the 8th century CE, but 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. It was E. Robinson who was the first to suggest correctly that Capernaum was at “Tell Hum” on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Arabic name “Tell Hum” (ruins of Hum) resemble the last part of the name “[Caperna]um.” More importantly, not far from the lake shore, 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 it to protect the ruins 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 archaeologists have completely revealed the synagogue as well as the nearby house of Peter and Andrew.

The excavations were resumed in 1968 by the Franciscans, and are ongoing to this day by Fathers de Luca and Loffreda.

Ancient Capernaum covered 6 hectares. The main structures that are exposed are the synagogue and the reputed house of Peter. Recent excavations have revealed more private houses, and the general plan of the village can now be drawn.

Some of the private houses found in Capernaum, mostly built with local black basalt stones

Some of the private houses found in Capernaum, mostly built with local black basalt stones. The village was designed in an orthogonal way, with streets intersecting one another in straight angles.

Tombs from the Roman period were found near the village, as well as a mille stone  from the time of Hadrian (117-138 AD).

The milestone found near Capernaum.

The milestone found near Capernaum.

“The White Synagogue”

The synagogue of 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, brought from a distant quarry. The three doorways of the facade faced Jerusalem, and were originally lavishly decorated. Unfortunately today most of the architectural decorative elements are placed elsewhere on the site. 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 interior of the white limestone synagogue at Capernaum

The interior of the white limestone synagogue at Capernaum. This structure probably stands on the foundation of an earlier building, possibly the synagogue of Jesus’ day.

The synagogue of Capernaum is the best example of a decorated synagogue in Galilee from the late Roman and Byzantine periods (4th-7th century CE). Probes under the structure revealed the remains of an earlier building in a similar alignment. Perhaps these are remains of the famous 1st century synagogue of Capernaum built by a centurion and visited by Jesus.

Possible remains of the synagogue in Capernaum from the time of Jesus.

Possible remains of the synagogue in Capernaum from the time of Jesus.

One of the most interesting relieves of the “white synagogue” depicts a chest with an arched roof, double doors at the end and columns along the side. Beneath are wheels on which the chest was transported. Alternate theories are that this represented the portable Ark of the Covenant in the wilderness, or that it was the shrine in which the Torah was rolled into place in the synagogue. Perhaps it represented both.

Part of the synagogue decorations include this wheeled cart bearing a chest with an arched roof

Part of the synagogue decorations include this wheeled cart bearing a chest with an arched roof. Some have suggested that it represents the Ark of the Covenant.

The House of Simon Peter

According to the scriptures, Simon and Andrew’s house should be near the synagogue: “As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew” (Mark 1:29). Just 25 meters south of the synagogue is a house excavated by the Franciscans. Initially a poor residence like other houses in Capernaum, in the 4th century it was surrounded by a wall which secluded it from the town. In the 5th century the house was leveled and an octagonal church was built over it, arranged in three concentric rings. Like the synagogue, the foundations were built with local black basalt while the superstructure was white limestone blocks. The floor was decorated with mosaics. The aisles bore geometric and lotus-flower designs and the central octagon was decorated with a motif of a peacock, symbol of immortality. Later an apse containing a baptistery was added on the east side. 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 the Byzantine period several writers mentioned it as a pilgrimage

site. Aetheria, a Spanish nun who traveled in the Holy Land c. 384, wrote the most vivid description: “The house of the prince of the Apostles [Peter] in Capharnaumwas changed into a church; the walls, however, [of that house] are still standing as they were [in the past]”.

The octagonal church built over Peter's house in Capernaum

The octagonal church built over Peter's house in Capernaum. Before the construction of the modern church above it.

In 1982 the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land constructed a church that is suspended over the old church/house, enabling visitors to view the antiquities as well as pray in the church above. The architectural design was supposed to echo a boat, but frankly it looks more like a spaceship.

The modern church above the house of Peter and Andrew in Capernaum

The modern church above the house of Peter and Andrew in Capernaum

A suggested reconstruction of the original house of Simon and Andrew

A suggested reconstruction of the original house of Simon and Andrew. It probably looked like any other house in Capernaum: a set of rooms around a courtyard. The walls were of black basalt, without mortar. The walls could not carry a second storey, or even heavy roofing, and so the roof was made of branches covered with mud and straw. Such a roof would allow for just such a partial removal as is described in Mark 2:4: “Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on.” The “tiles” mentioned in Luke 5:19 probably reflect Luke’s depiction of the scene in western Roman eyes.


The Other Capernaum

The eastern part of ancient Capernaum is the property of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. The Israel Antiquities Authority in collaboration with several American Universities excavated part of the eastern side of Capernaum in 1979-1982. The exceptional permit of the Greek Orthodox to let the IAA excavate was perhaps granted because the chief excavator, V Tsaferis, who was formerly a member of their order.

Vasilius Tzaferis

Vasilius Tzaferis, former Greek monk and head of the excavations in the eastern side of Capernaum, which is property of the Greek-Orthodox.

The finds from these excavations indicate that eastern Capernaum continued to flourish until the 10th century CE, under Arab rule. Epiphanius the monk reported seeingCapernaum in the 9th century, but he did not mention the synagogue or an octagonal church. Instead he mentions “the house of John the Theologian”. Perhaps he visited eastern Capernaum while western Capernaum was in ruins. “The house of John the Theologian” is possibly under the modern church of the Greek-Orthodox order, which was constructed in 1931. Being close to the border with Syria, the church was deserted between 1948 and 1967, and until a few years ago visiting the place was limited.

Now the site is open to all and is quite worth a visit. In 2003 its interior was totally renovated. Artists painted the walls with colorful scenes in medieval style. Especially enchanting is the description of the

judgment into after-life which covers the entire inner wall of the entrance.

A colorful image of the final judgment adorns the Greek-Orthodox church in Capernaum.

A colorful image of the final judgment adorns the Greek-Orthodox church in Capernaum.