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New Theory about the Capernaum Synagogue (1999)

The village of Capernaum is a well known and venerated archaeological site in northern Israel. It is the place where the Gospels say Jesus taught and healed many people while staying at Peter’s house and visiting the local synagogue (Mark 1 :21-2: 12; Luke 4:31-41). Excavations in the center of the village revealed foundations of an octagonal church built on top of the traditional home of Peter. Under the foundations the excavators revealed a layer containing fragments of architecture and domestic artifacts dating to the 1st century CE.

The problems began when excavating the nearby synagogue. The location matches the Bible’s description that says explicitly that Peter’s house was very close to the local synagogue (Mark 1 :29).

But 25,000 coins (!)  found under the floor indicate that the synagogue was not built before the 5th century. There may have been a synagogue from the 1st century CE below it, but it appears that it was completely cleared and built over in the Byzantine period. The size and glamour of the building is far above the average Jewish synagogue of those days. The walls are made of imported white limestone, and the lintels are of the finest quality. The village was undoubtedly a major Christian site visited by large numbers of Christian pilgrims in the Byzantine period, as it still is today.

But what seems difficult to explain is that a wealthy Jewish community living in that village could build a lavish synagogue so close to the venerated site of St. Peter’s house.

Uri Zvi Ma’oz, an Israeli archaeologist specializing in ancient synagogues in Israel, recently published a very interesting and creative solution for the discrepancy of the synagogue of Capernaum.

In his opinion, Jews never built and used the synagogue at Capernaum. Instead, he suggests it was erected by – Christians. In those days Christians were busy identifying many sites mentioned in the scriptures, preserving them by constructing memorial buildings above them, such as the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of Ascension on the Mount of Olives, and many more.

It may have been in such a setting that the synagogue of Capernaum was created. The Byzantine period Christians did not build the synagogue as a functional building but as a monument, meant to echo the house of worship standing there in the days of Jesus. The architects reused decorated lintels of various styles from 1ate Roman period building that looked already old and impressive to the Byzantine period Christian pilgrims. They made more entrances than a synagogue really needed, and they did not bother to erect a roof over it, as the lack of roof tiles attests. The synagogue was a Christian pilgrimage site resembling Jewish synagogues from those days, but visited only by Christian pilgrims. Aside from the building Maoz argues there is almost no additional evidence, historical or archaeological, that Jews ever lived inCapernaum in the Byzantine period.

While Maoz’s theory is intriguing, it doesn’t explain several facts:

1.     Why is there is an Aramaic inscription, obviously  made by Jews chiseled on one of the pillars?

2.     Historical sources do actually mention Jews from Capernaum.

3.     An inscription from Hamat Gader states that it was done by a Jew from Capernaum.

I personally believe that the Synagogue in Capernaum was indeed built by  Jews, but their sources of wealth was “pilgrimage services” to the flow of Christians visiting the site. Apparently they benefited so much from this “industry” that they manifested some of their wealth by erecting the most elaborate synagogue known from antiquity in their village, Capernaum.

capernaum synagogue

The Giants of the Golan Heights.

As the Israelites approached the Promised Land, Moses sent out scouts to search the land. They reported that the land indeed was fertile

but “all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size. We saw the Nephilim there-(the descendents of Anak are part of the Nephilim) and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:32-33). One of the more famous giants was Og, king of Bashan (modern Golan Heights). Of him the Bible tells us: “Only king Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim [giants]. His bedstead, an iron bedstead … [it] is nine cubits long and four cubits wide” (Deut 3:11). A cubit is about the length of a forearm, and so the bed described was about 4.5 meters long and 2 meterswide (!).

Archaeological work in the Golan Heights has failed to reveal Og’s bed, and,  frankly I don’t think the bed will ever be found,  – but other interesting finds may explain the Bible writers’ motivation in suggesting giants inhabited the land. The Golan Heights became accessible to Israeli archaeologists after the Six Day War in 1967. Immediately a survey project was initiated, followed by numerous digs, some still in progress. Most have been in the southern Golan Heights where archaeologists have found hundreds of Dolmens – burial places made of huge slabs of stones. This type of burial is well known from prehistoric Europe. The word “Dolmen” originates from an ancient French dialect meaning “Stone Tables”. Though the date of these dolmens is uncertain, all scholars agree they predate the Israelites arrival. Their gigantic size must have puzzled the Israelites, as they do today, and so it is possible that the Bible writers, ascribed them as beds of ancient giants. Stone slabs used to cover some of the dolmens can indeed reach the size of Og’s iron bed.

An Israeli family posing at a "Dolmen" in the Golan heights
An Israeli family posing at a “Dolmen” in the Golan heights