Places

Capernaum by Mark A. Chancey

Capernaum was a small Jewish fishing and agricultural community on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was apparently a principal base of Jesus' operations, with Matt 9:1 going so far as to call it Jesus’ "own city." According to Mark 1:29, it was the hometown of Jesus' disciples Simon, Andrew, James, and John. It is the setting for well-known stories such as Jesus' call of a tax collector to follow him (Mark 2:12-17), his preaching and exorcism in a synagogue (Mark 1:21-28, Luke 4:31-37), the healing of Simon's mother-in-law (Matt 8:14-15, Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-39) and the healing of a paralytic man (Matt 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12). Perhaps the most famous story associated with Capernaum is that of the Gentile centurion whose faith Jesus praises after healing his servant (Matt 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10).

Various scholars explored and excavated portions of the site in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the late 1960s, archaeologists associated with the Studium Biblical Franciscanum (Franciscan Biblical School) in Jerusalem began more extensive work there, followed a decade later by archaeologists associated with the Greek Orthodox Church. The most famous discoveries are a limestone synagogue constructed in the late fourth or early fifth century C.E. that can now be seen in reconstructed form and an octagonal church built in the fifth century. The church sits atop a first-century house that itself underwent extensive renovation in the preceding centuries. Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Syriac graffiti demonstrate that it was a site of pilgrimage already in the fourth century. Because the fourth-century Christian pilgrim Egeria wrote that she visited the house of Peter, many believe that ancient architectural remains underneath the octagonal church are in fact the disciple's house.

Archaeological finds from the first century are more modest but nonetheless extensive and important, consisting of basalt houses with accompanying courtyards, streets, and various small objects. Fragments from stone vessels attest to the village's predominantly Jewish population, as only Jews in this region used such vessels, believing them to be impervious to ritual impurity. Today, Capernaum's well-preserved finds provide a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists.

Have archaeologists discovered the synagogue where Jesus taught?

Early twentieth-century excavators were convinced that Capernaum's limestone synagogue was the one built by the centurion mentioned in Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Later scholars suggested on architectural grounds that the synagogue actually dated to the second or third century C.E. Today, most scholars date the building's construction to the late fourth or fifth century C.E. on the basis of pottery evidence, coin finds, and stylistic considerations.

Many scholars are intrigued by the possibility that the limestone synagogue was built on top of an earlier synagogue that may go back to the first century, pointing to remains of basalt walls and pavements underneath the fifth-century building. Because thorough excavation of the basalt structures would require dismantling the limestone synagogue, it is likely that this question will never be resolved with certainty.

Were Roman soldiers stationed at Capernaum in the time of Jesus?

Some interpreters understandably assume that the centurion mentioned in Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 was a Roman army officer. However, while both gospels refer to the centurion as Gentile, neither identifies him as a Roman, and it is unlikely that Capernaum had a Roman garrison in the early first century. Galilee at the time belonged to the territory of Antipas, a Herodian client-king who served at the whim of the Romans but had some degree of autonomy. It would have been unusual for the Romans to station soldiers in the territory of a loyal client-king who faced no serious internal or external threats. Roman troops were apparently not permanently stationed in Galilee until the second century C.E. A famous milestone exhibited at modern Capernaum that documents the construction of a road by Roman soldiers dates not to the time of Jesus but to the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 C.E.). Because the armies of the Herodian kings included Gentiles and were sometimes organized along Roman lines, it is likely that the tradition underlying the gospels' story originally referred to an officer in the army of Antipas.

Mark A. Chancey, "Capernaum", n.p. [cited 17 Nov 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/capernaum

Contributors

Mark A. Chancey

Mark A. Chancey
Professor, Southern Methodist University

Mark A. Chancey is professor of religious studies in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His research interests range from the historical Jesus, archaeology and the Bible, and the political and social history of Roman-period Palestine to church-state issues and religion and contemporary public education. He is the author of two books with Cambridge University Press, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (2002) and Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (2005), and is the coauthor of  Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (Yale University Press, 2012).

Capernaum was a small Jewish fishing and agricultural community on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee that figures prominently in the Gospels' depictions of Jesus.

Did you know…?

  • Capernaum was a Jewish fishing and agricultural village by the Sea of Galilee in the early centuries C.E.
  • The name “Capernaum” comes from the Hebrew Kefar Nahum, the village of Nahum.
  • Capernaum is the site of several of the Gospels' stories about Jesus, and Matt 9:1 refers to it as "Jesus' own city."
  • The extensively excavated site is now a favorite destination for tourists and pilgrims.
  • The impressive reconstructed limestone synagogue visible today dates to the late fourth or fifth-century C.E.
  • Some scholars believe that Capernaum's fifth-century octagonal church marks the site of the house of Jesus' disciple Peter.
  • Although a miracle story (Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10) mentions a Gentile "centurion," at Capernaum, the reference is probably to an officer in the army of the Herodian client-king Antipas, not a Roman soldier.
  • In addition to the New Testament, other ancient sources such as the writings of the late-first century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus and the rabbis refer to Capernaum.

Dug up, often from an archaeological site.

The expulsion of demons.

Unauthorized writings or pictures drawn onto a wall or other public place.

Contaminated as a result of certain physical or moral situations, and therefore prohibited from contact with holy things. (See also: "purity" (HCBD).)

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

A dialect of Aramaic, common among a number of early Christian communities.

Matt 9:1

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Mark 1:29

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Mark 2:12-17

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Mark 1:21-28

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Luke 4:31-37

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Matt 8:14-15

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Mark 1:29-31

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Luke 4:38-39

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Matt 9:1-8

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Mark 2:1-12

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Matt 8:5-13

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Luke 7:1-10

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A site where older artifacts are dug up or otherwise revealed.

Matt 8:5-13

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Luke 7:1-10

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A number of troops stationed in a particular location.

Of or relating to the reign of the family of Herod, which governed Palestine from 55 B.C.E. to the end of the first century C.E.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Matt 8:5-13

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Luke 7:1-10

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A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Matt 9:1

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Matt 8:5-13

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Luke 7:1-10

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