Capernaum is located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The city was of special importance during Jesus’ time since it functioned as a Galilean border town just west of the Jordan. The area east of the Jordan belonged to the kingdom of Philip the Tetrarch, one of the sons of Herod the Great and husband of the notorious Salome, the daughter of Herodias, who asked for the head of John the Baptist. Due to its location, the city had a small garrison under the command of a centurion, and was equipped with a customs office.
After being inhabited from the 2nd century B.C. until the 7th century A.D., Capernaum was abandoned and forgotten for several centuries. Before the city’s demise, however, it had become a popular destination for Christian pilgrims who traveled to this small town to see where Jesus had lived and to visit the remains of what was believed to have been the house of the apostle Peter. Due to the sites historic importance for Christians, a group of Franciscan monks acquired the rights to the ruins of the city in 1894 from a group of Arabs. The Franciscans have done much for the site. In addition to building a fence to protect the site, they planted palms trees to create an oasis for pilgrims, and even built a small harbor. Beginning in 1905, and continuing throughout the twentieth century, the Franciscans also dedicated themselves to excavating the site and restoring its remains. Most notable among their work is the foundation of the synagogue from Jesus’ time beneath the remains of a 4th or 5th century synagogue, and more importantly the rediscovery of the house of Simon Peter. Today the area, still under the supervision of the Franciscans, has become an archaeological park.
I sink under the weight of the splendour of these visions!A wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, like these sweet mornings of spring which
Although the area is not large, the following sites are significant:
- Houses from Jesus’ Time – The site contains ruins of 1st-to-6th-century houses. Although little remains of these ancient homes, the way they are grouped together around a common courtyard suggest several related families lived together in patriarchal style. Since the basalt stones that form the walls of the homes were neither cut nor shaped, the homes would not have supported a second story and would have been covered by a roof built of light branches covered with straw and earth. These were certainly not homes of affluent families. Objects discovered in them include clay pots, plates, lamps, as well as fishing supplies.
- Simon Peter’s House – One group of the basalt homes stands out as being of particular significance. Unlike any of the other small homes, the walls of one room in the complex were reworked, plastered, and covered with inscriptions. The floor was also covered with a fine layer of plaster. Another interesting discovery was that this one room did not have the typical assortment of domestic ceramics; it only contained a large number of lamps. Although much of the inscriptions are illegible, some appear to include the name of Peter. The combination of these discoveries and the fact that early pilgrims claimed to have visited the house of Peter suggest to scholars that this room was Peter’s home. If this is true, Christians appear to have used the room as a place of worship.During the 5th century, the surrounding rooms and walls were leveled and an octagonal church was built around the venerated room. The room was given a mosaic floor with a peacock as the centerpiece surrounded by a geometric design with a lotus-flower border. Unfortunately, much of this church was destroyed in the 7th century. In 1990, the Franciscans built a church over the site that is elevated on pillars and has a glass floor enabling visitors to see the remains of the original church below.
- Ancient Jewish Synagogue – The synagogue of Capernaum is a beautiful structure built of imported white limestone located near to the shore. Aspects of its design suggest it is built on the foundation of an earlier synagogue that dates to the time of Jesus.
After Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan and his rejection in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus moved to Capernaum, probably living in the home of Simon Peter. Capernaum also appears to have been the home of Jesus’ disciples Andrew, James, and John. Matthew the tax collector, no doubt connected to the city’s custom house, also lived here.
Capernaum became the site were Jesus performed countless miracles. It was in the synagogue in Capernaum that Jesus healed a man with an unclean spirit (Mk 1:21-28), and gave his controversial message regarding the bread of life (John 6:35-59). After healing Peter’s mother-in-law in Peter’s home, “the whole city” gathered around the door to Peter’s house and Jesus “healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons (Mk. 1:29-34). It was while staying in Peter’s home in Capernaum that the friends of a paralytic dug through the thatched roof of Peter’s house and lowered their friend down before Jesus. It was also in Capernaum that Jesus healed the servant of a Roman centurion, whose financial contributions had helped in the construction of the city’s synagogue (Luke 7:3). With all that Jesus did in Capernaum, it is no wonder that it is one of the three cities cursed by Jesus for its lack of faith (Matt. 11:23).