Capernaum PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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House of Peter

According to Matthew 11: 20-24, Jesus performed most of his miracles in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. This evangelist tells us that "leaving Nazareth, he came and lived in Capernaum" (4:13) and later Matthew singles out the village as "his own city" (Mt 9:1). Many references in the gospels place Jesus very centrally here.


Why did Jesus choose Capernaum as a base? The Bible gives no reason, and we shall probably never know. The principles of historical geography apply mainly to large groups; in the case of a teacher and a handful of students, more particular motives may come into play. Yet one possibility may be suggested. Jesus comes to live in Capernaum right after the imprisonment of the Baptist:

"Now when Jesus heard that John was delivered up, he withdrew into Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he came and lived in Capernaum..." (Matthew 4:12-13).

Is there a connection between John's arrest by Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, and Jesus' choice of Capernaum? The suggestion is this: Jesus did not want a similar fate to interrupt his public mission at its start. By using Capernaum as his base, he could remain in a region that was largely Jewish, but if Antipas went after him too, he could quickly move by boat to the nearby territory of Antipas's half-brother and rival, Herod Philip. Capernaum was the closest town on the lake to Philip's domain on the other side of the Jordan River, as you can see by enlarging the map above. What's more, in Matthew, Mark and Luke - the Synoptic Gospels - Jesus is very reticent about his messiahship.

Against this theory of the motive for choosing Capernaum, we have the fact that Rome kept a military presence in this border town, the purpose of which would have been to support the collection of tolls from those who were passing between Antipas's territory and Philip's. [If the green links don't work, try a different browser.]
According to archaeologist Stefano de Luca, the built-up area of Capernaum in the Byzantine period (330 AD- 640 AD) extended for almost a mile along the lake and reached inland for some 200 yards. He estimates up to 2000 inhabitants for that time. In the early 1st century AD, when Jesus lived here, the population would have been half of that or less.  The sole village west  of the Jordan on this northern shore, it included within its sphere of influence the seven warm, salty springs of Tabgha almost two miles to the west.

The warmth of the Tabgha springs attracted tilapia galilaea, today called Peter's fish, a culinary favorite then as now. Tilapia do not occur naturally in temperate climates, because they require warm watern. They are  abundant only here and in the lakes of eastern Africa, such as Lake Victoria. The Tabgha springs are probably what Josephus meant when he wrote of a spring called "Capernaum, which some consider to be an offshoot of the Nile, because it breeds a fish very like the perch caught in the lake of Alexandria." Perhaps the species had a tropical origin, stemming from a time when the great rift valley, was full of water (before the creation of the relatively young Dead Sea and before a rise in part of the Arava). The air temperature at the Lake of Galilee dips starkly at night: in winter it can fall to 10 degrees Celsius. The tilapia would have preferred to hug the northwest shore, needing water that was warmed by the Tabgha springs. That may be one reason among several, why the Capernaum fishermen preferred working by night, as the gospels attest: In general, they could count on finding tilapia nearby to the west.

Along the Greek Orthodox shore, Y. Stepansky detected remains of a dry-stone structure about 600 meters along the shore, "from which extend, perpendicular to the coast, 44 irregular arms" at intervals of three meters; these may have been ponds meant to hold live fish before selling them, as at Magdala (see under "Other structures"). In the 5th to the 7th centuries AD, a sea wall with jetties was added. An extension of it was discovered while building the modern jetty of the National Park (visible in the photo above).    

capernaum-area-aerial-from-southeast-tb_2.jpg The main harbor here during Jesus' mission, however, was probably the large inlet just west of the village, known as the "Port of Peter." The land above the inlet forms a natural theater with excellent acoustics, and one may envision Jesus addressing the multitude from a borrowed boat. One can still see traces of jetties, although they are partly underwater today: On average (discounting seasonal variations), lake-level rose by about three feet when the opening of the lower Jordan shifted and narrowed a millennium ago. 

Although the Franciscan archaeologists at Capernaum found walls and pavements dating from the second millennium BC, they discovered nothing from the entire Israelite period (1200 - 587 BC). This makes geographical sense: in that time, there were as yet no bridges in the land, so the Great Trunk Road could not cross the mouth of the Upper Jordan en route to Damascus. Instead, until the time of the Assyrian conquest (735 BC), the road stretched due north to Hazor, from which one could either head east to ford the river or farther north to circumvent its springs.

The Hasmoneans may have been the first to build bridges in the land, but the earliest remains of any that we find are Roman. There was a tiny Hellenistic settlement at Capernaum before the Hasmoneans, but it blossomed in the period when the latter undertook a policy of settling Jews in Galilee. After a Hasmonean or Roman bridge appeared at the mouth of the Upper Jordan, traffic could swerve away from long-defunct Hazor, taking an easier path to Damascus and the cities on the Euphrates. (By this time, in any case, the road was no longer the major link between continents: most international trade went through Antioch in the north or Alexandria in Egypt.) Five hundred yards northeast of the village a Roman milestone was found. Thus, if you were using the trunk road coming from the tetrarchy of Herod Philip, Capernaum was the first town you encountered in the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. Levi, the tax man, would have had a station on this road, perhaps in the town itself.  

Coins and imported pottery indicate that the village's commercial contacts were mainly with the north: the Upper Galilee, the Golan, Syria, Phoenicia, Asia Minor and Cyprus. There was hardly any contact, it seems, with the central or southern parts of the country. No wonder Peter's accent betrayed him in Jerusalem (Matthew 26:73).

The village had other advantages, apart from the road and the good fishing. The natural rock cover is a type of basalt that has just the right texture for grinding grain. Many millstones, some unfinished, were found at Capernaum, suggesting that it may have manufactured them for export. Luke 17: 1-2 could refer to a small millstone like the one pictured above, but Luke 17:35 could refer to a biconical one, which required two to work it: A wood beam projected from a square hole on either side of the upper part:
Until the great earthquake of 749 AD, the basic plan of Capernaum seems to have followed a grid-like form, with perpendicular streets dividing the village into apartment blocks, called insulae ("islands") by the scholars. After that quake, in the Muslim period, the town was rebuilt on a different pattern, which lasted until its destruction or abandonment in the 13th century. The remains of the later houses were removed by the archaeologists. To the houses of the earlier period we now turn.