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

The Houses at Capernaum 

Note: My sources for much of what follows are these: (1) Stefano De Luca (2013) “Capernaum” in D. M. Master (ed.) The Oxford Encylopedia of the Bible and Archaeology. New York: Oxford University Press. (2) Sharon Lea Mattila (2015) "Capernaum, Village of Nahum, from Hellenistic to Byzantine Times," in D. A. Fiensy and J. R. Strange (eds.) Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods: The Archaeological Record from Cities, Towns, and Villages.  Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.  (3) Sharon Lea Mattila (2013) "Revisiting Jesus’ Capernaum: A Village of Only Subsistence-Level Fishers and Farmers?" in D. A. Fiensy and R. K. Hawkins (eds.) The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus. Society of Biblical Literature. 

In the 19th century, even before the ruins on the site were securely identified as those of Capernaum, the Franciscans bought the southwest side and the Greek Orthodox the northeast. A low wall separates the two. The ruins that we see today reflect periods extending for about a thousand years, starting from 330 BC (the Hellenistic period) and going through the Byzantine (until 640 AD). In fact the town continued to exist during the early Muslim period, but it underwent a major change in layout following the massive earthquake of 749 AD. The Franciscan and Greek archaeologists removed the later ruins, exposing the Byzantine remains (4th – 7th centuries AD). With a few important exceptions, they did not delve beneath these. On the Franciscan side, where we have partial access, a few sections are visible that may have dated to the time of Jesus' mission.

One such section consists of parts of a large house, although it could have been built a few decades after Jesus lived in Capernaum. Your first contact with this Early Roman period house occurs when you leave the shade of the modern church (where the group stands in the photo below) and walk toward the synagogue (with your back to the lake).The walls on your immediate right all belong to it. The photo below is taken from the porch of the synagogue (which is later) looking south toward the lake. We look into the house's northern courtyard (not its biggest). The house extended as far as the doorway in the distance, although the inner walls in front of that doorway were added after 450 AD. The Early Roman period house had a large courtyard (about 97 sq. yards, not visible in photo), which was eventually subdivided. Part of the house was not excavated because the tourist path to the synagogue runs over its ruins, but a section west of the path (to the right of the photo) was dug and then reburied. Here the excavators found a set of fine Roman glassware, dating from the late 1st or early 2nd century. Along with the impressive size of the house, the glassware would indicate that some of Capernaum's Jewish inhabitants were not as poor as the rough gray ruins may suggest. Of course, they weren't rich on the scale of their co-religionists in Sepphoris or Tiberias, but they probably lived above a subsistence level. This house or one like it might have belonged to Jairus the synagogue leader (Mark 5:22-24, 35-43).

Houses at Capernaum

Concerning the rows of window-like structures, such an arrangement is often found here and elsewhere. Each row of windows belonged to a wall supporting the roof. This wall separated an open yard from a covered room, whichreceived light and air from the windows. According to the implements that were found in this and the Byzantine-period houses, we may judge that the extended family did its grinding, baking, and olive pressing in the semi-open courtyard.

Until the earthquake of 749, the village's basic pattern consisted of a grid, in which the streets intersected at right angles to form blocks, called insulae (islands) by scholars. An insula could accommodate an extended family, with as many as 12 rooms radiating off from the main courtyard.

As for the seemingly humble basalt walls, we should allow for the possibility that they were covered with mud plaster, which could be made to look quite fine. On this point, Sharon Mattila evokes the Roman-period village of Karanis in Egypt, whose dry climate preserved the plaster; in Capernaum's humid climate it would have disappeared. Finally, on the question of wealth, 200 yards north of Capernaum's inhabited area is a finely built mausoleum from the 1st or 2nd century, containing eight shafts carved into the rock and five limestone sarcophagi. The shafts reflect the uniquely Jewish burial practices in those centuries. 

We often see stone staircases (not visible in the photo). They signify regular use, for otherwise a ladder would have sufficed. Perhaps people slept on the roofs in summer. Or some houses may have had second stories. Occasionally one spots an oblong rounded basalt stone, which would have been rolled over the plaster of the roofs to smooth it.