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Written by Stephen Langfur
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Its houses
House of Peter

The House of Peter

Aerial of the Capernaum excavations

One of Capernaum's housing complexes may be glimpsed beneath the large modern church that today dominates the site. The Franciscan archaeologists, Virgilio Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda, have identified a room in this complex as one that belonged to the house of Peter which is mentioned in Mark (see, for example, Mark 2) and elsewhere. This identification depends on two ideas: (1) that Jewish Christians lived here continuously from the time of the events in the gospels, so they would have known where the famous house was; and (2) that physically they singled it out as special already in the 1st century. Let us examine both these points.

First, is there evidence for Jewish Christians in Capernaum during the 1st century? A Talmudic source preserves a tradition of sects (minim) at Capernaum. Some scholars believe that the term refers to Jewish Christians. Here is the text:  

"Hanina, son of the brother of Jehoshua, came to Kephar Nahum, and the minim worked a spell on him, and set him riding on an ass on the Sabbath. He came to Jehoshua his friend, and he put ointment on him and he was healed. He (R. Jehoshua) said to him: Since the ass of that wicked one has roused itself against thee, thou canst no longer remain in the land of Israel. He departed thence to Babel, and he died there in peace." (Midrash Qoh Rabba I:8).

In rabbinic usage, anyone who spoke against the rabbis was often dubbed "Balaam"; the "ass of that wicked one" in the passage is likely Balaam's talking donkey of Numbers 22-24. The "wicked one," then, was not necessarily a reference to Jesus. In rabbinic usage, furthermore, minim can refer to any of various deviant groups. The rabbinic form of Judaism did not become normative in Galilee, overcoming "sects," until the 4th century AD. (Source) In short, the term minim does not necessarily refer to Jewish Christians. Also, if the latter were here, one would expect to find their symbols; from the 2nd century, these would have included the T (the early symbol for the cross) and the sign of a fish, Greek ichthus. But the earliest Christian symbols found in Capernaum date from the 4th century, after which there are hundreds.  

Second, archaeology: Among all the houses excavated in Capernaum, this one became the site of a Christian church. So indeed it was singled out. The question is when. We know that sometime between 330 and 337 AD, the Emperor Constantine authorized Joseph of Tiberias, a Jewish convert to Christianity, to build four churches: at Nazareth, Sepphoris, Tiberias, and Capernaum. If we assume that the last was entirely Jewish (again, no prior Christian symbols have been found, and the lack of pig bones indicates an absence of pagans), Joseph of Tiberias would have had to persuade the owners of this apartment block to sell it to him, pointing out that an influx of Christian pilgrims would bring wealth to the town.

Can the archaeology tell us whether the house was first singled out in the 1st century or the 4th?

According to Corbo and Loffreda, a room in the house was already singled out in the late 1st century AD, in the following manner: Alone among the village's dwellings at that time, it received a succession of floors made of crushed and beaten limestone.

Doubts have been raised, however, and because the view of Corbi and Loffreda is so widespread, I shall present a contrary reading of their data in some detail. From Joan Taylor's study we get the following picture: The room was built on a level of fill containing  pottery from the 1st century BC. This fill was topped by a level called "C": a bed of basalt stones on the west and beaten earthen floors on the east. Upon the basalt stones a Hellenistic lamp was discovered, as well as 1st-century BC pottery shards and Herodian lamps; this assemblage enables us to date the last use of Level C to the 1st century AD. On the next level up ("B"), which consisted of a bed of large stones, the pottery dated from the 1st century AD into the 3d. That is, this "B" floor continued in use until the 3d century AD at least. Above it (hence later than it) was the series of crushed lime pavements mentioned before, "but, curiously, embedded into them were very minute fragments of lamps identified by Loffreda as being Herodian." Above the lime pavements, writes Taylor, 4th-century coins were found. She then continues: "The Herodian lamps found on the bed of stones C and under bed B are therefore much more significant for dating than the tiny fragments of Herodian lamps (if properly identified) found in the lime mixture of the successive pavements...." The tiny fragments could have come from a refuse dump where the lime mixture was made. On this re-evaluation, then, the room was not singled out as special in the 1st century. It is quite possible that the crushed lime floor was first made in the 4th, as part of a house-church built by Joseph of Tiberias.

In the 4th century, if not earlier, pilgrims approached the venerated room through an eastern door into a courtyard. This entrance was on the east off the main north-south street of the village, which stretched from the area of the synagogue down to the lake (see the photo above). Although the synagogue that Jesus knew was smaller than the grand white limestone affair whose ruins we see today, it was probably where the white one is. If Peter's house was here indeed, we can imagine Jesus and the disciples coming to it from the synagogue after he had healed the demoniac there.  

The courtyard in which the "whole town gathered" would have been located where we stand when we look into the room from the viewpoint of this photo:

A peek into Peter's House at Capernaum

In the 4th century, the room was enlarged and a central arch was added, the supporting ends of which can still be seen. The room was now the focal center of a house-church, perhaps the one built by Joseph. By 450 AD - to judge from "the hundreds of dishes stamped on the bottom with crosses" that were found all over the site (except in the synagogue) - Capernaum had become largely Christian with a Jewish minority. De Luca writes (ibid.): "It was probably just this demographic event that provoked the construction/restoration of the third synagogue, to be understood as an act of defense and group cohesion, a revindication of social identity on the part of the Jewish population, accomplished not without external economic support."

Crosses also appear on the plaster that fell from the walls of the 4th-century house-church, as well as 175 graffiti. Of these at least 151 are in Greek. The local language, however, was Aramaic, so most of the graffiti, if not all, were probably written by pilgrims from throughout the Byzantine Empire.

Since no other church has been found in Capernaum, this must have been the one that the 4th-century nun Egeria saw during her pilgrimage: "The house of the prince of the Apostles [i.e., Simon Peter] in Capernaum was changed into a church, where the Lord healed the paralytic. The walls, however, are still standing as they were."

A peacock at Capernaum In the 5th century, the walls of the house-church were "knocked down and buried," replaced by an ornate church of white limestone (like the nearby synagogue from this time). Its octagonal shape resembled that of churches commemorating an important event. It was formed by three concentric octagons on three levels rising toward the center. From the east side projected an apse, which housed a baptismal font probably intended for newly converted pilgrims. Rooms were built around the church, perhaps as part of a monastery. In the center was a fine mosaic (it is sometimes displayed nearby), dominated by a peacock.

There is something strange about the building of this octagonal church: If the residents of Capernaum had a strong memory of the house where Jesus had lived and taught and healed, would they not have preserved as much of it as possible, instead of knocking down the walls and concealing the floor beneath a mosaic? In Bethlehem and Jerusalem, after all, Christians did preserve the places they connected with his birth and death.