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Written by Stephen Langfur
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Its houses
House of Peter


The Synagogues at Capernaum

The grandest structure at Capernaum – and one of the grandest in the country – is the partly restored synagogue, which towers in white limestone above its basalt environs. 

Partial reconstruction of the white synagogue of Capernaum

The first three portals belong to the prayer hall, which faces south (toward Jerusalem). Beyond them (just left of the palm trunk) are the two portals of an eastern courtyard.

Enlarge the photo to the right to see what the site looked like before reconstruction began. Since just a few levels of stone were intact here and there, it seems that much speculation entered into the work, based not only on the finds but also on comparisons with other ruins. Heinrich Kohl and Carl Watzinger began reconstructing in the early 20th century. For their book of 1916, Antike Synagogen in Galilaea, Albert Frisch made this drawing of the prayer hall's façade.  Gaudenzio Orfali continued their work until 1927.
Drawing of the facade of the Capernaum synagogue

In our imaginations, then, we must add considerable height to the portals and fragments of walls that we see today.

Below is Frisch's reconstruction as viewed from the north, facing the lake. Note the many steps on the northwest corner, surmounting an added room (where a small doorway appears in the north wall today). It may have been the geniza. As for the steps that gird and surmount it, we may wonder: Might they have led to a women's section? And could they have been the "many steps" referred to by Egeria in 380 AD? After mentioning the house of Peter, she writes: "There is also the synagogue where the Lord healed the man possessed by demons; one goes up many steps to this synagogue which was built with square [or dressed] stones."

Frisch model of the Capernaum synagogue, looking south

The cutout view below, also by Frisch, shows the inner parts of the prayer hall and courtyard when facing south. Note that in front of the prayer hall's middle portal, Frisch put two Torah arks. In the archaeology, two bases were found attached to the floor, but unlike in Frisch's picture, they were set directly against the south wall, flanking the inner side of the main entrance. Because similar structures have been found in other Galilean synagogues, it is thought that they supported small shrines (aediculae), perhaps an ark for a Torah scroll and a platform for the seat of the teacher ("the seat of Moses").

On the basis of the smaller pieces that are displayed about the grounds of the site today, Stefano de Luca surmises that the small shrines inside the synagogue near its front were "integrated into an elevated and highly ornate architectural structure with gabled cornices with double-arch foundations, two stylophore lions, twisted small columns and semicolumns, conchiform basins, and curved entablatures decorated with lively and populated acanthus, between which one finds the famous frieze representing the ark on wheels, in the shape of a tetrastyle temple with gable pediment."

Sectional painting of the Capernaum synagogue by Frisch 

The date of the synagogue is an enigma, and it will probably remain so—at least until all the finds are published. If we judge from the art of its lintels, friezes, and capitals, as well as its architecture, the building belongs in the 3d century AD. It resembles Syrian churches of that time as well as other Galilean synagogues, and it seems to have influenced the builders of the synagogue at nearby Chorazin, which is from the 4th century.

On the other hand, troves of coins—some dating as late as 476 AD—were found beneath the pavements of both the courtyard and the prayer hall. There were also pottery shards – some of them from imported vessels dating as late as the 6th century. At the courtyard's northeast corner, just inside the threshold of the portal, more than 20,000 coins, many from the 4th and 5th centuries, turned up in the mortar beneath the pavement. In the prayer hall itself – just inside the southwest entrance – another trove of more than 3000 coins was discovered, some also from the late 5th century. Isolated coins of these dates were also found in other parts of the building, deep into the fill that composed the synagogue's podium.

In the Capernaum synagogue

How can we reconcile the 3d century dates of the art and architecture with the 5th-6th century dates of the coins and pottery? Some have proposed the following sequence: (1) the synagogue was built in the 3d century; (2) it collapsed in the great earthquake of 363 AD, and people took away some of its stones for private use, including those of the original pavement; (3) it was rebuilt over a period of time, and a new pavement was installed, preceded by a votive offering of coins near two of the entrances. 

This explanation does not quite work, however: The paving stones left an impression in the mortar containing the coins, so the mortar must have been wet when the stones were laid. Beneath the mortar the excavators found a layer of limestone chips (probably the product of cutting the building stones); below the chips was a fill made of basalt boulders - nine feet deep in spots - forming the podium. Beneath this fill was a cobbled floor dating from the 1st century into at least the 4th (to be discussed below). Thus there is no evidence for a reconstruction of the pavement after 363 AD - or at any time between the 1st century AD and the 5th-6th. 

We are left with the theory that the white synagogue was constructed in the 5th-6th centuries AD, as the coins and pottery attest, but that the builders chose to employ an older style. We may connect this possibility with the contemporaneous 5th-century church surrounding Peter's house just a stone's throw to the south (it was built of the same white limestone). Uzi Leibner suggests that the "extensive construction of churches in Palestine, particularly from the 5th century onward" challenged the Jewish leadership to confront Christianity, resulting in a "struggle of monuments".   The builders may have used an antique style to stress the fact that Judaism was the older faith.

There are those who argue against a 5th- or 6th-century date for Capernaum's monumental white synagogue, on the ground that Christianity was then in control of the land. It became the official imperial religion in 391 AD, and anti-Jewish legislation followed. (Indeed, Capernaum was largely Christian after 450 AD, as attested by many pottery fragments stamped with crosses.) Yet a synagogue at Capernaum would have had great resonance with Christian pilgrims, who remembered Jesus' healing of a demoniac there, as well as his claim to be the bread of life, which he made "in the synagogue at Capernaum" (John 6). The pilgrim Egeria mentions the building in the same breath as the House of Peter. And since there is no doubt that Egeria visited a synagogue here around 380, one wonders what she saw. If we take the coins and pottery into account, it could not have been the white one. Perhaps she saw a basalt structure that was still being built (or enlarged) at the time of her visit—and was never completed (see below).

Or perhaps the white synagogue was indeed earlier than the 5th century, and people had the custom of lifting the paving stones to deposit coins. But that solution doesn't work well either. First, the vast majority of the discovered coins were of miniscule value. Second, this hypothesis cannot explain the 5th- and 6th-century pottery.

We cannot exclude the far-out possibility that the white synagogue was built by a Byzantine Christian emperor as a pilgrimage attraction—and that the antique style was chosen on the mistaken assumption that the synagogue where Jesus worked and preached must have looked like this. Militating against this idea, however, is the fact that hundreds of late 5th-century dishes stamped with crosses were found all over Capernaum - except in the synagogue.

As for the synagogue that Jesus knew, it was present in the memories that gave rise to Mark 1 and Luke 7: 1-5. In fact, parts of a 1st-century public building were found beneath the monumental one. In 1981, the Franciscan archaeologists dug an east-west trench between the stylobates that separate the white synagogue's side aisles from its nave. When they removed the stones that formed the fill beneath the white pavement, they discovered—more than four feet below the surface—a cobbled basalt pavement. The part they exposed spread over a space of 20 by 8 meters. On its east and west side this floor abutted two low basalt walls, which later served as foundations for the white synagogue's stylobates. Under and in the cobbled pavement were pottery shards from the first century AD, while above it were shards from the 1st century to the 4th. At an even lower level were traces of private dwellings from the Hellenistic period (332 BC - 63 BC). The pavement, then, likely belonged to the synagogue that Jesus knew, and it continued in use until replaced by the higher pavement of the white synagogue.

As for the low basalt walls beneath the white stylobates, they are part of a broader scheme. For when you approach the white synagogue from the south on the tourist path, before ascending the steps you see a basalt foundation wall extending along the whole west side. On a closer look, this wall could not have been built to serve as a foundation for the white synagogue, because it is crooked to the white wall and slopes down in relation to it. That is, the builders of the white synagogue used an existing basalt wall to serve as foundation, making an adjustment in the slope. Parts of other basalt walls have been found beneath the white prayer hall on its remaining sides as well (but not beneath the eastern courtyard). Virgilio Corbo (one of the Franciscan archaeologists) concluded that the basalt outer walls and basalt stylobate walls, as well as the cobbled floor, belonged to the 1st century synagogue. But his colleague, Stanislao Loffreda, held that the cobbled floor alone belonged to that earliest synagogue, and that the basalt walls were part of an expansion, the building of which may have been interrupted by an earthquake like the one of 363. That would explain the lack of any pavement between the cobbled one of the 1st century and the monumental one of the 5th or 6th. This expansion, or the remains thereof, may have been what Egeria saw in 380. A century or so after her visit, the basalt walls were raised by one to two courses, becoming "the retaining wall for the artificial filling of stones, earth, and scraps from the stonework, which forms the elevated podium ... upon which the Byzantine white synagogue was built" (de Luca, op. cit.).