Capernaum PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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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 he 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). Here he begins his public mission. Is there a connection, we may ask, 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 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. He goes all the way up to Caesarea Philippi, Philip's largely pagan capital, for a conversation that lets his identity out, and he warns his disciples not to tell anyone.   

At its height in the Byzantine period, Capernaum probably did not have more than 1500 people. It spread over 15 acres, stretching for 300 yards along the north shore of the Lake of Galilee.  Graves mark its northern limit at less than 200 yards inland.  (Jews do not bury inside their towns.) The sole village on this shore, it included within its sphere of influence the springs of Tabgha almost two miles to the west and the mouth of the Upper Jordan three miles to the east.


Although the Franciscan archaeologists at the site found walls and pavements dating from the second millennium BC, they discovered nothing from the entire Israelite period (1200 - 587 BC). This makes good 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 it stretched due north to Hazor, from which one could either head east to ford the river or farther north to circumvent its springs.

The Romans built bridges (although before them the Hasmoneans may have built some). As a result, the trunk road could make a major shift, following the north shore of the lake and crossing the mouth of the Upper Jordan. To this shift the village of Capernaum owed its blossoming (but not its origin, for there are ruins of houses dating from the earlier, Hellenistic period). A hundred yards to the north of the village's shoreline a Roman milestone was found. Thus, if you were using the trunk road coming from the tetrarchy of Herod Philip, this was the first town you encountered in the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. 
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 gave him away in Jerusalem (Matthew 26:73).

The village had other advantages, apart from the road. The northern shore is a favorite haunt of tilapia galilaea, today called Peter's fish, a culinary favorite then as now. Tilapia is found in nature only here and in the lakes of eastern Africa, such as Lake Victoria. It prefers the warm springs at Tabgha not far from Capernaum. They are probably the springs that 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." 

In addition, 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.