Introduction to Capernaum
Introduction to Capernaum
This site is always part of our live Octagon Tour.
This was the home base for Jesus’ earthy ministry. At the door of this city you see a sign that says, “Capernaum – the Town of Jesus”. This was not the town that Jesus grew up in, nor where He spent most of His life. The City of Nazareth has that distinction. Jesus moved here when He was 30 years old.
The Great Catch of Fish took place off the shores of Capernaum.
One-fifth of all the stories in The Merged Gospels took place in Capernaum. Jesus moved here, in part, because Nazareth was not on any convenient trade routes, and Capernaum was. This was also the place where Jesus would find fishermen. It was primarily a fishing village with a population in Jesus’ day somewhere between 1000 and 1500. He taught the parable of the Good Samaritan here (The Merged Gospels, story 133). It is in this town that Jesus commissioned the 12 (story 98) and the 70 (story 126). He healed the woman with the issue of blood here (story 48). He healed the servant of the Roman centurion who built the synagogue (story 80). He preached the Bread of Life sermon in this synagogue (story 103), and it’s where He also healed a demoniac (story 35). Many of his most famous lessons were taught in Capernaum.
In the very center of the town, just before you enter the Lakeside is a statue of Peter in front of an octagonal mosaic. This is because Peter’s home was here. He was a resident of this town before Jesus came, and Peter was the point man for the Church when it first began.
While Capernaum was the home base of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He didn’t own a home in this town. Instead, he lived with Peter and his family. He taught in the synagogue here. He embarked and disembarked many times from boats on the shore. He taught and did miracles in these houses.
Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter in Capernaum.
Origin of the Name.
The word Capernaum is actually a composite of two words: kafer, meaning "village," and the name “Nahum”, meaning "village of Nahum." The word “Nahum” does not refer to the Old Testament prophet by the same name, so the origin of the town's name is uncertain.
The name “Nahum” was a common Hebrew name, and it meant "comfort”. Therefore, Capernaum can also be translated as the "village of comfort."
Capernaum is 600 feet below sea level. That’s because it’s right on the shore of Lake Galilee, which is the lowest freshwater lake in the world. Ancient Capernaum stretched east to west nearly 1000 feet along the lakeshore and some 600 feet from the lake shore to the hills behind it. During the time of Jesus, the shoreline of Capernaum was the scene of constant activity as boats from other fishing villages stopped there because of the rich fishing grounds in this area.
Capernaum didn’t stay this large. In the third century AD, the population of the town had shrunk to only seven households of a few poor fishermen. However, the town was quickly repopulated in the fourth century, and ultimately supported about 1500 residents. That’s when they built what is now the most well-preserved ancient synagogue in the entire country.
The part of Capernaum that has been most excavated is owned by the Franciscans, a sect of the Catholic Church. But there is another part of Capernaum that still lies in ruins. It’s a little farther to the east, and it’s owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.
The homes that you see here were built sometime between the 1st to 6th-centuries.
These homes were constructed with black basalt boulders. Basalt is an igneous rock, indicating that this area was once the site of volcanic activity. That just makes sense, because the entire Jordan Valley, of which the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum were a part, is where two large plates of the earth’s crust meet. The grinding of these two plates has caused frequent earthquakes, and volcanic activity in the past.
Most of the homes are not built by hewn, squared-off stones, but rather by naturally rounded stones that are held in place by smaller stones and gravity. The fact that the stones were round and rough, means that there were no second floors to any of the homes. The only building that probably had a second floor was the synagogue.
A typical home in a Galilean town was called an insula. It consisted of a large central courtyard, with several modest homes extending off in every direction. Most of these homes were no more than small cells, and most had stone stairs that led up to the roof, which needed constant repair in those days. The roofs were made either of stone or wooden beams and thatching mixed with mud. The floors were very bumpy cobblestone.
Capernaum was started as a small Jewish fishing village about two centuries before Jesus lived, and it was abandoned in the 11th century AD. It was never fortified with a wall, nor did it have an entrance gate. Most of the cities surrounding Lake Galilee were unfortified, and there was a ribbon of communities all around the lake.
Capernaum in the first century (the Franciscan site only).
Several earthquakes affected Capernaum. One of them destroyed the city in the eighth century, which left much of the town in ruins, and the last one in the 11th century forced all of the inhabitants to totally abandon the city.
The Capernaum synagogue in ruins.
Capernaum had always been a poor fishing village, but it was the first town that people came to when they traveled from Decapolis, which is beyond the Jordan river to the east, and so a small outpost of Roman soldiers was stationed here to observe all of the border crossing activities. It was equipped with a customs office and a small garrison overseen by a centurion, one of whom built the community's synagogue (Luke 7:5).
The woman with the hemorrhage was healed by Jesus in Capernaum (The Merged Gospels, Story 48).
Christian presence was attested early in Capernaum and the village was predominantly Christian by the 4th century AD. Rabbinic texts from the 4th century imply considerable tension between the Jewish and Christian communities of the town.
Capernaum was one of three towns that Jesus cursed, because they failed to believe in His miracles (The Merged Gospels, story 127). The other two towns included in this curse were Chorazin and Bethsaida. It is interesting to note that all of these cities became ghost towns as a result of the ultimate earthquakes that occurred here. In short, the curse that Jesus predicted was fulfilled.
Why did Jesus move here?
There are several good reasons:
1. Capernaum was located on the route between territories ruled by Herod Antipas and Herod Philip, the sons of Herod "the Great." Jesus could easily cross the border into different political jurisdictions to escape trouble with secular and religious leaders.
2. In contrast to His home village of Nazareth, Capernaum was composed of fishermen, farmers, artisans, merchants, tax collectors, and Roman soldiers, all apparently living in harmony.
3. Capernaum was on the trade route along the international highway. Thus, He had easy access to other towns around the lake and inland to other parts of Galilee. Nazareth was rather remote, and didn’t provide easy access to any large population centers.
4. Capernaum was the place where Jesus could meet and call fishermen to be His Apostles, unlike His childhood home of Nazareth.
Jesus calls Peter and James by Capernaum.
A Multicultural Town.
Capernaum was on one of the major trade routes that connected Egypt to the world east of Palestine. There was no route from Africa going straight east. That would have required travelers to cross the Arabian desert, which was virtually impossible. All travel had to go north past Capernaum, toward Damascus, and onto the fertile Tigris-Euphrates valley. This means that the people of Capernaum were very accustomed to meeting people of different cultures, different professions, and different languages.
Most people in Capernaum were probably trilingual. First, they spoke Hebrew, the language of their forefathers, and of their Scriptures. They spoke Aramaic, the common street language of the day, and they spoke Greek, the language of the entire empire to which they belonged, which was also the language of commerce that was spoken by traveling traders.
Lining the current streets of modern Capernaum are many artifacts and pieces of buildings that date back to various times in its history. For example, there is an olive mill and an olive press dating from Roman times on the eastern side of the synagogue.
Why did Peter move here?
Peter didn’t grow up in Capernaum. He and his brother, Andrew, grew up in Bethsaida, about a 15-minute walk to the east. Peter apparently married a woman from Capernaum, and then came to live in the same insula that she and her relatives lived in, including her mother.
There are five likely reasons why Peter moved from Bethsaida to Capernaum:
1. The first reason is that this is where his wife was from. But then we have to ask, “Why didn’t she come live with him in Bethsaida?” That is probably answered in #2.
2. The best fishing holes might have been just off the shore of Capernaum. You see, Bethsaida did not have any deep water close to the shore. Capernaum did, and deep water is where you catch the most fish.
3. Another reason was that Bethsaida was part of a territory called Decapolis. Whenever you caught fish in Capernaum, and carried them back home to Bethsaida, you crossed over the border into Decapolis, and that required Peter to pay a tax on all the fish that he imported from Galilee. To avoid paying this tax, he moved to where the fish were, and that way he wouldn’t have to cross any borders where taxes would be required.
4. The fourth reason that Peter moved here is because he may have had fishing partners who lived in Capernaum, and it was just easier for him to move closer to them than it was for him to always commute back and forth.
5. The fifth reason is that most of his fishing was done at night. If He had fished all night, he would have been tired at daybreak, and it was easier to just row into shore to Capernaum, than it would be to row all the way back to Bethsaida.