The Capernaum Synagogue
Jesus Healed a Demoniac in this Synagogue
This site is always part of our live Octagon Tour.
Location - Capernaum
Map Coordinates - 32.880999, 35.575371
Merged Gospels stories - 35, 36, 103
This is the most completely restored ancient synagogue in the Holy Land. Scholars have concluded that this limestone structure was built a few centuries after the time of Jesus, during the Christian Byzantine era, and that it was built directly above the synagogue that Jesus knew. For clarity I'm going to call the Jesus-era synagogue the black synagogue, since it was made with black basalt stones, and the newer one is the white synagogue, since it was made with polished white limestone.
An artist’s rendition of what the synagogue looked like in the fifth century
Outside the Synagogue.
From the outside, you can see the foundation of Jesus’ black synagogue along the base of the newer white synagogue. Historically, the first time that the white synagogue was referred to in literature was in the year 381 AD by the Spanish lady pilgrim, named Egeria. This suggests that this white synagogue may have been built sometime late in the fourth century, with certain additions made in the fifth century. That’s why the sign outside the synagogue dates its construction to the fifth century.
The black basalt foundation of the first-century synagogue is seen underneath the fourth-century white synagogue
The main doorway faces south toward Jerusalem where the first-century Temple was. Most ancient synagogues were built with this orientation.
The Pit Inside.
In this pit you can see remnants of the original black synagogue. This black synagogue was built here shortly before Jesus moved to this town from Nazareth. The man who built it was a Roman centurion who had such a love for the Jewish people that he constructed this building with the same black basalt stones from which their surrounding homes were made.
One of the miracles that Jesus performed in this room was the healing of a demoniac (The Merged GospelsTM, story 36) – an act for which He was criticized by the ruler of the Synagogue, because he healed this demonized man on the Sabbath.
Jesus heals a demoniac in the synagogue at Capernaum.
The Main Gallery.
This room is approximately the same size as the original first-century black synagogue. Only Jewish men were allowed in this main section, and they would either sit or stand during the meetings that were held there. We know that there was a lot of tension between the Jews and Christians in Capernaum during this time, and this synagogue was probably built in response to the ever-expanding Christian church that was only a stone’s throw away.
What did Jesus do here?
About two-thirds the way back inside the main gallery there was probably a raised platform, called a bema, where the Old Testament Scrolls were read. Jesus likely taught from this platform on several occasions, facing southward toward the main entrance. Here in this room Jesus preached His famous Bread of Life Sermon (The Merged GospelsTM, story 103), the day after He fed over 5000 people with only five loaves and two fish (The Merged GospelsTM, story 101). Some of these people were hungry again, and they followed Jesus to this very room, apparently looking for another free meal. This time Jesus didn’t offer them physical bread. He offered them Himself. His message was – “I am to your soul what bread is to your body. Don’t just seek the food that perishes, but seek Me - the food that will bring you eternal life.”
The Right Pillar.
This ancient pillar (above) was erected during the construction of the white synagogue, and the inscription on it is written in Greek. It says, “Herod, son of Monimos and Justus, his son, together with his children, erected this column.”
The Left Pillar.
This pillar on the left has an inscription that is written in Latin, and it memorializes the Italian archeologist Father Gaudenzio Orfali for his work in reconstructing the white synagogue. When Father Orfali arrived here in 1921 almost every stone in this synagogue was lying on the ground, so the entire building had to be reconstructed. Sadly, Father Orfali was killed in a car accident in 1926 as he was driving away from Capernaum. He is currently buried on Mount Zion, in a cemetery just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Father Gaudenzio Orfali, the archeologist who rebuilt the synagogue.
The Back Porch.
Stairs that may have led up to the women’s gallery in the Capernaum synagogue.
Part of the ruins that you see above includes two staircases made of the same basalt stones from which the black synagogue was constructed. In both of the synagogues that were built here there was a second-floor gallery, in which the women were allowed to attend the events of the synagogue, and these stairs were probably used by the women to ascend to this gallery. Jesus’ mother, Mary, may have been such an attendee, and if this is the case, then Mary herself may have climbed these stairs during her visits to this synagogue.
The Open-Air Courtyard.
Above is an open-air courtyard that was added to the white synagogue, presumably in the mid-5th century. There was a roofed portico on three sides of this room, and it was probably not used for religious purposes, but rather as a community meeting room, during fair weather, or course.
The Board Games.
There are at least three places on the floor of this synagogue that have inscribed Roman game boards. The best example is in the open-air courtyard. There are several game boards on this spot, and all of them are strategy games. The square game is called Nine Men’s Morris. It was played by placing little game pieces, which were called men, onto the game board. This game board is identical to the one on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem at the Lithostrotos, where the players used to play this same game. This game was etched into flagstones all over the Roman empire. We know the rules of this game, and we can even play it ourselves. The long game board with many squares is called Tab. This game originated in Egypt, and it looks similar to another game that is still played today - backgammon.
For anyone interested, there are two websites that explain in further detail what I just covered.
The brown patch in the center says, “ARAB GAMES UMMAYAD”. This is a modern and incorrect etching, for three reasons: (1) These were Roman games, not Arab, (2) The etching is in English, and (3) “UMMAYAD” is misspelled - It should only have one “M” and two "Y's". Umayyad is the name of the first Muslim caliphate to occupy the Holy Land during the seventh and eighth centuries.