Everyone will get the chance to visit Capernaum at Gallelujah 2023!

Capernaum is mentioned 16 times in the New Testament, more than any other site in the Galilee. The ancient town was near the border between the Tetrarch of Herod Antipas in the Galilee and his brother Philip in the Golan.

Shortly after Jesus is excommunicated from his hometown of Nazareth, he makes his way to this small fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and makes it “his own town” (Matthew 4:12, 9:1). At Capernaum, Jesus likely lives with Peter and his brother Andrew in the home of Peter’s mother-in-law. This is alluded to in Matthew 17:24-25 when “the collectors of the two drachma tax come to Peter and ask, why doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax? …And when Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak.”

While gathering his disciples from the region of Capernaum, Jesus launches his ministry. The town will continue to be the home-base for many of his miracles and the hub from which he can satellite out into the foreign regions, laying the precedence for his disciples to go ’into all the world.’

Capernaum – Aerial View – Photo by Sopotnicki

Capernaum sat on the major crossroads of the Via Maris and the Beth Shean-Damascus Highway. In its height during the Byzantine period, the town was only about 1500 inhabitants, very small in comparison to the towns of Magdala and Tiberias.

First Century Capernaum had all the makings of a small Jewish-Roman village of no more than 1,000 inhabitants. The houses were essentially built around spacious courtyards where the fishermen and wheat farmers could practice their trade. The courtyards were surrounded by numerous rooms for the family members and storage facilities for their goods and perhaps livestock. The rooftops were made of light materials in a mixture of staw, river reed and mud with plaster coatings to prevent rain seepage. Stone stairways led up to the rooftops. There is considerably much stone and little evidence for uses of wood. Houses contained ovens, grinding stones or ‘mill-stones’ for grinding the wheat into flour. There were however no toilets or drainage systems within the town. Nor did the archaeologists discover in any silos, water cisterns, or mikvaot for ritual bathing, which have been discovered in other nearby towns like Korazin and Magdala. There is however a system to its streets. The main streets of the town ran North-South and they had small alleyways running East-West. These separation points left city blocks or ‘insulae’.

The House of Peter or the “Insula Sacra” was discovered in 1968. In the late first century CE, a house structure (which was first occupied in Late Hellenistic times) was modified to be come a domus-ecclesia or “house-church.” This house had an L-shaped courtyard that was shared by the other rooms or houses adjoining it. Many Herodian oil lamps and fish hooks were discovered in the floor layer from the mid-1st century. Six superimposed floors were actually on top of each other, all containing bits of Herodian oil lamps that date to the mid to late part of the first century and could not be any later than 2nd century. The topmost floor layer above, however, was squeaky clean of vessels, attesting that the use of this building changed dramatically somewhere around 75 CE into the beginning of the 2nd century. The excavators interpreted this as community gatherings and the beginnings of the domus ecclesia – house church.

By the 3rd century CE, the building had underwent more changes, now separated off from the surrounding buildings and village by an enclosure wall. Several layers of plaster were discovered on these walls and they were decorated with many colors and geometric decorations (no human or animal figures). Most importantly, the plastered walls were covered with graffiti. 151 Greek inscriptions, 13 Paleo-Estrangelo, 9 Aramaic and 2 in Latin.

The name of Jesus is mentioned several times in the graffiti in the form of Monograms (“Christrograms”) serving the epithets of Lord, Christ, Most High and God; the word ‘Amen’ is also present. The name of Peter is also inscribed on the walls.

The 4th century pilgrim Egeria visited this church and described it (as preserved by Petrus Diaconus in 1137) as follows: “The house of the prince of the Apostles in Capernaum was changed into a church; the walls, however are still standing as they were.”

This house-church would further go under modification in the fifth century CE. The old churches were filled in with dirt and an octagonal church was built on its new platform.

Peter’s house (or mother-in-law’s house – later tradition tells us the name of Peter’s wife is Petronilla – in which Andrew also resided) was certainly an important place of gathering for the followers of Jesus (Mark 1:29-34, Matthew 8:14-17; Luke 4:38-41) and was very likely the home of Jesus himself (Matthew 17:24-25). The house itself is located just 30 meters away from the First Century Synagogue. Excavations have shown that the house was on the North-South street of Capernaum and that it had an open space before the entry and a large courtyard in the center of a number of surrounding rooms. This seems to confirm what is said in Mark 1:33 that the “The whole town gathered at the door.”

Photo by Paco Forriol

Collapsed rooftops on the floors of the 1st century houses in Capernaum have confirmed how roofs were made, through a mixture of mud, river reed and layers of plaster. This soft-made mixture was certainly not made of coarse stone or heavy wood which was not readily available to the common man. Therefore, when we read about the paralytic being brought to Jesus in Mark 2:4 that they “made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on,” we understand that the writer of Mark, the disciple Peter, clearly had first hand knowledge of how rooftops were made in his town.

There were certainly many other houses in Capernaum mentioned in the New Testament: the house of Matthew (Mark 2:15-17), the house of Jairus (Mark 5:21-23, 35-43), and the house of the Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10). However, it was for the several miracles and the fact that Jesus’ residence was with Peter that that the early Christians built the first house-church (domus ecclesia) on top of the ruins of Peter’s house.

The Roman milestone was discovered in 1975. It’s discovery confirms that site labeled as a ’border-town’ in Mark 2:13-15 sat on the all important road connecting ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia known as the Via Maris. The inscription reads as follows: IMPERATOR CAESAR DIVI TRAIANI PARTHICI FILIUS DIVI NERVAE NEPOS TRAIANUS ADRANUS AUGUSTUS. The translation: “The Emperor Caesar of the divine Trainanus Parthicus son, of the divine Nerva, nephew, Traianus Adrianus Augustus…”

Along your visit to the synagogue, you see stone water jars belonged to the 4th century synagogue and were used for ritual purification before entering the synagogue. Their presence reminds us of Jesus’ first miracle in Cana of Galilee when it is says in John 2:6: “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.”

Capernaum is also home to the famous “Zebidah” inscription discovery. This inscription can be translated as follows: “Alpheus, the son of Zebidah, the son of John made this column. May it be a blessing for him.” Some site the references Alpheus, Zebidah, and John as evidence for the Zebidee family that possibly continued to live in the area of Capernaum for centuries after the time of the disciples.