The Land of Jesus

Capernaum

Marc Smith


The North Shore of the Sea of GalileeAs long as days come and go, breezes will refresh the ancient places along the shores of fertile Galilee and the ruins of old Capernaum, the city Jesus knew so well. Matthew 4:13, "And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali." In the Bible this deep, freshwater, pear shaped lake was known by several other names as well: Lake Kinneret, Lake Gennesaret, and the Sea of Tiberias. A very unusual feature of Galilee is that it is 686 feet below the level of the Mediterranean Sea. Though not huge it is of respectable size in that it measures 13 miles from north to south and 7 miles from east to west with a total of 64 square miles of surface area. The Jordan River flows into Galilee from Syria and continues south from Galilee and is the main source of fresh water for the entire region. Bountiful farming and fishing have been the main reward for living in this very uncharacteristic area of the Middle East. Jesus Himself left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13-17). Capernaum was even claimed by the Lord as "His own city" in Matthew 9:1.

In the 20th century the region was the site of the first Jewish kibbutz (communal farm), Deganya, founded in 1909. Located on the lake's western shore is the city of Tiberias which is the best example of a surviving community from ancient times. Today, Tiberias is one of modern Israel's chief winter resorts because of the nearby thermal baths and the area's moderate climate. Visitors to this area have always been surprised by its verdant qualities and have imagined that it would be pleasant to live there.

Ruins of CapernaumIn New Testament times Capernaum was not alone but was just one of quite a number of thriving communities in this area. The ruins of Capernaum are located in the northwest of the shoreline of Galilee. It is not certain how large a population Capernaum had but it is thought to have been under 2,000. There were several larger towns nearby but Capernaum looms large to us because so much happened in Capernaum during the ministry of Christ.

The thing that we as Bible students may remember most about Capernaum is that Jesus strongly rebuked it and its neighboring towns and villages. Matthew 11:20-24, "Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you."

Ruins of White SynagogueSince about 1968, the ancient site of Capernaum has been steadily excavated by an army of archaeologists from institutions both secular and religious. Thanks to them, tourists from all over the world can now stroll down what were the same narrow thoroughfares of this place that Jesus once walked two thousand years ago. In the intervening years of digging, these dedicated experts have brought to light much of the detail of this town in which Jesus spent so much of His time on earth. These rediscovered remains of Capernaum can help us to place various passages in the New Testament into a more real and physical context and should aid us in an overall understanding of the Lord's teaching.

Capernaum was located in a very advantageous place (Matthew 11:23, "And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven..." This reference the Lord makes might have had to do with the attitude of its inhabitants more than any other factor.) in that it was on a crossroads of primary importance, being along the Beth-shan, Damascus highway. The presence of Roman soldiers at Capernaum (Mark 8:5-13) illustrates the importance of Capernaum's location. Many travelers would leave or enter the Tetrarchy of Herod Antipas, Capernaum being the border crossing settlement. By comparison Nazareth was in a mountainous area and quite isolated. Even though Capernaum was not a very large town, it was able to boast a diversified population that contained not just farmers and fishermen, but also artisans, merchants, and publicans.

The fact that there were Roman soldiers also present brings to mind the account of the centurion who was well thought of in Capernaum because he had built the Jewish synagogue for the community. He was so well liked that when the centurion's servant grew gravely ill, the elders pled with Jesus to heal him, Luke 7:1-10. It could be said that from such a diverse group, Capernaum was apparently unique in its makeup. From this hardworking and varied group came many of Jesus' apostles, fishermen like Peter, Andrew, James and John, Matthew 4:12-22 or publicans like Levi, Mark 2:14.

House of PeterWhat is considered to be the house of the apostle Peter is one of the sites so far excavated. To the satisfaction of most scoffers, in fact, it is now widely held that the ruins of this house, only 90 feet from the original synagogue of Peter's time is most likely the house of the apostle. We read of several parallel references to Peter's house in the New Testament (Mark 1:29-34; Matthew 8:14-17; Luke 4:38-41). It was a large house consisting of a large courtyard, surrounded by a number of rooms in clusters that suggest separate quarters for about three households in one. This could have been the household of Peter, of his brother Andrew and perhaps of Peter's mother-in-law. The details of this are not certain but it was the common practice of families in Capernaum to live in this manner and all the other family domiciles so far uncovered also show this apparent custom. This house is larger than most and according to the New Testament, "the whole town came crowding round the door." This suggests that at Peter's front door was a large space capable of containing a large number of people. This seems clear from the dig because this rediscovered house was located along the main NS street of the village and an additional open space was between the spacious street and the doorway leading to the courtyard of the house. Noticing this detail helps to more positively identify this house as Peter's.

Remembering for a moment the "mighty works" done in Capernaum (Matthew 11:20-24) let us review other events not previously mentioned. Jesus healed the nobleman's son (John 4:46-54), healed Simon Peter's mother-in-law from her fever (Mark 1:30-31), healed the paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8); cast out the unclean spirit (Mark 1:23-26); and here in Capernaum He most likely also raised Jairus' daughter to life and healed the woman with an issue of blood(Mark 5). In Capernaum the little child was used to teach the disciples humility while in the synagogue Jesus delivered His ever-memorable discourse on the bread of life (John 6). The synagogue of Jesus' time, built by the centurion, has also been excavated and it is possible to stand in this very spot.

Studying a place in the Bible like Capernaum is an excercise intended to ground us in the times and places of the land where Jesus walked. At some point in this excercise comes a realization beyond the history and geography of the place. Though today there is nothing much left of Capernaum except its recently uncovered ruins, it pershaps is illustrative of man and his overall un-importance in the eternal scheme of things. Capernaum, like the recently exhumed but long moldering corpse of someone vital long centuries ago, can be sifted through by man today. In man's curiosity the "bones" of Capernaum can be picked through and analyzed and put back into close proximity of its original vital alignment. However, Capernaum cannot be brought back to life no matter what men do. The only thing that man can do with knowledge of such an ancient place is realize that even though some of the greatest and most wonderous things ever done in the presence of man were done by our loving Savior in this dusty place there are more important things to commit to the heart. 1 Peter 1:22-25, "Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because "All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away, But the word of the Lord endures forever." Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you."


e-mail this author at mssquare@swbell.net

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