Capernaum is located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, not far from Tabgha, the Church of the Beatitudes and the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. You’re better off traveling there by car or as part of an organized tour rather than taking public transportation.
The name Capernaum has its origins in two Hebrew words: ‘kfar’ means village and ‘Nachum’ is a man’s name – Nachum’s village. It is not clear which Nachum the name refers to.
At the entrance to Capernaum there is a sign which reads ‘Capharnaum the town of Jesus’. In the New Testament, too, Capernaum is referred to as the town of Jesus. How is it that this small village, and not Jerusalem or Nazareth, came to be the town of Jesus?
Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth. After being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, Jesus returned to Nazareth. The people of Nazareth rejected him and so he moved to Capernaum. Jesus visited Jerusalem many times and that is where he was crucified, buried and resurrected, but the time Jesus spent in Jerusalem was short. Capernaum is where Jesus lived as he carried out his mission. Most of the chapters in the New Testament describe the time he lived in Capernaum – from his baptism to the last week of his life.
Jesus chose his twelve disciples in this area on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Five of them – Peter, Andrew, James, John and Matthew – came directly from Capernaum and all the other disciples came from the Galilee area. The only one who didn’t come from the Galilee was Judas Iscariot, who would later betray Jesus.
Capernaum is mentioned more than 50 times in the New Testament, making it the place that is mentioned the most after Jerusalem. The teaching, allegories and preaching of Jesus come from this area – he speaks of water, ships, fish and fishermen.
Jesus chose to live in Capernaum and not in Tiberius, which was a bigger and more important city, because he wanted to be close to the Golan. Herod Antipas ruled the Galilee and persecuted the followers of Jesus. It was he who murdered John the Baptist. Herod Philip II ruled in the Golan and he didn’t persecute the first Christians. And so Jesus would be able to easily move to the Golan in times of danger. He wanted to stay in the Galilee because that was where most of the Jews lived. Although Capernaum was a small village, it was near an important road that led to Damascus. It was a good place to meet and influence people.
The Church in Capernaum
At the entrance to the village is a building that looks like a space shuttle. This church was built by the Franciscans in 1990. The Franciscans bought the premises in 1894 and they excavated the site then built on it.
Many churches in Israel integrate the archeological findings of ancient churches that had been previously destroyed. In this case, they decided to build a modern church that hovers above the ancient church and is supported by external pillars. The church has an octagonal shape that draws the focus to the center, where there is a glass floor. It is located above an ancient room that has been identified as the house of St. Peter. It is considered to be the first gathering place of the followers of Jesus – the first church. The site is also known by its Latin name – Domus Ecclesia. The house of Peter is located in an area of simple housing, which later came to be known as Insula Sarca, the holy quarter. The house is mentioned in the New Testament as the place where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, among many others. From the middle of the 1st century on, the house came to be considered a pilgrimage site. Layers of plaster on the walls were found to bear inscriptions mentioning Jesus in a couple of languages as well as other Christian symbols. Archeological findings indicate that the site was maintained for a few generations and attracted visitors. In the 5th century the site became an octagonal church, which is mentioned in texts written by pilgrims. In the 8th century the church was destroyed.
In the square in front of the church is a modern statue of St. Peter holding keys and a shepherd’s staff. The statue was erected in the year 2000, before the visit of Pope John Paul II. St. Peter is considered to be the first Pope and therefore sites connected to Peter are important to Catholic pilgrims.
The Synagogue in Capernaum
North of the church are some simple basalt houses. No sewage or drainage systems were found. Capernaum was a small to medium-sized settlement. Most of the people were fishermen or farmers. The big white synagogue stands in contrast to the small black houses around it.
The synagogue was discovered in 1838 and excavated by Heinrich Kohl and Carl Watzinger, two German archeologists who researched ancient synagogues in the Galilee. It was built in the 4th or 5th century. The white limestone, which was brought in from a long way away, and the ornaments indicate that a wealthy Jewish community thrived here in the Byzantine era. Nowadays most visitors come here not to admire its beauty but because it was mentioned in the New Testament. Although it was built five hundred years after Jesus’ time, the Franciscans claim that the synagogue dating from Jesus’ time is under the one that stands today. It is a reasonable claim since in many places synagogues were built on top of ancient ones (just as churches were).
A miracle took place in the synagogue on a Saturday: Jesus drove an impure spirit out of a man (Luke 4, 31-35). Interestingly enough, the man possessed by the demon was the same one who identified Jesus as ‘one of God’. The evil was the first to identify the good.
In the synagogue Jesus also clarified one of his most important miracles – the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. He explains the importance of bread in Christianity and the meaning of the mass.
In the archeology garden around the synagogue are pillars and capitals that were found in the excavations. On some of them you can spot Jewish symbols.
Although Jesus performed many miracles he ultimately came to curse the people and declare that their destiny would be worse than that of the people of Sodom because of their disbelief. But Capernaum continued to exist for many years. Capernaum didn’t take part in the rebellions that occurred in the 1st and 2nd centuries and for hundreds of years Jews who believed in Jesus and non-Jews who believed in Jesus lived together. It wasn’t until the Muslim era, in the middle of the 8th century, that Capernaum was destroyed, probably in the big earthquake of 749.
Information for visitors
Entrance fee: 3 shekels
Opening hours: 8:00-17:00
For more information: Capernaum internet site