Capernaum is where Jesus lived, during the time of his ministry in Galilee, after he had left his hometown of Nazareth (Mt 4:13). There is even a modern Catholic church in Capernaum today, built in the 1990s, that stands over an excavation of a first-century house some believe is the house of St. Peter. The excavations do reveal what may be a first- or second-century house church used by early Christians.
Capernaum is where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law — and the centurion’s servant on the same day (Mt 8:5-15). It is listed as the town where Jesus made his home (Mt 9:1) and the site of Peter’s house (Mt 8:14). The nearby fishing town of Bethsaida was the hometown of Philip as well as Andrew and Peter (Jn 1:44).
Capernaum’s name comes from Kefar Nahum, its Hebrew name. It does not have any connection to the Old Testament prophet, Nahum, but may take its name from its Arabic name: Tell Hum.
When Jesus moved to Capernaum — from the small and secluded hillside town of Nazareth — he was moving to what was then a busy place.
Capernaum was located along a major trade road, called the Via Maris, which led from the Mediterranean Sea to Damascus and beyond. It had a large synagogue — where Jesus preached about the Bread of Life (Jn 6) — which had been built by a Roman centurion (Lk 7:4). Excavations of a fourth-century synagogue on the site (called the White Synagogue) have revealed an earlier, possibly first century, synagogue foundation, built of black basalt, beneath.
The town also had a Roman customs agent (tax collector) who, at the time of Jesus was named Levi (Matthew), son of Alphaeus, who became a disciple (Mt 2:14). Capernaum was located on the seashore and in a fertile area controlled by Herod Antipas of Galilee. Nearby Bethsaida — on the other side of the Jordan River where it empties into the Sea of Galilee — was controlled by the tetrarch Philip. That probably explains the need for a customs post and a garrison.
The region was definitely a fishing area and would have had many local fishermen like Peter, James and John and their father, Zebedee. This fact is attested to by the 1986 discovery of a first-century boat offshore during an unusually low tide. The boat, now preserved in a museum at Kibbutz Ginosar, gives an idea of what the fishermen Apostles’ boat — like the one in Saturday’s Gospel — might have looked like.
Many of Jesus’ miracles took place in Capernaum. These include:
- Mk 2:1-2, healing of the paralytic.
- Jn 4:46-54, the healing of the nobleman’s son.
- Mk 1:21-27, the casting out of a demon while teaching in Capernaum’s synagogue.
- Mt 17:24-27, paying the temple tax with a fish Jesus told Peter to catch from the nearby sea.
- Mark 5:21-43 (also Matthew and Luke), the raising of Jairus’ daughter. While it is not completely clear from the
- Scripture references, many scholars report that Jairus’ synagogue was the one in Capernaum.
- Mk 5:25-34, the healing of a woman with a hemorrhage takes place in the same narrative, and thus at the same place as the raising of Jairus’ daughter.
But what happened to “his own town” (Mt 9:1) after Jesus left?
We know it was not destroyed by the Romans when they put down Jewish revolts in 66-70 A.D. and was still in existence in the mid-second century, according to the historian Josephus. The “white synagogue,” whose ruins can be seen today, was built around the third or fourth century. So Capernaum was still a busy place then. And, about a century later, an octagonal Byzantine church was built there.
However, it seems Capernaum was destroyed by the ninth century, either during the Persian invasion of 614, or a century later in an Arab conquest. Capernaum was then abandoned and not rebuilt until about 100 years ago — however, only as an archaeological site. In the late 19th century, the Franciscans bought land there and began excavations in the early 20th century. The present Franciscan church over what is called “St. Peter’s House” even has glass windows to look down into that first-century church house.
It’s sad that the host of so many of Jesus’ great moments fell into obscurity. And yet, perhaps, the people of Capernaum did not recognize the Lord in their midst or rejoice sufficiently in his presence. Jesus foretold of Capernaum’s fall from prominence when he left it to begin his journey to Jerusalem: “And as for you, Capernaum, ‘Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to the netherworld?’’’ (Lk 10:15).
Perhaps Capernaum’s fate is a warning to those who have witnessed the Lord in their own lives today and who still turn away. However, in the same way, we can see Capernaum’s modern excavations — and its return to some prominence — as a message of hope for those who wish to start anew in their faith in the risen Christ.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; jewishvirtuallibrary.org; Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs at mfa.gov/il; University of Nebraska at unomaha.org; Bibleatlas.org; “Biblical Archaeology” at bibarch.com; sacred-destinations.com.