Capernaum, which only appears in the Gospels, was a fishing village on the northern shore of Lake Galilee. It was established during the time the Hasmoneans were the ruling dynasty of Judea between 140 and 116 BC. Today, the village lies in ruins; however, it once had a population of about 1500 people.
The village’s original name was Kfar Naḥūm, which means “Nahum’s Village” but, as far as we know, there was no connection to the Old Testament prophet. In Greek, the name was written Kαφαρναούμ (Kapharnaoúm), which over time became Capernaum.
In the Bible, Capernaum is recorded as the hometown of several of Jesus’ disciples. In Matthew 4, Jesus “went and lived in Capernaum” (4:13) where he came across “Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.” (4:18) Jesus told them to follow him and they did, becoming his first disciples. Walking on from there, although presumably not far, Jesus came across, James son of Zebedee and his brother John who were also fishing. Just as he did with Simon and Andrew, Jesus called to them and they became his disciples.
In Matthew 9, “Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town” – believed to be Capernaum – where he healed a paralysed man. Following this, he came across a man called Matthew, a tax collector and, although tax collectors were generally despised, Jesus asked Matthew to follow him. Thus, Matthew became another of Jesus’ disciples.
Possibly because he lived there, or at least some of his disciples came from the village, Jesus spent a lot of time in Capernaum, therefore, it is unsurprising that many of his miracles took place in there. Jesus’ first miracle took place at a wedding in Cana, however, “After this he went down to Capernaumwith his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days” (John 2:12)
Jesus’ miracles in Capernaum are recorded throughout all four Gospels. Already mentioned is the healing of the paralysed man, which took place shortly before Matthew was called to discipleship. Whilst this miracle is recorded in both Matthew and Mark, the latter contains more detail. “A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home.They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them.” (Mark 2:1-2) Jesus’ miracles were already well known, hence the crowd of people, however, this meant not everyone could get into the building to see Jesus. Four men attempted to bring a paralysed man to Jesus, however, after seeing the crowd, they decided to lower the man through a hole in the roof rather than attempt to get through the door. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” (Mark 2:5)
Jesus was often amazed by the faith of the people who sought him out, for example, “When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralysed, suffering terribly.’” (Matthew 8:5-6) The Centurion confessed he did not deserve Jesus to come under his roof, however, should Jesus wish to heal his servant he knew Jesus would. Amazed, Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (Matthew 8:10) Subsequently, the servant was healed.
Another physical ailment Jesus healed was blindness. Whilst he was walking through Capernaum, two blind men called out to Jesus, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” (Matthew 9:27) For their faith, Jesus restored their sight. Immediately afterwards, a mute man who was possessed by a demon was brought to Jesus. “When the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke.” (Matthew 9:33)
Many of Jesus’ miracles involved driving out demons. In Mark 1, a man possessed by a demon tried to challenge Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24) After a stern “Be quiet!” Jesus ordered the demon to leave the man. Later that day, “people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.” (Mark 1:32) Jesus healed the people and drove out many demons.
One of Jesus’ amazing miracles involved raising a dead girl. A synagogue leader approached Jesus saying, “My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.” (Matthew 9:18) Jesus followed the man to his house where he told the noisy crowd, “The girl is not dead but asleep.” (9:24) Despite being laughed at, Jesus took hold of the girl’s hand and she rose up from the bed, completely healthy. Coinciding with this miracle was the healing of a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. Her faith was so strong, she believed by reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak as he passed by would heal her. She was right.
Not all the people Jesus healed were strangers. After spending the day preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus went to the home of Simon where his mother-in-law was suffering from a fever. Jesus “rebuked the fever, and it left her.” Incidentally, archaeologists believe they have found the remains of Simon’s house, or Saint Peter as he is otherwise known.
Whilst the majority of Jesus’ miracles involved healing, the disciples were witnesses to a different type. John 6 tells us of the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes, which took place on the opposite side of the lake, however, when the disciples had “got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum,” (Mark 6:17) they saw Jesus walking on the water towards them. Naturally, they were frightened by this but Jesus reassured them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” (6:20)
The Gospels do not only record miracles occurring at Capernaum, but there are also the teachings of Jesus. Mark 9:37 is perhaps the most well known of these, which states, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Another well-known saying occurs in Matthew 11, which was said by Jesus while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
Jesus also issued a warning to the people of Capernaum. Despite the number of miracles that occurred in the village, Capernaum would not survive the wrath of God. “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.” Although Jesus spent a lot of time preaching to the villagers, they still lacked faith. Whether related to this or not, the village now lies in ruins.
It is not certain exactly when the village was abandoned but scholars believe it was during the 11thcentury AD before the crusader conquest. The village was established during the 2nd century BC at the same time as other fishing villages around the lake. The historian Josephus described Capernaum as a fertile spring, which he stayed at for a night to recover from a riding accident.
The ruins reveal the houses in Capernaum were narrow and could be accessed by communal passages and courtyards. There was no plumbing; therefore, it can be assumed people got water from the river. Remains of fishhooks and weights confirm that Capernaum was an established fishing village and there is no evidence of an “upper class” or ruler.
One set of ruins has been identified as a synagogue from the 4th-century. Underneath this are older remains that are believed to be the foundations of the synagogue mentioned in the Bible. There are also walls belonging to houses built in the 4thor 5thcentury, which were larger than the older building, however, one excavated house from the 1stcentury was markedly different from the rest. Unlike the bare walls of the other houses, this building had been plastered, leading archaeologists to believe it was not just used as a residence. Suggestions that it may have been a religious gathering place are widely accepted, as well as the idea that the disciple Simon/Peter lived there. Graffiti on the wall mentions Peter’s name. Today, a memorial modern church has been built above the ancient house in which a glass floor allows a direct view of the ruins below.
Did you know, in 1986 on the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee, a 1st-century fishing boat was discovered that gives us an idea what the Disciple’s boat looked like. Who knows, it could even be their boat!
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon