4th c. synagogue at Capernaum

Capernaum

Hebrew: Kefar Nahum ("Village of Nahum")

Town on the northwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee, about 2.5 miles from Bethsaida. Its location on the "sea road" from Damascus to Ptolemaļs gave it new strategic & economic importance when Herod's kingdom was divided among his sons (4 BCE). As the Galilean village nearest the border with the Golan, barely 2 miles from the influx of the Jordan, Capernaum was the most likely site on the west side of the lake for a toll station with a military garrison to be maintained by Antipas. This temporary strategic importance as a border post disappeared, however, when Galilee was united to the kingdom of Agrippa (37 CE).

The gospels identify Capernaum as a center for the public activity of Jesus [Mark 1-3, John 4 & 6]. But modern archaeological excavations do not justify the synoptic gospels' characterization of the town as a "city" [polis; Matt 9:1, Mark 1:33, Luke 4:31]. The most significant of the sparse remains of 1st c. structures at the site are: (a) a large plastered room venerated by early Christian pilgrims as the house of Peter & (b) a black basalt foundation under the massive 4th c. synagogue. 

Scholars disagree whether this foundation belonged to the synagogue mentioned in the stories of Jesus. The 4th c. synagogue built over it is the largest yet found in Israel, too large to be justified by the size or significance of the town for local Jews. This synagogue was never mentioned by Galilean rabbis & is right next to the Byzantine church that Constantine constructed over the reputed "house of Peter." Together these facts suggest that this "synagogue" was constructed for Christian pilgrims. If so, the foundation beneath it may also not have belonged to a functioning Jewish synagogue.

References: Josephus, War  3.519.
                   Matt 4:13
                   Mark 1:21 // Luke 4:31
                   Luke 4:23
                   Mark 2:1 (Matt 9:1)
                   Mark 9:33
                   Matt 8:5 // Luke 7:1 (John 4:46)
                   Matt 11:23 // Luke 10:15
                   John 2:12
                   John 6: 17, 24, 59.

For further recent information about archaeological & historical evidence, see:

  • Rousseau, John J. & Rami Arav. Jesus & His World. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) pp. 39-46.

  • Horsley, Richard A. Archaeology, History & Society in Galilee. (Valley Forge PA: Trinity Press International, 1996) pp. 112-117, 137-138.

Other online resources:

Perspective on the World of Jesus

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