Capernaum—Matthew 4:13

All four Gospels mention Capernaum, the town that Jesus used as the base for His public ministry (Matt. 4:13; Mark 2:1). It was where He healed the paralytic let down through the roof (Matt. 9:2-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26), where He met the centurion who asked Him to heal his servant (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10), and where His word healed the official’s sick son (John 4:46-54). It was also where Jesus miraculously paid the temple tax (Matt. 17:24-27), and where He healed the man with the unclean spirit on the Sabbath (Luke 4:31-37). Also, John 6:59 states that Jesus taught in the synagogue in Capernaum.

The Greek of the New Testament spells the name of the village as Kapharnaoum (Καφαρναοὺμ), which reflects the Hebrew/Aramaic name כְּפַר נַחוּם‬, KfarNaḥūm, or the Village of Nahum.

Capernaum was a small fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Archaeology reveals a continuous occupation from the fifth century BC to the tenth century AD. At its maximum size during the Byzantine period, it extended approximately 300 meters along the lakeshore, and 200 meters inland, with a population of approximately 1,500 persons. During the time of Jesus, the village was slightly smaller.

Capernaum today is an archaeological site open to the public. The most prominent remains are those of an ancient synagogue. Its walls have been partially reconstructed to allow visitors to imagine what it must have been like in ancient times. Archaeologists found more than 30,000 coins under the floor of the synagogue dating from late Roman times, indicating that the synagogue was built during that period. In other words, the remains indicate that the synagogue we see today was built long after Jesus’s lifetime. Archaeologist Stanislao Loffreda points out that the synagogue’s well-shaped limestone blocks had to have been imported from elsewhere as limestone is not available locally. He also notes that the limestone blocks rest on foundations fashioned from basalt rocks. These rocks do not precisely match the line of the later synagogue, suggesting that the basalt rocks formed the foundation of the synagogue existing at the time of Jesus.

Another prominent feature of the site is the ruins of a church built in the shape of an octagon during the reign of the first Roman emperor to align himself with Christianity, Constantine the Great (reigned AD 306–337). Constructed at the behest of Constantine’s mother, the church reputedly sat over the remains of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, where Jesus and His disciples stayed at Capernaum (Mark 1:29-31). Archaeologists have indeed found that the church does sit over a house occupied during the time of Jesus. It appears that one of the rooms of that house was adapted for public purposes late in the first century. Loffreda suggests that it is evidence of a very early place of Christian worship. Not unexpectedly, not everybody is as certain as Loffreda that the archaeological evidence provides strong support that the church was erected over the house of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, but it is a possibility.

Located between the synagogue and the church are the ruins of houses from the time of Jesus. They provide a unique glimpse of the living conditions experienced by Him and His disciples during His public ministry. Narrow roads paved with stones mostly of basalt border them. Builders could quickly work limestone with the iron tools available during the Roman occupation of Palestine and could, therefore, shape them into rectangular blocks to form straight walls. Basalt, however, is a much harder material. While the villages succeeded in chipping some of the basalt rocks so that one of its faces was more or less flat, most of the stones used to pave the roads, the courtyards, and to construct the walls of the houses were field stones of irregular shapes and sizes.

The houses consisted of small rooms with earthen floors and with narrow windows constructed with stone lintels at ground level. The rooms clustered around a shared courtyard. What is striking is how closely everyone would have to live with each other. It helps explain the parable of the bold man who arrives at midnight and shames his friend into giving him something to eat lest he wakes up the rest of his family and even the neighbors (Luke 11:5-8).

A few of the houses of first-century Capernaum had roofs covered with ceramic tiles. Most of the roofs, though, were constructed from wood and clay found in the district. Such roofs consisted of more massive beams that spanned from one wall to another, and smaller branches laid crossways. The homeowner then compacted mud clay onto them. It was through such a roof that those carrying the paralytic dug a hole. Through the hole, they lowered him in front of Jesus as He spoke to the Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem (Mark 2:3-4; Luke 17:1-19).

Mattila, “Revisiting Jesus’ Capernaum: A village of Only Subsistence-level Fishers and Farmers?” 75-138.

McIver, “Archaeology of Galilee,” 1-27.