painting by Wassilij Dimitriewitsch Polenow - On the Tiberiad Lake, 1888
The 1st century Jewish historian, Josephus, described the land surrounding the lovely waters of the Sea of Galilee, as a place blessed with beauty, where "nature in one sweeping gesture displays every plant and season ..." People who come here find his description still true today. Jesus chose the town of Caphernaum, on the northwestern shore of the Sea, as the center for his ministry in Galilee. Here the stones speak eloquently.
According to the Gospel of Matthew (4:12) Jesus moved to Capharnaum (Capernaum) from Nazareth. Most likely he made the move for a number of reasons. Nazareth was a tiny, obscure village, while Capharnaum was a relatively large town with a population of about 15,000 people. Nazareth was an isolated place; Capharnaum was located on a important road from Beth-shan to Damascus (below left : milestone on the road ). Yet it was far enough away from official centers like Tiberius and Jerusalem so that Jesus would not draw the attention to himself too quickly.
Unlike Nazareth, the population of Capharnaum was varied. It was home to fishermen, farmers, artisans, merchants and, since it was a border town, a good number of tax-collectors and soldiers. As the gospel seemed to indicate, relations with the Roman garrison were surprisingly good. The Roman officer in charge built the town's synagogue, and Capharnaum's Jewish elders pleaded with Jesus to heal the officer's servant.For years Franciscan archeologists have excavated and studied the town of Caphernaum and today the Franciscans maintain a central section of the town as a place of pilgrimage. Two sites, especially, are of major interest: the old Jewish synagogue and the house of Peter.
The impressive ruins of Capharnaum's synagogue (above right ) may be from the 3rd century, yet they most likely rest on the foundations of the synagogue was the center of Jewish life in Caphernaum and Jesus visited it several times.
Synagogues of the 1st century were built facing Jerusalem. The entrance was in the front, so people would come in then turn around and face the door and Jerusalem. There were built in stone benches along the outside walls where the aged or infirm could sit. Everyone else sat on the floor. The scrolls of the law were wheeled in on a portable tabernacle and the services would begin. After the service the portable tabernacle was put away. The people also used the synagogue as a sort of community center.
Peter's house (right) was only 30 meters south of the synagogue. It was a large house consisting of several roofed rooms around a spacious courtyard. Three families shared this same house, namely, the families of Peter, his brother Andrew and of Peter's mother-in-law. This was the standard pattern in the living quarters of Capharnaum Jesus would have experienced all of the ordinary pleasures and normal tensions of family life in this house; here he would have enjoyed a hot meal at the end of a hard day's work. Here he would have jostled for his breakfast and listened to the conversations of the women as they planned their daily tasks.
Today there is a modern church built over the ruins of St. Peter's House. The Church both protects the ruins and makes them more accessible to pilgrims.
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