The Gospels record an incident in the life of Jesus that took place at Capernaum involving a Roman centurion and his sick slave (Luke 7:1–10; for slightly different versions, see Matthew 8:5–13 and John 4:46–53). In the Lukan account, the Roman centurion sends elders of the Jews to ask Jesus to come and heal his servant. The Jews speak very favorably of the Roman, even reporting that he had built a synagogue for them. Jesus immediately responds but is met by the centurion while en route to his house. The man asks Jesus, in apparent humility and faith, to just “say the word” (Luke 7:7) and his servant will be healed. Jesus praises him for his faith, and the story ends with the report that the slave has been made well.
New evidence indicates that Romans indeed lived in Capernaum in the first century A.D. Moreover, far from being a poor, isolated village, Capernaum, the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, was quite prosperous and was apparently home to gentiles as well as Jews. In the centuries that followed, Capernaum expanded and continued to prosper, in part as a Christian pilgrim center, in part as an important fishing and commercial center, and in part as a haven for displaced Jews. It continued to include a mixed population of Christians and Jews, as well as others.
For nearly 1,000 years Capernaum, known as Tel-Hum (or Tal-Hum), was unoccupied, used only by Bedouin for seasonal agriculture and grazing. In 1852 the American scholar Edward Robinson correctly recognized the remains of a synagogue at the site but failed to identify it with Capernaum, which he located about two miles southwest of Tel-Hum, a site known as Khirbet Minya.1(This site, as we now know, was not inhabited before the early Arab periods [seventeenth centuries A.D.].)2
In 1866, the British engineer and explorer Captain Charles Wilson first identified the ancient ruins of Tel-Hum with Capernaum. Curiously, the ancient name of the site was preserved in the Arab name Tal-Hum. Capernaum is the Greek form of the Hebrew Kfar Nahum, which means the village of Nahum. (The Hebrew form is not at tested before the fourth or fifth century A.D.) The end of the name Nahum is easily recognized in the Arabic Tal-Hum.
Naturally, the identification of Capernaum generated enormous interest in the site, particularly among 056Christians. In 1894 the western part of the site, including the ruins of the synagogue, was acquired by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Ten years later, in 1905, the Franciscans began an excavation of the site that has continued, with interruptions, to the present day.3 The results of these excavations, especially the synagogue and the so-called house of Peter (over which an octagonal memorial church was later built) have already been reported to BAR readers.a
Several years after the Franciscans acquired the western part of the site, the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem acquired the northeastern section. This section, which comprises about 71,760 square feet, is almost completely unknown. Until 1930 the Greek Orthodox-owned section was totally neglected. The only visible remains were some poorly constructed stone huts used during periods of seasonal fishing. In 1931 a small church and a winter residence were built there by the Greek patriarch of Jerusalem. The buildings were only used for a few years and then abandoned. In 1948 the property was located between the Syrian and Israeli border and became a no-man’s land. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the section was returned to the Greek Orthodox Church and, beginning in 1978, archaeologists were allowed for the first time to work on this part of the ancient site. The excavations ran through 1987 and were carried out as a joint project of the Israel Antiquities Authority and a consortium of schools from America and Canada,4 led by Vassilios Tzaferis5 of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
One of the first public buildings we found was a large Roman bathhouse from the second or third century A.D. It was 64 feet long and 20 feet wide. We could identify it as a bathhouse from the scattered 057pieces of clay hypocaust tiles, both round-and square-shaped, used to raise the floor of the heated room. Three tiles were found still embedded in the floor of the caldarium (hot room), where they served as bases for the hypocaust pillars. We were also able to identify the tepid room (tepidarium) and the cool room (frigidarium) by their physical proximity to the hot room and similarity to other known bathhouses. In the frigidarium we uncovered a ceramic pipe at floor level that went under an outside wall. This pipe no doubt served to drain water into an outside drainage ditch that extended the entire length of the bathhouse on its northern side. Another room about 12 by 21 feet may have served as a mutatio (swimming pool) or an apodyterium (dressing room). It is difficult to tell which because the floor was destroyed in antiquity. We never did find the furnace room for heating the water. The bathhouse disappears under the wall separating the Greek Orthodox property from the Franciscan property. Presumably the furnace lies buried on the Franciscan side of the property.
The plan of this bathhouse—a single row of rooms—probably indicates that it was built for Roman bathers rather than Jews. A very similar bathhouse, dating to the first century, has been found at Ein Gedi, on the shore of the Dead Sea, where it served the Roman garrison stationed there.
Beneath the bathhouse at Capernaum were earlier remains belonging to the first century A.D. (our stratum IX). Since we did not want to destroy the later building on top, the full plan of this earlier structure is still unknown. In general, however, the outline of the lower building is similar to the bathhouse above it. If this first-century building was also a bathhouse, then this may confirm the existence of the Roman centurion and garrison at Capernaum referred to in the Gospels.
The only other remains from the first century were a few wall fragments and a floor of a building adjacent to the bathhouse. Similar isolated discoveries from the first century have also been reported from the Franciscan side of the site.
Immediately beneath the first-century floor were the remains of an Early Bronze Age wall (third millennium B.C.)! Such walls were also found in other areas of our site—but nothing in between that and the first century A.D.
From such meager remains it is impossible to visualize the full extent of the first-century town. What is known indicates that at this time Capernaum was a small village located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with a population of probably no more than 1,000 people. The few architectural remains indicate that 058the buildings were spacious and well constructed of dressed stones and large amounts of plaster. This suggests that the village flourished economically during Jesus’ time. Its location on the crossroads of important trade routes, the fertile lands surrounding it and the rich fishing available all contributed to its economic development.
The well-preserved bathhouse from the second or third century (the Late Roman period) was not the only building we found dating to that time. We also uncovered the remains of other large, well-constructed buildings from this period, buildings with rectangular plans adjacent to the bathhouse on its northern side. The buildings seem to have served some public function, perhaps as storehouses. To the east of the bathhouse was another large building of unknown function. It continued in use well into the Byzantine period (fifth or sixth century). Under the floor of this building we discovered the remains of a young man who had been buried there.
At the same time these public buildings were built, the town probably also acquired its first organized port installations, as well as the jetty wall built along the lake shore. Thus, during the Late Roman period 059of the second and third centuries Capernaum was a well-organized town with well-built public buildings. The expansion and economic growth of the town was probably fueled by an influx of Jews from Judea who migrated to Galilee after the Romans suppressed the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66–70 A.D. (culminating in the burning of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple) and again after the Romans suppressed the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (also known as the Bar-Kokhba revolt) of 132–135 A.D.6
In the middle of the fourth century, a major catastrophe occurred that resulted in a temporary abandonment of the town. The evidence: rooms filled with jumbled rocks and stones that clearly indicate a devastating earthquake. Much of the area was leveled. New buildings were constructed and old ones reorganized and rearranged. The rebuilt city was the Byzantine city, although I use that term only as a chronological, not necessarily an archaeological, marker. In 324 A.D. the emperor Constantine reunited the Roman empire under a Christian ruler. Although there is some disagreement among scholars, for our purposes this date marks the beginning of the Byzantine period, which extends, in the East, until the Arab conquest of 636 A.D. At Capernaum, however, there appears to have been a basic material continuity from the Late Roman period to the early Byzantine period, despite the political turmoil and the natural catastrophe of the earthquake.
The new town, like the old one, was quite prosperous. In one building about 250 feet east of the bath house, we found a clear stratigraphical sequence indicating that the building, originally built in the second or third century, was rebuilt and reused in the fourth century, and again in the later Byzantine period. It was used for the last time in the early Arab period (seventh or eighth century). The floor of the early Arab period consisted of field stones laid on earthen fill. In contrast, the floors of the preceding periods were all built of plaster poured over packing stones laid in a layer of earth. These floors, along with the heavily mortared walls and elaborate drainage systems associated with the building, are indicative of the economic prosperity of the town during the earlier periods of occupation.
Moreover, from the Late Roman period through the Byzantine period (second to sixth centuries) the arrangement of the buildings reflects some type of town planning. All the public buildings formed a line along the lake. The domestic structures were all built behind the public buildings. Furthermore, the main streets ran in a north-south and east-west direction and intersected at a right angle, which indicates some control over town planning.
A major expansion of the city occurred to the north, away from the lake, in the fifth and sixth centuries. North of the bathhouse we excavated a very large domestic building with courtyards and a staircase 060suggesting an upper floor. In one of the rooms we found a large number of murex shells with dozens of bone needles used to puncture them and to extract the highly prized royal purple dye. It would not be unusual for light industry to be carried on in this domestic context.
One major architectural difference between the buildings at Capernaum and those at contemporaneous sites (such as Chorazin and Meiron, as well as sites on the Golan and in Transjordan) is that the Capernaum builders did not roof their structures with basalt slabs (at least none were found in the remains). The Capernaum roofs were probably made of wood, covered with grass/straw and earth. This technique of roof construction has also been suggested for the first century house associated with St. Peter on the Franciscan side of the property.
Also belonging to this period is the building on the eastern side of the site mentioned above. We are not sure what it was used for. Unfortunately, it was badly damaged, but we did find a floor composed of a 5 inch-thick layer of extremely hard plaster and gravel. Associated with this building on its western side is a street constructed of finely dressed ashlars (large stone blocks with smooth sides).
On the northern end of the street was a public water fountain or installation lined with clay tiles and a drain in the southwest corner. The original waterproof plaster was still visible on the outer edges of the tiles and on the sides of the walls. The top of the structure seems to have been level with the pavement, so the water would be easily available to animals as well as people.
Where did the new population for the expanded city come from? The answer is probably twofold.
Once the empire became Christian, Capernaum became a major tourist attraction. This is suggested by our literary sources and may also be reflected in the disproportionate number of coins from the transitional period from the Roman to the early Byzantine period. In a recent study of coins from many Galilean sites, Donald Ariel concluded that an overwhelming majority, including coins from Capernaum, date to the third and fourth centuries.7 While inflation may account for much of this remarkable increase, their presence may also indicate a growing number of tourists or pilgrims, especially at Capernaum with its sacred sites. Over 80 percent of all identifiable coins found in the sacred insula (precinct) at Capernaum were dated to the fourth century.8 The more than 2,000 coins found in a fill at Chorazin might also have been deposited by tourists or 061pilgrims (the coins dated from the fourth to the seventh centuries).b
Another possible indication of tourists at Capernaum are the graffiti on the walls of the house-church into which St. Peter’s house was converted. The earliest of these graffiti have been dated to the third century.9
How much this tourist activity contributed to the local economy is difficult to measure. But certainly such services as food and perhaps housing would have been required.10 In addition, considerable construction can be attributed to the tourists. In the fifth century an octagonal church was built on top of the remains of the traditional house of St. Peter. The baptismal font in the center of the apse may indicate that this church was built not to serve the needs of Capernaum’s Christian population, but to address the demands of Christian pilgrims.
The famous synagogue that can still be seen on the site is also now generally dated to the fourth century.11 For years it was dated to the second or third century because of its Roman basilica design with no apse. A cache of Byzantine period coins (late fourth to early fifth centuries) sealed under the floor, however, makes it difficult to defend the earlier date. The earliest excavator of the synagogue, Friar Gaudentius Orfali, who worked on the excavation and restoration of the synagogue between 1921 and 1926, dated it to the early first century, infused as he was with the notion that this must be Jesus’ synagogue. (Friar Orfali is memorialized in an inscription on one of the restored columns of the synagogue.) Nevertheless, this first-century dating is universally rejected today.
Another major factor in Capernaum’s expansion in the Byzantine period—perhaps more important than its attraction to Christian pilgrims—was an influx of Jews following the suppression of the so-called Gallus revolt. Constantine’s death in 337 was followed by a struggle for control of the empire that led to a series of civil wars. For obscure reasons, perhaps because of the instability in the empire generally, the Jews in Galilee revolted in 354. Constantinius, one of Constantine’s three sons who fell heir to the Eastern empire, including Palestine, had appointed his cousin Gallus as Caesar. Apparently inept at ruling, Gallus was not so laggard in repressing the revolt. By 355 it had ended. In suppressing the revolt, Gallus destroyed a number of Jewish cities, including Beth Shearim, Sepphoris, Tiberias and Lydda. Many of the Jews from these cities may have fled to Capernaum, which seems to have escaped Gallus’s wrath, perhaps because of its associations with the life of Jesus and Peter.
How large the Christian population of Capernaum was is uncertain. Capernaum’s importance in Christian history, as well as the importance of Christian tourism to its economic health, suggest that there was at least a small Christian enclave here. This conclusion is also supported by the distinctly Christian symbols, particularly sherds stamped with Christian crosses and a glass gem bearing a Chi-Rho monogram (that is, CH-R-ist).12 Other studies have argued that, in the Golan during this period, Jewish Christians and Jews lived side by side at least in urban settlements.13 A similar pluralism probably existed at Capernaum from the first century on. The archaeological evidence, while not conclusive, points to the existence of a Jewish-Christian house-church, a synagogue and a Roman bathhouse, all in operation in the first century. Eric Meyers has concluded that at Capernaum, both the Jewish and Jewish-Christian community co-existed until the seventh century C.E.14
The town suffered another major tragedy in the seventh century—an earthquake again devastated the town. The next settlement was that of the Arabic period. We excavated five strata of Arabic settlements at Capernaum.
In the 11th century still another earthquake devastated the town. From this fatal blow, Capernaum never recovered. It was abandoned thereafter.
Capernaum’s apogee was clearly in the Byzantine period. Supported mainly by a strong fishing and agricultural base, the economy was augmented by tourism and trade.
True, Capernaum was a rural town throughout its 1,000-year history, but it was hardly typical of the more remote villages. At least during the late Roman and Byzantine periods it was a thriving economic center with close ties to the on-going economic life that characterized Galilee in general.
The Gospels record an incident in the life of Jesus that took place at Capernaum involving a Roman centurion and his sick slave (Luke 7:1–10; for slightly different versions, see Matthew 8:5–13 and John 4:46–53). In the Lukan account, the Roman centurion sends elders of the Jews to ask Jesus to come and heal his servant. The Jews speak very favorably of the Roman, even reporting that he had built a synagogue for them. Jesus immediately responds but is met by the centurion while en route to his house. The man asks Jesus, in apparent humility and faith, to […]