Peter was living and working in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus called him to become a “fisher of human beings” (Mark 1:17). The busy first-century harbor town, shown in the reconstruction drawing, was one of the largest and most prosperous of the dozen ancient harbors that were discovered around the Sea of Galilee during a severe drought in the mid-1980s.a

At Capernaum, an 8-foot-tall seawall supported a 2,500-foot-long promenade. A series of straight, curved and wedge-shaped piers protected moored boats from the most dangerous winds on the lake. (Even today the Sea of Galilee—or the Kinneret, as the freshwater lake is known in Hebrew—is subject to sudden storms like the squall that nearly thwarted Jesus’ boat crossing from Capernaum to the opposite shore [Mark 4:37].)

The drought in the mid-1980s also led to the discovery of a 26.5-foot, first-century fishing boat, popularly called the “Jesus boat,” although there’s no evidence Jesus or his disciples ever sailed in it. The intact hull was found buried in mud about 5 miles south of Capernaum, near the town of Magdala (home of Mary Magdalene). The boat has since been conserved and preserved and is now on display at the Yigal Allon Center at Kibbutz Ginnosar, also on the west coast of the Galilee.

Careful study of the boat reveals just how resourceful Galilee shipwrights had to be. Suitable timber was hard to come by, so the Galilee boat was cobbled together of various kinds of wood stripped from older boats, and it was repeatedly repaired. When it was no longer seaworthy, the few remaining usable timbers and all the nails were removed; the worn-out hull was abandoned to the mud.

Capernaum’s location may have resulted in its relative prosperity. The town was the first fishing village over the border that divided the territory east of Galilee, controlled by Herod’s son Philip, from Galilee, ruled by Herod’s son Antipas. The only place on the lake with a factory for pickling fish for long-distance export was Magdala, also in Antipas’s jurisdiction. (Pickled fish sauce from Magdala found its way to Rome, according to the historian Strabo [Geography 16.2,45].) Fishermen from outside the territory had to pay a tax when bringing their catch across the border. The disciples who settled in Capernaum—Peter, Andrew, John and Zebedee—may well have moved there in order to avoid the tax.b

It is difficult, however, to draw any conclusions about Simon Peter’s economic status on the basis of his occupation. Although his social status is clear, persons engaged in such hard, physical labor did not belong to the cultured elite who controlled society and possessed most of its wealth. Or, as Luke puts it in Acts 4:13, Peter and John are persons “unlettered” (agrammatoi) and “unskilled in speaking” (idiōtai).

There is, perhaps, one possible indication of Peter’s wealth: The house that early Christian tradition identifies as “Peter’s House” is larger than most other first-century Capernaum homes. In the drawing, “Peter’s house” faces the shore (it is marked with an arrow). Directly behind Peter’s house is a black basalt building that some think was the first-century synagogue where Jesus preached—shown in the drawing as the large building with three doors and a raised central roof with an arch motif. (In the Byzantine period a white limestone synagogue was built on the same spot; this later synagogue dominates the remains of ancient Capernaum today.)

Peter’s house was large but otherwise typical: a one-story, thatched-roof, stone house built around an irregularly shaped courtyard.

Excavations of the house indicate that its largest room was converted into a public gathering place sometime in the mid-first century.c The walls were plastered, as was common in public halls, and the domestic pottery was replaced with oil lamps and storage jars. If indeed the room was used by Jesus’ followers, this is our earliest archaeological evidence of Christian gatherings.

By the fourth century, the room was clearly used as a church. Pilgrims drew crosses on the walls and scribbled messages like: “Lord Jesus Christ help thy servant …” and “Christ have mercy.” In the fifth century, a much more elaborate church in the form of three concentric octagons (visible in the photo) was constructed, still centered around the original room. Byzantine Christians built octagonal churches to commemorate sites believed to be of special importance in Christian history; the octagonal Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built in the fourth century over the cave believed to be the place of Jesus’ birth, is another example. That the tradition of venerating this one Capernaum dwelling begins so early—within living memory of the gospel events—suggests that this is one of the very few gospel sites well attested by archaeology.