Imagining Capernaum: The Village of Jesus

Jesus grew up in the Galilean village of Nazareth, but he left his home once he started roaming the land as teacher and healer. For reasons we don’t know he chose a small lakeside place called Capernaum as an important station of his mission. It is also the location of my next book in the REIGN OF GOD series. Here is what I’ve found out about it.

Today, the remains of ancient Capernaum at the beautiful Sea of Galilee are a standard attraction for tourists from around the world. I had the fortune to visit the place in 2012. Despite busloads of other tourists—a group of Korean Christians that burst into song—I felt a sense of peace there. Looking at the old stone walls, the trees, and the reassembled stone structures of a synagogue made me feel a bit closer to the world in which Jesus lived.

A Humble Village…

2,000 years ago, Capernaum—or Kefar Nachum in Aramaic—was a humble, unwalled village extending as a strip of houses along the shore. Calling it a town or even ‘city’ would be an exaggeration. There existed no paved roads, no sewage, no buildings for public entertainment, and barely a sign of Greek culture. 1,500 people lived here at most, the majority of them bare-footed peasants fearful of dying from malaria or childbirth.

While there certainly were some more well-to-do neighbors, upper class folks more likely dwelt in places like Tiberias, the Hellenized capital of Galilee just a few miles southward. The gap between its urban elite and the folks in places like Kefar Nachum was big. We can assume that most of the people that Jesus met there would have been like him: hard-working but impoverished peasants.

19th century photos from Lake Galilee may give us an idea of peasant life: Dark-skinned men, women, and children in raddled clothes, toiling for subsistence. They live in disintegrating houses overgrown with white-blossomed Palestinian jasmine. Toddlers play in the street naked. Children above ten with matted wild hair help their parents’ work. Many people suffer skin diseases and bite marks from lake flies.

… and not a Silk Road Hub

Some historians portray Kefar Nachum as a flourishing trade hub, connecting goods from the whole Roman Empire and beyond via caravans. A prosperous mini-metropolis—I don’t find that convincing. During the Judeo-Roman War (66-73), priest-general Josephus visited Kefar Nachum for medical treatment but had to be moved to Magadan/Tarichaea further south for lack of suitable resources. This echoes the passage in John 4:46, where a royal official cannot find a cure for his sick son in the village and asks Jesus to heal him.

Local and international traders probably did pass through every couple of days together but there were more significant places around the Sea of Galilee. They had much better harbors, towers, sheltered basins, shipyard workers, and wood supply. Kefar Nachum had only existed since Hasmonean times and lacked expensive public facilities, safe for a synagogue.
Only in the 2nd and 3rd centuries was the harbor fortified. Unworked field rocks of various shapes and sizes created piers that extended some 30m into the water. Still modest in comparison with the ones on the eastern shore, in Hippos or Gadara. During Jesus’ lifetime, there might have been some crude basalt piers, if at all.

The Role of the Border

Kefar Nachum had a feature which might have given Jesus a very good reason to take up residence: It was close to the border between the territories of Herod Antipas and his brother Herod Philip II. The village was under the authority of Herod Antipas who had just arrested John the Baptist. Whenever he felt danger, Jesus could mount a boat and escape to Philip’s Gaulanitis (Golan) or the “Decapolis” region of independent Greek cities. And indeed, Jesus often ordered his disciples to drive him across the lake.

The border is a key differentiator. It brought a certain layer of bureaucracy to Kefar Nachum in the form of officials and military. If the gospel stories are right about a “centurion” living there (a Hellenized officer from Herod’s army?), he might had a villa nearby with his household and servants. A royal representative with a number of Herodian soldiers might have been good for reminding the populace of who was in charge.

Another related characteristic are local toll officials who collected tariffs and taxes. Mark and Matthew note the existence of a teloniōn, a customs office. This was likely a simple tax booth or desk. Here worked a man named Levi. Perhaps he owned a more luxurious private house with fashionable Greek items, since tax collectors were infamous for squeezing the people for money. As the local broker of royal fishing licenses, Levi himself was under pressure to provide the chief tax collector in Tarichaea a set amount of money.

A Fertile Soil…

Not everyone in Kefar Nachum needed to be a fisher. The volcanic soil was quite fertile. Reeds, wild grass, willows, and palm trees grew in uncultivated spots. On the foothills grew figs, pomegranate, mulberry, walnut, almond, apricots, peaches, pears and apples. Higher up, medicinal herbs like thyme and fennel were plentiful. The hills around the lake would explode in colors during spring time, and farmers fought with thistles growing in the fields. Some of the produce might have been exported to the cities.

… a Fishing Ground…

But of course, the main industry was fish. The surrounding lake was a great catching ground. To the northeast, fresh water from the mountains flowed down the northern Jordan into the lake. In the southwest, the “Seven Springs” (Heptagion) provided warm water that attracted fish in winter. These hot springs were famous for their healing capacities as well.
Since the beach was not of sand but of gravel, it was not very suitable to fish with drag nets. The most common method was most likely trammel net fishing at night. We often read about this in the gospels. During the daytime, the nets and fish dried while the fishers slept.

Dried fish from the Sea of Galilee was a major commodity as fish was a staple food in Judea next to bread and oil. I guess loads of fish as well as fish products  were carried to other places on a regular basis, by boat or on mules, either for sales or for further processing.

… and a Market of Information

Imagine a smelly marketplace along the shore. A caravan has arrived with mules. Old men sit at the water, mending nets. People mangle in practical Greek and Aramaic between sacks, baskets, balance weights and money. Workers load and unload goods: Fruits, spices, grain from other regions, dried fish for Jerusalem. A boat sets off to bring fresh fish to the drying tower in Magadan. Nearby, some people sell their local glassware—made in the village!—, bootleg Roman pottery, ropes, and cloth while a man of the “fish police” makes rounds to see if everybody follows rules and tariffs.

Kefar Nachum was a sub-station of what is now called the Via Maris, an ancient trade route connecting Egypt and Syria. Trade in this border village brought new people in—along with beggars and sex workers—but it also provided a flow of information from remote places and perhaps a more tolerant attitude toward new thoughts. We can imagine travelers having an midday chat with the locals about the latest hearsay and scandals. Such folks could have factored heavily in spreading the viral news about Jesus and other holy men. I believe this was another reason Jesus chose to go around villages of the lake. They were just as poor as Nazareth, but not as cut-off from what was happening in the region.

Housing

Houses were grouped in quarters or blocks, delineated by unpaved streets that had grown without planning. Extended families lived together in such home clusters built from local basalt stones, mortared with mud and earth and then covered with light-colored plaster. The black basalt—a material unique to Kefar Nachum—absorbed heat, which was useful in the very hot climate around the lake. Built with simple techniques, most houses weren’t stable enough to hold another floor or a heavy roof. Even though Luke writes about ‘tiles’ which had to be removed from the roof to let a lame man reach Jesus, no tiles were ever found. Roofs were made from a mixture of dried mud, reeds, and leaves laid out on ceiling logs. People slept on the roofs in hot summer nights and dried foodstuff and nets.

Each house had only one entrance to the street. Windows were set high and uncovered. They existed for ventilation, not for looking outside. In summer months, sunlight was abundant enough. Inside, the houses did not have doors but mats or curtains. People didn’t decorate or plaster the walls. They made the floors from stone, perhaps mortared them, too. Only the main entrance leading from the main courtyard to the street would have a wooden door with a threshold and locking mechanism.

The courtyard was literally the center of domestic life, where cooking and work was happening. Butchering, waste disposal, making pottery and tools often took place under the open sky. Chickens and goats would roam around in the courtyards. Women would use basalt millstones for grinding grain and pressing olives. The typical house was equipped with cooking and eating utensils like a small olive press, a wheat mill, an oven, and pottery such as pots, wine jugs, cups and bowls. Women had looms to make cloth.

Sometimes a small shop was open to the street. Those irregular streets were made from pebble and soil, dusty in summer, muddy in winter. About 300 meters north of the town was the cemetery. Archaeologists found some oven-shaped tombs and stone sarcophagi there. Wild dogs and jackals that roamed the gardens and tombs at night had to be prevented from digging the graves.

The Synagogue

When you visit the relics of Capernaum today, the stone synagogue is the main attraction. It is an impressive ruin and one of the largest synagogues in the region. It was built, however, in the 5th century. There might have been a 1st century house synagogue somewhere in the village, but the archaeological evidence is not conclusive.
We have to understand that the word “synagogue” does not describe any specific building but simply means “congregation” or “assembly.” For a small village this would mean a community center, a public meeting place to learn the Mosaic Law and discuss disputes and community issues. There was no set template of functions and rituals in the 1st century, and as far as we know, the mysterious statement in Luke that a military officer “built the synagogue for us” does not reveal much.

Next to the market, the synagogue meeting place would have been the center of communal life. A man by the name of Yair (Jairus) was the head of synagogue affairs. Possibly a Pharisaic teacher who had studied in Jerusalem was present here, serving as the main religious teacher, with perhaps a disciple or two.

A Home for Jesus?

Later Rabbinic writings deride Kefar Nachum as “unorthodox,” echoing the disregard “real” Judeans bore toward Galileans. People obviously didn’t care as much about following the laws and purity regulations as the learned teachers would have liked—no wonder, since almost no one could read. Jesus chose to bring his message of God’s dawning Reign to these “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” the peasants at the fringes of society. But he used the existing infrastructure of village community centers (synagogues) as starting points, and the social network of well-connected fishermen to get around.

But was Kefar Nachum really the center of Jesus’ mission? It is the Gospel of Mark (the oldest gospel) that pushes this notion of Kefar Nachum as Jesus’ “own town” where important things happen. On the other hand, the Gospel of John (the youngest gospel) states “he didn’t stay there for many days.” Whatever the case, although Jesus caused a big stir here, he later condemned the villagers for not believing his message.

I think Jesus chose Kefar Nachum mainly because he already had a friend there: Andrew the fisherman. In the Gospel of John we read that Andrew got to know Jesus when they visited John the Baptist at the Jordan. Andrew then introduces his brother Simon to Jesus and they head off to Galilee. The lake with its water would have been the ideal place to continue John’s work of ritually cleansing repentant people. So, I do agree that Kefar Nachum played an important part in the early stages of Jesus’ work. But unlike other teachers at that time he didn’t found a community but kept moving from place to place. Kefar Nachum surely became a stable place for him to take refuge and rest, but it was far from his mind to make it the center of his teaching.

References

Juliette de Baïracli Levy: Summer in Galilee

Matthew J. Grey: Simon Peter in Capernaum: An Archaeological Survey of the First-Century Village

Richard Hardiman & Helen Speelman: In the Footsteps of Abraham
Flavius Josephus: The Jewish War: Revised Edition
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Capernaum – City of Jesus and its Jewish Synagogue
Mendel Nun: The Sea of Galilee and its Fishermen in the New Testament
Joan E. Taylor: Missing Mandala and the Name of Mary ‘Magdalene’
Christopher B. Zeichmann: A ‘Hub’ for the Historical Jesus or the Markan Evangelist?

What do you think?

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