Capernaum

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Capernaum (and other towns near it) are unusual in that its buildings are made from basalt blocks, as seen in this image.
Inside the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, a 3rd or 4th century successor to the one Jesus spoke in.
A Roman mile marker on the Via Maris (Sea Way) in Capernaum.
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CAPERNAUM kə pûr’nĭ əm (Καφαρναούμ, Καπερναούμ; כְּפַר נַחוּם; village of Nahum). A city on the NW shore of the Sea of Galilee which served as Jesus’ Galilean home base. The city evidently was named after someone called Nahum but there is no proof that this was Nahum the prophet. The name of the city does not occur in Scripture outside of the gospels.

The site.

There has been a considerable amount of discussion as to the exact location of Capernaum and the evidence available now is still not entirely conclusive. Two main sites have been suggested, namely Tell Hum and Khirbet or Khan Minya. The latter is situated along the NW coast of the Sea of Galilee on the edge of the plain of Gennesaret about five m. from the place where the Jordan enters the Sea being two and a half m. beyond Tell Hum. Josephus speaks of a place of many springs called Capernaum (Wars. III. x. 8) and, in fact, there are springs at ’Ain et-Tin and ’Ain et-Tabgha which lie between Khan Minya and Tell Hum. There is nothing about the distances involved, however, which will enable one to identify the location of Capernaum with one site or the other. Josephus also informs us that, having been injured in a fall from his horse during operations near Julias (=Bethsaida) close to the Jordan, he was carried into a village named Cepharnome or Capernaum (Life, 72). Some have argued that he would have been carried to the nearest site which would have been Tell Hum. Once again, however, the location of Josephus’ accident is not known with sufficient accuracy to build a strong case and, at the same time, both Khan Minya and Tell Hum were prob. close enough to serve the purpose.

A number of medieval writers identify Khan Minya with Capernaum but that evidence is rather too late to be convincing.

It is now generally agreed that Tell Hum has the best claim to represent the site of Capernaum. The Midrash Rabbah (Shir. III. 10) and the Jerusalem Talmud (Ther. XI. 7) speak of “Tanhum” which appears to be a variation of Nahum, and the Arab. Tell Hum may be a corruption of this. Theodosius (a.d. c. 530) and other Christian writers agree with this identification. Eusebius’ Onomasticon places Capernaum two m. from Chorazin and this suits the identification with Tell Hum better as well.

But the most convincing evidence for the identification of Capernaum with Tell Hum is provided by the excavations carried out there.

Archeology.

The archeological survey failed to find pottery earlier than the Arab. period at Khan Minya but found ample examples of Rom. pottery at Tell Hum. Thus Khan Minya was prob. not inhabited at the time of Christ. Among the ruins of Tell Hum is an octagonal shaped building referred to as Peter’s house but perhaps more prob. is the ruins of a church built on the traditional site of the house of Peter (see Matt 8:14, 15; Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38, 39).

By far the most impressive ruin at the site is that of an ancient synagogue, however. The detailed description of the approach to “the synagogue of our Lord” given by Sylvia in a.d. 385 corresponds remarkably with the features of the street which lead up to the synagogue at the site. The building itself was about sixty-five ft. long and two stories high and, rather than being built of the local black basalt, was of white limestone. It was a very ornate structure displaying a variety of designs and figures some of which must have been offenses against the law of Moses if taken literally. The Midrash Rabbah (Koh. I. 8) speaks of Capernaum as a place of the Minim or “sectaries” and it may be that the synagogue ornamentation was, even in antiquity, considered to be unorthodox. The building is dated to the second or third cent. a.d. though it may well be a safe assumption that it stands on the site of the synagogue of our Lord’s day mentioned in Luke 7:5 and built by a Rom. centurion. Interestingly, one of the pillars bore the inscr. “Alphaeus, son of Zebedee, son of John, made this column; on him be blessing”—a reminder, perhaps, that John and James and the Zebedee family were prominent residents of the town (Matt 4:21; Mark 1:19; Luke 5:10). Also discovered was a carved manna-pot from the traditional place by the lintel of the door. This would have been visible from the reading desk of the synagogue and it may well have been such a view which suggested Christ’s sermon on the bread of life while in the synagogue at Capernaum (John 6:48-59).

Capernaum in the gospels.

Judging by the gospel accounts, Capernaum was a city of some considerable importance. It was there that Matthew sat at the “tax office” collecting taxes, possibly on the fish caught in the lake, among other things (Matt 9:9). It was the home of a high ranking government official (John 4:46). A Rom. centurion with his detachment of soldiers also lived there. Their residence was long and significant enough for the centurion to have provided a synagogue for the local Jewish congregation. The question our Lord asked of Capernaum, “Will you be exalted to heaven?” seemingly refers to the city’s attitude of pride and his severe condemnation of the place seems to have been fulfilled in the most literal sense as evidenced by the difficulty of discovering and identifying the site now (Matt 11:23; Luke 10:15).


Bibliography

G. Dalman, Orte und Wege Jesu (1919), 132-149; E. L. Sukenik, Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (1934), 7-21; C. C. McCown, Ladder of Progress in Palestine (1943), 257-260, 267-272; J. S. Kennard, “Was Capernaum the Home of Jesus?”, JBL, LXV (1946), 131-141; E. F. F. Bishop, “Jesus and Capernaum,” CBQ, XV (1953), 427-437; C. Kopp, The Holy Places of the Gospels (1963), 171-179.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


Josephus twice mentions Capernaum. It played no great part in the history of his time, and seems to have declined in importance, as he refers to it as a "village." In battle in el-BaTeichah his horse fell into a quagmire, and he suffered injury which disabled him for further fighting. His soldiers carried him to the village of Capernaum (this reference is however doubtful; the name as it stands is Kepharnomon which Niese corrects to Kepharnokon), whence he was removed to Tarichea (Vita, 72). Again he eulogizes the plain of Gennesaret for its wonderful fruits, and says it is watered by a most fertile fountain which the people of the country call Capharnaum. In the water of this fountain the Coracinus is found (BJ, III, x, 8). Josephus therefore corroborates the Biblical data, and adds the information as to the fountain and the Coracinus fish. The fish however is found in other fountains near the lake, and is therefore no help toward identification.

The two chief rivals for the honor of representing Capernaum are Tell Chum, a ruined site on the lake shore, nearly 2 1/2 miles West of the mouth of the Jordan; and Khan Minyeh fully 2 1/2 miles farther west, at the Northeast corner of the plain of Gennesaret. Dr. Tristram suggested `Ain El-Madowwerah, a large spring enclosed by a circular wall, on the western edge of the plain. But it stands about a mile from the sea; there are no ruins to indicate that any considerable village ever stood here; and the water is available for only a small part of the plain.

In favor of Tell Chum is Eusebius, Onomasticon, Which places Chorazin 2 miles from Capernaum. If Kerazeh is Chorazin, this suits Tell Chum better than Khan Minyeh. To this may be added the testimony of Theodosius (circa 530), Antoninus Martyr (600), and John of Wurtzburg (1100). Jewish tradition speaks of Tankhum, in which are the graves of Nahum and Rabbi Tankhum. Identifying Kerr Nahum with Tankhum, and then deriving Tell Chum from Tankhum, some have sought to vindicate the claims of this site. But every link in that chain of argument is extremely precarious. A highway ran through Tell Chum along which passed the caravans to and from the East; but the place was not in touch with the great north-and-south traffic.

There is also no fountain near Tell Chum answering the description of Josephus. Of recent advocates of Tell Chum, it is sufficient to name Schurer (HJP, IV, 71) and Buhl (GAP, 224 f). In this connection it may be interesting to note that the present writer, when visiting the place recently (1911), drew his boatman’s attention to a bit of ruined wall rising above the greenery West of the lagoon, and asked what it was called. Kaniset el Kufry, was the reply, which may be freely rendered, "church of the infidels." This is just the Arabic equivalent of the Jewish "church of the minim."

For Khan Minyeh it may be noted that Gennesaret corresponds to el-Ghuweir, the plain lying on the Northwest shore, and that Khan Minyeh stands at the Northeast extremity of the plain; thus answering, as Tell Chum cannot do, the description of the Gospels. The copious fountains at eT-Tabigha, half a mile to the East, supplied water which was conducted round the face of the rock toward Khan Minyeh at a height which made it possible to water a large portion of the plain. If it be said that Josephus must have been carried to Tell Chum as being nearer the scene of his accident--see however, the comment above--it does not at all follow that he was taken to the nearest place. Arculf (1670) described Capernaum as on a "narrow piece of ground between the mountain and the lake." This does not apply to Tell Chum; but it accurately fits Khan Minyeh. Isaac Chelo (1334) says that Capernaum, then in ruins, had been inhabited by Minim, that is, Jewish converts to Christianity. The name Minyeh may have been derived from them. Quaresimus (1620-26) notes a Khan called Menieh which stood by the site of Capernaum. Between the ruined Khan and the sea there are traces of ancient buildings. Here the road from the East united with that which came down from the North by way of Khan Jubb Yusif, so that this must have been an important center, alike from the military point of view, and for customs. This is the site favored by, among others, G. A. Smith (HGHL, 456 f; EB, under the word) and Conder. Sanday argued in favor of Khan Minyeh in his book, The Sacred Sites of the Gospel, but later, owing to what the present writer thinks a mistaken view of the relation between Tell Chum and the fountain at eT-Tabigha, changed his mind (Expository Times, XV, 100 ff). There is no instance of a fountain 2 miles distant being called by the name of a town. Tell Chum, standing on the sea shore, was independent of this fountain, whose strength also was spent in a westward direction, away from Tell Chum.

The balance of evidence was therefore heavily in favor of Khan Minyeh until Professor R. A. S. Macalister published the results of his researches. He seems to be wrong in rejecting the name Tell Chum in favor of Talchum; and he falls into a curious error regarding the use of the word tell. No one who speaks Arabic, he says, "would ever think of applying the word Tell, `mound,’ to this flat widespread ruin." In Egyptian Arabic, however, tell means "ruin"; and Asad Mansur, a man of education whose native language is Arabic, writes: "I do not understand what the objectors mean by the word `tell.’ In Arabic `tell’ is used for any heap of ruins, or mound. So that the ruins of Tell Chum themselves are today a `tell’ " (Expos, April, 1907, 370). Professor Macalister is on surer ground in discussing the pottery found on the rival sites. At Khan Minyeh he found nothing older than the Arabian period, while at Tell Chum pottery of the Roman period abounds--"exactly the period of the glory of Capernaum" (PEFS, April and July, 1907). If this be confirmed by further examination, it disposes of the claim of Khan Minyeh. Important Roman remains have now been found between the ruined Khan and the sea. It is no longer open to doubt that this was the site of a great Roman city. The Roman period however covers a long space. The buildings at Tell Chum are by many assigned to the days of the Antonines. Is it possible from the remains of pottery to make certain that the city flourished in the time of the Herods? If the city at Tell Chum had not yet arisen in the days of Christ, those who dispute its claim to be Capernaum are under no obligation to show which city the ruins represent. They are not the only extensive ruins in the country of whose history we are in ignorance.