Tuesday, July 7, 2015

ISRAEL: CAPERNAUM, CITY OF MIRACLES

Capernaum, known as "Capharnaum" in Israel, is located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee about 30 miles northeast of Jesus's hometown of Nazareth. During his day it was a prosperous and crowded region, and it was here that Jesus lived after he began his ministry. Matthew says it was "his own city" (Matthew 9:1). 
Capernaum is mentioned in all four Gospels and was the home of Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew.

A Franciscan monastery stands guard over the site:


It was in Capernaum that Jesus recruited Peter, James, and John to be "fishers of men" and where he called the publican Matthew to join them. It was where he began his ministry in the synagogue and taught his first parables. And it was here that he performed eleven of the thirty-seven miracles mentioned in the New Testament, including healing Peter's mother-in-law, healing the centurion's servant, curing a man of an unclean spirit, healing a man sick with palsy after he was lowered through the roof into the room where the Savior was preaching, raising the daughter of Jairus, healing the man with the withered hand, detecting the touch of the woman with the issue of blood and then healing her, and directing the apostles to catch a fish and find a coin in its mouth with which to pay taxes.
Like so many places in Israel, Capernaum today has been an archaeological site for a century or more. A section of the city, which was about 14 acres in size and had a population of about 1,500, has been uncovered, and restoration work is ongoing.
As we sat in the shade of a few of the large trees, Michael transported us back over 2,000 years while he shared the stories, doctrines, and methods of the world's greatest teacher. Then he sent us out to explore on our own.
A 4th century synagogue was discovered by archaeologists, and then, underneath that synagogue, they found an older one that dated back to the time of Christ. The evidence is pretty good that this is an "A" site, the actual synagogue of Jesus, the place where he began his public ministry. Most of the synagogue ruins we could see were from the 4th century, but they give visitors a good idea of the dimensions and shape of the earlier synagogue.

It was this Capernaum synagogue Jesus visited on the Sabbath after he called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be "fishers of men." Those who heard him expound on the scriptures in the synagogue that day "were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes." 

Then Jesus cast an "unclean spirit" out of a man, "And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him" (Mark 1).


And after that, his fame was spread throughout the region, and there was no peace for Jesus anymore. As I read the Gospels that cover Jesus's time in Capernaum, I am struck by how one miracle seems to follow right after another, sometimes several in a single chapter, and I think about the emotional and spiritual strength that must have required of him. No wonder he needed time alone on the far side of the Sea of Galilee.
As in so many places in Israel, this is a "pinch me" place--a site I have read about in the scriptures all my life, and where I had the incredibly good fortune to visit.





There are many ruins other than those of the temple, partial walls and doorways that give a hint of the lives of former residents. These and the earlier "synagogue of Jesus" are built from black basalt, in contrast to the white limestone of the 4th century synagogue:

Near the center of the fragmented village and just a few hundred feet from the synagogue is an odd octagonal building that hovers, spaceship-like, over the ground:
This octagonal church was built in 1990 to protect a 5th century AD octagonal church (a shape common for the era; for example, the Dome of the Rock, built 637 AD), which in turn protects the home of none other than Simon Peter. This site has been venerated as his home since as early as the mid-1st century. While it is controversial (Isn't everything in Israel?), there is a strong possibility that this was indeed Peter's house.

It's interesting to note how close "Peter's house" would have been to the synagogue. It makes me wonder if he wasn't more than just a simple fisherman:
Picture from here
Visitors can stoop to look underneath the new church, where they will see the 5th century stone walls of the old church built around Peter's house:


Fish design on the supporting structure for the modern church
Visitors can also go inside and view the old church and Peter's house through a glass floor:



When archaeologists began excavating Peter's house around 1985, they discovered a fairly typical structure with coarse walls and a roof that would have been earth and straw. There were a few smaller rooms bunched around two open courtyards. What made it unique was that beginning sometime in the mid-1st century AD, plaster was applied to all the walls in the main room and storage jars and oil lamps were brought in, indicating that the structure no longer functioned as a home but as a place of gathering, perhaps even serving as the first Christian church. Later, buttresses were added to the stone walls so that they could support a stone roof, and colorful floral and geometric designs were painted on the walls. More than a hundred pieces of Greek, Syriac, and Hebrew graffiti were scratched into the walls, inscriptions that say things like "Christ have mercy" and "Lord Jesus help thy servant." There are also etchings of small crosses and a boat.

Without further proof, it is hard to definitively state what happened 2,000 years ago, but clearly these few rooms were important enough to be used for over 300 years before the 5th century church was built directly over them, and it seems very plausible that they had some connection to Jesus.

No wonder the Franciscans consider this a very holy place. This could be the place Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law and others, and may even be where Jesus stayed while he lived in Capernaum.
The church surrounding the glass floor is a very modern Catholic church. The colorful mosaic altar shows the feeding of the 5,000 with loaves (on the left) and fishes (on the right):
A series of beautiful woodcarvings are hung between the windows around the periphery of the room, some illustrating events that occurred in Capernaum, and others highlighting important events from the life of Jesus in general. Some have Latin explanations carved into a piece below the woodcarving, and others are left for the viewer to interpret.

The calling of the apostles: 
"Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and he saw, and rose up and followed him, as did Matthew."
Calling Peter to be the head of the church (Note the keys in his left hand):
"You are Peter and upon this rock will I build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it."
 Miracles performed in Capernaum:
"He saw Peter's wife's mother with fever when he was come in, and healed it and all who were sick."
And, bringing one sick of the palsy, they uncovered the roof. I say unto thee: Arise and take up thy bed and walk."
No caption on this one, but it looks like it may illustrate the scripture in Matthew 18:3: "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."
No caption here either, but it looks like it might be the raising of Lazarus:
The crucifixion:
A tribute to Mary:
"Thou art the glory of Jerusalem, Thou art the joy of Israel, Thou art the honor of our people."
Outside, with his back to the Sea of Galilee, Peter surveys the scene:
A caption under the statue reads "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will built my church. Matthew 16:18."
(That particular interaction between Jesus and Peter did not occur in this place, however, but further north at Caesarea Philippi.)

That night we had a chance to take a boat out on the Sea of Galilee late at night.
Where are you, Kasey? Oh, THERE you are!
Our view of the shore was quite different than what Jesus and his disciples would have seen, but when our captain turned off the motor and lights, it was very quiet. We could hear the water lapping against the sides of our boat, but no noise from the shore. Michael powerfully shared the story of "the 4th watch" (3:00 to 6:00 AM) when Jesus came walking across the water. He reminded us that sometimes we need to do as much as we can--the apostles had been rowing all night and gotten only 700 yards--before help arrives. Hold on!

We enjoyed our visit to Capernaum, a peaceful place looking out over the tranquil, vitreous Sea of Galilee:
Mark Twain really blew it when he described Capernaum, Tiberias, and the Sea of Galilee:
[T]hese unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness, that never, never, never do shake the glare from their harsh outlines, and fade and faint into vague perspective; 
. . . that melancholy ruin of Capernaum; this stupid village of Tiberias, . . .  yonder desolate declivity where the swine of the miracle ran down into the sea, and doubtless thought it was better to swallow a devil or two and get drowned into the bargain than have to live longer in such a place; this cloudless, blistering sky;
. . .  this solemn, sailless, tintless lake, reposing within its rim of yellow hills and low, steep banks,  and looking just as expressionless and unpoetical (when we leave its sublime history out of the question,) as any metropolitan reservoir in Christendom. (From Innocents Abroad)

The vibrant landscapes and peaceful shores make this area ideal for reflection and meditation and perfect for a spirit-enriching experience.

On the other hand, Mark Twain was right when he mused: 
One of the most astonishing things that have yet fallen under our observation is the exceedingly small portion of the earth from which sprang the now flourishing plant of Christianity. The longest journey our Saviour ever performed was from here [Capernaum] to Jerusalem--about one hundred to one hundred and twenty miles. . . . Instead of being wide apart--as American appreciation of distances would naturally suggest--the places made most particularly celebrated by the presence of Christ are nearly all right here in full view, and within cannon-shot of Capernaum. Leaving out two or three short journeys of the Saviour, he spent his life, preached his gospel, and performed his miracles within a compass no larger than an ordinary county in the United States. It is as much as I can do to comprehend this stupefying fact.

4 comments:

  1. Love the Twain quotes, particularly the last one, and the recitation of events in Capernaum. Lots to think about in this place.

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  2. Great commentary in this post. I missed all of that wood carving in the church.

    I've had that same last Twain thought a dozen times since our trip-just not so eloquently.

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  3. Beautiful wood carvings! It would certainly test your knowledge of New Testament stories if there wasn't a caption. That night cruise sounds wonderful.

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  4. what great pictures
    what a great introduction to the city
    thanks

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