The Capernaum Synagogue

Jun 16, 2019 | Bible Archeology | 0 comments

The village of Capernaum is a well-known and venerated archaeological site in northern Israel. It is the place where the Gospels say Jesus taught and healed many people while staying at Peter’s house and visiting the nearby local synagogue.

Excavations in the centre of the village have revealed foundations of an octagonal building – a typical construction for holy sites in the Byzantine period – and indeed it dates to that time. This building is identified as a shrine built on top of Peter’s house. Under the foundations of the octagonal building the excavators revealed a layer containing fragments of architecture and domestic artifacts dating to the first century AD.

The problems began when excavating the nearby public building that proved to be a synagogue. The location matches the Bible’s description, which says explicitly that Peter’s house was very close to the village synagogue. (Mark 1:29) But 25,000 coins found under the floor indicate that the synagogue was not built before the fifth century AD. There may have been a synagogue from the first century below, but it as completely cleared and built over in the Byzantine period.

The size and glamour of the building is far above the average Jewish synagogue of those days: the walls are made of imported white limestone and the lintels are of the finest quality. The village was undoubtedly a major Christian site visited by large numbers of Christian pilgrims in the Byzantine period (as it still is today), but what seems difficult to explain is that what must have been a wealthy Jewish community living in that village could have built a lavish synagogue at that time and so close to the venerated site of St Peter’s house. Aside from the building, there is almost no additional evidence, historical or archaeological, that Jews ever lived in Capernaum in the Byzantine period.

Uri Zvi Ma’oz, an Israeli archaeologit specialising in anient synagogues in Israel, recently publisehd a very interesting and creative solution for the discrepancy of the synagogue of Capernaum, which explains its construction.

In his opinion, Jews never built or used the synagogue at Capernaum. Instead, he suggests that it was erected by Christians! In those days Christians were busy identifying many sites mentioned in the scriptures and preserving them by constructing memorial buildings above them. For example, this was the time whenthe Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives were all constructed.

It may have been in such a setting that the synagogue of Capernaumw was built. The Byzantine period Christians did not build the synagogue as a functional building, but as a monument meant to echo the house of worship standing there in the days of Jesus.

The architects reused decorated lintels of various styles from late Roman period buildings that looked already old and impressive to the Byzantine period Christian pilgrims. They made more entrances than a synagogue really needs and they did not bother to erect a roof over it, as the lack of roof tiles attests. The synagogue was a Christian pilgrimage sit resembling Jewish synagogues from those days, but visited only by Christian pilgrims.

Daniel Herman

Article used with permission of Diggins Online. You can find more useful material at Apologtetics Courses, Free Courses and Brethren Assembly. Secular materials can be found at Coins Encyclopedia and Guide For Income

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