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Capernaum was a small Jewish fishing and agricultural community on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was apparently a principal base of Jesus’ operations, with Matt 9:1 going so far as to call it Jesus’ “own city.” According to Mark 1:29, it was the hometown of Jesus’ disciples Simon, Andrew, James, and John. It is the setting for well-known stories such as Jesus’ call of a tax collector to follow him (Mark 2:12-17), his preaching and exorcism in a synagogue (Mark 1:21-28, Luke 4:31-37), the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law (Matt 8:14-15, Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-39) and the healing of a paralytic man (Matt 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12). Perhaps the most famous story associated with Capernaum is that of the Gentile centurion whose faith Jesus praises after healing his servant (Matt 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10).

Various scholars explored and excavated portions of the site in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the late 1960s, archaeologists associated with the Studium Biblical Franciscanum (Franciscan Biblical School) in Jerusalem began more extensive work there, followed a decade later by archaeologists associated with the Greek Orthodox Church. The most famous discoveries are a limestone synagogue constructed in the late fourth or early fifth century C.E. that can now be seen in reconstructed form and an octagonal church built in the fifth century. The church sits atop a first-century house that itself underwent extensive renovation in the preceding centuries. Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Syriac graffiti demonstrate that it was a site of pilgrimage already in the fourth century. Because the fourth-century Christian pilgrim Egeria wrote that she visited the house of Peter, many believe that ancient architectural remains underneath the octagonal church are in fact the disciple’s house.

Archaeological finds from the first century are more modest but nonetheless extensive and important, consisting of basalt houses with accompanying courtyards, streets, and various small objects. Fragments from stone vessels attest to the village’s predominantly Jewish population, as only Jews in this region used such vessels, believing them to be impervious to ritual impurity. Today, Capernaum’s well-preserved finds provide a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists.

Have archaeologists discovered the synagogue where Jesus taught?

Early twentieth-century excavators were convinced that Capernaum’s limestone synagogue was the one built by the centurion mentioned in Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Later scholars suggested on architectural grounds that the synagogue actually dated to the second or third century C.E. Today, most scholars date the building’s construction to the late fourth or fifth century C.E. on the basis of pottery evidence, coin finds, and stylistic considerations.

Many scholars are intrigued by the possibility that the limestone synagogue was built on top of an earlier synagogue that may go back to the first century, pointing to remains of basalt walls and pavements underneath the fifth-century building. Because thorough excavation of the basalt structures would require dismantling the limestone synagogue, it is likely that this question will never be resolved with certainty.

Were Roman soldiers stationed at Capernaum in the time of Jesus?

Some interpreters understandably assume that the centurion mentioned in Matt 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 was a Roman army officer. However, while both gospels refer to the centurion as Gentile, neither identifies him as a Roman, and it is unlikely that Capernaum had a Roman garrison in the early first century. Galilee at the time belonged to the territory of Antipas, a Herodian client-king who served at the whim of the Romans but had some degree of autonomy. It would have been unusual for the Romans to station soldiers in the territory of a loyal client-king who faced no serious internal or external threats. Roman troops were apparently not permanently stationed in Galilee until the second century C.E. A famous milestone exhibited at modern Capernaum that documents the construction of a road by Roman soldiers dates not to the time of Jesus but to the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 C.E.). Because the armies of the Herodian kings included Gentiles and were sometimes organized along Roman lines, it is likely that the tradition underlying the gospels’ story originally referred to an officer in the army of Antipas.

  • Mark A. Chancey

    Mark A. Chancey is professor of religious studies in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His research interests range from the historical Jesus, archaeology and the Bible, and the political and social history of Roman-period Palestine to church-state issues and religion and contemporary public education. He is the author of two books with Cambridge University Press, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (2002) and Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (2005), and is the coauthor of  Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (Yale University Press, 2012).