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Capharnaum AND THE GOSPELS

1.Capharnaum "the Town of Jesus"
The rediscovered remains of Capharnaum help us to set several passages of the Gospels in the human and physical context of that site. We learn from the Gospels that Jesus left Nazareth and settled in Capharnaum (Mt 4:12) which in some way became "his own town" (Mt 9:1). Actually Capharnaum much more than Nazareth offered to Jesus a twofold advantage as far as his messianic activity was concerned. Firstly, Capharnaum was a crossroad of primary importance, being along the Beth-shan -- Damascus highway; whereas Nazareth was a mountainous and isolated hamlet. Secondly, Capharnaum was sufficiently apart from the big centres and especially from Tiberias where Herod Antipas had set his capital. In that way Jesus was able to spread his messianic message to many persons without running too soon into trouble with the political and religious leaders. In contrast to Nazareth, the population of Capharnaum was highly stratified: fishermen, farmers, artisans, merchants, publicans etc. Lived in the same village, but apparently without any strident economical inequality. Even the relations between the inhabitants of Capharnaum and the Romans were surprisingly cordial. It was a Roman centurion who built the synagogue for the Jewish community, while the elders of the village reciprocated in kindness and pleaded earnestly with Jesus asking him to heal the centurion's servant (Lk 7:1-10). All in all, the inhabitants of Capharnaum were hard workers, parsimonious and open-minded; to those people Jesus addressed himself while in Capharnaum and from the same community Jesus chose many of his apostles either among fishermen (Peter, Andrew, James, John - Mt 4:12-22) or publicans (Matthew - Mk 2:13).

2.The house of Simon Peter

Jesus heals the sick

The Christian community of Capharnaum paid a special attention to the house of Simon Peter. That house became very soon "the house" of the followers of Jesus, i. e. a domus-ecclesia. As a matter of fact, the rediscovered house of Peter is the first example of a domus-ecclesia in the Christian world. The special reasons for this choice can be found in the Gospels. It was Jesus himself who had chosen that house as his home in Capharnaum. In the same way that Capharnaum became "the town of Jesus", Peter's house could be called rightly "the house of Jesus". When we keep in mind the proverbial conciseness of the Gospels, we are immediately struck by their numerous references to the house of Peter (Mk 1:29-34; cfr. Mt 8:14-17; Lk 4:38-41).

There are several details which recent archaeological discoveries can clarify in a concrete way. The house visited by Jesus was only some 30 m south of the synagogue. It was a large house precisely in fact that it consisted of several roofed rooms clustering around a spacious courtyard. We are therefore not surprised when we read in the Gospels that the same house was shared by three families, namely by the families of Peter, of his brother Andrew and of Peter's mother-in-law. Actually this was the standard pattern of the private houses in the living quarters of Capharnaum.

We read that "the whole town came crowding round the door". This detail clearly suggests that a large space was available in front of the house. This is the case indeed. The rediscovered house was along the main NS street of the village and an additional open space was between the spacious street and the doorway leading to the courtyard of the house.

Peter and Jesus are put together in fact of taxes. Only Matthew, who was previously a tax collector, relates this event. Peter is described as the intermediary between the tax collectors and Jesus. Apparently he was ready to pay both for himself and for Jesus. It is Jesus however who solves the tribute for both. The whole passage hints that Jesus was a guest of Peter, and as such was considered as a member of Peter's family (Mt 17 :24-27).

The mention of the people gathered even in front of the door is a literary reference to Mc 1:33. The Greek expression "en oikoi" can be translated either as in a house, or at home. The second rendering is here recommended. In other words, the healing of the paralytic took place in Peter's house where Jesus lived. The lowering of the paralytic from the stripped roof is not strange at all in the context of the rediscovered living quarters of Capharnaum, where indeed the one storey rooms were covered by light roofs reached through a flight of steps from the courtyard (Mk 2:1-4; cfr. Mt 9:1-18; Lk 5:17-26).

Another passage depicts two families of Jesus, i. e. his relatives waiting outside, and his followers sitting around him in the house. In the redactional stage of St. Marc the contrast between those who are outside and those who are inside the house, betrays ecclesial-christological dimensions, meaning those who are inside or outside the Christian community. In some way the house of Jesus in Capharnaum i.e. the house of Peter, receives here the connotations of a domus-ecclesia (Mk 3:20-21 and 31-35; cfr. Mt 12:46-50; Lk 8:10-21).

3.Jairus and the Roman centurion

Jairus' daughter

Besides the house of Simon Peter, three more houses are explicitly mentioned in the Gospels, namely the house of Matthew, where Jesus dined with many tax collectors (Mk 2:15-17); the house of the synagogue official Jairus, the little daughter of whom was brought to life by Jesus (Mk 5:21-23, 35-43); and the house of the Roman centurion (Lk 7:1-10). There is no way to tell where those houses can be found; and this remark applies also to the house of the apostles James and John who for sure were stationed in Capharnaum (Mk 1:19-20). Apparently their location did not interest the Christian community of Capharnaum or at most was soon forgotten. It is not impossible that some of these houses were indeed found by us in the large area so far excavated, but only the house of Peter has been identified.

4.Jesus in the Synagogue
Only one public building, namely the synagogue built by the Roman centurion (Lk 7:5) is mentioned in the Gospels. Of course the synagogue was the hearth of the Jewish community and Jesus visited it several times. In that synagogue of Capharnaum Jesus preached and performed some miracles. We read in Mk 1:21-28: "They went as far as Capharnaum, and as soon as the sabbath came he went to the synagogue and began to teach. And his teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority. "In their synagogue just then there was a man possessed by an unclean spirit and he shouted, `What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God'. But Jesus said sharply, `Be quiet! Come out of him!' and the unclean spirit threw the man into convulsion and with a loud cry went out of him. The people were so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant. `Here is a teaching that is new' they said `and with authority behind it: he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him'. And his reputation rapidly spread everywhere, through all the surrounding Galilean countryside".

It was in the same synagogue that Jesus promised the Eucharist. The evangelist St. John devoted a long chapter to the discourse of Jesus on the bread of life (Jn 6:22-71). Let us read only some passages. "I tell you most solemnly, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven, it is my Father who gives you the bread from heaven, the true bread; for the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world... I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst... I am the living bread that comes down from heaven, so that a man may eat it and not die. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever, and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world... I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life and I shall raise him up on the last day... He taught this doctrine at Capharnaum, in the synagogue".

Some remains of the first century synagogue have been found in the same area where the Jewish community of the late fourth century A.D. built the monumental white synagogue. Strangely enough, only Egeria mentions the synagogue of Capharnaum; whereas Jewish sources are inexplicably silent about this splendid building which for sure is the queen of the Galilean synagogues.




© copyright 2001. Text written by Fr. Stanislao Loffreda ofm. Reproduction, retrieval or redistribution of this material is not permitted without prior permission of the author reachable at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (sbfnet@netvision.net)



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