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Saint Peter's house at Capharnaum

(the very first Domus-ecclesia)

Capernaum owes its fame to Jesus, who made it the centre of his activities in Galilee, and to the numerous references in the gospels to things that happened there. When Jesus left Nazareth he made Capernaum his home-town (Mt 4: 12-17; 9,1). Here Jesus paid the temple-tax for himself and for Peter (Mt 17: 24-27). He called his first disciples (Mt 4: 18-22; 9: 9-13). He healed a possessed man (Mk 1: 21-28), Peter’s mother-in-law (Mt 8: 14-15), a paralysed man (Mt 9: 2-8) and the centurion’s servant (Mt 8: 5-13). He taught many times in the synagogue at Capernaum and it was here he proclaimed himself to be "the living bread that came down from heaven" (Jn 6: 26-59). The episode of Jairus’daughter and the woman with the issue of blood (Mk 5: 21-43) and of the man with a paralyzed hand (Mk 3: 1-6), probably happened at Capernaum. The gospels also speak of Jesus’Mother having been in Capernaum (Jn 2: 12).

The gospels give us a clear picture of Jesus’ activity at Capernaum, what he did on the lakeshore and in particular in the synagogue and in the house of "Peter and Andrew" (Mk 1: 29). This house was not only the place where Jesus lived, but was a "house of formation" for his disciples, a beautiful and eloquent image of the Church. The evangelist Mark sheds more light on Peter’s house in the mystery of the Church. After proclaiming the parables and other teachings to the crowds nearby at Tabgha, place of the "public teaching", Jesus would give the "private teaching" back at Peter’s house: "To you has been given to know the mystery of God’s kingdom; but to those outside everything is told in parables" (Mk 4: 11).

They are the walls of this very house which divided those who were outside from those inside who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened, and in particular the walls of the principle room in the house, later venerated by the first generation of Christians, who separated it from the ordinary life of Peter’s family and made it a church, a meeting place for proclaiming the Gospel and for prayer and adoration in the Church’s rites. And this not by chance. Again in Mark’s gospel, chapter 3, we watch as it is acted out the early formation of the Church. Jesus’ own people come from Nazareth, his mother and his cousins, anxious because it has been said: "He’s gone out of his mind!". Those who have come to listen to him are crowded together in the main room and courtyards of the house while his family are outside trying to find him. Jesus says: "Who is my mother and who are my brothers?" Looking around at those inside listening he adds: "Those who do the Father’s will are brother, sister and mother to me". The guests in Peter’s house are already part of his family and members of the new family belonging to God the Father.

When in 1968 the excavations at Capernaum began again, in area or "insula" nû1,  which was noted "sacred" because it included the house of Saint Peter according to tradition, the remains were already visible of an octagonal, fifth-century church uncovered in 1921. Once the mosaic floor had been removed and the entire area excavated with scrupulous care, the team of archaeologists identified three principal strata along with many other, intermediary levels indicating periods of habitation: the first stratum was of private houses built during the second century B. C. and in use until the fourth century A. D.; The second stratum was the "house of the chuch" (Domus-ecclesia) with adaptations for cultic use; the third stratum was the octagonal church form the fith century A. D. Peter’s house was close to the lake-shore and flanked to the east by the principle, north-south road (cardo maximus ) of the village. It was built just like the other houses - little rooms with roofing grouped around largish, open courtyards. The archaeologists naturally focused their attention on this house of particular interest. They were able to find overlaying levels of habitation dating from the late-hellenistic period. From the second half of the second century B. C. up until towards the end of the first half of the first century A. D. these levels are made up of layers of beaten earth mixed with household, ceramic objects (fragments of jars, pots, plates and lamps). Over the top of these older layers they uncovered something exceptional. Covering an area of roughly 12 square metres along the north-east side of the room which had been venerated was the flooring of at least six layers of white plaster. As well as this find, they gathered up various fragments of colored plaster which had certainly been used to decorate the walls of the room. At the same time it was remarked the almost complete absence of household-pottery fragments. Finally one should note that in all of the village of Capernaum, of which a great part has been excavated, this is the only room which has plaster on the walls and floor. All this points to the conclusion that Peter’s house, containing the room which was venerated, had already been set apart as a meeting-place for the comunity by the second-half of the first century A. D. Towards the end of the fourth century A. D. great changes have been verified without there being any interruption reguarind the place’s having been lived in continously until that time. Then the entire area of the "insula sacra" was encircled by an outer-wall and separated off from the rest of the town by a perimeter of 112.25 metres. Two gates, which opened respectively to the north-west and to the south-west, gave access to the "insula".

These changes involved the destruction of some houses, and with the centering of the complex on the venerated room, it too received some modifications. A new floor was put in, a new roof went up and inside, the space was divided into two parts by an arch running north-south. The north wall was riconstructed, while the other three were left untouched. An atrium in the form of a rectangle was made into the east side. The new arrangement of the whole and especially of the structure comprising the atrium to the east and the focal point to the west together with the surrounding wall, confer on the place the character typical of buildings designed for cultic purposes. From the strictly archaeological point of view, this forth century Domus-ecclesia must be considered a most important discovery.

Concerning the transformation of Peter’s house into a Domus-ecclesia, has come down to us the precious testimony attributed to an already well-known pilgrim to the Holy Land, Egeria, writing towards the end of the fourth century: "And in Capernaum, what is more, the house of the prince of the apostles (Peter) has been turned into a church, leaving its original walls however quite unchanged". The archaeological diggings are proof of the accuracy and faithfulness of the above description. The abundant remaining plaster with its numerous examples of grafitti left by pilgrims (in greek, Aramaic, Syriac and Latin) invoking the "Lord Jesus Christ" and Peter or reproducing invocations and liturgical formulations to say nothing of decorative motifs with crosses, confirm in what way the place was visited and held in honour by the Christians.

Towards the second half of the fifth century the "insula sacra" was totally covered over by Byzantine builders who put up a church on an octagonal design. It is interesting to note that they must have had in mind to keep alive the memory of Peter’s house, because they built the centre octagon of their church right over the venerated room. The anonymous pilgrim of Piacenza passing through Capernaum around 560-570 A. D. writes about this final transformation: "And so we came on to Capernaum to the house of Saint Peter, which is now a basilica".

During the centuries which followed, Capernaum was abandoned and in time forgotten so that even the memory of where it stood was lost. But Capernaum was reborn a century ago with the arrival at the spot in 1894 of the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land. The Memorial which stands today aims to conserve and protect the venerable ruins of the place where Peter opened his home to the Teacher from Nazareth. At the same time it seeks to offer to the many Christian pilgrims visiting Capernaum the chance to celebrate the Holy Eucharist there at Saint Peter’s house in the town where Jesus declared: "I am the bread which has come down from heaven" (Jn 6: 41).



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