History of the Village

The areas of the village recently excavated

There is no mention of the village in the Old Testament; on the other hand, there is archaeological proof that it was already in existence in the second century BC, i.e., during the period of the Hasmonean dynasty.
Throughout its history, Capernaum always appears as a village and not as a city: this is how it was noted by Flavius Josephus in the first century AD (Vita, 403) and by the historian Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century (ELS, no. 432), while around 670 Arculf added that Capernaum had no defensive walls and that it had developed along the shore of the lake (from east to west), though its depth was limited by the shore and the neighboring hills to the north (ELS, no. 437). This last piece of information has been confirmed by excavations showing that the burial area, which was always placed outside the inhabited zone, began approximately 200 meters to the north of the synagogue.

Although just a village, Capernaum benefited from a very favored location: its territory extended for three kilometers to Tabgha, site of the “fountains of Capernaum” mentioned by Flavius Josephus (Jewish War, III, 10, 8). The inhabitants were actively involved in agriculture, as is shown by the various machines for olive oil and wheat that have been found in the excavations. Fishing was another source of income: the west coast of the lake remains even today a highly-appreciated fishing area. The remains of the small port have been identified to the west of the present-day port built by the Franciscans.

Capernaum was situated near one of the principal trade routes linking Galilee with Damascus. This was confirmed by the discovery of a milestone bearing a Latin inscription referring to Emperor Hadrian. It is highly likely that Hadrian had only repaired or improved the traces of an already existing road. It was on this transit route that, according to Egeria, the tax collector Matthew was sitting, before becoming the disciple of Jesus and author of the first Gospel (ELS, no. 410).

Jesus chose Capernaum as the center of his public ministry in Galilee, after having left Nazareth, which was a humble mountain village. Capernaum was an ideal site where he was able to approach many humble, open-hearted people, without provoking a reaction from the distant ruling classes. The Evangelists, while not making any detailed references to the topography of the village, mention a synagogue that had been built by the Roman centurion (Luke 7:5), the house of Peter and Andrew (Mark 1:29), and the house of the Roman centurion (Matt 8:5-13). The excavations carried out have permitted the identification of Peter’s house.

Capernaum does not seem to have become involved in the bloody Jewish revolts against the Romans that broke out in 70 AD and 132 AD: life in the village continued much as before, in contrast with the situation in nearby Chorazin which, according to Eusebius (ELS, no. 459), at the beginning of the fourth century still was in a state of ruin.

Several passages from the Mishnah indicate that living alongside the Orthodox Jewish community was a very powerful and enterprising group of Judeo-Christians.
Already in the second century the proselytism of these Christians who came from Judaism had reached the upper echelons: a well-known example is provided by the conversion to Christianity of Hanina, nephew of the rabbi Yehoshua (Midrash Rabbah. Ecclesiastes 1: 8 § 4). This was a very serious case, and the Orthodox Jews were obliged to send Hanina to Babylon in order to keep him far away from the “spells” of the Minim, or heretics, as Judeo-Christians had come to be disparagingly referred to. In this context another rabbinical passage, dating from not later than the beginning of the fourth century, is noteworthy: “The rabbi Issi of Caesarea commented on a Biblical verse (concerning good and evil), referring to the doctrine of the Minim: ‘the good’ refers to the rabbi Hanina, nephew of Yehoshua; ‘the evil’ (makes reference) to the inhabitants of Capernaum” (Ibid., VII. 26 § 3). The text in question shows that:

  • the Minim of Capernaum had become “proverbial” throughout all of Palestine, in the sense of providing a clear example of evil;
  • they must have represented the majority of the Jewish population of the village, for it would have made no sense to condemn the inhabitants of Capernaum en masse if only a few troublemakers were Minim;
  • it was preferable to leave the Holy Land, like the good rabbi Hanina, rather than live in close proximity to such a dangerous sect.

The recent excavations have provided first-hand proof of the presence of these Jewish-Christians in Capernaum: it was they who late in the first century AD transformed Peter’s house into a place of religious gatherings (a domus ecclesiae), and they remained rooted to this holy place until the arrival of Christians of Gentile stock.
With the peace of Constantine, the Christians of Capernaum were able to build a more spacious and elegant domus ecclesiae, as before very close to the traditional house of St. Peter. The Holy Land became the destination of large numbers of Christian pilgrims, and the famous Egeria left us this important information about Peter’s house: “And in Capernaum, what is more, the house of the prince of the Apostles has been transformed into a church, with its original walls still standing” (ELS, no. 412).
Towards the end of the fourth century, works began on the construction of the impressive synagogue and were completed in the second half of the fifth century. The traditional site of Peter’s house also underwent major transformations, when in the middle of the fifth century the Byzantines, after having torn down the earlier domus ecclesiae, built an elegant octagonal church directly above it. It is indeed strange that rabbinical sources make no mention whatever of the synagogue. The octagonal church, on the other hand, was mentioned by the Anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza in the year 570: “We came to Capernaum to the house of the Blessed Peter which is now a church” (ELS, no. 436).
Both the synagogue and the octagonal church remained standing throughout the entire Byzantine period, and the village of Capernaum continued to prosper and to be the site of pilgrimages. Cultural and commercial contacts intensified in this period, as is shown by the large quantity of elegant pottery, the so-called terra sigillata, that reached Capernaum from Africa, Cyprus and Asia Minor. Particularly noteworthy are the numerous plates stamped with crosses in their center: these have been found in all of the houses excavated to date, and represent additional evidence of the Christian presence in Capernaum.

With the beginning of the Arab period (seventh century), the Evangelical village declined rapidly and was eventually completely abandoned. Literary sources become increasingly rare and vague and then, between the 9th and 12th centuries, disappear altogether. The public buildings and houses, now abandoned, inevitably began to collapse and the area became a mass of ruins.
In the 13th century literary sources referring to ancient Capernaum reappear, but these only serve to underscore its near-total state of desolation. To cite just one example, in 1283 the Dominican Burcardo da Monte Sion wrote: “... the town of Capernaum, at one time glorious, is at present in a despicable state, with only seven dwellings of poor fishermen” (ELS, no. 449).

History and archeology