The Ancient Synagogue

Excavations under the fourth-century synagogue

Even before our recent excavations, several scholars had suggested that the famous first century synagogue visited by Jesus was most probably buried under the monumental white synagogue. Albright, for example, lamented: "It is a pity that no earlier remains have yet been discovered. It is by no means unlikely that there are foundations of an older synagogue under the ruins of the third-century (sic) synagogue of Capernaum, but no one is likely to pull down this splendid structure on the chance of finding inferior remains beneath it". What Albright deemed as an improbable and formidable task was indeed accomplished by Franciscan archaeologists.

Starting from 1969, Fr. Virgilio Corbo ofm and Fr. Stanislao Loffreda ofm exposed all the areas surrounding the white synagogue, and cut several trenches inside the building in order to clarify and study earlier remains hidden under the fourth century synagogue.

The main results of this long and painstaking research are as follows:

  1. The white synagogue was built upon an artificial podium.
  2. The podium or raised platform was not built on virgin soil but upon an area of the village. After removing both the thick layer of mortar underneath the stone slabs of the pavements and the artificial fill of the platform, several structures were found dating back to the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Actually in trench 21 even a Late Bronge Age structure of the 13th century was exposed.
  3. These remains consist of superimposed stone pavements, basalt stone walls, doorways, staircases, water-channels and fire places. Though a complete plan of these structures is still impossible, due to the limits of the trenches, it is clear that these elements belong to private houses. They were found imbedded in the areas of the side aisles of the prayer hall, in the area of the porch, and finally in the area of the E court.
  4. A quite different picture emerged from the trenches cut in the large area of the central nave of the prayer hall. Here in fact only a basalt stone pavement was traced dating back to the first century A.D. That pavement covered an older layer of occupation where pottery and some coins of the Hellenistic period were found.

Both Fr. Corbo and Fr. Loffreda agree that the very large stone pavement of the first century A.D. uncovered beneath the central nave of the white synagogue does belong to the long-looked for synagogue built by the Roman centurion and visited by Jesus.

Several reasons are given for this identification. To start with, the area of the first century stone pavement is too large to be interpreted as belonging to a private house, and is therefore better understood as the remains of a public building. It is reasonable to interpret that public building as a synagogue. It is well known in fact that religious structures were normally rebuilt in the same sacred area through the centuries.
In the specific case of Capernaum, the presence of an earlier synagogue would better explain why the fourth century Jewish community of the village chose this very spot to raise the monumental white synagogue in spite of the fact that the chosen area was extremely close to a Christian shrine.
Finally, this identification takes into account the fact that pilgrims (as Egeria) located the first century synagogue in the area of the white synagogue.

The Anciet Synagogue

The synagogue stone white, rests on the wall of basalt

We must turn now to a second element, i. e. to what we called the "basalt stone wall" and see if that structure might be also related to the first century synagogue. The "basalt stone wall" was found both under the peripheral walls of the fourth century prayer hall and under the stylobate.
However the "basalt stone wall" is continuous in the first case, whereas under the stylobate is discontinuous or in some cases completely missing.
Both Fr. Corbo and Fr. Loffreda agree on one important point: the "basalt stone wall" predates the white synagogue and is better understood as belonging to an earlier synagogue. In other words, the "basalt stone wall" was simply reused as the foundation of the white synagogue, but effectively was not simply a foundation, but the remaining wall of an older synagogue. This interpretation becomes plausible as soon as the "basalt stone wall" is carefully studied both in relation to the foundations of the E court and to the walls of the prayer hall.
To start with, the foundations of E court were built independently: they simply abut to the "basalt stone wall".
Secondly, they are made up of beautiful stone blocks carefully executed and with an excellent refinement of the courses, while the courses of the "basalt stone wall" are inferior both in quality and in finish. Why this striking difference of foundations? Why did the courtyard which was a secondary unit rest upon excellent foundations, while much poorer foundations were found for the prayer hall which was the most important part of the fourth century synagogue?
The only answer we can provide is this: the prayer hall simply reused as foundations the walls of a pre-existing building, while the foundation of the E court was built anew much later.

  • This conclusion is strengthened when we analyse the interrelation between the "basalt stone wall" and the courses of the prayer hall resting upon it. As we have said, the "basalt stone wall" is conspicuously discontinuous beneath the stylobates of the prayer hall. What is worse, the N stylobate of the prayer hall rests upon a shaky fill and in that area the "basalt stone wall" is completely missing.
  • Secondly, there is a shift in axiality between the "basalt stone wall" and the outer walls of the prayer hall.
  • Finally, since the "basalt stone wall" sloped from N to S, the builders of the white synagogue had to taper all the stones of the first course in the opposite direction, i. e. from S to N, and, furthermore, they used pebbles to fill the undulant top of the "basalt stone wall".

For all these reasons we must conclude that the "basalt stone wall" belongs to a synagogue predating the white synagogue.
What is the relation between the "basalt stone wall" and the first century stone pavement found in the central nave? The director of the excavations believes that both elements belong to the first century synagogue. Another possibility is in my opinion that the "basalt stone wall" constitutes an intermediate stage between the first century synagogue and the white synagogue of the late fifth century A.D.

More Information: The fifth century synagogue

History and archeology