There is not much left of Capernaum now. Its original Hebrew name was “kefr-nahum”, the “village of Nahum”, after a man who was doubtless the first settler on the site. In our Lord’s day this was a bustling fishing down, numbering several thousand people, a trade station with a road linking it to other important cities. It was alive with tradesmen and businessmen, people shouting and selling their wares, and making their rough living by the teeming Sea of Galilee. It was a border town, and so had its own customs house, or tax office. One of its officials was named Levi—also known as Matthew (Mk. 2:13-14, Mt. 9:9). The Sea of Galilee (or “Sea of Tiberias”, to give its other name, after the Roman Emperor Tiberias) was ringed with cities and villages. Capernaum was but one of many loud, happy, thriving cities clinging to the lakeside and making a living from its waters. It was also one of a number of cities destined to experience the wrath of God.
Christ made His headquarters at Capernaum, at the home of his friend and disciple Simon Peter. As such, the city saw many of Christ’s miracles. And yet, even after experiencing all that, the city ultimately turned away from Christ, rejecting His authority. For this irrational and perverse rejection of His divine authority, Christ pronounced its doom, along with the doom of other lakeside cities: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! And you, Capernaum! Will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to hades!” (Lk.10:13,15). It was even as the Lord said—Capernaum experienced decline and a slow slide into death. By the thirteenth century, a pilgrim visiting the site found nothing there, and reported that it was “just despicable; it numbers only seven houses of poor fishermen”. During its Byzantine heyday it had its share of Imperial attention and largesse, and Simon Peter’s house, the original womb of the apostolic community, was made into a church. But before this brief revival, it did indeed descend to hades and oblivion.
The town is gone now, but two things remain, thanks to the money and care of the Franciscans (made the curators of Christian sites in the Holy Land) and the skill of archaeologists: the house of Peter and the synagogue of the Jews. They stand side by side each other, cheek by jowl, as they did from their earliest days. Just eighty-four feet separate them, a thin strip of ideological No Man’s Land dividing the base of the Christian movement from the worship house of the Jews. In one place, Jesus of Nazareth was worshipped as Messiah and divine Lord; at the other, He was cursed as a deceiver and a blasphemer. The geographical contrast could not be sharper; Sabbaths in Capernaum in Peter’s day must have been interesting.
The synagogue one now sees is not the original one in which Christ walked. Palestine is a layered country, with one layer built atop another. One usually has to dig down, sometimes as much as twenty feet, to find the Palestine that was once open to the sky in the time of Jesus. The synagogue Jesus knew and worshipped in was made of black basalt rocks which were native to the area, and a small layer of these original stones can be seen today at the base of the white stones overtop it. This later synagogue was built over the original one in about the fourth or fifth century. Wandering about in it, one can still gain some sense of how things would have looked in the time of Christ. One must imagine all the walls built up and roofed over; the place richly adorned, and ringing with the chanting of prayers and the text of the Torah. Now it is ruins, to be stared at and photographed. Then it was a noble place of prayer, proud, stately, and wealthy.
The house of Simon Peter was none of these things. It is easy to miss the contrast now, since both the synagogue and the original house of Peter are in ruins. There is a beautiful Roman Catholic church built over the ruins of Peter’s home, through the glass floor of which one can gaze down at the original house and Byzantine church later built around it. Certainly the current Roman Catholic church is beautiful enough—more beautiful and stately than the ruins of the synagogue. That is where the present sites betray their past. Now the Church is stately and the synagogue humble, as all ruins are humble. But in the first century, this was reversed: then it was the synagogue that was stately and proud, and Peter’s house that was humble.
It was humble, of course, because Peter was humble. He was a fisherman, a working man, one who felt the burden of taxes as keenly as anyone, and who worked long and hard nights (the best fishing was at night) to feed his family. As one can see from looking carefully at the ruins of the original house and the church built around it, Peter’s house was not large. When great crowd surrounded it, listening to Christ, it was easy enough to overwhelm the place. (Indeed some of the crowd went up to the thatched roof and dug through it to let their paralyzed friend down on a stretcher; see Mk. 2:1-4.) The juxtaposition of the two sites, the big rich synagogue and the little Christian house, bears witness to the contest between Judaism and Christianity in the early years of the first century. Judaism was established and privileged. The Christian Faith was small and poor, marginalized and persecuted. But God was with the Christians, and their Faith was destined to grow. Capernaum has descended to hades, and now only ruins remain. But those who serve the Christ of Capernaum live, and worship Him in every corner of the wide world. They love Him so much that they even come from far away America to stand among the ruins of Capernaum and gaze with wonder at His Church’s first home.