Proper 5B

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This page is part of the Lectionary series within the Living with Jesus Now project.


  • Isaiah 40:21-31 & Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
  • 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
  • Mark 1:29-39


This week's notes will focus on the character of Capernaum in the time of Jesus, including the historical and theological significance of the remains that have been excavated in the last few decades.


The epicenter of Jesus' mission

We are accustomed to speak of Jesus as being from Nazareth in Galilee, or even from Bethlehem in Judea. However, the major center for Jesus' public ministry seems to have been the lakeside village of Capernaum (literally, the Village—Khefar—of Nahum).

The Biblical Archaeology Review of Jan/Feb 2003 provides this summary of information about Capernaum:

Capernaum, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, is 7 miles north of Tiberias and figures prominently in all four Gospels (Matthew 4:13, 8:5, 11:23, 17:24; Mark 1:21, 2:1; Luke 7:1; John 4:46, 6:16, 24, 59). During the early Roman period it was an important border village between Galilee and the Golan, and Jesus probably lived there during some part of his Galilean ministry. The Gospels report that Jesus had a close relationship with four prominent, wealthy families from the upper part of the city. An excavation in 1978–82, directed by Vassilios Tzaferis, uncovered the foundations of large villas, a Roman bath, shops, fish pools and coins.
In fall 2003, Tzaferis and Charles Page, both of the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies, will return to excavate at Capernaum, focusing on the first-century A.D. ruins along the shoreline near the wall that separates the part of Capernaum held by the Greek Orthodox Church from the part held by the Franciscan order. The dig team will expand the excavation of the Roman bath and the villa adjacent to it. Their long-term goal is to uncover information about the lives of the wealthy citizens of Capernaum and Jesus’ relationship to them.

(At the present time - Februry 2012 - there have been no "follow up" stories in BAR about any new insights from these proposed exavations at Capernaum.)

The following BAR articles have dealt with some aspect of Capernaum:

  • Mendel Nun, “Ports of Galilee," BAR 24:01
  • John C.H. Laughlin, “Capernaum from Jesus’ Time and After," BAR 19:05
  • Herold Weiss, “Gold Hoard Found at Capernaum," BAR 09:04
  • James F. Strange and Hershel Shanks, “Synagogue Where Jesus Preached Found at Capernaum," BAR 09:06
  • Strange and Shanks, “Has the House Where Jesus Stayed in Capernaum Been Found?" BAR 08:06.

Other Online Resources about Capernaum include:

The house of Peter

At the heart of this week's story from Capernaum is the brief cameo in which Jesus returns to the house of Simon Peter after his confrontation in the nearby "synagogue" (whether that be the basalt structure below the monumental 5C limestone edifice, or simply a gathering place where the menfolk of the town met to say prayers). This home appears to have been Jesus' safe house whenever he was in Capernaum, and is presumably the location intended when Mark 2:1 (in the section that follows this week's Gospel) says simply:

When he returned to Capernaum after some days,

it was reported that he was at home.
So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them,
not even in front of the door;

and he was speaking the word to them.

On getting "home," Jesus finds that Peter's mother-in-law is sick with a fever and he cures her. The miracle is recounted with minimal detail:

Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.

He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.

Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That brief tradition is little more than a glimpse inside the domestic lives of Jesus' immediate circle, but when coupled with the archaeological finds at Capernaum we have the tantalizing possibility that we now know the building mentioned in this story. More on that in a moment, but first a few words about the nature of history.

Thinking about history

History is a story about the past, not simply an inventory of facts and dates -- and even less a set of objective factual realities awaiting discovery. When we engage in history we are involved in the process of construction; a story is made out of the factual information at our disposal. "Bare history" would be as exciting as a list of tax receipts from some ancient administration. In some respects, history is like a court of law; with "a case" to be made and the test being probability rather than certainty.

One of the most influential historians of the twentieth century was Fernand Braudel (1902-85). Braudel argued that history requires us to operate on several levels at the same time:

(1) very long, practically immobile environmental time (the longue durée);

(2) the medium time of economies, societies, and cultures; and

(3) the short time of discrete events (the subject of histoire événementielle).

Far from being a simple flow of events, human experience (and thus our modern project of historical research) registers on all three clocks, operated with speed-ups and delays, and leaves a vast range of physical as well as mental traces. According to Braudel, these three "clocks" could also be described this way:

History may be divided into three movements:
  • what moves rapidly,
  • what moves slowly
  • and what appears not to move at all. [Braudel]

The slowest of these clocks relates to the elements that endure over a very long period of time and can be considered virtually as constants to be assumed by anyone seeking to reconstruct the past. These things that seem not to "move" or change include geological and geographical features, climate and weather, human nature.

The intermediate set of historical realities include culture, politics and technology. Those elements do change over time, but they do so very slowly. They include cultural artifacts such as language, religion, social organization, military empires, physical structures, and much more. The technologies develop over time, including stone, copper, bronze, and iron, as well as pottery, tools, transport and writing.

Finally there are the details of everyday life that often seem too small to be captured, and may not be recognized for what they are even if we found them. The cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper would be one example, just as the ossuary of Caiaphas (the High Priest contemporary with Jesus) is another example. Note this description of that discovery:

Underneath what is now a stretch of road in Jerusalem’s Peace Forest, to the south of the Golden Dome of the Rock and the El Aqsa mosques, workers building a water park in November 1990 accidentally uncovered an ancient burial cave.

Such a find was not in itself surprising—the surrounding area was used as a huge necropolis during the late Second Temple period (first century B.C.E.–first century C.E.). More intriguing to archaeologists were four ossuaries visible through the collapsed roof of the cave; they soon discovered eight others. Inscriptions on two of the ossuaries found here indicate that this was the burial chamber of the Caiaphas family and that one ossuary may have held the remains of the high priest who interrogated Jesus and then handed him over to Pontius Pilate for trial (Matthew 26:57–68).

The history of archaeology is filled with accidental discoveries. With all our scientific tools and methodologies, chance continues to be a major component of our success. So it was that we discovered the final resting place of the Caiaphas family, one of whose priestly members presided at the trial of Jesus. Whether we have also recovered the burial box and even the bones of the high priest Caiaphas who handed Jesus over to the Romans is another question. [Zvi Greenhut, "Burial Cave of the Caiaphas Family," BAR 18/5 1992]

Even when the object in our hands is inscribed with the name of its owner (or in this case occupant), the identification with a specific character named in some ancient text cannot be entirely secure. The recent hoax involving another ossuary inscribed with the words, "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus," was a timely reminder of that. A passover cup inscribed with the name "Yeshua" would not necessarily be a cup ever used by Jesus of Nazareth, let alone the cup mentioned in Mark's account of the Last Supper. It is a rare thing to come across something so directly related to a character named in the Bible.

That makes the mention of the strangely mis-named "house of Peter" in Capernaum an especially interesting case.

The insula sacra at Capernaum

This following photographs (the first two from David Bivin's, Views that have Vanished DVD collection, and the others from personal photographs) provide an interesting glimpse into the discovery and preservation of this ancient building.

The first image shows the unexcavated site in the 1960s, with the insula sacra in the background:

The second image is a close-up of the synagogue prior to excavation work commencing:
The third image shows one portion of the excavated 5C synagogue:
The next image shows remains of domestic structures from 1C Capernaum, looking towards the modern Roman Catholic church built above the remains of the insula sacra:

The final image shows some of the preserved remains of the insula sacred below the floor of the modern church: Capernaum-05.jpg

The following extracts from Crossan and Reed (Excavating Jesus, 2001, 91-96) may provide a helpful perspective on this particular building within the ruins of ancient Capernaum:

That fifth-century synagogue faced the fifth-century octagonal church, which was built atop a fourth-century building centering on a single room, itself part of a private house from the first century B.C.E. Presumably it belonged to Peter's family and was where his mother-in-law was healed from a severe fever according to Mark 1:29-31. It is one of the very few credible localizations of a New Testament tradition.

Speaking of the earlier strata at this location, Crossan and Reed continue:

This room [the central space in successive layers] had been the focus of attention for some time, possibly as early as the second century C.E.. The floor and walls of this room were repeatedly plastered in contrast to the remaining walls and floors of the complex, and hundreds of graffiti-like inscriptions -- in Greek, Syriac, Hebrew and Latin -- had been etched into its surface.

Although much of the graffiti is altogether illegible and some of it is apparently quite ordinary or even profane, some of the phrases etched into the plaster appear to have been from the hands of visitors to the room and of Christian pilgrims from far afield. Though much of the overly tendentious and pious transliterations of the Franciscan excavators, involving theories of a thriving Jewish-Christian community and including elaborate speculations on acrostics and symbolism, are not persuasive, these graffiti are important. The very fact that the room was plastered and griffitied, makes it totally unlike any other in Capernaum, or elsewhere in Galilee, and demonstrates that this one-time room in a private residence was held in special regard by many people only a century after Jesus' activities in Galilee. And note how they wrote. They did not inscribe as Pilate had at Caesarea, dedicating an imperial Roman building in official Latin, nor as Antipas had at Tiberius, appointing his brother-in-law with an imperial name in Greek; rather, they indecipherably scratched and scrawled with knives and rocks into plaster.
Although the house-become-octagonal-church and the magnificent synagogue point to the clashing visions over identity and rule in fifth-century Galilee, they tell us little about Capernaum at the time of Jesus. Whether or not the level and scratched inscriptions of the so-called "sacred area" (insula sacra) verify that the house belonged to Peter is not the most important point. Even if the center of the octagon marks the right spot (where Jesus healed? where Jesus ate?), and even if archaeology could authenticate Peter and Jesus' presence there, we would no better understand Jesus, his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and the kind of kingdom he was building among his followers. For Christian pilgrims past and present, the where is understandably important, but the pressing question is not where Jesus was in Capernaum, but what the Capernaum of Jesus was like.
Archaeology should not be used to carefully peel off later layers, determine if the house was Peter's, and then offer it as an illustration or visual aid. Instead, archaeology should be used to look carefully at the kind of house it was, compare it to other first-century Capernaum houses, examine the character of the village as a whole, and contrast Capernaum's character to those of other villages and cities in and around Galilee ...

... The goal may not be to find a "holy site," or "sacred area," but it's hard to deny the allure of a possible direct link to a gospel text or Jesus himself. In any case, even or especially if that first-century building at Capernaum is accepted as Peter's house, there are two final ambiguities we have to raise, one minor and one major.

The first of those "ambiguities" is that the house most likely belonged not to Peter, but to Peter's wife and mother-in-law. The mother-in-law is not named, but the wife of Peter is not even mentioned. As has happened so often in the Christian tradition, the women are suppressed and written out of the story.

The second ambiguity involves the statement about Jesus "coming out" of Peter's (wife's) house:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you." He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. (Mark 1:35-39, NRSV)

Crossan and Reed comment as follows:

In Mark, Jesus prays in Capernaum at the start and in Gethsemane at the end of his public life. He prays when his will is tempted to deviate from the divine will, either in life or in death. And to settle down at Capernaum and let all come to him is against the geography of the Kingdom of God. That is why Jesus "came out" from Peter's (wife's) house. It could not be his "home base" as if the Kingdom of God could, like the kingdoms of Caesar Augustus at Rome, of Herod the Great at Caesarea, or of Herod Antipas at Sepphoris then Tiberius, have a dominant center, a controlling place, a local habitation and a name.
... That first-century Capernaum house may well have been where Jesus visited and stayed as a guest. But it was not the "home base" of the Kingdom of God. That could be neither with his family at Nazareth nor with Peter at Capernaum, because, unlike the conventional kingdoms it opposed, this covenantal kingdom could not have a dominant place to which all must come, but only a moving center that went out alike to all.

Crossan and Reed conclude by noting the irony that the simple and private residence in Capernaum was transformed by the pious devotion of believers and the political agenda of the powerful with the overlay of power and privilege.

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