Palestine Calling
W. M. Christie

Chapter IX

The Site of Capernaum

In connection with the geography of the Sea of Galilee, the most important problem discussed during the past half-century has been the position of Capernaum, Christ's "own city" (Matt. 9:1). That it was on the sea shore is certain, for the word "parathalassian" (Matt. 4:13) can mean nothing else. This cuts out a few guesses made by older investigators, and limits the inquiry to the two sites of Khurbet el-Minyeh and Tell Hum.

The former of these lies at the north-east corner of the Plain of Gennesaret, and the strongest grounds for selecting a site in that position is that in Matthew 14:34, we are told that the disciples rowing from the east side of the lake came to "the land of Gennesaret," while the parallel passage in John 6:24 states it to be "Capernaum." We have to remember, however, that the Plain of Gennesaret was not necessarily co-extensive with the Land of Gennesaret, which latter may very well have extended round the north end of the lake as far as the Jordan. The name Kinnereth, or Gennesaret was applied to the lands that stretched even to the south end of the lake (Ber. Rab. sect. 98), while the rabbinical designation of the plain itself was Biqath Ginnusar, or Biqath Arbel (M. Sheb. ix. 2).

But most of the discussion in advocacy of this site has been associated with the name Minyeh, with which it has been sought to connect the early Hebrew Christians of Galilee, who were called Minim, and with this point we shall also deal. Now the first writer we have discovered who definitely places Capernaum at Minyeh is Quaresmius (1616), but in so doing he is quoting without sufficient investigation; Bonifacius (1552), who, in his work on the Holy Land, tells us of two palm trees at the site of Capernaum, and indicates several places visible from it. But the sites named are not visible from Minyeh, but they are from Tell Hum, and besides the subsequent account of Quaresmius' journey shows that he did not visit the latter site, while mention of the palm trees could hardly be taken as a permanent indication of any site by the Sea of Galilee.

One or two others followed him, however, in the identification, notably Reland (1714) and Seetzen (1810), but not one of them associates the name of Minyeh with the Minim. They had been mentioned, however, as early as 1334, by Isaac Chelo, a Jewish pilgrim, but clearly in association with Tell Hum. He says that he came to "Kephar Nachum . . . cited in the writings of our sages. It is a ruined village, and there is an ancient tomb there, which is said to be that of Nachum the Ancient. Formerly there were in this village many of the Minim, great sorcerers, as we learn from Chanina, the nephew of Rabbi Jehosua." The question of the connection of the Minim with this place was to Isaac Chelo one of ancient date, and he does not seek to associate them in any way with el-Minyeh. Besides his mention of the tomb clearly indicates Tell Hum, where it exists until this day. All through the centuries when Christian pilgrims were visiting Tell Hum as the site of Capernaum, the Jewish pilgrims were visiting this tomb as one of their holy places.

With the exceptions indicated, and admitting a slight indefiniteness in the language in one or two other cases, we may safely assert that all pilgrims and visitors from the fourth till the nineteenth century have accepted Tell Hum as the site of Capernaum, either definitely naming it, or putting all doubt beyond question by the distances given or by the sequence of sites recorded.

The meanings of the names given which we consider indisputable, point in the same direction. El-Minyeh is found in the "Life of Saladin," in 1187, recorded by Beha ed-Din. In 1565 Fuerer von Haimendorf says it means "port or harbour," and he is doubtless correct. It is, as it stands, the diminutive of the Arabic "mineh," which in its turn is derived from the Greek through the Aramaic, where it appears as Limen or Limenah, the initial "l" being lost in the Arabic by being mistaken for the definite article.

Then we have it recorded in 1280 (Burchard) that Capernaum was then called "Telonium," or the place of toll. That is clearly taken from the Vulgate (Matt. 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27), following the Greek "Telonion," the place of the receipt of custom. This is the origin of the modern name Tell Hum, as heard by Arab ears and given an Arabic form. The fact that there has never been a "tell" or mound at this site would alone have led us to seek for some other origin for the name, and here we have it naturally explained.

But what of the Minim mentioned by Isaac Chelo? We have the same documents to-day as those from which he got his information. They are Qoh. Rab., on i. 8, and on vii. 26, and they are associated with Capernaum, but no geographical information is given as to its position, which being universally known at the time is quite natural. The incidents are connected with people whom we know perfectly well, and who lived about 150 A.D. An incident in connection with the supposed conversion of the Joshua named, led to some trouble with the Jewish authorities, and the documents call the Minim, "sinners" and also "sons of Capernaum." It will be seen that the association of Minim with Minyeh is simply based on the echo of the two words.

It must have been in connection with some such incident that the Jews took action (Epiphanius, Adv. Haer. i. 30 II) and excluded from Capernaum and other cities, Greeks, Samartians and Christians, till the time of Constantine, and presumably for over a century before his date. In such case it would be unlikely that the nick-name of a section of the people should be given to a well known city, that it should be retained when none of that people were in residence, or should be restored when their name, except as a literary tradition, had disappeared.

But we have in that statement itself the record that till the time of Constantine (324-337) the city existed, occupied by Jews, and bearing its own name--Capernaum. The same passage in Epiphanius continues and sets down for us a most important statement. It tells us that Joseph, a Hebrew Christian doctor, who became a "count" of the Roman Empire, and who had resided in Tiberias, was permitted by royal mandate (per mandatum regium) to erect churches in several cities in Galilee, including Capernaum. This permit must have been granted after 324 A.D., at which time Constantine became sole ruler.

With this we have to link up the testimony of an early pilgrim, Sylvia of Aquitania, who made a record of her visit in 385. Her notes have been transmitted to us by Petrus Diaconus (12th century), but there cannot be a doubt that the work is accurately done, for all possibility of giving the detail recorded had passed away long before his day, and it was left to modern excavators to prove the accuracy of the statements. She tells that: "In Capernaum, a church has been made of the house of the chief of the apostles, that its walls stand to-day as they were. There the Lord cured the paralytic; there is also the synagogue in which the Lord cured the demoniac, which is to be reached by many steps; which synagogue is also built of squared stones. Not far thence is also seen the stone steps on which the Lord stood." Antoninus Martyr mentions the church as still existing in 570 A.D. It was probably destroyed along with the synagogue by the earthquake of 666 A.D. That earthquake destroyed Capernaum, but it preserved the evidences for the site intact till our own day. Before the work of excavation was commenced, all the historical evidences were carefully consulted. Three steps leading to a platform in front of what was understood to be the synagogue were uncovered. But they did not meet the demand of "gradua multos," or "many steps," described by Sylvia. Perhaps they were at the other end of the platform. Excavation there revealed a double flight of fourteen steps in all, with an additional one of black stone, probably originally under ground.

Further confirmation was sought, and a search was made between the synagogue and the sea, for the remains of the church on the site of Peter's house, and there, on the very ground expected, it was laid bare. The central portion seems to have been an octagon, and within it there is a beautiful tesselated pavement with a fine border of lotus flowers. There cannot be a doubt that we have here the ruins of the church built by Joseph of Tiberias, about the year 330 A.D., and mentioned by Silvia of Aquitania in 385, and again by Antoninus Martyr in 570 A.D.

The evidence is complete, the centuries are crossed. Rabbinical story, church historian, interested pilgrims, Jewish and Christian, all combine in forming links to the chain, and then comes the excavator and lays bare the ruins of a church built when Capernaum still retained its ancient name, and thus dispelling every doubt.

But some one asks: "Is this really the synagogue in which Christ preached?" We are told that some archaeologists assign to it a date in the second century, about the time of Marcus Aurelius (161-180). Now we learn of quite a number of synagogues being built in Galilee at that time, but amongst the names given, Capernaum is not mentioned, and while great synagogues were being erected at insignificant places in Upper Galilee by imperial favour, we can only believe that none was built in Capernaum in virtue of its needs being already fully met.

And when we examine the ruins we have to distinguish between its various parts, and to recognise additions to the original synagogue. The annexe to the east was probably used as a school, and the marks made on the pavement indicate that the children played the same game of "drees" as do the children of to-day. This annexe is to be dated "about the time of Constantine." Then there is a clear distinction between the original one storey synagogue and the added "women's gallery." The former is built of massive stones, and there is nothing but line ornamentation, save on the outer door lintels. The upper gallery is constructed of smaller stones, with a great deal of ornament, consisting of palm leaves, bunches of grapes, the shield of David, Solomon's seal, branched candlesticks, etc. These belong to a different world, and perhaps they are correctly assigned to the second century. Then we have to add that the stylobate in the original building was 4 1/2 inches above the surrounding floor, while we are told that after the first century the two would have been on one level.

The orientation, too, indicates an early date for the original synagogue. When the worshippers entered it, they did so by turning their backs on Jerusalem, and praying with their faces to the north. Later on a change was made. Two yards within the central entrance doorway a wall was built across, leaving a passage at each side. This meant that the ark containing the synagogue rolls was removed to the south end. The worshippers entered by the passage named, and then turned toward the south, facing Jerusalem. The earlier arrangement would indicate that the synagogue was built before the Fall of the Holy City in 70 A.D.

We believe then that we have in the original one storey building the actual synagogue in which Christ preached, the gift of the Roman Centurion (Luke 7:5). And in harmony with this we have the ornamentation found on the original lintels mentioned. On the keystone of the arch above the central doorway we find clearly cut, a Roman civic crown, which was understood to mean that the one using it had saved the life of a citizen in battle. This indicates a Roman soldier. Beneath that we have cut in the same stone two Roman eagles, which at some later period had been defaced, but enough has been left to indicate what was originally there. Jews never built for themselves a synagogue and put Roman eagles on the keystone of the arch. And with the Sanhedrin sitting in Galilee it would have been impossible for any one to do it in the second century. We can believe that when the addition of the women's gallery was made in the second century, "the chipping off" had been done quietly and unofficially.

But more interesting still, we find on the lintel of the western doorway the figure clearly cut of the "manna pot" (Exod. 16:33). This calls to memory the conversation between Christ and the authorities in the synagogue of Capernaum (John 6:31 seq.), "Our fathers did eat manna in the desert;" "Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead." All who had walked on the platform that morning, or who had entered by the western doorway had looked upon that very manna pot, which lies before us to-day. It had suggested the thoughts expressed, and led to the great teaching embodied. Can we doubt that Christ looked upon that very stone, and that He actually preached, and did some of His wonderful works within these walls? Here we stand on holy ground on one of the most sacred spots on earth.

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