Israel Unveiled Vol. 1: Capernaum
Updated: Aug 4, 2020
By Amir Tsarfati
Capernaum, the name is constructed of two Hebrew words, “Kefar Nahum” (Nahum’s Village) and interestingly enough, Nahum means “the comforter”. We are not sure if we ́re talking about Nahum, the Prophet, or the founder of the village, but we know one thing, the word comfort fits very well to the appearance of Jesus in that town during the 1st century.
Capernaum was founded in the 1st century BC when the Jewish people finally returned back to live in Galilee. For hundreds of years, Jews were absent from Galilee simply because they were not allowed to live here by the foreign ruling power of this area. Jews lived here throughout the 1st temple period and throughout the Old Testament era. In fact, they surrounded the entire Sea of Galilee. On our side, it was known as the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, those two Hebrew tribes, while on the other side it was the land of Gad and the half of Manasseh that never crossed the River Jordan to stay here.
Interestingly enough, in the Old Testament, the entire Sea of Galilee was surrounded by Jewish people, by Israelites, yet in the time of Jesus, it was a completely different story. In the time of Jesus, the Jews that lived here by the Sea of Galilee lived in a very limited geographical area surrounded basically, by pagans who worshiped many different deities. This is the area called Decapolis, 10 Greek-style cities that worshiped all those hundreds of Greek deities, and among them, Zeus, for which they used to raise pigs in order to slaughter them on his altar.
The Jewish people that lived here were people surrounded by Gentiles. They were people who needed to prove that they were more Jewish than the rest of the Jews in the country because Jewish people in Galilee were a rare thing to find. In the 2nd century BC the Jewish King, Alexander Jannaeus, came to this area and gave the pagans living here for hundreds of years (ever since the Assyrians came and expelled the Jews all the way to Assyria) two options: 1) One was to leave this place, cross the Sea of Galilee, and stay on the other side in those 10 Greek styles and Greek inhabited cities called Decapolis; and 2) Those who chose to remain were actually forced to convert to Judaism. Converting to Judaism meant they had to give up their pagan lifestyle and become Jewish people by practice.
Interestingly enough, when the real Jews (i.e. those who were born Jews, those who came from Judea, and other parts of the country) moved to live in Galilee, they were mixed with “wannabe Jews”, or “not for sure Jews”, or Jews who were not Jews before and were forced to convert to Judaism. Now, all the rest of the Jewish people in the country were questioning, if you live in the Galilee, are you truly a Jew or not? Therefore, there was pressure on the Jewish people who lived in Galilee to always live a strict lifestyle. They always had to prove that they were more Jewish than maybe the rest in order to get that legitimacy and a stamp of approval from the rest of the Pharisees, rabbis, and scribes who were mostly from Jerusalem.
So, we are, in a reality where religion, oppression, and tradition is taking over God ́s Word and God ́s ways. What do we have here in Galilee or around the Sea of Galilee? Either pagan who worshipped other deities, or Jewish people that are under the pressure of trying to prove that they are more Jewish than the rest. They are living religious lifestyles, very oppressed by religion and tradition, they are not really into the literal understanding of the Word of God, and that creates spiritual darkness. Outside everything looked great, but inside people were empty. People had darkness in their hearts. And that of course fits perfectly with what we know in the account in Matthew chapter 4 where the Bible says, “Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum which is by the sea in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet saying the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned. From that time Jesus began to preach and to say repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:12-17)
So, here we are seeing that Jesus departed from Nazareth, came all the way and stayed in Capernaum, found a home (the village of the comforter) and He brought comfort to those who were in the valley of the shadow of death. If you come to Galilee, it ́s one of the most peaceful, most beautiful, and tranquil areas in the country.
You would find it hard to believe that this place is dark, but this place is full of evil spirits. Yet at the time of Jesus, it was a very dark place spiritually and sometimes even physically. Therefore, from Isaiah ́s words when speaking about Jesus coming to Galilee, we get a very interesting meaning as Jesus came and showed His Light to the people who sat in darkness.
Interestingly enough, Isaiah ́s words could not fit any other Jewish town by the Sea of Galilee: Magdala was not by the Jordan River; Chorazin was not by the Sea of Galilee; Bethsaida was not in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. Capernaum was the only city that answered all the criteria that Isaiah, the Prophet, mentioned in chapter 9, verses 1 and 2. So, Isaiah ́s prophecy was, indeed, fulfilled as Jesus came to the city, to the town of Capernaum.
It ́s very interesting because Jesus came to this place and He brought the same Word of God as the Word of God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But for the first time, people heard the Word of God teaching the Word of God. It is no longer the words of scribes. It ́s no longer words of priests or rabbis. It ́s the Word of the Living God and it ́s the right interpretation of the Word of God, by the Word of God, to the people that should be the people of God.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem yet He grew up in Nazareth. Jesus was a Galilean Jew. He knew the culture. He knew the customs. He knew the people. He knew how to talk to them. He knew that they were simple people. He knew that they were afflicted by a religious spirit. He knew that they were under that pressure of having to prove all the time that they were more Jewish than maybe the rest simply because people questioned their Judaism almost every day.
So, Jesus comes to this place without condemnation, without rebuking people, without being angry at people. Jesus comes with a message of grace, with a message of love, with a message of you have to repent. You have to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Jesus comes to a place full of people that are searching for the truth, maybe the authorities are strict, but the people are hungry and thirsty for the truth. When He comes, He understands that there is so much darkness by the way of what these people are being taught.
Isaiah, chapter 29 says, “In as much as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men.” (Isaiah 29:13) That is a picture of the religious spirit that the nation of Israel was afflicted with then, and even now. But then, it was evident that Galilee was afflicted by it in such a remarkable way. So, Jesus comes to this place and he ́s giving the people an amazing message.
Capernaum saw more miracles of Jesus than any other town around. The Bible says that if all the miracles of Jesus would have been recorded there could have been no book found to contain all of them. What we have in the gospel is probably only 2% of the miracles of Jesus that happened in this area. Every day, Jesus would wake up and faced sick people, tormented people, people with pain, people with leprosy, or other things, and He never turned down anyone.
In fact, the Bible says that when a leper approached Jesus and asked Him for healing, he asked Him in saying, “If you ́re willing, please, heal me”, and Jesus said, “I am willing”. There is no case that Jesus dismissed by saying, you ́re not qualified and that is the beauty of the Ministry of Jesus, here, at the Sea of Galilee.
But sometimes when we see so many miracles, we become dull. We become actually apathetic to the actual Word of God, wanting only miracles, only the supernatural to happen, and not really caring what the requirements from the Word of God, for our life, are all about. Jesus comes and He is preaching a very simple message: a message of hope and a message of peace. But it all has to do with, are you ready? Are you ready to live a life that matters? Are you ready to be released, to break off from shackles of tradition and religion? And follow me, the Living God, the way the Bible tells you to?
You can tell that the people here really tried their best. When you look at the decoration of the synagogue that we found in the excavations of Capernaum, you can see that they really tried to avoid any images of animals or people, because it says, “Thou shalt not have a graven molded image, thou shalt not worship it.” Therefore, the Jews were very careful not to use those things. They were using symbols from nature like pomegranates, flowers, olives, and palm branches.
However, one of the things that we noticed is that they even used some geometric forms like the Star of David, pentagram, and other things. You would think that the Star of David is a Jewish symbol, but at the time of Jesus, it wasn ́t so. The Star of David is probably only 2 to 300 years old as an ultimate Jewish symbol. It was a common symbol used by many cultures throughout many different time periods. It was used just because they had to avoid using other images.
The pentagram, in our minds, is a symbol of the occult, of paganism, of satanic movement yet in those days it wasn ́t so. It was just as the Star of David was, one more geometric form or shape to decorate things with. Interestingly enough, even the swastika which is such a horrible symbol today and something that reminds us all of Hitler and Nazi Germany, but it wasn ́t so 2000 years ago. We found swastika formations on floors of synagogues and churches from the 4th and the 5th centuries.
All that to say that coming to dig and excavate in Capernaum, we could not jump to any conclusion that this is a Jewish town just by finding a Star of David. What was it that was the ultimate Jewish symbol of all time? It was the 7 branched candelabra, the Menorah. As you can see, we found a capital of a column that has the Menorah right on it, along with the shofar (the ram ́s horn) on one side, the tray to remove incense from the altar of incense on the other side, and together with the column that has Hebrew inscription on it, we concluded this is indeed a synagogue that is, indeed, a Jewish town from the time of Jesus.
As you can see, people lived here in quite simple lives. We did not find here marble, or plaster, or frescoes, or stucco. The synagogue may have been a very nicely decorated place, but the rest of the houses, we found them as insula style. This means it was like a main courtyard surrounded by houses, and every courtyard surrounded by houses of another, I would say, clan (i.e. the clan of Zebedee, Father Zebedee, and his sons, and other clans as well).
One insula is named by the archaeologists “insula sacra”, the sacred insula because we found there something very significant. One of the houses was treated differently throughout the course of the years. One of the houses was turned into, most likely, a home church (Domus Iglesia). Later on, in the 4th century, it was turned into a church building that became a beautiful octagonal church building in the 5th century.
We asked ourselves what would be the reason for one house to become such an important place? The only answer we had was that this must have been the house where Jesus stayed. This must have been Peter ́s house because the Bible tells us that Jesus stayed with Peter in Capernaum.
The synagogue was a beautiful place. The one that we see today, here, is actually not from the time of Jesus as it was built on the top of the one from the time of Jesus. We have all the reasons to believe that the one from the time of Jesus although made of different stones (made of basalt rather than limestone) was as big and as nice as the one we have today. But it is interesting.
God is not interested in big buildings, in synagogues, churches, and shrines. God is interested in faith. Is faith found in this place? Apparently, it wasn ́t. It is so tragic that we are visiting today the ruins of Capernaum and not a town that is lively, not a town that is still in existence.
The Bible says that Jesus rebuked Capernaum for lack of faith. In the book of Matthew 11:20, it says, “Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.” In verse 23 He said, “And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgement than for you.”
What a harsh judgment. Jesus predicts the city of Capernaum, not because of His anger, but it is because of their lack of faith. Some people tell me, Amir, if I only lived at the time of Jesus and I saw what Jesus did, I would have believed. I always tell people, first of all, the Bible says that faith is not what you see, it is the evidence of things not seen.
But also, I tell people, we have ruined cities all around Galilee who did not believe and therefore, suffered the judgment of God. They saw thousands of miracles and yet they did not believe. So, seeing is not believing, believing is actually hoping in the things that we know to be true, but we don ́t see yet.
It ́s interesting, because we see how a religious spirit afflicted the people here, yet Jesus was not looking for religion. Jesus was looking for a relationship that these people should have with the Living God. Jesus was looking for faith, faith in Him, faith in a finished work of Him on the cross, faith that will eventually produce righteousness.
The Bible says “He who knew no sin became sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.” (2 Cor 5-21) Therefore, the righteousness that can produce good works can only come if we believe, if we have that faith in Him.
Interestingly enough, people, or the people that lived here, as well as people today, they really truly believe that by doing good works, they have some brownie points in heaven. They think that God cares and counts those good deeds and good works as something that one day will weigh more than their bad works. But that is not how things work.
The Bible says in Psalm 14, in Psalm 53, and so many other Psalms that “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside. They have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, No, not one.” (Psalms 14:2-3) So, that ́s a terrifying thing to know that your good works will lead you nowhere, but that ́s the good news.
Jesus comes telling people, don ́t try, it ́s not going to work. Jesus is giving us the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He came to a land afflicted with such religious oppression. He came to an area where it was dark and the Bible says that “In that valley of shadow of death Light has dawned, the Light of the World.”
The One who was there before even the sun was created came to this dark place and turned on the light. Anyone who followed Him could see that light. Anyone who saw, and understood, and got the message, was attracted to Him like a magnet and followed Him ever since.
But the tragic thing is the vast majority of the inhabitants of Capernaum, even though having seen so many miracles, they just did not believe. They were afflicted with so much religious spirit that they didn ́t really care if they were believers or not, as long as they appeared good and looked good.
So, are we religious people? Do we live in our own Capernaum in our lives? Because looking at the destruction of this city we can only see where good works, goodwill, good heart, good view of things lead to. You see, no one does well. Man ́s heart is full of evil and although we can appear as great doers, and peacemakers, and all of that, it is really not counted. We need to believe, and we need to believe in the ultimate sacrifice that was given for us on our behalf, so God will no longer see us as sinners, but as the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.
Let us finish with the words, the precious words from Romans 3:21-26, “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”