Israel Unveiled: Vol. 1 Capernaum
By Amir Tsarfati
Capernaum, the name is constructed of two Hebrew words, "kafar Nahum," "Nahum's Village." Interestingly enough, Nahum means "the Comforter." We're not sure if we are 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 first century.
Capernaum was founded in the first 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 powers of this area. Jews lived here throughout the First Temple period, 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. 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 is surrounded by Jewish people, by Israelites. Yet in the time of Jesus, it's a completely different story.
So in the time of Jesus, the Jews that live here by the Sea of Galilee, they live in a very limited geographical area surrounded basically by pagans who worship many different deities. This is the area called Decapolis, ten Greek-style cities that worship all those hundreds of Greek deities, amongst them Zeus, for which they used to raise pigs in order to slaughter them on his altar. So the Jewish people that live here are people surrounded by Gentiles and they are people who need to prove that they are more Jew than the rest of the Jews in the country, because Jewish people in Galilee is a rare thing to find.
In the second century BC, the Jewish king arrives in this area, Alexander Yannai, and gives the pagans, that lived in this area for hundreds of years -- ever since the Assyrians came and expelled the Jews all the way to Assyria -- he gives the pagans here two options: One, to leave this place, cross the Sea of Galilee, and stay on the other side in those 10 Greek-style and Greek-inhabited cities called Decapolis. Yet those who chose to remain were actually forced to convert to Judaism.
Converting to Judaism meant that they had to give up their pagan lifestyle and now become Jewish people by practice. Interestingly enough, when the real Jews -- those who were born Jews and those who came from Judea and other parts of the country -- when they moved to live in Galilee, now they are mixed with "want-to-be Jews," or "not- for-sure Jews," or "Jews who were not Jews before and now they are forced to convert to Judaism."
And now, all the rest of the Jewish people in the country are questioning, if you live in the Galilee, are you truly a Jew or not? And, therefore, there was a pressure on the Jewish people that lived in Galilee to always live a strict lifestyle and always prove that they are more Jews than maybe the rest in order to get that legitimacy and stamp of approval from the rest of the Pharisees and the rest of the rabbis and the scribes who are mostly from Jerusalem.
And so we are in a reality where religion, oppression, and tradition is taking over God's Word and God's ways. And so what we have here in Galilee or around the Sea of Galilee, either pagans who worship other deities or Jewish people that are under the pressure of trying to prove that they are more Jews than the rest are living a religious lifestyle very oppressed by religion and tradition, and they are not really into the literal understanding of the Word of God.
That creates spiritual darkness. Outside everything looks great, but inside people were empty; people had darkness in their hearts. And that, of course, fits perfectly to what we know in the account in Matthew Chapter 4. And 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." So here we are, seeing that Jesus departed Nazareth and came all the way and stayed in Capernaum, "Kafar Nahum," "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 and most beautiful and tranquil areas in the country -- you would find it hard to believe that this place is dark, that this place is full of evil spirits. Yet at the time of Jesus, it was a very dark place, spiritually and sometimes even physically. And, therefore, Isaiah's words when speaking about Jesus coming to Galilee, we're getting 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 Zebulon 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.
And it's very interesting because Jesus came to this place and He brought the same Word of God. 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. And it's no longer 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 are a simple people. He knew that they are afflicted by religious spirits. He knew that they are under that pressure of having to prove all the time that they are more Jews 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 were strict, but the people are hungry and thirsty for the truth. So when He comes, He understands that there is so much darkness by the way of what these people are being taught.
And Isaiah Chapter 29 says, "Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, they have removed their heart from Me, and their fear towards Me is taught by the commandment of men." That is a picture of the religious spirit that the nation of Israel was afflicted by, 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 is 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've 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 He had to face sick people, tormented people, people with pain, people with some leprosy or other thing, 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 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's the beauty of the ministry of Jesus here in 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 and only the supernatural to happen, not really caring what the requirements from the Word of God for our life are all about. And Jesus comes, and He is preaching a very simple message, but a message of hope and a message of peace.
But it all has to do with: "Are you ready?" Are you ready to live 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 shall not have a graven molded image. Thou shall not worship it." And, therefore, the Jews were very, very careful not using those things. They were using symbols from nature like pomegranates, like flowers, like olives, like palm branches.
However, one of the things that we notice is that they even use 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 200 to 300 years old as an ultimate Jewish symbol. It was a common symbol used by many cultures throughout many different time periods, and 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 movements. 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, something that reminds us all of Hitler and Nazi Germany, it wasn't so 2,000 years ago. We found swastika formations on floors of synagogues and churches from the fourth and the fifth centuries.
So all that to say, that coming to dig and excavate Capernaum, we couldn't jump to any conclusions that this is a Jewish town just by finding a star of David. What was it that was the ultimate Jewish symbol of all times? It was the seven branches candelabra, the menorah. And as you can see, we found a capital of a column that has the menorah right on it. It has the shofar, the ram's horn on one side, and the tray to remove incense from the altar of incense on the other side, and together with a 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 quite a simple life. We did not find here marble or plasters or frescoes or stucco. The synagogue may have been a very nice decorated place. But the rest of the houses; we found them as insula style, which means it was like a main courtyard surrounded by houses, and every courtyard surrounded by houses of another, I would say, clan. The clan of Zebedee, the father Zebedee and his sons, and other clans as well.
One insula is named by the archaeologist, 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. So one of the houses turn into, most likely, a home church, domus ecclesia, "home church." And later on in the fourth century, it turned into a church building that became a beautiful octagonal church building in the fifth century.
We ask ourselves, what would be the reason for one house to become such an important place? And the only answer we had is this must have been the house where Jesus stayed. This must have been Peter's house because the Bible tells that Jesus stayed with Peter in Capernaum.
So the synagogue was a beautiful place. The one that we see today here is actually not from the time of Jesus, but it was built on the top of the one from the time of Jesus. And 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, it was as big and as nice as the one we have today. But it's interesting; God is not interested in big buildings, in synagogues, churches, 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 Chapter 11, in verse 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." And 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 judgment than for you."
What a harsh judgment Jesus predicts to the city of Capernaum, not because of His anger; it's 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." And I always tell people, "First of all, the Bible says that faith is not what you see, it's the evidence of things not seen."
But also I will 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 in the things that we know that is true, yet we don't see yet.
And 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 the finished work of Him on the cross, faith that will eventually produce righteousness.
The Bible says that "He will knew no sin, became sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus." And, 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. That's not how things work. The Bible says in Psalm 14, in Psalm 53, and in so many other Psalms that, "The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there 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."
So that's a terrifying thing to know that your good works will lead you nowhere, but that's the good news. Jesus comes and is telling people: don't try; it's not going to work. Jesus is giving us "The Way, The Truth, and The Life." And He came to a land afflicted with such religious oppression.
He came to an area that was dark, and the Bible says that, "In that valley of the shadow of death, Light has dawned, the Light of the world, there before even the sun was created, came to this dark place and turned on the lights. And anyone who followed Him, could see that light. And 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 are believers or not, as long as they appear good and that they look 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, good will, good heart, good view of things leads to. You see; no one does good. 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 counting.
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 Chapter 3, verses 21 to 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 has 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."