Capernaum, its synagogues and other sites of Christian interest
Capernaum, which was a typical, prosperous Jewish town during Second Temple times and after the destruction of the Temple, contains an impressive partially reconstructed synagogue. At its base, are the ruins of the walls of a synagogue that may have been used by Jesus of Nazareth when he lived here for a short time. Other sites of Christian interest are also described.
The Hebrew name for Capernaum is Kfar Nachum. This means village of comfort in Hebrew, and could also mean the village of Nahum. The village has no connection, though, to the prophet Nachum. It was established in the Hasmonean period in the 2nd century BCE and at the same time as a number of other Jewish villages were established around Lake Kinneret. At that time, it would probably have had no more than about 1,000 inhabitants.
After the destruction of the Temple, and particularly in the late Roman period, Kfar Nahum became more populated because of its location on the road between the Galilee and Damascus, and its fishing and port. A large influx of Jews to the Galilee after the Bar Kochba Revolt added to its population. By the 4th century, it had become a mixed Jewish and Christian town, although it had been home to some gentiles even by the 1st century. The town suffered from a number of major earthquakes, but was rebuilt after them. However, it was abandoned after a devastating earthquake in the 11th century.
The site is owned and its ruins excavated by the Franciscan Church. There is also Peter’s house here and above this a modern church.
Two other sites in this area are associated with Capernaum, namely Kfar Nahum National Park, which is located to the east and just outside the ancient town of Capernaum and is administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. It caters particularly to Christian tourists and offers boat rides on Lake Kinneret. Between them is an area owned and excavated by the Greek Orthodox Church, and it contains their Church of the Holy Apostles. They have also done excavations in the part of Capernaum they own. Capernaum is also at the end of the Gospel Trail, which starts in Nazareth.
Directions and parking: Enter “Capernaum” into Waze and click on “Capernaum Synagogue.” Parking is available on the sides of the approach road. Alternatively, there is a parking lot on the right shortly after passing through the entrance gate.
Admission: Hours are 8.00 am to 5.00 pm. There is a small entrance fee collected by the Franciscan Church.
Public transport: There is an infrequent bus from Tiberias which stops close to the entrance to Capernaum. Enter "Capernaum Synagogue" into Moovit. Other bus lines stop at the Kfar Nahum Junction which is a 3.5 Km/43-minute walk.
The synagogues at Capernaum – when were they built?
The synagogue at Capernaum is one of the most impressive, if not the most impressive ancient synagogue ruin in the Galilee, and is certainly worth viewing. Capernaum was a prosperous community and the synagogue was built with white limestone blocks and pillars rather than the local basalt rock of which the homes were made, the limestone being brought in from a distant quarry.
The synagogue is built on a platform. Flights of steps lead to the entrance façade, which has three doors facing Jerusalem. The prayer hall is rectangular with two rows of columns. There are stone benches along its eastern and western aisles. The paving is of smooth limestones. Excavations revealed that its interior was richly decorated, covered with painted plaster and stucco-work. The beautiful decorative work on the lintels, cornices and capitals are displayed by the side of the synagogue.
There has been considerable debate as to when this limestone synagogue was built. Its Italian excavators found 10,000 bronze coins sealed into the mortar of the floor, and this enabled them to date the synagogue to the late 4th to early 5th century, in the Byzantine period. Many in the Israeli archeological community disagree with this. They argue that an imposing synagogue like this would not have been built in Christian Palestine in the Byzantine period. Officially, it was not even permitted for Jews to build synagogues. When they managed to skirt the law, the exteriors of their synagogues were subdued and decorative efforts went into the interior of the building, particularly the mosaic floors. The synagogue at Hammath-Tiberias, only 10 miles away, is an example of this. Jewish symbols on the outside of the synagogue, such as a menorah, shofar and lulav, would only have emphasized that they were flouting the emperors’ prohibition. This synagogue shows stylistic and artistic parallels to other synagogues in the Galilee and Golan built during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, which would be in the Roman period. But how does one explain the bronze coins? It could be that they were placed in this location during a relaying of the floor in the 4th century.
Of note is that this synagogue was constructed on top of an older synagogue built of local (dark) volcanic stone, and which has been dated to the 1st century. A wall section of this older synagogue can be clearly seen at the base of the later synagogue and was used as its foundations. It is about three feet tall and was found beneath all four corners of the limestone synagogue.
It certainly possible that Jesus prayed and preached in this early synagogue. Capernaum was the base of his activities in the Galilee after he left his hometown hamlet of Nazareth and his second-cousin John the Baptist was killed (Matthew 4:13). He probably lived in Capernaum for 3 years until his death, which would have been in the 1st century CE. Jesus would finally curse this town, as well as Bethsaida and Chorazim, because of their lack of faith in him and their failure to repent.
The stone seating of the synagogue dates from the 2nd or 3rd century CE..
Decorations on lintels and pillars from the synagogue. The Star of David was not a Jewish symbol at this time, and would not become so until the Middle Ages.
The Roman-period synagogue was built on an earlier 1st century synagogue of basalt stone, and this could well have been the synagogue in which Jesus of Nazareth preached.
Kfar Nahum National Park. This national park is north-east of the Franciscan property. There is a pier, and boats will dock here from Ein Gev and Tiberius. It has WCs, a gift shop, snack bar and restaurant. Directions: Enter “Kfar Nahum” into Waze and click on “Kfar Nahum National Park”. It is open Sunday to Thursday and Saturday in the summer from 8.00 am to 5.00 pm and until 4.00 pm on Fridays and holiday eves. Closing time is 1 hour earlier in the winter. Their phone number is 04 679-3865. Click here for their website.
Church of the Holy Apostles:
The entrance to the Greek Orthodox site in Kfar Nahum is close to the entrance to the Kfar Nahum National Park. Enter into Waze “Church of the Holy Apostles” and click on “Greek Orthodox Monastery Israel.”
Other Christian sites close to Lake Kinneret
This is the traditional site of the feeding of the 5,000 and the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The Church of the Multiplication marks this spot and was recently constructed over the ruins of a 5th century chapel destroyed by the Persians in 614 CE. The Chapel of the Primacy commemorates the resurrection of Jesus. The name Tabgha is an Arabic mispronunciation of a Greek word for seven springs (Heptapagon), which is where Jesus fed the masses. Directions: Enter “Tabgha” enter Waze.
By the side of Tabgha is an area by the lake that many people use as a free beach.
Mount of Beatitudes (see the page The Mount of Beatitudes)
This is the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus spoke the beatitudes (blessings) (Matthew 5:1-12). The church was built by the Order of St Francis. Directions: Enter into Waze “Mount of Beatitudes.”
Bethsaida in the Jordan Park (see Family time in Jordan Park)
The Bethsaida Trail is one section of the Jordan Park. The first part of this trail is circular, is directed to Christian groups, and takes about 25 minutes. One can also do the entire trail which is about 2 Km and takes about 45 minutes. It is not circular and you will need to return to wherever your car or family is located.
The Yigal Allon Center at Ginosar (see also the page The Yigal Allon Center on this website)
On the ground floor of this museum is an ancient wooden boat. It was exposed in 1986 by the fall in water level of the Sea of Galilee, having been preserved by the clay around it. It has been dated from about 100 BCE to 100 CE. One of the reasons for the excitement about this boat is that this period includes the ministry of Jesus. This boat was found a bit south of Ginosar by the former town of Magdala. Many of the people that Jesus preached to would have been fishermen. Three of the disciples he recruited gave up their livelihoods as fishermen to join him - Peter, John and James - and this is the type of boat they would have used. Jesus would also preach from a boat to people on the shore. However, given the location of the wreck close to the town of Magdala it is most likely that this boat was sunk during the Battle of Migdal during the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans between 66-70 CE, which is after the time of Jesus. Many people were killed on Lake Kinneret during this battle. Directions: Enter “Yigal Allon Center” into Waze and click on “Yigal Allon Center, Ginosar.”
Magdala (see also the page Magdala on this website) :
Magdala is on the western shore of Lake Kinneret, 3 miles north of Tiberius, and is the presumed home of Mary Magdalene. Of considerable interest is the finding of the ruins of an ancient synagogue dated to between 50 BCE to 100 CE and thus likely before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
Yardenit Jordan River Baptismal Site:
This is on the southern side of the Sea of Galilee by the River Jordan. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17). This is an alternative baptismal site to El Yehud in the Jordan Valley close to Jericho. It contains 12 baptismal pools, a riverside promenade, gift shop, restaurant, WCs and showers. Entry is free. White robes can be rented or purchased. Enter into Waze “Yardenit Baptismal Site.” Their phone number is 04 675-9111. This is their Website.
The pier at Kfar Nahum National Park.