Capernaum and nearby sites of Christian interest
Capernaum is on the northern shore of Lake Kinneret and is often regarded as a “Christian site.” However, Capernaum was a typical prosperous Jewish town in Second Temple times and after the destruction of the Temple, and it contains an impressive partially reconstructed synagogue from the Roman period that should be of interest to Jews. The communities around Lake Kinneret were also where Jesus of Nazareth began his ministry, recruited his disciples, and performed his miracles, although eventually the people of this town and others nearby would reject his message and be cursed for this.
There are 3 separate sites that can be visited in the area of Capernaum. The most well-known is that owned and excavated by the Franciscan Church, and this contains the ancient synagogue of Capernaum and Peter’s house. Kfar Nahum National Park is located to the east and outside the ancient town of Capernaum and is administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. It is currently being renovated to cater particularly for Christian tourists. Between these two sites is an area owned and excavated by the Greek Orthodox Church, who have also done excavations in Capernaum. This site contains the Church of the Holy Apostles. Capernaum is also at the end of the Gospel Trail which starts at Nazareth.
The Hebrew name for Capernaum is Kfar Nachum. This means village of comfort in Hebrew. It could also mean the village of Nahum. It has nothing to do, though, with the prophet Nachum. The village was established in the Hasmonean period in the 2nd century BCE, which is when a number of Jewish villages were established around Lake Kinneret.
Jesus’s ministry was in Second Temple times during the 1st century CE, and Capernaum became the center of his activities in the Galilee after the death of his cousin John the Baptist and his leaving his hometown hamlet of Nazareth (Matthew 4:13). He probably resided in Capernaum for 3 years until his death. This is where he taught, preached, and met the apostles Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. The New Testament records a number of miracles he performed here, including the healing of a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue, his healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, the healing of the servant of a Roman centurion, and the healing of a paralytic. Jesus would finally curse this village, as well as Bethsaida and Chorazim, because of their lack of faith in him and failure to repent (Matthew 11:20).
The village became a larger town after the destruction of the Temple and particularly in the late Roman period due to its location on the road between the Galilee and Damascus. There was also a large influx of Jews to the Galilee after the Bar Kochba Revolt. During the Byzantine period (3rd to 7th centuries) it became a mixed Jewish and Christian town.
Directions and parking: Enter “Capernaum” into Waze and click on “Capernaum Synagogue.” You can park 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.
The Capernaum synagogue is extremely impressive. Be aware though that this is not the synagogue that Jesus preached in. The synagogue you are viewing was probably built in the Roman period in the late 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. (Some archeologists have argued for a later time, in the Byzantine period, but this is contested). Synagogues of this time were built with the same impressive architectural and stylistic design as Roman buildings in Syria and Asia Minor. The synagogue in Baram in the Upper Galilee is another example. It is worth noting that synagogues in the later Byzantine period had less imposing exteriors and most of the decorative efforts were put into the interior, particularly mosaic floors. The synagogue at Tiberias is an example of this. This change in architecture during the Byzantine period probably reflects the inferior status of Judaism to Christianity in this now Christian-ruled country and the inability of synagogues to overshadow Byzantine churches.
Capernaum was a prosperous community and its synagogue was built with white limestone blocks and pillars, the limestone being brought from a distant quarry. It was constructed on top of an older synagogue built of local (dark) volcanic basalt stone. A wall of this older synagogue can be seen at the base of this later synagogue. This earlier synagogue may well have been where Jesus prayed and where he is recorded in the New Testament as making a speech about the Bread of Life (John 6:59).
Note its rectangular prayer hall with its two rows of columns, its southern façade facing towards Jerusalem, the stone benches along the eastern and western aisles, and its western patio. The paving is of smooth limestones. Excavations revealed that its interior walls were covered with painted plaster and stuccowork. Some of the beautiful decorative work on its lintels, cornices and capitals can be seen by the side of the synagogue.
Beneath the church and between the synagogue and the lakeshore is where Christian tradition locates Peter’s House. Simon was a fisherman who lived in Bethsaida and who became one of Jesus’s twelve apostles. He was named Peter by Jesus. He served as head of the apostles after Jesus’ death. Excavators have concluded that one of the houses in the village was already venerated as Peter’s home by the 1st century CE. Rooms were added at that time and it remained in use as a gathering place for Christians until the early 4th century. In the middle of the 5th century an octagonal church was built on top of the rooms in the form of two concentric octagons. A modern church was built on top of this on concrete columns. The mosaic floor of the earlier church can be seen through the glass floor of the church.
Kfar Nahum National Park.This national park is north-east of the Franciscan property. This site is presently undergoing renovations, and is being prepared for the return of Christian pilgrims after Covid. There is a pier and the intention is that boats will dock here from Ein Gev and Tiberius. There will be WC’s, 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 this Greek Orthodox site in Kfar Nahum is just before 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.
Mount of the 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.”
The Bethsaida Trail is one section of the Jordan Park. The first part of this trail is circular, is directed to Christian groups, and should take 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 Ginnosar
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 100 BCE to 100 CE. One of the reasons for the excitement about this boat is that this includes the time 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 fisherman. Three of the disciples he recruited for his mission gave up their livelihoods as fisherman 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, the experts admit that there is no particular reason why a fisherman’s boat should have capsized, and given the location of the wreck close to the town of Magdala, more likely is that this boat was sunk during the Battle of Migdal that took place during the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans between 66-70 CE. Directions: Enter “Yigal Allon Center” into Waze and click on “Yigal Allon Center, Ginosar.”
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 are the findings of the ruins of an ancient synagogue dated to between 50 BCE to 100 CE and thus before the destruction of the Second Temple.
Yardenit Jordan River Baptismal Site:
This is on the southern side of Lake Kinneret by the exit of the River Jordan. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River (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, WC’s and showers. Entry is free. White robes can be rented or purchased. Enter into Waze “Yardenit Baptismal Site.” Phone: 04 675-9111. This is their Website.
Decorations on lintels and pillars from the synagogue at Capernaum. The Star of David was not a Jewish symbol at this time, and would not become so until the Middle Ages.
The seating of the synagogue which probably dates from the 2nd or 3rd century CE and is not therefore from the time of Jesus.
The Roman-period synagogue was built on an earlier 1st century synagogue of basalt stone, and may well have been the synagogue in which Jesus of Nazareth prayed and preached.
The pier at Kfar Nahum National Park.