Capernaum appears in all four of the Gospel narratives as the home of several of the disciples and the temporary home of Jesus during His public ministry. The town was located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee and generally regarded as inhabited from about the 2nd century BC to the 10th century AD, although the town of the 7th to the 10th century was built only on the east side of the Roman period settlement. However, archaeological remains from as early as 2000 BC and as late as the 12th century AD have apparently been recovered at the site (http://126.96.36.199/www1/ofm/sites/TScpmain.html). The name of the village, Kfar Nahum (Capernaum), means village of Nahum, although it has no definitive connection to the Hebrew prophet Nahum. While it contains significant remains from the time of Jesus and the early Church, it seems that the town was not settled during the Israelite Monarchy period. In addition to being mentioned in all four Gospel accounts, the town is also referred to in the writings of 1st century AD Roman-Judean historian Flavius Josephus as a village on the Sea of Galilee, apparently near Tabgha and in the same area as Magdala (Josephus, Life, 403-404; Josephus, Wars, 3.519-521). Capernaum appears to have been largest during the Roman and early Byzantine periods, and at the time of Jesus the town occupied about 6 hectares (nearly 15 acres). Although population estimates for the Roman period town usually vary between 1,000 and 2,000 people, due to the currently known size of the settlement, the population density of towns and cities in antiquity, and the possibility that more of the settlement has yet to be uncovered, the population of Capernaum in the 1st century AD may have exceeded 3,000. Magdala, while appearing to be a relatively small town from the currently known archaeological remains, supposedly had a population of about 40,000 people in the 1st century AD (Josephus, Wars, 2.608). In antiquity this was considered a large town, and since towns and villages lined the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the 1st century, the area would have seemed even more urbanized and highly populated.
Capernaum was connected to the coast of the Mediterranean via a highway that went west to the city of Ptolemais, or Acco (Acts 21:7). Another major road could be followed south to Jerusalem or north towards Damascus, while sailing east across the Sea of Galilee would bring one to the area of the Decapolis cities. Due to its location on the Sea of Galilee and major roads, fishing, agriculture, and trade made the town an important commercial center. This is further evidenced by the Roman customs house located at Capernaum and the presence of various tax collectors (Mark 2:14; Matthew 17:24). A centurion was stationed there, and perhaps another government official (Matthew 8:5, 9:18). A Roman milestone found in the town, reading “Imperator Caesar Divi Trajani…” attests to its significance for the Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The layout of the town also reveals Hellenistic and Roman influence, as it was mostly organized according to Roman urban plans with streets running north-south and east-west intersecting at 90 degree angles, and a Roman bathhouse was discovered during excavations. Due to its location, the town was home to a wide variety of professions, such as fishermen, farmers, artisans, merchants, government officials, soldiers, scholars, and religious leaders.
Ancient Capernaum at the time of the ministry of Jesus was the home of Peter, James, John, Andrew, and Matthew, although Peter and Andrew had moved there from their earlier home of Bethsaida (Mark 1:16-29; Matthew 9:9; John 1:44). Many of the disciples were fishermen and Capernaum was described as a fishing village in the Gospels, just as archaeological excavations have also revealed. Fish hooks and weights for fish nets, along with other lower class household items such as basic pottery, weaving implements, and grain millstones have been discovered. In addition to fishing, the area of Capernaum was an agricultural center which seems to have focused on the production and processing of olive and grain. Archaeological discoveries also indicate that glass vessels were manufactured at Capernaum. A jetty was constructed to prevent water from flooding the town and to form a harbor for boats, as can be seen by the protrusion of stone walls going out over 75 feet into the water to form a pier (Tzaferis, “New Archaeological Evidence on Ancient Capernaum,” 201).
A synagogue at Capernaum is specifically mentioned in the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John, and remains of two synagogues from antiquity have been found in the town (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:31-33; John 6:59). An impressive 4th to 5th century AD synagogue, dated by thousands of coins found beneath the pavement, still stands today. The main hall of this reconstructed synagogue measures 24.4 meters by 18.65 meters, and two inscriptions, one in Greek and the other in Aramaic, apparently commemorate those who helped construct the building. At the synagogue, coins mostly from around 350-400 AD found underneath the white synagogue, indicate that it was constructed in the late 4th century or early 5th century (North, “Discoveries at Capernaum,” 424-426). In fact, the coins seem to have been used as a component in the mortar—perhaps because they were Roman coins of Christian Emperors (McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament, 163). Additionally, the Aramaic inscription from the synagogue and the column capitals used in the architecture were identified as 4th century or later (Loffreda, “The Late Chronology of the Synagogue of Capernaum”). The main hall of the synagogue may have been constructed in the late 4th century, while the eastern wing could have been added in the early 5th century. However, underneath this Byzantine period white limestone synagogue in Capernaum remains of a 1st century AD black basalt synagogue was discovered, making it one of the oldest synagogues currently known. This synagogue from the time of Jesus and the Apostles was primarily dated based on the 1st century AD pottery found underneath the cobblestone floor (McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament, 164). The Gospel of Luke states that the centurion paid for the building of this synagogue, which would place the construction in the early 1st century AD (Luke 7:1-5). Underneath the 1st century AD structure, earlier coins and pottery were also discovered, restricting the construction of the building to a very precise time range (http://188.8.131.52/www1/ofm/sites/TScpmain.html). The black basalt walls of this building are about 4 feet thick, demonstrating that this could not have been a private dwelling. This synagogue of the 1st century AD, underneath the white limestone synagogue, was just slightly smaller at 22 meters by 16.5 meters. As the black basalt structure does not line up exactly with the white synagogue, it is clear that the basalt blocks are remains of an earlier building and not foundations for the Byzantine period synagogue (McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament, 164). Sections of the basalt walls were preserved up to about 3 feet high, and examination revealed that they were plastered on the interior (Chen, “On the Chronology of the Ancient Synagogue at Capernaum,” 141-143). The building is referenced by the 4th century pilgrim Egeria, who would have heard about or perhaps even seen the ruins of the earlier basalt synagogue. The pilgrim Egeria also noted that the limestone synagogue was built in the same place as the 1st century basalt synagogue. While only column fragments, the floor, and the foundations remain from the 1st century AD synagogue, this material is sufficient for its identification.
A large octagon shaped church was also built in Capernaum in the 5th century AD, during the Byzantine period. Similar to other churches of the period, it was constructed over or around a location of significance mentioned in the Gospels. This Byzantine church appears to have been constructed in two phases, first during the 4th century when the ancient church was expanded by means of a wall built around the area, then a new structure was built in the 5th century into a more formal church (Meyers and Chancey, Alexander to Constantine, 191). The 4th century was a significant period of church building, as Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, commissioned the building of many churches, and encouraged additional church building through his actions and policies. When the church was rediscovered during excavations at Capernaum, sections of the mosaic floor were still intact and a baptistery in the southern apse was found. Underneath the Byzantine church remains of an even earlier church were discovered, modified from a house that was originally built in the 1st century BC and changed into a house church in the second half of the 1st century AD (North, “Discoveries at Capernaum,” 425). The ancient house is dated to the 1st century AD on the basis of architecture, using the black basalt building materials that were prevalent in the town during the 1st centuries BC and AD, and pottery found in the house. The original walls of the house were much thinner than the later church, since this was the norm in domestic architecture, and it would have been covered by a thatch roof (Mark 2:4). The house of Peter was the site of multiple healing miracles and the casting out of demons (Mark 2:1-12; Matthew 8:14-17). In one instance, it sounds as if large crowds of people from the town continued to gather in front of the door of the house so that they could be healed by Jesus (Mark 1:29-34). This suggests that a large space was available in front of the house of Peter where people could gather. Excavations of the house demonstrate that it was along the main north-south street of the town, and a large open space existed between the street and the doorway, which would allow a crowd to assemble in front of the door to the house and all the way down the street in waiting to see Jesus. Eventually, by about 50 AD, it appears the house was treated differently than other buildings in the town. What has been identified as the original church room, with walls measuring about 7.5 meters, was the only room in the city with plaster floors and walls, which had been applied in the second half of the 1st century AD. This apparent meeting place also had a conspicuous absence of household ceramic remains, while storage jars and many oil lamps have been discovered which would have been used for lighting. According to the excavators, Christian graffiti in Aramaic, Greek, Syriac, and Latin, mentioning the names “Lord Jesus Christ” and “Peter,” along with symbols of the cross, the names of pilgrims who visited, the Eucharist, and various blessings and prayers was found and deciphered. While debate has surrounded the Peter inscriptions, one of the three proposed inscriptions mentioning Peter certainly contains the name “Peter” (Meyers and Chancey, Alexander to Constantine, 193). Before 135 AD when Hadrian changed the Province, the walls were plastered and eventually this Christian graffiti was written on the walls. A total of 196 pieces of graffiti with letters or words have been identified (North, “Discoveries at Capernaum,” 430). The graffiti on the walls of the church may have started earlier, but most of it appears to date from after 200 AD. The house has an extremely early tradition as being the home of Peter, documented in the 4th century AD during the pilgrimage of Egeria, who wrote that “in Capernaum, what is more, the house of the prince of the Apostles [Peter] has been turned into a church, leaving its original walls however quite unchanged.” Later, the 6th century Piacenza pilgrim visited Capernaum and referred to the church that had built over the house of Peter (Itinerarium Antonini Placentini). Ancient rabbinical writings confirm that a group of Christians existed at Capernaum prior to the reign of Constantine (Midrash Rabba). The passages in Matthew and Mark indicate not only that Peter’s house was in Capernaum, but that it was extremely close to the synagogue (Matthew 8:5-15; Mark 1:29). Indeed, the house is located very close to the entrance of the synagogue remains, about 90 feet to the south or a walk of less than a minute.
Jesus performed many miracles and taught extensively while in Capernaum, such as the healing of the Centurion’s servant, the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus, the bread of life sermon, and many other recorded instances of miracles and teaching (Matthew 8:14-15, 9:2-8, 17:24-18:35; Mark 1:21-28, 2:1-12, 3:1-6, 5:21-43; Luke 4:31-38, 7:1-10, 8:41-56; John 4:46-54, 6:26-59, etc.). Because of the general rejection of Jesus by the people of Capernaum, even though Jesus had performed many miracles there and given insightful teaching, He cursed the town for its lack of faith (Matthew 11:22-24; Luke 10:15). It appears that Capernaum was involved in the first Judean revolt against Rome, which Josephus also initially participated in, and many of the people were apparently defeated and killed by the Romans around 68 AD (Josephus, Wars, 3.519-531). The town continued to be inhabited following this war, although it was completely abandoned by about the 12th century AD.