Peter’s house in Capernaum (Matthew 14)

Illustration: a church has been built over Peter’s house

HOUSES IN THE HOLY LAND OF THE FIRST CENTURU A.D.

Housing conditions in the first century Holy Land varied dramatically according to people’s financial situations. The best preserved homes are those that were built for the upper classes and constructed with obvious craftsmanship from lasting materials. Of these, the most splendid examples are the remains of Herod the Great’s lavish palaces in Jerusalem, Masada and Jericho.

These structures, along with other luxurious houses discovered in Jerusalem’s upper city, reflect the stylistic conventions of contemporary Roman villas. The villa was structured around an open, colonnaded courtyard and contained a large reception room and dining area to accommodate large gatherings. Floors were covered with detailed stone mosaics, and walls were painted with frescoes. These upper-class houses and palaces in Judea also contained distinctively Jewish features, such as ritual baths alongside ordinary bathrooms, the absence of human or animal representation in mosaics and frescoes and the presence of Jewish symbols (e.g. the menorah).

Since relatively few people lived in palatial homes, many more examples of middle-class dwellings have been revealed through archaeology. An important example, discovered in Jerusalem in 1970, is known as the “burnt house”. This home was completely buried with soot and ash from the destruction o the city in A.D. 70 and, therefore, has been well preserved. The floor plan reflects a common pattern of three medium-sized rooms, a small storage room, a small kitchen and a stepped, ritual bath built around a paved courtyard. The walls were covered with a thin layer of limestone plaster, and the floors consisted of pressed earth. Furnishings within the house included rectangular stone tables, bowl, plates, cups and cylindrical weights, one of which identifies the owner as Bar Karos.

Other significant examples of first century houses have been unearthed in Capernaum. Excavations near the ruins of the ancient synagogue there revealed a group of approximately 12 homes constructed of black basalt rocks and small pebbles and arranged around a central courtyard containing ovens and grinding stones. These single-story dwellings had floors of beaten black earth and stairways leading to flat roofs. The less-substantial roofs were probably built with tree branches covered with mud and straw. (cf. Mark 2:4).

The largest of these homes attracted particular attention in that it featured a crushed limestone floor and had plastered walls filled with decorations (including flowers, pomegranates and numerous crosses) and inscriptions, which were fragmentary and in many languages: 124 in Greek, 18 in Syiac, 15 in Hebrew and 1 in Latin. Most of the inscriptions were short prayers, such as “Christ have mercy” or “Lord Jesus Christ help”. Others contained the name of Peter, suggesting that this home was venerated in antiquity as a place of Christian pilgrimage and associated with the memory of Peter. Thus, this dwelling has become known as the house of Peter in Capernaum (Matthew 8:14, Mark 1:29, Luke 4:38).

The lowest urban classes inhabited crowded tenement buildings called insulae – multi-storied buildings divided into numerous apartments called cenaculi. The lowest floor generally contained a shop in which the proprietor also lived. The upper floors were accessed through outside staircases. The insulae usually lacked any system of heating, running water or sewage. Eutychus most likely fell from the third floor window of an insulae while listening to Paul preach in Troas (Acts 20:7-12).

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