The Capernaum synagogue (Matthew 17)

Illustration: This synagogue in Capernaum is most likely from the 4th century A.D.

The city of Capernaum features prominently in the Gospel narratives as a location from which Jesus conducted much of His public ministry (Matthew 4:13, Mark 2:1). He preformed many miracles there and is reported to have frequently entered the Capernaum synagogue in order to teach (Mark 1:21, 3:1-5, Luke 4:31, John 6:59). According to Luke 7:5 the synagogue of Capernaum was constructed under the auspices of a Roman centurion who felt great love for the people of Israel.

The ruins of a synagogue were recognized by Edward Robinson in 1852 at the site of Tell Hum. Charles Wilson conducted the first excavation there in 1865-1866. In 1894 the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land acquired the site from the Turks, built a monastery, covered the ruins and planted crops over them in order to keep them safe until the political situation would permit careful excavation. During the years 1905-1926 the ancient synagogue was excavated and partially restored by German and Franciscan teams.

The wait had been worthwhile. The teams discovered a large, ornate, limestone synagogue planned as a rectangular basilica approximately 18 m wide by 24,5 m long. The floor plan consisted of a central nave flanked by isles. Stone benches lined the eastern and western walls. The focal point of the structure faced south, toward Jerusalem. For a number of years scholars believed that these visible ruins represented the actual structure in which Jesus had taught. However, continuing excavations begun in 1968 have revealed the remains of an earlier structure, built of black basalt stone, with a singular floor plan. The 1,2 m basalt walls are slightly out of line with the limestone walls and, therefore, could not have served as their foundation. In 1981 a basalt cobblestone floor was discovered, together with pottery from the first century A.D. Thus, it is no doubt this earlier structure from which Jesus declared “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever(John 6:51).

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