Jesus’ disciples Peter and Andrew were careful about money. They uprooted their families and moved to a new city because it gave them a tax break. Their home was Bethsaida (John 1:44). Yet we find them living in Capernaum, where they shared a house (Mark 1:29). The distance between the two cities is only five miles, but they belonged to different jurisdictions: Bethsaida, on the east side of the Jordan River, was in the territory of Herod Philip, while Capernaum on the west side belonged to that of Herod Antipas.
Peter and Andrew needed their fish processed (air dried or salted) for sale outside the immediate area, and the principal (if not the only) fish factory on the Sea of Galilee was at Magdala, a town in the same territory as Capernaum. Fishermen from Bethsaida had to bring their catch across a border and pay a tax—hence the customs house at Capernaum (Mark 2:14). By becoming residents of Capernaum, Peter and Andrew avoided this tax. Such hard-headedness is a significant guarantee of the historicity of the gospel tradition. They were not religious romantics prepared to believe anything that took their fancy.
Capernaum has been thoroughly excavated by the Franciscans Virgilio Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda. The houses were organized in blocks separated by streets. All the houses were of similar construction. The drystone black basalt walls could not have supported a second story. The roofs were made of crisscrossed tree branches sometimes cemented by a mixture of earth and straw. This fits perfectly with the Gospel of Mark’s account of a paralytic who sought out Jesus’ healing powers but had to be let down through a hole in the roof of a Capernaum house in order to reach him (Mark 2:1-12). The floors were of rough basalt stones with spaces between—just the setting for the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8). The black basalt hovels and mean streets must have made it a depressing place.
From as early as 50 C.E., one large room in Capernaum was made to stand out. Its floor, walls, and ceiling were plastered, a feature that does not appear anywhere else in the village. At the same time, the pottery shows that the use of the room changed. Domestic vessels gave way to big storage jars and lamps. The simplest explanation for the contradictory layers of archaeological evidence is that a private room was devoted to public use.
What kind of public use? That becomes evident only because of work done in a later period. The large room was given an arch to support a heavier and higher ceiling. Graffiti appears on the plastered walls—for example, “Lord Jesus Christ help your servant...” (the name is no longer readable) and “Christ have mercy.” Greek predominates, but some Syriac and Hebrew remains. Crosses abound. The large room had been transformed into a chapel, no longer in the middle of a house but a sacred enclosure set off by its own wall. One hundred years later, in the fifth century, an octagonal church was built over the holy room.
What explains such consistent veneration of this room in Capernaum? Jesus claimed to have no place to call his own (Matt 8:20), but perhaps he used the room when he lodged in the house of Peter and Andrew (Mark 1:29-35). The two courtyards noted by the archaeologists strongly suggest that it was a two-family house, and those families may have been Peter’s and Andrew’s.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P., (1935-2013) was professor of New Testament at Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. A native of Ireland, he taught at the Ecole Biblique since 1967 and was published widely, particularly on the letters of Paul and on the historical Jesus. He authored The Holy Land: An Archaeological Guide (Oxford University Press, 2008).
Dug up, often from an archaeological site.
Members of Christian religious orders, usually Catholic, devoted to the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi.
A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Unauthorized writings or pictures drawn onto a wall or other public place.
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.
A dialect of Aramaic, common among a number of early Christian communities.
44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.
Jesus Heals Many at Simon's House
29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.
14As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
Jesus Heals a Paralytic
1When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.2So many gathered around that there was no longer ro ... View more
The Parable of the Lost Coin
8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully unt ... View more
20And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Jesus Heals Many at Simon's House
29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.30Now Simon's mother-in- ... View more