Christian Leadership Center



Biblical Archaeology Index



Class Twenty-Two






The difficulty of this discussion is in the details--there is just so much that could be studied in great detail from each location.  As a result this survey of the information has the same problem that a visitor to the sites has--if we want to trace through the life of Christ in sequence we would be darting back and forth to the places.  This is not practical.  And so this class discussion will move from site to site, generally in the order that they come up in the life of Christ; and at each site we shall have to discuss the full archaeology of the place, from before the time of Jesus well into the Byzantine period.  One could spend a great deal of time at each location, if one had the luxury of time to do that.  We shall simply focus on the major things and leave the rest for another time.

There are many good books available on the subject of everyday life in the first century.  The one mentioned in the bibliography by Peter Connolly, Living in the Time of Jesus of Nazareth (Jerusalem: Steimatsky, 1988) is certainly a valuable one, not only for its text, but for the pictures and drawings.  It is not always easy to obtain, but there are book stores that carry copies of it still.  Then there is also the recent work on guilds and crafts by Moshe Aberbach, Labor, Crafts, and Commerce in Ancient Israel (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1994).  The older work, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias is still very helpful for the general picture, if you can find it.  Richard Horsley’s work, Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee (Valley Forge, PA, Trinity Press International, 1996) is also good. Others are listed in the bibliography; and some will be mentioned in footnotes site by site.  The two periodicals, Jerusalem Perspective and Bible Review (as well as Biblical Archaeology Review) are very much worth having. 




The city of Nazareth is located halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee at the southernmost edge of the Lower Galilee mountains.  It sits in a basin in the hills; but from its southern edge one has an excellent view of the Valley of Jezreel.  Today it is the largest Arab city in Israel; both Moslem and Christian Arabs live here, with Moslems now outnumbering the Christians three to one.


Historical Overview

The city is not mentioned in the Old Testament.  But archaeology has shown that the hill was occupied as early as the time of the patriarchs.  The houses of the New Testament village were already built over tombs from the second millennium B.C.

Nazareth is a very significant city for Christian pilgrims.  In the first century Nazareth was known as a city of disrepute, or at least of insignificance because it was a small town in the hills (John 1:45-46). It was here that Mary received the Annunciation that she was to bear Jesus (Luke 1:28), the “Immanuel” of the prophet Isaiah. And, according to the Bible, this is where Joseph and Mary settled after returning from Egypt with the baby Jesus, where Joseph worked as a builder[1] (Luke 1:26-28; 2:4-5, 39).   Nazareth thus became the childhood home of Jesus (Matt. 2:23; 4:13; 21:11; 26:71).  Traditional spots such as the grotto where the holy family lived, the synagogue where they worshiped and later Jesus spoke, the well from which they drew water, and even the hill where the people tried to kill Jesus (Luke 4:16-30), are of great interest to Christians. 

We know that the followers of Jesus eventually came to be called “Christians” (Acts 11:26).  But they were also called “Nazarenes” after the name of Nazareth.  The evidence indicates that there was a Jewish-Christian community living in Nazareth until the third century.  The Hebrew word for Christian, notzri, is related to “Nazareth.”


Archaeological Discoveries

The Site of the Annunciation.   Pilgrims in the early fourth century claimed that they had visited the cave in which Mary lived; but they attested that there was no church on the spot at the time.  But by 570 the house of Mary had been preserved by a basilica.  Ever since then sanctuaries have been built on this spot.  Today, the place where the angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary is marked by the huge Church of the Annunciation built over the grotto (the church was dedicated in 1968).   The center of the church building is left open between floors for a view of the cave from either floor.  This modern church is also of particular interest for its many mosaics of the virgin that represent the different countries of the world; but what is of importance to the biblical student is the cave that is its centerpiece--probably the grotto home of Mary where the angel Gabriel appeared.  It could have been another house like this close by (there were only a few such “houses” in Nazareth at the time), but this one has been remembered from the beginning.

Before this church was built the archaeologists uncovered the foundations of the ancient village of Nazareth as well as the foundations of the fifth century Byzantine church (built in 427). They demonstrated that this was a residential area in the tiny village in the days of Jesus.  Objects found here included olive presses, millstones, grain silos, as well as early pottery. The Franciscans have built a small museum that contains several of the ancient relics found at the site. The museum, unfortunately, is only opened on special request.

There were numerous (32) graffiti carved on the architectural fragments of the third century.  One that the archaeologist Bagatti considered most significant was written in Greek XE MARIA.  The XE could be “Christ”; but Bagatti read it as “hail” and so interpreted the graffiti to read “hail Mary”—witness to an early group of believers honoring Mary.  This told Bagatti that a Christian community worshiped here before the Byzantine period, before 300 A.D. Because of the other archaeological discoveries from that period, he described the worshipers as a Jewish-Christian community.  All the caves in the area date to the third century and many were probably used for religious activities.

In the little museum there are several capitals that date from the early period as well.  These fragments of pillars have very detailed carvings of scenes from the life of Christ; their preservation over the centuries is nothing short of phenomenal. 

Just as one leaves the little museum there is a wonderful example of a cave house from the first century.  Houses in that time were hewn out of the soft limestone to serve as homes.  Some of them had walls or rooms built in front of the cave opening.  This one has columns within, to which the animals would have been tethered in the back of the cave.  This is the kind of place that Jesus would have lived as a young child.  It is helpful to see this sample of housing because it probably was the same kind of construction used in Bethlehem where Jesus was born—but that place has been completely obscured by the Church of the Nativity built over it.  See further the discussion of the “inn” in the section on Bethlehem.   

Under the nave of the Byzantine Church there appears to have been a mikweh, a ritual bath.  It was thought at one time that it served as an early baptistery, although it did not seem to be oriented correctly for the church.  It may have been an earlier ritual bath that was used by the community.

Bagatti constructed the following development:  He thought the earliest structure was this Jewish bath that was in use until the middle of the third century (about 250 A.D.).  Shortly thereafter a Judeo-Christian synagogue was built here by and for the Jewish Christian community.  At that time Christians began to worship in a series of caves nearby.  Pilgrims began to visit the grotto of the Annunciation.  The “second church” was built in the 4th century by order of Helena, Constantine's mother.  Mosaics were added to the floors, and some of these contain crosses.  In the early fifth century another church was erected; its nave covered the cave area and the ritual bath.  It was still there in 570 when pilgrims visited the spot.  But in 614 the Persians destroyed the whole area.

The Church of St. Joseph.  At the northeastern end of the compound is the Church of St. Joseph.  Below this church is a cave believed to be the early dwelling of Joseph and Mary and the child Jesus.  In the cave were found implements and pottery from the first century.

Mary’s Well.  The village well is a few hundred yards north of the center of town; it is inside the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel, down the stairs.  It was to this well that women and children came for centuries to draw water.  Mary surely came here regularly for to get their water. 

The Synagogue.  In a market alley running west of the center of town is the Greek-Catholic Synagogue Church.  It is built on an ancient structure believed to be the synagogue where Jesus attended.

The Hill of the Leap of the Lord.   On the southern rim of hills is a steep mount called the “Hill of the Leap of the Lord.”  This is the “brow of the hill” where the angry people led Jesus after he preached in the synagogue, planning to throw him over (Luke 4:29-31).  The text simply says that he passed through them and went his way; suggesting either that he got lost in the confusion or supernaturally disappeared; tradition says he leaped across the valley to Mount Tabor.



The village of Nazareth was a rather obscure little town.  But the child Jesus would not have been isolated from the world.  From the hills around the village he would have enjoyed wonderful views of the country on all sides, especially the whole Jezreel valley below with its continuous caravans and travelers.  And from the north he would have been able to see the main roads which were regularly traveled and fully guarded by Roman legions.  And it is probable that Joseph was employed to do work in the villages around Nazareth, possibly even in Sepphoris with the royal buildings.  Jesus was not cut off from his world, even though in a sense he was, living in this remote village.

Matthew 2:23 says that the family came and settled in Nazareth, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’.”[2]  Jesus would not grow up as Jesus the Bethlehemite, but Jesus the Nazarene, “with all the opprobrium of the sneer” (Carson, Matthew).  When Christians were called “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5), the name was not particularly kind.  So Matthew was not so much pointing to a verse in the prophets that said Jesus would live in Nazareth, but to all the prophets who foretold that the Messiah would be despised and come from common beginnings. 

It is likely that there is a subtle reference to Isaiah 11:1 which refers to Messiah as a “branch” (neser, in Hebrew pronounced nay-tser).  That word was seen as Messianic in pre-Christian Jewish literature.  The point would be that David’s son would rise from a very humble estate.  Again, Carson says, “he was a branch from a royal line hacked down to a stump and reared in surroundings guaranteed to win him scorn. . . . In accord with prophecy he came as the despised Servant of the Lord” (Matthew, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Gaebelein, [Zondervan], Vol. 8, p. 97).




Bagatti, Bellarmino, O. F. M.  Excavations in Nazareth.  Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1969.

Saunders, Ernest W. “Christian Synagogues and Jewish-Christianity in Galilee.”  Exploration 3 (1977):70-73.

Wilkinson, John.  Egeria's Travels.  London: SPCK, 1971.




     [1] Tradition says he was a carpenter, but since the word is technon, he probably was a general builder. Most building in the north was with stones.

     [2]Not a Nazirite; this was an old view that saw Jesus as a second Samson (Judges 13:5).





Bethlehem is an ancient village of Judah four miles southwest of Jerusalem.  The modern city with all its churches, mosques, and monasteries, as well as its many businesses in and around “Manger Square,” seems to visitors far-removed from what they imagined this “little town of Bethlehem” should have been.  But a spot this important to Christianity could never have remained the way it was.  Today it is a growing town of over 20,000; the population is Arab, both Christian and Moslem, with the Moslem numbers increasing.


Historical Overview

Bethlehem was in existence before the Israelites settled in the land.  The ancient Canaanite name was probably bet lahmu (pronounced bait lock-moo), perhaps meaning “House [temple] of the god Lah [or Living One].  The Hebrew writing of the name, however, conveys the meaning  “house of bread.”

The first event that the Bible records taking place here was the death and burial of Rachel early in the second millennium B.C. (Gen. 35:19; 48:7).  That event is remembered by a small white-domed “Tomb of Rachel” at the entrance of Bethlehem coming from Jerusalem, but exactly where Rachel was buried is impossible to say. 

Bethlehem is also the setting of the Book of Ruth.  It was in the fields of Boaz that Ruth went to glean and met Boaz, whom she later married.  Outside Bethlehem there are some wonderful examples of threshing floors.  King David (a descendant of Boaz and Ruth) was born in Bethlehem in the eleventh century B.C.; he was also anointed here by Samuel to be king of Israel (1 Sam. 16).  Thus, Bethlehem is known as “the city of David.” 

In the time of the Roman occupation Bethlehem achieved greater importance because it overlooked the main roads to Herod’s fortresses at Masada and Herodium. And, when Rome built an aqueduct to Jerusalem, Bethlehem benefitted from that and no longer had to rely on its cisterns.

But Bethlehem is best known as the place of the nativity: “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child . . . and she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn”[1] (from Luke 2:1-7 in the KJV).  And then the shepherds in the fields nearby received the angelic announcement and went to see this Savior (Luke 2:8-18). 

It was also to Bethlehem that Herod sent the wise men from the east (Matt. 2:1-12), for the priests and scribes he consulted knew the prophecy from Micah 5:2, which says, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days.”  In a fit of jealous anger Herod had the innocent children in the area killed (Matt. 2:16), a tragedy that reminded the evangelist of the words of Jeremiah, “In Ramah there was a voice heard, lamentation and weeping, and great mourning; Rachel weeping for her children” (Matt. 2:18; Jer. 31:15).


Archaeological Discoveries

The Site of the Nativity.  The emperor Hadrian did not permit Jews in Jerusalem or Bethlehem after the second revolt (135 A.D.).  Moreover, to interfere with the new “messianic” faith, he built a temple to Adonis (the Greek equivalent of Tammuz) over a cave venerated by Christians.  Justin Martyr in 155 A.D. mentions the cave as a place of worship.  This all gives authenticity to the traditional site long before Constantine built his church on the spot.  

This traditional site of the birth of Jesus was fixed in 326 A.D. when Helena, the mother of Constantine, visited the main sites in the land that had been long associated with the important events in the life of Christ and commemorated them with shrines.  The traditional spot in Bethlehem was this grotto (which would have been very similar in its plan to the one in Nazareth that can actually be seen).[2]  She persuaded her son, the emperor, to build the Church of the Nativity over the cave.  It was dedicated in 339 and very quickly became one of the holiest spots in Christendom. 

The church was an octagonal building[3] above the cave with an adjoining square basilica and a large atrium.  In the octagonal sanctuary a circular opening was cut in the top of the grotto so that pilgrims could look down into the place of the birth.  No altar has been found in this part; since it was to serve as a shrine for pilgrims it probably did not need one.  The basilica was divided into a nave and twin aisles by four rows of columns.  It served basically to house the worshipers and direct their attention to the shrine.

The original church was badly damaged after that, probably in 529 in the Samaritan revolt.  But in the middle of the sixth century the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (527-565) apparently tore down what was left and rebuilt it according to the earlier plan—but more elaborately.  The octagonal sanctuary was replaced by a larger chancel above the grotto with a triple apse on the north, east and south sides (like a clover leaf).  The north and south apses formed the transept.  Steps were cut down into the cave on the north and south of the chancel to let pilgrims actually go down into the holy place.  The length of the basilica was extended to make it rectangular, a portico added, colonnades reset, and a new floor was laid two feet above the original.  Mosaics from Constantine's church can be seen through the openings on the floor.

The church today, although it has gone through remodeling and rebuilding, is essentially Justinian’s.  Instead of the entrance with large doors, however, there is only a small door with a low opening.  This was made about 1500 to prevent marauders from getting in and out of the church easily.  The low opening leads into the original narthex, and then through a 13th  century door to the basilica.  The fragments of mosaics on the wall are from the 12th century.

The church has been marvelously protected from destruction over the centuries.  It was apparently spared during the Persian advance on Byzantium in 614 because it had a mosaic of the magi on the facade.  The Persians spared it out of honor for their ancestors.  It was also spared in the 11th century by the Muslim ruler Hakim (“the Mad”), because Muslims worshiped in the south transept (they honored Jesus as a prophet).  During the Crusades this church was the place of the coronation of crusader kings of Jerusalem; the first was Baldwin I, crowned here Christmas Day in 1100.  The walls and columns were adorned with mosaics and paintings.  During the times of the Mamelukes (13th—16th centuries) and the Ottoman Turks, frequent looting of the church occurred.  Some of the marble on the buildings on the Temple site in Jerusalem came from the marble walls of the Church of the Nativity.  So the door with the low opening was installed, as one theory goes, to keep the carts and the horses used in the looting out of the church. 

But the church has also been the focus of harsh inter-denominational fighting— hardly fitting for a shrine to the birth of the Prince of Peace.  It passed from the Western Church to the Eastern.  Today it is owned by the Greek Orthodox; but the Armenian Orthodox have two altars in the north transept, and the Roman Catholics have the right to pray in the cave below at certain times.  The Franciscans built the Church of Saint Catherine (see below) next to the basilica for their worship.  They celebrate Christmas on December 25, the Greek Orthodox on January 6, and the Armenians on January 19.

Jerome's Grotto.  Next to this church is the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine (of Alexandria).  She was a virgin martyred in Alexandria in the early fourth century, and is one of the more widely venerated of women saints.  She was of noble birth and exceptional learning; but as a result of her protest against the persecution of Christians was tied to a wheel, tortured and beheaded.  Her symbol is the spiked wheel (commemorated with the decoration of wheels in the church).  She is the patron saint of young women, wheelwrights, attorneys and scholars.   Tradition also associates her with the monastery in the Sinai; it records that her body was found on Mount Sinai about 800 A.D., apparently transported there by angels (although monks were sometimes called angels).  That monastery, named St. Catherine’s, dates from 527 A.D., and in its earlier period shows no connection with the saint.

Beneath the church is the cave that is believed to have been the dwelling place and study of Eusebius Hieronymus, better known as Jerome (342-420).  Jerome came to Bethlehem in 386 and settled into a grotto near the grotto of the Nativity.  He established a men’s monastery here, and continued to practice asceticism and the disciplined life.  He was at first supported by his disciple and life-long friend Paula, and one of her daughters, Eustochium, until their money was gone, and he raised support by the sale of property in Rome.  Paula and her daughter founded a convent in Bethlehem near the monastery and church.

Another grotto known as the Grave of St. Jerome has the stone bench on which his body was laid when he died in 420, before being buried near his friends.  But it was then transferred to Rome. 

The room that lies to the north of the bench is where Jerome did his work of translating the Greek Scriptures into Latin, producing what is known as the Vulgate.  He also made translations from the Hebrew, something that would be lost until the reformation.  He wrote theological treatises against Arianism, Pelagianism, and Origenism; and he collected and translated other works into Latin.

Jerome said that people were coming to visit the Church of the Nativity from every land; he wrote, “People hymned God’s praises in every imaginable tongue.”  They still do.

Beit Sahur.  Southeast of Bethlehem there is a village called Beit Sahur.  A field in this village is said to be the field of Boaz.  There is also here the so-called Field of the Shepherds.  Near the remains of the Byzantine Church there is a Franciscan Church; and one km further is the Greek Orthodox Church where archaeologists found the remains of a fourth century church.

Herodium.  In the desert near Bethlehem Herod the Great won a great victory over the Hasmoneans in 40 B.C.  So on that spot he built Herodium, as a fortress, a memorial, and a capital.  Here he was later buried.  See the earlier discussion of this site. 



Throughout Scripture the town of Bethlehem has played a significant role in the plan of God.  In the days of Jacob, Rachel died near here when she gave birth to Benjamin.  So from the outset there was a birth in Bethlehem, but a birth marred by death.  In the Book of Ruth we have the motifs of death and birth prominent once again.  The first chapter of the book tells of famines and deaths; the last chapter tells of the great reversal with harvest and birth.  God was bringing a life out of a family line that could have ended with the deaths, because it was the line to David the King.  Then, again at the end of the period known as the divided monarchy, death and life figure prominently in this little town.  Micah announced judgment on the nation, but out of Bethlehem would come the ruler of the nation.   And Jeremiah described the cruel slaughter at the great captivity, and poetically lamented as if Rachel (who died here giving birth to her son) were weeping for her children (who now were being destroyed).  But he reported this devastation in the chapter that predicts the New Covenant.

In the New Testament, then, we have the birth of Jesus in the town of Bethlehem.  Once again there is a birth here that will continue the line of David, now as the ruler of Israel.  But Herod's slaughter of the innocents plays out the tension of death.  And Matthew sees the connections, and recalls the words of Jeremiah's lamentation of Rachel weeping over her children.  It is a remarkable development of a biblical theme using the town of Bethlehem as the focus.  And the birth of the Messiah here would be the final Word in the divine work of bringing life out of death.

That Jesus was born in the very little town of Bethlehem (then) is without question; that it was on this very spot is most likely.  And it now seems most likely that it was in a cave-residence and not an inn.  The idea of an “inn” for a village of a few families is not likely.  If it was a cave like the one in Nazareth, it would mean that Joseph and pregnant Mary came to the town to be registered for the taxation.  The town would have been crowded with others like them--there was no room.  This may have been the residence of a close relative (they were all relatives, which is why they came to be taxed here).  The sleeping area was near the front of the cave, or in the built on room in front of the cave.  But it was full of other guests.  But in the back of the cave where the animals were kept for safe-keeping, there was room.  And so while it is a poor setting for the birth of a king, it would have afforded Mary warmth, protection, and most importantly, privacy (rather in the crowded area near the front).  Here she gave birth to the Messiah.  And it was here that the wise men came within a month or so to see the birth.[4] 




Crowfoot, J. W.  Early Churches in Palestine.  London: The British Academy, 1941.  Pp. 27-28.

Hoppe, Leslie J.  The Synagogues and Churches of Ancient Palestine.  Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994.

Pearlman, Moshe, and Yaacov Yannai.  Historical Sites in the Holy Land.  Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1985.

Pixner, Bargil, et al.  The Glory of Bethlehem.  Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Publishing House, Ltd., 1981.




     [1]It may be that the Greek word translated "inn" actually referred to the area of the dwelling where people could have slept.  The size of the village of Bethlehem would probably not have sustained an inn in the real sense of the word.

     [2]Matthew and Luke do not mention a cave.  But there is a second century work called Protoevangelium of James (18:1) that says Joseph found a cave, left Mary there, and went to find a midwife.  There is, therefore, some question over the interpretation of the biblical text which has been rendered "inn."  It may refer to part of the cave complex where the people lived, but not the other part that was for the animals.

     [3]This common architectural pattern came from the mausoleums designed for Roman emperors.  They were tomb-temples that were designed to honor the dead ruler who had become divinity (Hoppe, p. 69;  Andre Grabar, Martyrium [London: Variorum Reprints, 1972], 1:245-251).  Constantine thought it appropriate to use that style to honor Christ.

     [4] Many assume Jesus was two years old when the wise men came, but that is not likely.  That is assumed because Herod, trying to be sure he got the child, extended the death age to children up to two.  After all, he did not know when the child was born, only that these travelers from afar had seen the star.  Herod died in March or April 4 B.C.  The wise men had to have come before that. Jesus was born that winter.  After the birth Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety, and returned when Archelaus was king.



Cana of Galilee


Many who visit Israel will pay a visit to the little city of Cana, perhaps to visit one of the churches that commemorates the first of Jesus miracles, or buy a bottle of Cana wine, and even on occasion schedule a wedding.  But the actual site of biblical Cana is located in the Valley of Iphtael, or the Valley of Nephtoa, some seven miles north of Nazareth.  The site of biblical Cana has not been given much attention archaeologically.  The modern town of Cana at least provides folks with an opportunity to recall the event.

Cana was the home of Nathaniel (John 21:2).  And it was the place where Jesus worked his second miracle, the healing of the noblemans son (John 4:46-54).  But it is the miracle at the wedding, the first sign that Jesus did, that is forever associated with the little town of Cana (John 2:1-11). 

The text says that the water that Jesus used was held in six stone jars.  Samples of these stone jars can be seen in Jerusalem, in the exhibit of the Herodian Quarters in the Jewish Quarter.  The water was pure water that had been stored for the ritual washing of the miqweh (pronounced mik-veh) immersion (see the discussion of these baths in the section on Chorazin).  Jesus was using water that had been set aside for ritual purification to make wine for the wedding celebration.  This surely indicated something new was about to take place now that Messiah had come.  The fact that the miracle was a sign would certainly indicate this.  Many biblical scholars have seen the miracle in relation to the promise of the Messiah in Genesis 49:10-12.  That prophecy tells how the Messianic age will be one of abundance and luxury, paradisical splendor.  And even though that all must await the future renovation of the heavens and the earth, Jesus was revealing that he was the one who could do that.  And so by his word the water became wine.  It was so amazing to his mother and his brothers that they followed him and his disciples back to Capernaum (John 2:12), no doubt to learn more of his power and his mission.





Capernaum is located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, about two and half miles southwest of where the Jordan enters the Sea.  The name is from the Hebrew kfar Nahum, “the village of Nahum.”  The town apparently came into existence about 150 B.C. (and so not named after the Old Testament Nahum); it continued until the Arab invasion of the seventh century.

Here Herod Antipas kept a military garrison under a centurion who was responsible for the place (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). It was here that Josephus later (ca. 66 A.D.) found refuge when he was wounded in his wars with Rome (Vita, 403).

It is here that Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Levi [Matthew] to be his disciples; it is here that Jesus settled when he began his ministry (Matt. 4:13).  And this was not without reason--Nazareth was small and out of the way, but Capernaum was large and strategically located.  A survey has shown that the town stretched about 500 yards along the Sea of Galilee and about 250 yards from the shore up to the hills.  It had a population in the range of 15,000 people.  The size of the place is due to its being right on the Via Maris, the important trade route that ran by the shore of Galilee connecting the regions of the northeast with the coastal route to the south.  This explains why a tax collector had been located in Capernaum (Mark 2:14).  In addition to revenue from the trade routes, Capernaum’s prosperity also came from fishing and agriculture.


Biblical Data

The Gospels mention Capernaum 16 times:  It was the home of Peter and Andrew (Mark 1:29).  Jesus came here immediately after the wedding in Cana (John 2:12).  It was the home of the nobleman (John 4:46).  Jesus often preached in the synagogue (Mark 1:21-27; Matt. 8:14-15; Luke 4:31-37).  Here he cast out a demon (Luke 4:31-37).  Peter’s mother-in-law was healed here (Mark 1:30-31; Luke 4:38-39), possibly of malaria which was widespread at the time.  The servant of the Centurion was healed by Jesus (Matt. 8:5-13).  Here also Jesus healed the palsied man (Matt. 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12 also).  He also called Matthew to be a disciple; Matthew had his tax office in Capernaum (Matt. 9:9).  It was here that Jesus preached His “I am the Bread of Life” sermon (John 6:16-59).  Jesus also told of the shekel and the fish while teaching in Capernaum (Matt. 17:24-27).  Capernaum was another place where the disciples disputed who was the greatest (Mark 9:33-37).  But if Capernaum was a town that saw so much of Jesus’ ministry, it was also a town that rejected him; Matthew 11:23-24 and Luke 10:15-16 record Jesus’ curse on this and other cities that did not repent.  


Archaeological Discoveries

The Synagogue.  Archaeological work began here with the synagogue in 1857.  Sufficient material was discovered to start a modest reconstruction of the building.  After studying the ruins as well as the coins and other relics connected with it, the archaeologists concluded that the synagogue they were working with came from the fourth or fifth century A.D.  However, several reputable scholars have challenged these dates.  Some have argued that the coins came from a later renovation and not the time of building.  Others, notably Avi-Yonah, have noted that the style of the synagogue is Roman architecture and would have come from an earlier period.  And still others have contended that the structure could not have been built in the fourth century since Constantine and his successor were hostile to the Jews. 

Even though there is some debate as to when this synagogue was built, it is generally agreed that it was not the synagogue in which Jesus preached.  The one that has been reconstructed was probably no earlier than the third century, and may be from an even later period of time.

However, in recent archaeological work the foundations of that first-century synagogue have been discovered underneath the west wall, plainly visible to anyone ascending the steps to the present reconstruction.  It is now clear that the later synagogue was built on the foundations of the earlier one.  So it was on this spot, in an earlier synagogue structure, that Jesus began his ministry (Mark 1:21).

We do not know what the earlier synagogue looked like, but the later one must have been wonderful, as the drawings of the reconstruction show.  It was made of white limestone that was polished to make it look like marble.  This white stone contrasted with the black stone of the area, as can be seen from looking at the remains of the houses.  The facade of the building faced south, toward Jerusalem.  Three elaborate doorways opened to the south; their lintels were carved with palms and fruits, as well as garlands and other designs.  On the eastern side of the building there was a colonnaded courtyard.  Staircases went up to a terrace that ran the length of the building and the courtyard.  The courtyard had a portico covered on three sides.

The interior of the synagogue was in a basilical style, two rows of columns dividing the inner space from the two aisles.  Along the interior walls were two rows of benches; and there was a seat of Moses (similar to the one at Chorazin; see Matt. 23:2).  The columns found in the area show designs of Jewish symbols, the menorah and the shofar.  There are inscriptions on the columns that record the benefactors for the synagogue.

The central frieze, the limestone beam that connected the columns, shows an ancient temple on wheels.  It probably represented the Ark of the Covenant, the artist adding the wheels on his own initiative.

In fact, the stonework of this synagogue was well done; there are decorated arches, sculptured capitals, and carved lintels and friezes.  The designs are usually clusters of grapes, palm trees (the symbol of the Land of Israel), eagles, and the menorah (the seven-branched candelabra).  The carving of eagles and a goat must have escaped the pious iconoclasts--the goat may have been from the zodiac (as at the synagogue at Bethsaida). 

“Peter’s House.”   When Franciscan archaeologists began to work on the site nearby they discovered a building complex that was different.  It consisted of three concentric octagons.  The center octagon had a beautiful mosaic with a peacock, which, in Christian iconography represents immortality.

Subsequent work on the site led them to the clear conclusion that this was a Church.  The central octagon was the worship area itself.  It was enclosed with the second octagon, which had an apse and baptistry attached.  The two formed a semi-circle, making it impossible to close off the third octagon.

The composite plan of the different archaeological discoveries shows how the church was built on the remains of the first century house.

The final church structure dates to the fifth century, based on pottery and coins, as well as the descriptions of pilgrims.  One pilgrim in 570 A.D. gave witness to a Basilica on this spot, making it the oldest centralized church in Palestine.

The octagonal shape of the church indicates that it was a memorial church--but the baptistery also indicates that it was used by a congregation.  The consensus is that as a memorial church it had to commemorate some great event that took place on the spot--that is what the octagonal churches did.  So the location of an octagonal church is a rather good support for a traditional spot.  But in the Gospels there are several events in Capernaum that certainly could have been commemorated.  But the pilgrims were convinced that this was Peter’s House.  They were convinced that they were praying in the very room that Jesus called “home” when he was in Galilee.  And many modern scholars have concluded that the evidence points in this direction--at least there is nothing that argues against it.  

The excavation concluded that the Church was built over a private home that dated from the early Roman period (63 B.C.--70 A.D.).  The home was a cluster of small rooms around a central courtyard.  Its walls were of local basalt field stones.  Those stones would not have held a solid roof, so its roof was probably like the one at Qatsrin (see below), wood branches or logs with mud--easy for people to rip up and lower someone to Jesus.  The place is not very different from other houses of the period.

In the middle of the first century the home underwent some significant changes that indicate it had been put to a different use.  The larger room had an arch built, raising the ceiling and permitting a masonry roof.  Then, the interior walls and floor were plastered--something not done in homes of this region.  The domestic pottery and implements disappeared.  So these changes indicate that the home became a public hall; and the graffiti informs us it was a Church. 

The rebuilt building became a shrine for Christians.  From the fourth century there are 131 graffiti scratched on the walls, probably by pilgrims.  They are in Aramaic, Syriac and Latin.  Some call Jesus “Lord” and “Messiah.”  Two of them are said to read “Peter”--although they are hard to decipher.

Olive Presses, Mills, Mosaics.  Archaeologists also discovered a number of other items in the town as well.  There are basalt implements that were used in the first century, including a large oil press and grain mills.  These implements and their use are more clearly demonstrated in the Talmudic village of Qatsrin.

Several interesting mosaics have been discovered.  One is the “Magdala” mosaic showing the scene of the boat on the Sea.


Modern Capernaum

The Franciscans purchased the site from the Turks in 1894 and erected a monastery close to the ruins of the synagogue.  They have built their new Church over the site of the historic Church, just leaving enough space for visitors to see the ruins below.



The town of Capernaum is of enormous importance in the study of the life and ministry of Jesus.  He made this place his home base, as it were.  And being here it is easy to visualize Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue, or along the shore, or in the village center.  If we let our imagination work and think of Peter’s house like the house in Qatsrin, we can see the whole drama of Jesus’ teaching, the roof being torn up, and the poor wretch being lowered into Jesus’ presence.  The town saw so much of the great works of Jesus, and heard so many wonderful teachings, that it is inexcusable for them to reject the truth.  This all becomes a warning for any who “sit at Jesus’ feet” and “witness his mighty works”; to whom much is given, much will be required.  Revelation demands a response.  As we imagine the events that took place here, perhaps we should ask if we are much better than the people of Capernaum.  I am sure we are in many significant ways; but it is worth asking.   


Another interesting reflection is the fact that within a few yards of each other there stood a magnificent Synagogue and a major Church.  The two congregations, one Jewish and the other Jewish Christian with a number of pilgrims, were side by side in Capernaum up to the fifth century.






Avi-Yonah, Michael.  “Some Comments on the Capernaum Excavations.”  In Ancient Synagogues Revealed, edited by Lee I. Levine.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1982. Pp. 60-62.

Foerster, Gideon.  “Notes on Recent Excavations at Capernaum.”  In Ancient Synagogues Revealed.  Pp. 57-59.

Hoppe, Leslie J.  The Synagogues and Churches of Ancient Palestine. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994.  Pp. 81-90.

Loffreda, S.  A Visit to Capernaum, 2nd ed.  Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1973. 

Strange, James F. Strange, and Herschel Shanks.  “Has the House Where Jesus Stayed in Capernaum Been Found?”  Biblical Archaeology Review 8, 1982.

Strange, James F.  “The Capernaum and Herodium Publications.”  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 226, 1977.

Vos, Howard F.  Archaeology in Bible Lands.  Chicago: Moody Press, 1977.




The Sea of Galilee


Because Jesus moved to Capernaum, a fishing village on the shores of Galilee, and because most of his northern ministry was on and around the lake, it would be good to include here some information on Galilee and on the Jordan River.



The Sea (more properly a lake) of Galilee is the main body of fresh water in the land of Israel.  Water flows into it from the headwaters north of the Huleh Valley in their descent down the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea.  One can gain a sense of the descent by noting that the shore of Lake Huleh (when it existed) was 210 feet above sea level, and Galilee is 630 feet below sea level--and they are ten miles apart. 

The sea is surrounded by narrow valleys, a little broader in the north and south.  On the east side is the high plateau known as Golan Heights, with its commanding view of the whole region of Galilee.  And on the west is the Arbela pass, the main pass for the Via Maris, the main road that goes by Galilee, over these hills and past Megiddo, and then south along the “Way of the Sea.”

The Sea of Galilee is the lowest sweet water lake in the world, sitting some 630 feet below sea level.  It measures 13 miles in length, 5 to 8 miles in width, and is about 150 feet deep (varying from 50 to 156 feet deep).  It serves as Israel’s largest reservoir; its water is being pumped to various locations, meaning that none of it is now ending up in the Dead Sea.

The name is taken from the region known as Galil, a Hebrew term meaning “circle” and thus “region, territory, boundary.”  In geographical terms there is Upper Galilee and Lower Galilee.  In general, the region around the Sea is Lower Galilee, whereas the higher lands by Hermon is Upper Galilee.  The area was already called “Galilee of the Gentiles” by the prophet Isaiah ca. 730 B.C.

The Sea is also called The Sea of Chinnereth (Num. 34:11), the word for “harp,” because of its harp-like shape.  In Luke 5:1 it is called The Lake of Gennesaret; and in John 6:1 it is The Sea of Tiberias.

The Sea of Galilee marked the eastern border of the land of promise (Num. 34:11).  It also marked the boundary of the Transjordan tribes (Deut. 3:17).

The significant cities around the lake, beginning with Tiberias and going north, are Tiberias, Migdal-Magdala (the home of Mary), Capernaum (the home-town of Jesus), Chorazin, Bethsaida and Bethsaida Julius, then Gergesa (where the demon possessed man lived in the tombs), Gamla, Hippos (perhaps what Jesus referred to as the city set on the hill), and Kinneret.


Biblical Events

As we have already noted, “Galilee” refers to the whole region around the lake known for its Gentile population (Isa. 9), and its thriving commerce due to the trade routes.  It was a busy crossroads for the land of Israel as well as for contacts with other countries.  Accordingly, military installations and taxing offices were a necessity for the region, especially the major city of Capernaum.  Thus, it was an ideal location for the center of the ministry of Jesus.  But it was also looked down on by the pious in Jerusalem.

The ministry of Jesus took place all around this lake and even on it (Mt. 4:18; Mk. 1:16; etc.).  One of the more famous events that occurred here in Jesus ministry would include the drowning of the pigs when Jesus cast the Legion out of the demoniac (Mk. 5:1-20).  The spot would have to be on the eastern shore at a point were the land sloped dramatically to the water, as the Scripture says the pigs ran headlong down into the water (they would not have run cross-country).

Of course Jesus frequently crossed over Galilee with his disciples in their boats (Mt. 8:23; Mk. 8:10; Lk. 8:22; John 6:1).  The region was also the site of most of Jesus’ miracles and parables.  One of the most memorable miracles is the account of His calming the storm (Mt. 8:23-27; Lk. 8:22-25).  The sudden storms on the sea are well-known, the cold air coming down from Hermon and the warm air coming up from the Jordan Valley meeting at the Sea of Galilee.  The waters can become treacherous quickly.  And in just such a storm Jesus demonstrated His authority over nature, and left the disciples marveling at what manner of man this was.  He was asleep in the boat[1] when the storm arose and the disciples became terrified.  But he simply commanded the storms to cease, and there was an amazing calm on the water.  This cannot merely be explained as a coincidence that Jesus said His words when the storm was about to die down--these were seasoned fishermen who knew this lake, and they were dumbfounded.

Jesus also walked on the water to join his disciples in the boat (Mt. 14:22-33; Jn. 6:16-21).  He waited until late into the night, watching the disciples out on the lake; and then he came to them, walking on the water.  At first they thought it was a vision of some sort; but then they recognized it was Jesus.  Peter wanted to come to Jesus on the water, and was able to do so until he began to fear the wind and the waves and began to sink.  Here again the disciples were amazed; but they were beginning to realize that Jesus was no mere mortal.  In these events their responses were amazement, fear, acknowledgment of sin, and adoration--proper responses to the mighty works of the Son of God.

Galilee was also the location of the enormous catch of fish recorded in Luke 5:1-11.  This was portrayed as a miraculous intervention by the Gospel writers.  The disciples had been fishing all night and had caught nothing.  But Jesus had them go back out onto the lake and fish again--and they were unable to take them all in one boat. They were truly amazed at the Lord's provision.  And Peter was overwhelmed, knowing that he was a sinful man in the presence of the Lord Jesus.

Here also is the miracle of Peter’s fish and the tax money (Mt. 17:24-17).  It is possible that some fish would take objects like a coin in its mouth; but the miracle was in the timing and the provision of the coin for the payment of the tribute--at the Lord’s word.

And on the shore at the site commemorated by one of the churches Jesus again met his disciples.  This was a post-resurrection appearance.  He called to the shore to see if they had anything, and when they replied that they had caught nothing all night He told them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat.  They dragged the net in with 153 fish (Jn. 21:1-23).  Some try to explain this as the regular custom of a “spotter” on the shore who can see where the schools of fish are.  But these are seasoned fishermen who had caught nothing all night, and who were amazed at the results of the instructions of Jesus.  It is dangerous to begin minimizing the amazing works of Jesus by natural explanations, especially when the text presents those events as contrary to normal or expected results.  Of course, the main point in this story is that when they tried to go back to their jobs as fishermen after the death of Jesus (“I'm going fishing”), they were failures; but when they did what Jesus told them to do, they were successful.  So he commissioned Peter and the others to “feed my sheep.”  This commissioning, though, was based on the questioning of Peter’s love, for it was he who had denied the Lord.


     [1]Archaeology has discovered and preserved a first century fishing boat of the type that the disciples and Jesus would have used.  It is on display near on the western shore of the sea.





Chorazin is located three miles north of Capernaum, up in the hills above the Sea of Galilee.  It was one of the three cities that Jesus pronounced a curse on according to Matthew 11:21, 22 and Luke 10:13, 14.  By the end of the fourth century the city was in ruins.  It was later rebuilt and survived the Arab conquest in the 7th century, but was destroyed in the 8th.

The site was excavated in the early part of this century by German archaeologists.  The remains of the town and especially the synagogue received some attention over the years; the work on the synagogue was completed by the Israeli archaeologists in 1963.


The Synagogue

The remains of the Synagogue in Chorazin date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.  The building was made of the black basalt stone of the region and measures 70 by 50 feet.  Its design was similar to Capernaum’s synagogue: it had three monumental entrances facing in the direction of Jerusalem, there was a roof supported by large pillars, it had benches (probably for elders), and it had an outside stairway leading to a gallery. 

One of the more interesting finds of the archaeological work at Chorazin is the Seat of Moses.  The authoritative teaching from the Scripture would have been done from this seat in the Synagogue.  Jesus said, “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.  Therefore, whatever they tell you to observe, observe and do, but do not do according to their works” (Mt. 23:2, 3).

Some of the carvings at Chorazin were lavishly done.  Some even appear to be non-Jewish, showing things like human and animal figures, a lion attacking a centaur, and even a Medusa.

There is a good deal of information available on Synagogues; but there is also much that we do not know about them.  One question concerns their beginnings.  The best evidence is that they came into existence after the exile in Babylon.  The seed for them could have been earlier, but there is not much evidence until the period of the  Pharisees (2nd century B.C.).  They are clearly in existence in New Testament times, even though most of the ones that have been found date from later centuries.  There are about five sites where the building foundations come from the first century.    

Another question concerns the kinds of services and functions that went on in Synagogues.  Much of the data comes from later periods, and so we have to be careful in calculating how much of it went on in the early Synagogues, especially before the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. 

But we do have sufficient evidence to put together the basic things.  We know that some of the liturgy was written prior to New Testament times.  Fragments of early homilies come from the first century.  Acts 15:21 tells us Moses was read in the Synagogues every Sabbath.  Matthew 6:5 refers to prayers in the Synagogue.  Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah before He began to teach (Lk. 4:16-30).  And there are sufficient references in the literature to tell how these places were run.  So we may suggest the following structure and function as a general frame of reference, allowing that some of the items may have developed more fully after the Temple was destroyed.

Organization.  Synagogues could be built by anyone; some were simple halls with a chest for the scrolls, while others were elaborate and patterned after the Temple.  The symbols of Synagogues usually included vine leaves and grapes, two paschal lambs, and seven-branched candlesticks.  The court usually had a facility for ritual washing.

There was apparently no restriction of women to the galleries in the early periods, as has been popularly presented.  In fact, at times women were asked to read lessons in the services.  Lepers did have a special gallery seating.

The Synagogue was a place of study (bet hammidras [pronounced bait hammidrash]), prayer, and exposition of Scripture.  Only after the destruction of the Temple was it considered a little sanctuary.  But it served the community for business and social purposes. 

It is no surprise that the organization of the Synagogue is very similar to Paul's instruction for the Church--they both draw on our Old Testament.  The leaders were the elders, sometimes called scribes or scholars.  They were knowledgeable spiritual leaders of the community.  One of the elders was chosen to be the ruler of the synagogue (see Mt. 5:22).  He was to oversee the meetings and the charitable services in the community.  His office was hereditary.  The Synagogue also had a minister (see Lk. 4:20) who was a special leader of the worship, served at tables, and was often in charge of elementary education.  The minister was, therefore, much like the deacon in the early Church.

Other participants in a service were the Reader, Prayer, and Interpreter.  The interpreter was designated in advance to translate the Hebrew Scripture lesson into Aramaic or Greek so that people could understand the Word that was read.  The congregation participated with responses when the blessings and prayers were given.  There is no mention of singing in the Synagogue, but as with the Temple service parts of the liturgy were probably sung or chanted.  Psalms were later brought over.

Rabbinic tradition ascribes the institution of the ritual of Scripture reading and prayer to the so-called “men of the Great Synagogue” (time of Ezra and Nehemiah).  The custom of praying three times a day was introduced in the third century B.C.  Later, there were two congregational services, morning and afternoon; full liturgical services took place only on Sabbaths and festivals. 

The earliest and most important parts of the liturgy are the Shema‘(from Deut. 6:4) and the Eighteen Benedictions.  There are four liturgical pieces that go with the Shema‘, the Yotzer (“Who forms”; cf. Mt. 5:45 and Jn. 5:10-19), the ’Ahabah (“Love”; cf. 1 Jn. 4:19), the ’Emet we -Yatzib (“True and Faithful”; cf. 1 Tim. 1:15), and the Hashibenu (“Cause us to lie down”).

Synagogue ServicesWe cannot say with any certainty what a first century service was like; it would not have been as full and ordered as the outline below, but would have been similar. Scholars have reconstructed this order:




Prayers: the “Creator” and “Love”

Antiphonal Recitation of the “Hear, O Israel”

“Faithful and True” said in unison

“Cause us to lie down” is said (in evenings)

Recitation of the "(Eighteen) Benedictions"

Priestly blessing given

Reading of Scripture: Pentateuchal Lesson

Reading of Scripture: Prophetic Lesson

Exhortation or Homily




The ruler, summoning the minister, would bid him invite someone to recite the Shema‘ and the group of benedictions connected with it.  That person would step forward and speak the words of blessing to the congregation: “Bless the Lord, the Blessed One,” to which the congregation would respond, “Blessed be the Lord, the blessed One, for ever and ever.”  Then the former would give the Yotzer[1] (Creator)  and the ’Ahabah[2] (Love).  The congregation all this time would be seated on the floor; the elders would have the seats.

The Shema‘ (Hear) proper would be said antiphonally.  The leader would say, “Hear, O Israel” and the congregation would repeat that and continue the verse: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord."[3]   When he said “One,” the congregation would respond with “Blessed be the Name of the glory of His Kingdom for ever and ever.”  After this ’Emet we-Yatsib[4] (Faithful and True) was probably said in unison.  In the evening service the Hashibenu[5] (Cause us to lie down) would be used after the Shema‘.

The Shema‘ now ended, the ruler would bid the minister to call on someone appropriate to lead the prayers proper (later known as the “Eighteen Benedictions”[6]).  At this point the congregation would rise to its feet and the messenger of the congregation would ascend the platform where stood the ark of the Law.  Standing there and facing the ark he would recite the benedictions, to each of which the congregation would respond with “’amen.”

After the Temple was destroyed the priest, if it should occur that one would happen to be present, would face the congregation and offer the Aaronic blessing (from Num. 6) at the appropriate place.  The priests were not in any way Synagogue officials. 

The liturgy would be followed by the Pentateuch Lesson.  Depending on the length of the reading, one or more readers would be invited to read.  And, as Hebrew was not understood by all, an interpreter was appointed to render the reading into Aramaic.

This was followed by the reading of the Prophetic Lesson, called the haftora or “dismissal,” because it was the end of the service.  It was read in Hebrew and translated 3 verses at a time.

If there should be a suitable person present, the ruler would ask through the minister, “If you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on” (see Acts 13:15).  A short sermon or homily (midrash) would follow, usually based on the readings.

The early Jewish Christians found it easy to remain in such services to pray and to study Scripture, and to use the time for the communication of the Gospel, as Paul did in his journeys.  It was only at the beginning of the second century that the Jews found ways to make their stay impossible.


The Ritual Bath (Mikweh)

The Hebrew word mikweh (pronounced mik/veh) means “reservoir”; in time it came to mean the ritual bath within Judaism.  The form of the word in the plural is mikwa’oth (pronounced mik/vah/oat).

The Law prescribed a washing in water for various reasons: cleansing after skin diseases (Lev. 14), purification after chronic bodily disorders (Lev. 15), washing after menstruation and childbirth (Lev. 12 and 15), cleansing after contact with disease, contamination, or the dead (Num. 19), and washing after slaughtering the sacrifices or changing the fire on the altar (Lev. 6, 7).  These washings were meant to be outward signs of inner conformity to God's holiness.

The Law gave some specifications for making the ritual baths and lavers, but the Jewish teachers had to clarify and standardize them.  This was one of the most practical areas of instruction because ritual washings formed one of the most important parts of Jewish life.

Recall from the material on the Herodian Quarters that the mikweh had to be large enough for total immersion.  The water had to be taken from a spring, or a river, or rain--but not drawn.  This satisfied the Law's requirement that the water be fresh, or “living water.”

The Jewish teachers listed the kinds of water that could be used.  Things got pretty complicated, as one can imagine, when fresh water was to be collected and used, and still considered fresh.  In principle fresh water was to be used; but if it was mixed with drawn water, or if drawn water was used inadvertently, allowances were made.  There were also rulings on how diseased people used them, whether fresh springs could be used instead of them, and when heathen baths could be used.

Immersion in water was necessary for proselytes, all cases of ritual defilement, especially the menstruant, and certainly before Sabbath, festivals, and especially Atonement.   Things purchased from non-Jews were also to be washed. The immersion was to be complete, every part of the body covered with water.  And no other person could touch an individual at the time of the immersion.

The reason so much attention was given to this is that the Law stresses it again and again.  Consequently, Synagogues from the earliest times built ritual baths within or nearby.  Other locations will give a better opportunity to observe them.  For example, the southern mikweh at Masada was built strictly according to ritual requirements: there was a plastered conduit, a pool for collecting rain water, the actual mikweh connected to the pool by a pipe, and a pool for washing hands and feet before entering the mikweh.

The Jewish teachers never took this to be an empty ritual, although like all rituals people undoubtedly treated it that way from time to time.  That is why the Sages had to remind people, “If a man immerses himself, but without special intention, it is as though he has not immersed himself at all.”  The heart attitude determined whether or not there was spiritual purification.  About a thousand years later Maimonides ruled in the Second Mishnah that one actually becomes clean when he consents to shun those counsels and brings his soul into the waters of pure reason.

In the New Testament we can recall Mary's days of purification being completed (Lk. 2:22).  When Jesus sent the lepers to show themselves to the priests, when they were healed they would have had to wash in one of the baths (Lk. 17:11-19). 

The early Church baptized about 3,000 people in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:41).  The only way this was possible was that they used the many ritual baths, the mikwa’ot, at the southern end of the Temple mount.  The baptism was undoubtedly in accordance with Jewish teachings on immersion--they would never have thought of sprinkling or pouring.  The thousands who were baptized into this new faith would have simply immersed themselves in response to the instructions of the apostles.   




Jesus pronounced a woe on the hypocritical Pharisees, saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Mt. 23:25, 26).  His point is that ritual without the spiritual reality is worthless and hypocritical.  Many of the pious teachers of the day would have agreed with His rebuke, for there were many devout Jewish leaders as well. 

Christians have very little room to talk, for they just as easily get caught up in their rituals and traditions without giving proper consideration for the true spiritual meaning.  In fact, most Christians probably spend more time getting washed and dressed to go to Church than they do in spiritual preparation.





Hoppe, Leslie J.  The Synagogues and Churches of Ancient Palestine.  Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994.

Vos, Howard F.  Archaeology in Bible Lands.  Chicago: Moody Press, 1977.

Wigoder, Geoffrey.  The Story of the Synagogue.  New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1986.





     [1]"Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the world, Former (yotser) of light and Creator of darkness, Maker of peace and Creator of all things; Who gives light in mercy to the earth and to those who live thereon, and in His goodness renews the work of creation every day.  Let a new light shine over Zion and Your Messiah's light over us."

     [2]"With everlasting love have You loved us, O Lord, our God; with great and exceeding compassion have You pitied us.  Our Father, our King, for the sake of our fathers who trusted in You, and to whom You did teach the statutes of life, be gracious unto us also and teach us.  Merciful Father, have mercy on us; enlighten our eyes in the Law and let our hearts cleave to Your commandments.  Give us a single heart to love and fear Your Name.  For in Your holy Name we trust; we rejoice and exult in Your salvation.  You are a God who works salvation, and have chosen us from all peoples and tongues, and have brought us nigh unto Your great Name for ever in truth; to give thanks unto You and to proclaim your unity in love.  Blessed are You, O Lord, who have chosen Your people Israel in love.

     [3]The Hebrew line is rather enigmatic.  It could just as easily be translated "YHWH is our God, YHWH is one," or "YHWH is our God, YHWH alone."

     [4]"True and faithful, established and enduring, right and faithful, beloved and precious, desirable and lovely, awful and mighty, well-ordered and worthy of all acceptation, good and beautiful, is this word (i.e., the shema`) to us forever.  True it is that the God of eternity is our King, the Rock of Jacob, the Shield of our salvation.  From generation to generation He endures, and His throne is established, and His kingdom and faith endure forever.  His words live and endure, they are faithful and desirable for ever and for all eternity, for our fathers and for us, for our children and for our generations, and for all the generations of the seed of Israel, Your servant . . . ."

     [5]"Cause us to lie down, O Lord our God, in peace, and raise us up, O our King, to life.  Spread over us the tabernacle of Your peace, direct us by Your good counsel, and save us for Your Name's sake.  Protect us, and keep from us every enemy--pestilence, sword, famine, and sorrow.  Drive away the adversary (lit. satan) from before us and behind us.  Shelter us beneath the shadow of Your wings.  For You are a God who is a gracious and merciful King.  Keep then our going out and coming in, unto life and unto peace, from this time forth and for evermore, and spread over us the tabernacle of Your peace.  Blessed are You, O Lord, who spreads a tabernacle of peace over us and over Your whole people Israel, and over Jerusalem."

     [6]Here are selections from the Eighteen Benedictions that seem to come from before 70 A.D.:

I.          "Blessed are You, O Lord our God and the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the great, mighty, and awful God, the God most high, possessor of heaven and earth, our shield and the shield of our fathers, our trust from generation to generation.  Blessed are You, O Shield of Abraham."

II.         "You are mighty for ever, O Lord; You quicken the dead; You are mighty to save.  Blessed are You, O Lord, who quickens the dead."

III.       "You are holy, and awful is Your Name; and there is no God apart from You.  Blessed are You, O Lord, holy God."

IV.       O our Father, favor us with knowledge, understanding, and discernment from Your Law.  Blessed are You, O Lord, gracious Giver of knowledge."

V.        "Turn us unto You, O Lord, and we shall turn; renew our days like unto the days of old.  Blessed are You, O Lord, who delights in repentance."

VI.       "Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned.  Blessed are You, O Lord, who does abundantly forgive."

IX.       "Bless this year unto us for our good in all kinds of produce thereof.  Blessed are You, O Lord, who blesses the years."




The Churches by Galilee



The Sea of Galilee was the scene for much of the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. On the northwestern shore of the sea there are three churches[1] that commemorate significant events in the life of Christ--the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5--7), the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish (Mt. 14:13-21; Mk. 6:34-44; Lk. 9:10-17; and Jn. 6:1-13); and the post-resurrection appearance to the Disciples (Jn. 21:1-23).  These churches all date to the Byzantine period; but they commemorate sites that were venerated by Christian pilgrims.  Nothing more can be said in support of their authenticity.



On the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee is an area called “Seven Springs.”  In Greek this was Heptapegon.  The name was corrupted in Arabic to Tabgha.  It was to this area that the Spanish pilgrim Egeria (“Etheria”) came in the last part of the fourth century; she mentions the springs, the stone steps, and the stone on which the Lord placed the bread.  Archaeology has found evidence for not one but three churches in this area.

The Church of the Primacy of Peter.  There is some question about what the pilgrim lady meant when she said she saw the stone upon which the Lord placed the bread.  It may be that the Tabgha site commemorated the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus; but since that passage mentions bread and fish, and since the area had a grassy plain, Tabgha was seen as a suitable place to commemorate the multiplication as well.  One church that was built here was the Church of Peter’s Primacy (Mensa Christi means “Christ’s Table”).

Archaeologists believe the site was originally a quarry.  The steps, showing cuts made by stone masons, are evidence of that.  Egeria mentioned these steps.  Whether this was the place that Jesus met His disciples after the resurrection or not would be hard to say with certainty.  But it was near Capernaum, it fit the setting, and it provided pilgrims with an opportunity to recall how the Lord questioned Peter’s love for him, and how he subsequently commissioned Peter to feed his sheep.

The church was built on the spot at the end of the fourth century. The stone on which the Lord prepared the meal for the disciples was the central focus of the church.  The evidence suggests that it had thick walls to support a vaulted ceiling.  At the base of the present church one can see the foundations of the Byzantine church.

Pilgrims in the seventh century did not find this church; one may presume the Persians destroyed it in 614.  It was rebuilt in the eighth century, and destroyed again in the thirteenth.  The present structure was built in 1933.

The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves.   Egeria may have seen this site when she visited Tabgha.  The church would have been built around 395 or later, a simple structure of one hall, an apse, and piers to support the roof.

The church was remodeled in the second half of the fifth-century.  It was oriented at that time toward the east, which meant that the stone on which Jesus was thought to have done the miracle was moved to where the new altar would be.  The structure also had an atrium and hospices for pilgrims. 

The nave of the church was covered with a mosaic that included patterns as well as plants and animals in the design.  Some of the mosaics have birds and plants that were indigenous to the nearby Huleh.  In the transept the mosaic has designs from the region of the Nile River in Egypt.[2]  Behind the altar was a mosaic of four loaves of bread in the basket and on each side a fish.

The church was destroyed and largely forgotten until a portion of the mosaic was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century.  The archaeological work not only uncovered the mosaics but the foundations of the fifth century church.  The present structure was built in 1980 in accordance with the architectural style of the Byzantine predecessor.  It preserves the original mosaics and a remnant of the original altar.

The Church of the Beatitudes.  Not far from these churches at Tabgha are the ruins of the fourth century church commemorating the Sermon on the Mount.  Egeria referred to a cave up the slope of the mountain to which the Lord climbed to deliver the sermon with its beatitudes.

The Byzantine church was a small one.  It had an atrium on the west end and an apse on the east end.  The mosaic on the floor had floral and geometric designs.  This church, dated to the sixth century, was also destroyed by the Persians. 

Nothing else was built on the site.  In 1938 a new church was built by the Franciscans with a commanding view of the whole region of the Galilee.  It is not on the same place as the sixth century building, but higher up the hill away from Tabgha.  Each of the eight sides of this church is dedicated to one of the (main) eight sayings of the beatitudes. 



It would be impossible in a few sentences to say very much about the events and teachings that these churches were designed to commemorate.  The best thing that the modern pilgrim can do is to read the relevant passages and quietly reflect on those events that took place here some 1,965 years ago.  They are among the best known passages from the Bible. 




Pixner, Bargil.  “The Miracle Church at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee.”  Biblical Archaeologist 48 (1985).

Shenhav, Dodo Joseph.  “Loaves and Fishes Mosaic Near Sea of Galilee Restored.”  Biblical Archaeologist Review 10 (1984).



     [1]There are not as many early churches in the region of Galilee as in Jerusalem because Tiberias had become the center of Judaism after the Jews were barred from Jerusalem.

     [2]Martyrios, the patriarch of Jerusalem from 478-486, had lived in Egypt.  An inscription in the floor says that the work was in memory of Martyrios, the sponsor.




A Restored House in a Talmudic Village


The village of Qasrin (pronounced cats-reen) is an ancient Talmudic village with a synagogue located in the central Golan Heights.  Two of the village houses have been restored to provide a more complete picture of everyday life in an early Jewish village.  And although these structures date from later centuries, they preserve what domestic life would have been like in the land in the days of Jesus.

The “Talmudic” (named for the time of the Talmud) period is roughly equivalent to the Byzantine period and early Islamic period, the fourth through the seventh or eighth centuries.  Qasrin was abandoned in the middle of the eighth century, possibly because of an earthquake in 746.  It remained uninhabited for the next 500 years.  

The synagogue was the center of Jewish life in the smaller villages as well as the cities.  The synagogue in Qasrin is a substantial one, considering the size of the village (10% has been excavated).  It was constructed of finely carved blocks, joined without mortar.  The interior hall is divided into a nave and two aisles by two rows of four columns.  The shrine for the Torah was on the platform at the southern wall (so worshipers faced Jerusalem).  Benches against the inner wall were for worshipers.  This building was a sixth-century enlargement of the earlier building.  

House B, the Rabbi's house, was constructed of the black basalt stone.  Its roof was made of wood beams covered with branches, limbs, and brush, which was then covered with mud and chaff that was rolled firmly by a roof roller.  At times grass would grow briefly on these mud roofs, but die out quickly when the dry season came.  Psalm 129:6 says, “Let them [his enemies] be like the grass on the housetops, which withers before it grows up.”

To the right of the entrance to the house is an outdoor oven area for use when it was too hot to cook inside.  The ovens were of two kinds, the cylindrical and the domed. 

The door was of timber set in sockets in the doorsill and the lintel.  Inside the door the first room in from the alley is a kitchen.  There would have been mud/chaff plaster on the walls and floors rather than exposed stone.  In the corner of the kitchen area there is a large domed oven.  That would have been used for cooking and heating; its fuel being dung or olive mash.  There were probably no chimneys in Jesus’ day; they were added later.  There is an array of pottery items in the room on display, as well as a hand mill for grinding (cf. Matt. 24:41).  Bread was the mainstay of the diet of the people.  Apart from that, the food of the Israelites would have been largely vegetarian.  Meat was eaten at feasts.  Poor people ate more fish.  Stews such as mutton and lentil were common.  

A storage room lies immediately beyond this kitchen.  There is a window wall that separates it from the living area (as was seen at Chorazin); this would have provided light and ventilation, as well as support for the upper bedroom.  Various implements are in the storage area: there is a plow of the sort used in the biblical days (Luke 9:62); there is also a yoke hanging on the wall (Matt. 11:29-30); and leaning against the wall is a threshing sledge with its sharp “teeth” that would have been dragged over the wheat to break off the chaff, and then the winnowing fork would have been used to throw the grain up into the air allowing the wind to blow the chaff away (see Ps. 1:4; 129:3; Isa. 29:5; Hos. 3:13; Amos 9:9; and Matt. 3:12; note how these tools were used in judgment and punishment passages).

The main living area is called a traqlin.  It would have been used for receiving guests, dining, sleeping, and various household activities and chores.  People would sit on wooden benches around the walls or on mats on the floors.  Wealthier people would have had mosaics on the floors.  At the end of the room there is a low wall that separates a storage bin for keeping oil, wine, and grains.  The vessels would have been stopped up to prevent insects and dirt from getting in; but even then wine had to be strained to avoid swallowing an unclean thing like a gnat (see Matt. 23:24).  Some products would have been “shelved” above the area for protection.

These rooms would have been lit by little oil lamps, often on display.  A simple wick would be inserted through the spout of the lamp and the olive oil would provide the fuel.  As a result, with the door closed the room would have been rather dark inside, making it difficult to find things that might get lost.  Jesus may have had this in mind when he spoke of the woman whop lost her coin, and so lit a lamp and swept the house to find it (Luke 15:8-10).

You will have an opportunity to observe how the ceilings or roofs were made in these houses when you are inside looking up.  There were branches that were placed across from wall to wall, and then the thick mud plaster would be put with them.  It would be easy for a few folks on the roof to tear up these branches and mud to lower the paralytic down to Jesus in the crowded room (Mark 2:1-4).  But as they did, mud and debris would have been falling down on the people in the room.

There is a second story loft for sleeping in this house; not al homes had such.  This room could be reached by a ladder, or through an entrance from the outdoor courtyard behind the house.  There is a bed of wood and rope in this room.

The courtyard included an outdoor kitchen with two ovens and a small paved “patio” area covered with trellis work for vines and branches.  Here they would dry and prepare food, store water in the large jugs, or sleep outside when it was too hot to do so inside.  Figs, melons, pomegranates and grapevines would be commonly grown on such terraces.  Domestic animals and even chickens could be kept here.

Leaving House B the visitor then may proceed to the observation platform across the way.  From this platform one can view the excavated village and its synagogue.  The water basin below to the right was the source of water for the village; it was fed by a spring.




Mullins, Robert A.  "Qatzrin: Insight into Daily Life in New Testament Palestine,"  pp. 132-142.  The following drawing is also taken from this article.