Quite the majority of all the Gospel records of Jesus’ ministry relate to the area of these three towns. It is therefore appropriate to look into the geography and history of the region, to see whether some additional lessons may be learned from such a study. Having engaged myself in such studies recently, I wanted to share the results, which I believe are important and quite enlightening. Jesus was brought up in Nazareth, and His first miracle was performed at a marriage ceremony at Cana, not far away. But when He preached his first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, there arose such a vehement hatred for Him that they were prepared to cast Him to His death from a nearby precipice. It was for this reason, I believe, that He departed from Nazareth and went to dwell in Capernaum. A map from any Bible Atlas will show where these towns were located.
What do we know about Capernaum as it was in Jesus’ day? First of all, the name of the town. It is compounded of two Hebrew words, and was pronounced Kaphar Nahum, meaning “the village of Nahum.” We have a similar way of speaking when we refer to “the city of London.” So it was the very town where the prophet Nahum used to live, some six centuries earlier. Nahum’s prophecy began with the words “The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite.” Hence it is reasonable to suppose that Capernaum was called Elkosh in the prophet’s day. There is a fifth-century inscription in the synagogue at el-Hammeh, on the Yarmuk river in Transjordan, referring to the town as Kaphar Nahum. But the most informative record of Capernaum comes from the pen of Josephus, who had visited the area as a soldier, was wounded, and treated “in a village named Cepharnome, or Capernaum.” (Life:LXXII) But in the “Wars of the Jews” (III.x.8) he gives this account:-“The country that lies over against this lake (of Galilee) has the same name of Gennesaret. Its nature is wonderful as well as its beauty. Its soil is so fruitful that all sorts of trees can grow upon it, and its inhabitants accordingly plant all sorts of trees there, for the temper of the air is so well mixed that it agrees very well with those several sorts, particularly walnuts, which require the coldest air, flourish there is vast plenty; there are palm-trees also, which grow best in hot air; fig trees and olives also grow near them, which yet require a more temperate form of air. One may call this place the ambition of nature, where it forces those plants that are naturally enemies to one another to agree together. It is a happy contention of the seasons, as if every one of them laid claim to this country, for it not only nourishes different sorts of autumnal fruit beyond men’s expectation, but preserves them a great while; it supplies men with the principal fruits , with grapes and figs continually, during ten months of the year, and the rest of the fruits as they become ripe together, through the whole year; for besides the good temperature of the air, it is also watered from a most fertile fountain. The people of the country call it Capharnaum.”
The climate on the shores of the Sea of Galilee is dependent on its altitude (or lack of it!), being nearly 700 feet below sea level. But the surrounding country rises sharply to 2,000 and even 3,000 feet. This explains why sudden squalls occur on the Lake, due to cold air pouring down from the highland regions. Bethsaida straddled the mouth of the Jordan where it entered the Sea of Galilee. Part of the town was on the west, in the tetrarchy of Herod’s Galilee, and the other part was on the east, in the tetrarchy of Philip’s Gaulanitis. The name “Bethsaida” means “House of Fishing”, and was truly a fishing village. But in the days of Philip the Tetrarch, he elevated the eastern portion to City status, and named it in honour of Caesar Augustus’ daughter Julia, whence it became known as Julias, or Bethsaida-Julias, to distinguish it from the west-bank part of the village.
Chorazin rested on higher ground, some two miles inland from Capernaum. No one seems to know much about it, not even the etymology of the name, and hardly any reference is made to it in ancient literature, even the New Testament itself. Today the site is known as Khirbet Kerazeh, an Arabic name clearly derived from the earleir form of Chorazin. So much for those early days, when our Lord ministered at length and in depth to the people who lived near the Lake. But today, nothing much is left of these three towns. In fact there has been some degree of (friendly) argument between scholars and archaeologists as to the exact locations of the towns. It is now considered almost certain that Tell Hum is the site of Capernaum, but although I spoke about Bethsaida as a twin-town on the mouth of the Jordan, so little is left to give us any real clue, that it continues to be the subject of conjecture. Friends of ours have spoken about their visit to the ruins of Capernaum, where they saw the remnants of a synagogue, which is about all that remains of a town that was once flourishing in Jesus’ day. But a little to the south of Capernaum is Tiberias, which still stands today under the name ofTabariyeh, there being several thousands of people living there. So why have some towns become ruins, whilst others have continued to stand for two millennia?
The synagogue at Capernaum, shows clear signs of Roman architecture, and to the west of this building has been unearthed a basalt-paved street with remains of dwellings that once housed mills and olive presses. Archaeological research has proved that Capernaum was once a flourishing city. Most modern scholars believe the synagogue to date from the second or third centuries A.D., but two inscriptions have been found on pillars, one in Greek which says, “Herod, son ofMo[..]mus and Justus his son, together with the children, erected this column,” and the other in Aramaic says, “Alphaeus, son of Zebedee, son of John, made this column; on him be blessing.” It is intriguing to think that this Zebedee might have been the father, not only of Alphaeus (mentioned there), but also of James and John of the Gospel stories. Capernaum was their home town, and the synagogue was built by a Centurion, according to Luke’s testimony in 7:5,“They said, ‘He loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.'” This would account for the Roman style of architecture. If this is the case, then the Lord has allowed us to see the actual site of the synagogue where He preached many times.
Although the first excavations of the synagogue were made by Charles Wilson in 1866, it had to wait until 1905 before it was fully exposed to view once again. The German archaeologists H.Kohl and C.Watzinger discovered hidden under rubble, and overgrown with grass, the fragmentary remains of the edifice. Out of the dark greenness of eucalyptus bushes came a glint of white stone flags with pillars rising from them. And lying around were shattered blocks of basalt and columns with carved ornamentation. This was all that remained of the broad steps of a staircase that led to the entrance of a one-time splendid structure. The walls of the building were originally of white limestone, and on three sides it was surrounded by rows of tall pillars. The interior, which was about 80 X 50 feet, was decorated with sculptures of palms, vine branches, lions and centaurs, these last presumably being intended to convey the figures of cherubim. It was a two-storied building, a basilica-type structure, of three aisles with a gallery for women on the second floor running round all but the southern wall. This gallery rested on sixteen columns, and was reached by a stairway on the outside extension of the building. In the main hall of the synagogue and near the south wall several sculptured stones were found which must have belonged to the Ark of the Torah Scrolls. In fact a great variety of sculptured stones were found, such as capitals of columns, lintels and posts of doorways, window frames, friezes and cornices. They show representations of animals, plants, and mythological and geometrical figures.
One man decided that he would try to rebuild the synagogue, and he partly succeeded, raising several of the pillars, and rebuilding part of the walls. But then the unexpected happened. Part of the structure collapsed over him and he died. The whole town was destroyed around 400 AD by an earthquake, which also demolished Bethsaida and Chorazin. A similar thing happened at Bethsaida. In about 700 AD King Albalid of Damascus decided that the region of Bethsaida was so beautiful that he would build himself a winter palace there. For some fifteen years his workmen toiled, but then the King died, and the palace was left unfinished. All that remains today is a mosaic flooring and a few foundation stones. It does seem that a permanent ban rests on these ancient city-sites.
So much then for the history and archaeology of these three towns. I have gleaned my information from a number of sources, namely, “Evidence that demands a verdict” by Josh McDowell, “The Bible as History” by Werner Keller, “The Biblical World” by Charles Pfeiffer, and Hastings Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. However interesting it may be to have all this information at one’s finger-tips, and however helpful it may be in providing a back-cloth to the Gospel records, sight must not be lost of the fact that “information” per se can never give us spiritual nourishment or help us to grow towards spiritual manhood. Therefore it is at this point that we must use this “back-cloth” and weave upon it some spiritual truths. The remainder of this article will be devoted to that quest.
In the Gospels we are presented with just a few tantalising facts about places and people. We should obviously like to know more, but the Spirit of the Lord has given us enough for our needs. What we know is this. Jesus of Nazareth was treated abominably in the synagogue of His home-town, and rapidly departed from there to Capernaum, which was thereafter called “His town.” He stayed (as far as we can gather) at the home of Peter and Andrew, together with Peter’s wife and mother-in-law, and perhaps other members of that family. He used Capernaum as the centre for most of His ministerial work. Bethsaida was the birth-place of Peter and Andrew, also Philip, but they had moved along the shore to Capernaum prior to the time when Jesus called them. The Lord frequently went into the synagogue at Capernaum, as also at Bethsaida andChorazin, to teach on the Sabbath days. The frequency with which He did this indicates that He was not treated with the same contempt as from those at Nazareth. We also know that Jesus’ mother and brothers moved into Capernaum after His departure from Nazareth. Furthermore, we are told quite plainly that it was in these three cities that most of His miracles were performed.
The Sermon on the Mount was delivered on the hillside somewhere above the lakeside, as also the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000. Legion was healed on the other side of the Lake. Mary Magdalene came from the lakeside town of Magdala, only a short distance from Capernaum. The Centurion, who had organised the building of the town’s synagogue, was commended by the Lord for his faith, and experienced healing for his servant. And multitudes of sick people flocked to Peter’s house for healing, and none of them were turned away. Also, there was a tax office on the shore to serve the purpose of trading across the boundary of the two Tetrarchies of Herod and Philip. Matthew was one of these officials, and the Lord called him. And the Sea of Galilee was itself the scene of two most remarkable miracles, when Jesus stilled the tempest, and walked on the water. These are just a few of the amazing happenings that must have shaken the lives of the whole community of people who lived in this region during the three years of our Lord’s ministry.
But we must remember that whenever the Lord uttered the name of the town, Capernaum, He would have been understood as saying “City of Nahum”. It is therefore expedient to ask whether the ancient Hebrew prophet had some bearing on the Lord’s teaching. Nahum’s prophecy was directed at Nineveh. He was one of two Israelites whose prophetic words were spoken against that great city. The other was Jonah. Now the Gospels speak with clarity about Simon Peter, that his father’s name was Jonah. “Simon, son of Jonah”, the Lord said on several occasions. Likewise Jesus spoke of Jonah’s experience, that it was a “Sign” to the people of that generation, in fact the ONLY sign they would be given. It was the sign of His own resurrection after three days in the grave.
Near the end of the Lord’s ministry, He roundly condemned these three cities “in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent.” He said, “The men of Nineveh shall rise in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold a greater than Jonah is here.” “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. – – And you, Caphar-Nahum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall descend to Hades, for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day.” Jesus likened Himself to Jonah, and spoke of Simon as “son of Jonah”, perhaps in more ways than one. And Nineveh was a symbol which He used to condemn these three towns for their lack of response to the profusion of miracles He performed there.
But His “own city” was Caphar-Nahum, and history shows us that about 100 years after Jonah’s time, Nineveh had become the most violent, cruel, and sadistic city on earth. The Lord God Almighty looked at Nineveh with horror and anger. How could the place degenerate after such a short space of time? Therefore He sent a message to them via Nahum the prophet, to the effect that the city would be wiped off the face of the earth, and never again be rebuilt. And it came to pass not long afterwards in the days of Nebuchadnezzar and Cyaxares, that from then on the site of Nineveh was almost unknown until the excavations of Layard in 1840 – 1853.
See the parallel? Nineveh saw the miracle of Jonah’s preservation in the great fish. Probably his flesh was permanently disfigured from the digestive juices of its stomach. The sailors had transmitted the news of his “death” at sea, and the city was curious, perplexed, and expectant. Then Jonah arrived! Just that ONE miracle, and there was wholesale repentance from the King down to the least of his subjects. That was the GOOD NEWS. But it didn’t last. Sometime later the moral tone of the city underwent a violent change for the worse. Unspeakable violence filled the people, and Nahum’s prophecy foretold a permanent end to the city. What of the three Galilean towns? They had been visited by One who said that He was “greater than Jonah”. He gave the multitudes such a manifest display of His miraculous abilities that compared with Nineveh, one might have expected that repentance would have been utter and complete, radiating outwards to the rest of Palestine. But no. It didn’t happen like that at all. Apart from a small band of faithful souls, the rest of the populace remained strangely untouched.
Why? Is it possible to know the reason? One thing is certain. The Lord put a curse on those three towns, and so they remain to this very day as heaps of rubble with hardly anything left standing to show where they were. Never again were they rebuilt after the earthquake. On the other hand Tiberias, though destroyed in part during the centuries, has always been rebuilt and has had a continuous record of occupation, even to this day. It was not cursed like Caphar-Nahum. It would seem that the Lord had chosen the town in which He was to live most of His ministerial days, a town with a very appropriate name, “the City of Nahum.” And He left it with Nahum’s message of utter destruction. “The men of Nineveh shall rise in the judgment with this generation and shall condemn it.” Yes, the men of JONAH’S Nineveh, not the men of NAHUM’S Nineveh. They at last shall find themselves in the company of the folk who lived at Capernaum in Jesus’ day. Judged, condemned, found wanting because they had not attended to the Divine Message, accompanied by Miracle and Sign. Jesus, the “son of Jonah”, rose from the dead as He declared to the Galilean cities He would. That was the “sign of the prophet Jonah.” Then Peter, another “son of Jonah” was sent to the people of Israel with a new call to repentance, but they would not. From then on “Jonah” was exchanged for “Nahum”, and the curse became effective.
That was the sad history of the region. They knew not that a Prophet had been in their midst. But again we must ask, Why? What possible reason was there for such a lack of response from the thousands who lived in the three Galilean towns? Can we find an answer at this late date? I think not. It would be futile to speculate. Let it be sufficient that they were condemned for their lack of repentance. But we cannot leave it there. History may be teaching us lessons, and we are just as much human beings living today as they were in their own day. We have the same poison generated from our first parents, and find ourselves captured by base instincts, unable to throw off passions of selfishness, pride and rebellion. From this point of view we may at least find adequate reasons why WE TODAY are not responding to the Lord’s goodness, graciousness, and yes, frequently a miraculous touch from the Creator’s hand. For those of us who have had a relationship with the Lord for some time, even for many years, when we hear about a “touch from His loving hand” we rejoice with all our hearts. It seems only natural. The eyes become awash with tears of gratitude at God’s bounty.
But miracles have quite a different effect on the lives of unbelievers. In fact miracles can be a major source of embarrassment. Why is this? The main reason is that the natural human response to the Divine Presence, in whatsoever form it is manifested, is one of fear and withdrawal. This in turn is based on an unwillingness for lives to be under the control of another. We have inbuilt resistances to intrusion from outside. We say that “we belong to ourselves”, and that we are “going to look after ourselves”, and that we are not going to allow anyone else to dominate us, fashion us, shape us, change us, deliver us, or do anything else to bring us under any form of control. And it seems that man instinctively understands that IF God is our Creator, IF God is our Redeemer in the Person of His Son, then He has a right over us, to own us by Creation and by Redemption. To remain “one’s own person” is to reject all overtures from spiritual sources. The “miracle” is therefore a major embarrassment. It may be construed that this was the reason why Capernaum fell. Whatever were the localised conditions of the day, which we cannot know, we do have this one common factor to go on – our human nature. And that hasn’t changed.
The lesson of Capernaum for the day in which we live is clear enough. As British people we have had the inestimable benefit of nearly 2,000 years of Christianity in this land. We have received favour from God in so many ways that it would be tiring just to list them all. One hundred years ago we were the foremost missionary nation on earth. But no longer. We are now more like Solomon in his latter days, allowing his foreign wives and their abominable gods to dictate his life. We are allowing into our midst all manner of un-Christian philosophy, and the hammer of Nahum is poised above us. Have you noticed how difficult it is these days to obtain anyone’s attention? We can try a multitude of techniques to draw our friends, our “human horses”, to the wells of salvation, but they will not drink. Life is becoming too full of things to do, too easily packed out with modern possibilities of life, too many “good” programmes to watch on TV, too many places to go to in the car, or by plane, too much money to spend on unnecessary things, and so on, a plethora of pleasure and no time for God, even to think about Him.
One of the only ways in which this can be stopped is by sickness. Those who are forced to lie down are forced to look up, as the saying goes. Tragedy and sickness, death in the family, these seem to be some of the remaining agents to make the traffic lights of life turn red for a while. As a people we hold God at arm’s length for many and varied reasons. We may see rather too much tragedy around us and blame God for not intervening to put it right. We may have been brought up under very bad circumstances and inwardly smart when confronted by those “more fortunate than ourselves.” We may even ask why God ever allowed sin in the world in the first place. If He is so almighty, why couldn’t He have devised some plan which would bring less pain and suffering. We may look at the fragmented state of the Christian church world-wide and denounce the whole lot as one great hypocrisy, all “meaningless mumbo-jumbo”. We can even delude ourselves that we have descended from monkeys and therefore need no moral or ethical code, it’s “each man for himself.”
Yes, all these reasons are found in people’s lives, even though they may not vocalise them. But the truth of the matter is that each supposed reason is nothing more than a smokescreen, or a wall of defence behind which to hide from the truth. In the end, when a man becomes willing to face facts, he knows that he possesses a conscience. Do the animals have that? Who gave him this inbuilt barometer of right and wrong? Why always look OUTSIDE of ourselves for the origin of evil? Why not accept that in the end, we ourselves are responsible for our lives, what we do, what we say, what we think, to whom we yield ourselves, whom we believe, and by what philosophy we live and die. So, why blame Adam for our own sin? None of us would have done any better in the Garden. Oh God, I am the cause of my own misery! Is there none to relieve me? Yes! Jesus Christ has lived, died, and risen again for that very purpose. To believe in Him is to have FORGIVENESS, FREEDOM, and DESTINY!