Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus

Capernaum is mentioned in the gospels seventeen times. Bethlehem was important to Hebrews because it was traditionally known as the birth-place of King David. Some early Christians thought that Jesus had been born there to tell us that he was David's successor. Capernaum is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Jewish historian Josephus mentions it as a small village (kome in Greek) to which he was taken after falling off his horse near Bethsaida. Rabbinic literature mentions it as Kfar Nahum - that is, the village of Nahum. It referred to as a place where those who questioned the principles of rabbinic Judaism lived. In particular they questioned the rule to keep the Sabbath - which has lead some to suppose that Capernaum was the centre of an early Christian community [1]. In contrast to other sources, the gospels refer to Capernaum as a polis (town).

Both Luke and Mark portray Capernaum as the base from which Jesus operated. Matthew's Gospel links Jesus' move from Nazareth to Capernaum with news that John the Baptist had been imprisoned by Herod (Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, one of Herod the Great's three sons). It may be that Jesus moved in order to avoid the attentions of the Tetrarch who was understandably nervous of upstart prophets in uncertain times. Some think that the "town" referred to in Matthew 9.1 ("his home town") is Capernaum.

Mark interposes a short section about calling disciples between mention of John's imprisonment (1.14) and the move to Capernaum (1.21). 

In Luke's Gospel, John's imprisonment (3.19-20) is widely separated from the move to Capernaum (4.31) by the account of the temptation of Jesus (4.1-13) and his rejection in his home town (4.14-30). Many now think it probable Jesus moved away from Nazareth to make Capernaum a centre for his ministry.

Three gospels record Capernaum as the place where Jesus healed the son of a Roman official (John 4.46-53) - whom Luke and Matthew call a "Roman officer" (a Centurion in charge of a unit of 100 men: Luke 7.1-10; Matthew 8.5-13). Mark's Gospel doesn't mention the healing at all. This may be significant because this is the earliest of the four gospels. It could be that the later gospels have picked up a miracle story which, from our view of what makes for good history, did not actually happen. 

On the other hand, the version in Luke and Matthew are thought to have been taken from a source now lost (the Q tradition, from the German quelle, meaning "source"). This source was composed entirely of the sayings of Jesus - apart from this story and the temptation of Jesus. Many now think that Q probably pre-dates even Mark's Gospel. One opinion is that the sayings

... were probably collected and disseminated by the earliest Christian itinerant charismatics, who continued the lifestyle and preaching of Jesus. [2]

But I personally think that this confident conclusion is somewhat too sanguine. It may be correct, but the truth is that we don't know. The weight we give such conclusions depends on an assessment of probability. John's Gospel places the officer in Cana and his son in Capernaum. This healing is at a distance. It is likely that this version of the healing does not derive from the Q source. It isn't a revision or adaptation but has all the features of a different original version. This and other features of John's Gospel have led scholars to conclude that it was written out of an entirely different tradition from the others.

There are various other mentions of Capernaum as a place which Jesus and his disciples used as a base (John 6.17, 24, 59). In Mark 9.33 he and his disciples go "indoors" as though this was their place. Mark 2.1 mentions "the house" as though it was his home. Jesus is reported as having taught in a Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1.21). 

But this is unlikely to have been a Hebrew "church" in the sense of today's synagogues. One has been excavated in Capernaum, but it dates from the fourth or the fifth century. The "synagogue" referred to by Mark's Gospel was most likely a meeting place in the town where community events took place. Because there was no distinction as we have now between religious and secular matters, community discussions and worship would have been perfectly in place side-by-side.

The so-called condemnations of Capernaum by Jesus (Matthew 11.23; Luke 10.15) are probably not his original words. This approach to people is not congruent with the core teachings of Jesus about the way God relates to his creation. Analysis of the Greek text indicates that Matthew's version has been adapted and changed from the original Q source. 

Many think that these passages refer to the failure of an attempt to persuade the people of the town about the message of Jesus. In Matthew's version it is Jesus who fails. In Luke's version it is the disciples who fail. At any rate, those who demand a high degree of historical probability tend to think that these passages derive from early Hebrew-Christian missionary activities. The Jesus Seminar concludes that they are

... most likely the product of an early Christian prophet, speaking in the name of Jesus, under the influence of the spirit [3].

Capernaum was on the border between the territory governed by Herod Antipas and Philip (the north-eastern part of Herod the Great's Kingdom). This might explain why Roman troops were there. It is mentioned twice by the Hebrew-Roman historian Josephus - once because he fell from his horse there and broke some bones, and once because it was the site of a natural spring. In his time is was an insignificant town (around 66-68). The town was not far from a route for trade between Egypt and India.

The town itself, according to archeologists, probably occupied in Jesus' time about 6 hectares. No more than 1 500 people lived there. Capernaum was thus somewhat larger than Nazareth, but much smaller than Caesarea, Sepphoris and Tiberias. The latter two occupied some 30 hectares each and had populations variously estimated between 2 000 and 10 000, but most probably around 8 000.

We should realise that distances are small by comparison with our modern capacity for long, swift journeys. From Nazareth to Sepphoris (a somewhat larger town, Jewish but with strong Greek influences) was only 4 miles, barely an hour's walk. From Nazareth to Capernaum via Tiberias would have been about 30 miles - no more than 2 days walk at the most. People used to motor cars and public transport might find a two-day hike rather daunting. But in the Jesus' day, much longer journeys would have been unexceptional - witness Paul's references to his journeys and the travels of others.

Jesus was not just a country bumpkin. He would, in my view, almost certainly have been familiar with all the towns around Nazareth. Perhaps he spoke some Greek and Latin. On the other hand, there is no mention that Jesus visited either Sepphoris or Tiberias. Some think that this was because Jesus did not want contact with non-Hebrew people. In view of his free behaviour with outcasts and the social underclasses, however, I think this a weak argument. In addition, archeological evidence shows that both towns were inhabited mostly by Jewish people. It is just as convincing to suppose that there was no mention of his visits there because nobody noticed him in what were basically Jewish towns but which included a variety of other races and cultures. 

In contrast to the larger centres, Capernaum's climate was unpleasant and it was out of the way. It lay about 200 metres below sea level. The potential size and character of any town in those days depended greatly upon the capacity of the surrounding land to support its population. The area immediately surrounding Capernaum was fertile but difficult to till. Fortunately, the nearby Gennesar plain was ideal for farming. The Lake of Galilee gave as much water as could be needed.

Some scholars have assumed that Capernaum was an important trade centre for the region. In fact, the main roads leading from the Mediterranean to Damascus bypassed the town completely. In short, it was a relative backwater. Only the town of Tiberias was founded in 18/19 might traffic through Capernaum have increased. But not until the second century, when the Emperor Hadrian built a new road system, did it form part of the main trade network.

 Archaeologists note [4] that Capernaum had no Graeco-Roman architecture, indicating its non-Greek character. It had no baths, no civic centre or basilica, no amphitheatre, and no sign of Roman of Greek statues. It didn't even boast a central marketplace. The streets were unpaved - mere alleyways two or three metres wide. Larger towns generally had a sewage system, often water-borne. Capernaum's rubbish was simply thrown onto the streets. The buildings were not arranged in an orthogonal layout, that most common to larger places at the time.

Houses were much more simple and poor than even the average Herodian town. They were built of local basalt held together with crooked wooden beams and finished with straw, reeds and mud. Excavations indicate that a few foundations were sturdy enough to have carried a second storey above the ground level. No arches, vaults or rafters have been found, indicating that the roofs were reed or thatch, rather than tiled. An almost intact entrance reveals a threshold hewn from stone, a wooden doorjamb and some kind of locking mechanism for a door. Security needs probably dictated the central courtyard of most houses. There would have been little privacy inside the houses since no doors have been found. Fragments of ash and grinding tools indicate the work of female household members.

Commercial  fishing on the lake was carried out from Capernaum. In modern terms this may not have been a very large trade, but in a protein-poor community it would have been important. It would have provided food and work for a good proportion of the town. A small boat dated back to around the time of Jesus was discovered recently buried in mud when the level of Lake Galilee dropped during a severe drought. It showed that the builders lacked suitable raw materials. The boat was built from new wood combined with materials salvaged from an older boat. There were almost certainly Roman-appointed tax collectors in the town to collect on passing and local trade.

Overall, then, Capernaum was a small town - perhaps more of a village than a town in our terms - which survived at the lower levels of prosperity. There are no archeological signs of any imported wealth, such as quality vessels or lamps. Its people were ordinary peasants close to, but not necessarily often exposed to, the nearby larger and more sophisticated towns. We have learned far more about it from excavations than the gospels convey. 
[1] Archeology and the Galilean Jesus, J L Reed. Trinity Press, 2002
[2] The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, G Theissen & A Merz, SCM Press, 1998
[3] The Five Gospels, Polebridge Press, 1996
[4] Details are summarised from Excavating Jesus, J D Crossan & J L Reed, SPCK, 2001

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