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Defending the Faith: Capernaum bears witness of Christ

Published: Wednesday, June 9 2010 6:51 p.m. MDT

When some atheists go beyond simple rejection of God and the deity of Christ to declare that Jesus never existed, they depart decisively from mainstream scholarship.

While views of Jesus vary enormously among specialists (and others) on Christian origins, few (if any) serious scholars of the subject believers or not doubt his historical reality. Such denial is largely the province of cranks.

One place where the reality of the historical Jesus seems particularly accessible lies on the northwestern shore of Lake Kinneret, the biblical Sea of Galilee. The ruins of ancient Capernaum (Hebrew Kfar Nahum, the village of Nahum) were identified by the American explorer Edward Robinson in 1838.

According to the gospel of Luke, Capernaum was home to Andrew, Peter, James and John, as well as the tax collector Matthew all of whom became apostles. Matthew 4:13 describes it as the home of Jesus, making it effectively the headquarters of the Christian movement during his mortal lifetime.

As depicted in Luke 4:31-44, Jesus taught on the Sabbath in the synagogue of Capernaum, and it was at Capernaum that he healed a man with an unclean spirit and cured Peters mother-in-law. Matthew 8:5-13 names Capernaum as the place where a Roman centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant.

In 1866, British Capt. Charles W. Wilson identified the remains of Capernaums synagogue, among the oldest in the world. Dating from the fourth or fifth century after Christ and built of beautifully carved white stone brought from distant quarries, it contrasts sharply with the black basalt stone of the residential buildings around it. But beneath it lies a foundation of simpler, plainer, local basalt, which many believe to belong to a first century synagogue, probably the very building mentioned by Luke.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is an ancient structure located only 100 feet away, nearer to the lakeshore. A large, modern, UFO-like Franciscan church hovers over it. Discovered in 1968 amidst a maze of dwellings from various historical periods, this is believed by many authorities to be Peters house, where Jesus likely stayed while in town.

Is it authentic? Very probably.

The house was built in the Late Hellenistic period that is, just prior to the birth of Jesus. In the third quarter of the first century A.D. only a few decades after the death of Jesus, and perhaps only a decade or so after the martyrdom of Peter it seems to have been transformed into a domus-ecclesia, a Christian house-church. Its rough walls and floor were plastered, something done nowhere else in the village. And it seems no longer to have served as a residence. While many lamps from the period have been found at the site, and while daily utensils have been found nearby, and while other houses around it plainly continued to be occupied, essentially no domestic ceramics dating after the middle of the first century have been recovered from this particular spot.

In the fourth century, the house-church was enlarged and set off from the rest of Capernaum by an enclosure wall. Several graffiti still survive from it, containing expressions of Christian worship and referring to the Lord, Christ, the Most High and God. Written in multiple languages, they suggest that the site was visited by foreign pilgrims as well as by local worshipers.

In fact, the late fourth-century pilgrim Egeria seems to have described this very building in a letter to other Christian women back in her native France: The house of the prince of the apostles in Capernaum was changed into a church; the walls, however, are still standing as they were.

In the latter fifth century, a church consisting of two concentric octagons (and eventually featuring a pool for baptisms) was built over the structure. This was a martyrium, a Christian building-type common in late antiquity, intended to commemorate sites of special significance (often, the tombs of saints). The doubled-octagonal shape permitted pilgrims to walk around the sacred space without actually stepping on it. (The Muslim Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built by Christians because Islam hadnt yet developed its own architectural tradition, is of the same form.)

In Capernaum, Jesus seems tangibly attested as a real historical figure. Those who visit are almost certainly walking where Jesus walked.

Daniel Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

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