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Quick Facts on Capernaum Synagogue

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Capernaum Capernaum Synagogue Kefar Nahum
Capernaum, Northern District
Capernaum  locality
Israel  country
Middle East  continent
Main date(s)
2nd-5th C
32.881110° N, 35.575211° E

Description of Capernaum Synagogue

The synagogue of Capernaum is located just inland from the shore with its facade facing Jerusalem. It has been difficult to date, with scholarly opinion ranging from the 2nd to 5th centuries. It stands on an elevated position, was richly decorated and was built of imported white limestone, which would have contrasted dramatically with the local black basalt of the rest of the village. All of this would have given the building great beauty and status.

The "white synagogue" has a basilica-type plan, with a small terrace on the front (south) and a court on the east side. All three entrances are in the south wall; the other walls were lined with columns supporting the roof. A side door in the east wall leads to a courtyard used for community purposes.

Precise dating of the synagogue has proved problematic for several reasons. Aspects of its style suggest a date of around 200 CE and its orientation to Jerusalem also suggests an early date, yet coins and pottery found under the floors date from the 5th century. The diverse architectural elements found in the ruins make it difficult to reconstruct coherently. And unusually, it has 12 doors instead of the usual three or four.

One possibility is that it was built at an early date and the 5th-century artifacts derive from later repair work. Another suggestion has been that up to four successive synagogues stood here in the 2nd-4th centuries, then were dismantled in the 5th century by Christians who rebuilt a pilgrim shrine on the site. This would have occurred at around the same time that a prominent new church was built nearby.

Significant to this discussion is a layer of black basalt foundations beneath the white synagogue. The excavators believe this is the synagogue where Jesus taught and cast out demons (as indicated by the sign on the site, right).

In 381, the pilgrim Egeria said she visited "the synagogue where the Lord cured a man possessed by a devil. The way in is up many stairs, and it is made of dressed stone."

She clearly visited the white synagogue that post-dates Jesus, but this was perhaps built by Christians, or at least taken over by them, for veneration of the "synagogue of Jesus" that lay underneath. Local Christians seem to have preserved the house of St. Peter from an early date (see below); it is reasonable they would have remembered the site of Jesus' synagogue as well.

Holly Hayes
October 27, 2011

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