The Fourth Century Synagogue

The fourth century synagogue at Capernaum sits on the foundations of the first century synagogue that had been built by a Roman Centurion according to Luke 7:3-5.

"The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, 'This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”

St. Epiphanius wrote that the population of Capernaum up until the 4th century was predominately Jewish: "This praxis, forbidding any one of a different race to live among them is particularly followed in Tiberias, in Diocaesarea, in Nazareth and in Capharnaum." This, of course, does not undermine the fact that Mishna explicitly refers to Jewish-Christians or "Minim" that lived together with their Orthodox Jewish brothers in the same towns.

According to the Midrash Qoh Rabba 1:8, the following happened in the days before the 2nd Great Revolt of 135 CE:

"Hanina, son of the brother of Jehoshua, came to Kephar Nahum, and the Minim worked a spell on him, and set him riding on a donkey on the Sabbath. He came to Jehosuha his friend, and he put ointment on him and he was healed. He (r. Jehosuha) said to him: Sinche the donkey of that wicked one (a possible reference to Jesus) has roused itself against thee, thou canst no longer remain in the land of Israel. He departed thence to Babel, and he died there in peace."

Rabbi Issi of Caesarea would later go on to say in Midrash Qoh Rabba 7:26 "Good is Hanina, son of Jehoshua; bad are the sons of Kefar Nahum."

Rebuilt as a result of either an economic boom that occurred in the town during that time or as a way of ’keeping up’ with Christianity in the 4th century, beautifully cut stones (limestone) were brought either from distant quarries or abandoned Greco-Roman temples to the port of Capernaum.  Indeed, the excavations by the Franciscan fathers have shown undoubtedly that the Octagonal Church and the newly refurbished synagogue were built at approximately the same time, and that they stood juxtaposed to each other for nearly 200 years until their final destruction in the first part of the 7th century CE.

The synagogue is made up of four separate units: the central prayer hall, the eastern courtyard, the southern porch (entrance), and a side-room located at the northwestern corner. The prayer hall has stone benches, similar to the layout of many Sephardic synagogues today. On the stone pavement of both the central prayer hall and the side-room, there are a number of board games etched into the surface of the stone, perhaps a way to keep the kids busy while the parents were in prayer or from a later period when the synagogue went out of use! In keeping with Jewish custom, the central prayer hall faces toward Jerusalem. The synagogue was surrounded by four side streets. No evidence of a mikveh (ritual bath) was discovered; however the discovery of several large water basins do support ceremonial cleanliness and remind us of the kind of basins used in Jesus' first healing in Cana of Galilee (see Stone Water Jars).

The synagogue most certainly dates to the fourth century. This is based on excavations since 1969 that have revealed more than 30,000 Late Roman Period coins and pottery also from the Late Roman period.


The Fourth Century Synagogue at Capernaum
Image Credit: Samson Tours

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