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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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1. The name.

2. Description of the localities.

3. Identification.

4. Capernaum and Bethsaida.

5. References in NT.

6. History.


The question as to the position of Capernaum is of great importance for the Gospel story. It is the pivot on which hinges the determination of the scene of the greater part of our Lord’s active ministry. The three places, Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida, must all be taken together, and they must in any case be not far from the Plain of Gennesaret. This plain is undoubtedly the modern el-Ghuweir (i.e. ‘the little Ghôr’ or ‘hollow’); there is also no doubt that Chorazin is the modern Kerâzeh. The present article is written in the belief that Capernaum is Tell Hûm (which is the view of the majority of scholars), and that Bethsaida was the port (now called el-‘Araj), on the Lake, of Bethsaida Julias (et-Tell).

1. The Name.—The correct form of the name is undoubtedly Καφαρναούμ. This is found in all the oldest authorities to the end of the 4th cent. (Evv. codd. opt.; Verss. antiq. Latt. Syrr. aegypt. Goth.; Josephus BJ, Onomast. Euseb. Hieron.). The spelling Καπερναούμ begins to appear in the 5th cent., but after that date rapidly covered the ground. In Josephus (Vita, § 72), mention is made of a village the name of which Niese prints as Κεφαρνωκόν, but there are many various readings, and the text is pretty certainly corrupt. The exact relation of the ancient name to the modern does not work out very clearly. It is easy to understand how Caphar (mod. Kefr = ‘village’), as a habitation of living men, might become Tell in the sense of ‘a heap of ruins’ (strictly = ‘mound,’ but there is no mound on the site). But there are difficulties in the way of regarding Hûm as a contraction for ‘Nahum’; and some good philologists (Buhl, op. cit. inf., cf. Socin, Guthe, ib.) prefer to regard Tell Hûm as a corruption of Tenhûm or Tanhûm, which occurs in Jewish, authorities.

2. Description of the localities.—The beautiful Plain of Gennesaret is closed on the north-east by a spur of the hills which slopes down gradually to the Lake. In the hollow formed by this, on the rising ground where the caravan-route begins to ascend the ridge, is the ruined khân of Khân Minyeh. On the low ground beneath, and also on the ridge above, there are a few more inconspicuous remains; and between the khân and the Lake is a fountain (‘Ain et-Tîn). Rounding the little promontory, on which is a German hospice, we come to a bay, on the further side of which is a group of springs. One of these is described by Sir Charles Wilson as ‘by far the largest spring in Galilee, and estimated to be more than half the size of the celebrated source of the Jordan at Banias’ (Recovery, etc. ii. 348). The waters of this spring come to the surface with great force, and, after being collected in a strongly-built reservoir, they were carried by an aqueduct, in part cut through the rock, round the promontory and to the rear of Khân Minyeh; from thence they were used to irrigate the plain. The modern name of this fountain is ‘Ain et-Tâbigha. The ancient name was ‘Seven Fountains’ (Itin. Hieros. ed. Vindob. p. 138) or Heptapegon (of which et-Tâbigha is an echo). A full mile and a half, or two Roman miles farther, are the ruins of Tell Hûm. These cover a considerable extent of ground, half a mile in length by a quarter in breadth. The houses generally were built of blocks of black basalt. A single public building of larger size (74 ft. 9 in. × 56 ft. 9 in.) was of white limestone. This is commonly identified with the synagogue.

‘Seen alone there might have been some doubt as to its character, but compared with the number of ruins of the same character which have lately been brought to notice in Galilee, there can be none. Two of those buildings have inscriptions in Hebrew over their main entrances; one in connexion with a seven-branched candlestick, the other with figures of the paschal lamb, and all without exception are constructed after a fixed plan, which is totally different from that of any church, temple, or mosque in Palestine’ (Wilson, Recovery, etc. ii. 344).

Two Roman miles up the course of a stream which enterst he Lake just beyond Tell Hûm, are ruins which bear the name of Kerâzeh; but between Tell Hûm and the mouth of the Jordan there are no more ruins and no special features. Across the Jordan a little way back from its mouth, is et-Tell, which is now generally held to mark the site of Bethsaida Julias. This was in ancient times connected by a paved causeway with a cluster of ruins on the shore of the Lake, now known as el-ʿAraj.

3. Identification.—It will be seen that there is really not very much choice. Chorazin is certainly Kerâzeh, and Bethsaida Julias, built by the tetrarch Philip, is pretty certainly et-Tell. The alternatives for Capernaum are thus practically reduced to Khân Minyeh and Tell Hûm. And the broad presumption must be in favour of the latter, as Capernaum was no doubt the most important place at this end of the Lake, and the ruins are here far more extensive than those at Khân Minyeh, as well as demonstrably ancient. The khân at Khân Minyeh appears to have been built in the 16th cent. (Sepp, op. cit. inf. p. 165), though the place name first occurs in the time of Saladin.

Is this broad presumption overruled by any decisive consideration? A few minor arguments have been adduced against it. Capernaum was a place where tolls were collected (Mark 2:14 ||), and it is thought that this would be more natural on the main caravan road: but a place of the size of Tell Hûm must in any case have had its tolls, and there was certainly a road along the north end of the Lake leading to Bethsaida Julias (Guthe). The bay of et-Tâbigha is much frequented by fish, and the beach is suitable for mooring boats. But there is little, if any, trace of ruins that are not quite modern. The ruins about Khân Minyeh are also inconsiderable, though further excavation is needed to bring out their real character.

The point that seemed for a time to outweigh all the rest turned upon the position of the fountain. Josephus, who is our earliest and best authority, expressly says that the Plain of Gennesaret was watered by the fountain of Capernaum (BJ iii. x. 8). The only fountain to which this statement can apply is that of et-Tâbigha. There are other fountains, but none of them could be said in any sense to irrigate the plain as in ancient times this fountain certainly did. This indication might seem prima facie to support the claims of Khân Minyeh. The fountain is a short mile from this site, and two short (Roman) miles from Tell Hûm. But it has to be remembered that these large villages or towns on the Sea of Galilee had each its ‘territory.’ Thus Josephus speaks of the ‘territory’ of Hippos (Ἱππηνή, BJ iii. iii. 1); and the ‘Gerasene’ demoniac (in Mark 5:1-17 ||) is a case of the same kind—the swine were not feeding in the town itself but in its territory. In like manner the fountain was situated within the territory of Capernaum, whether it was at Khân Minyeh or at Tell Hûm.

This leaves room for the natural presumption to tell in favour of Tell Hûm. And the identification is. confirmed by the fact that the pilgrim Theodosius (circa (about) 530 a.d.), coming from the West, arrived at Heptapegon before he came to Capernaum: this he would have done if it were at Tell Hûm, but not if it had been at Khân Minyeh (Itin. Hieros. p. 138; cf. JThSt [Note: ThSt Journal of Theological Studies.] v. 44). Other indications, whether Biblical or derived from the narratives of the pilgrims, are all indecisive.

Just for a time there was a certain swing of the pendulum (which may be said to have reached its eight in the last decade of the last century) in favour of Khân Minyeh. But the balance of the criticism of the last fifty years is pretty clearly on the side of Tell Hûm. But absolutely decisive results can only be obtained, if at all, by thorough and systematic excavation.

4. Capernaum and Bethsaida.—The two questions of Capernaum and Bethsaida are so closely connected, that a word should be added upon the latter. The only Bethsaida in these parts known to general history is that of which we have just spoken as located at et-Tell to the east of the Jordan. It has often been thought necessary to postulate a second Bethsaida, which is most commonly placed at the bay of et-Tâbigha. The main reasons for this are two. (a) In John 12:21, the Bethsaida of the Gospels is described as ‘Bethsaida of Galilee,’ whereas Bethsaida Julias was, strictly speaking, in Gaulanitis (BJ ii. ix. 1). (b) The phrase εἱς τὸ πέραν in Mark 6:45 seems to imply that Bethsaida was on the opposite side of the Lake to the scene of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. These reasons are, however, insufficient to warrant the invention of a second Bethsaida so near to the first, and itself so wholly hypothetical. In the bay of et-Tâbigha there are no ruins to prove its existence. On the other hand, (a) there is evidence enough to show that ‘Galilee’ was often loosely used for the country east of Jordan and of the Lake (BJ ii. xx. 4, iii. iii. 1; Ant. xviii. i. 1, 6); and the geographer Ptolemaeus speaks of Bethsaida Julias as ‘in Galilee,’ just as St. John does (Buhl, GAP [Note: AP Geographic des alten Palästina.] p. 242). Political boundaries were so shifting, and the adjustments of territory in these little principalities were so constantly changed, that a loose use of terms grew up, and the more familiar names were apt to displace the less familiar, (b) The phrase εἱς τὸ πέραν cannot be pressed; it might be used of an oblique course from any one point on the shore of the Lake to any other: Josephus (Vita, § 59) uses διεπεραιώθην of taking ship from Tiberias to Taricheae, which are on the same side of the Lake, and very little farther from each other than Bethsaida from the scene of the miracle.

5. References in the Gospels.—So far as our Lord had any fixed headquarters during His Galilaean ministry, they were in Capernaum. It is called His ‘own city’ (ἰδία πόλις) in Matthew 9:1. The same close connexion is implied by the special reproach addressed to the city in Matthew 11:23 (= Luke 10:15). The public ministry, in the more formal sense, was opened here by the call of the four leading Apostles (Mark 1:16-20); and here, too, were the labours of which we have a graphic and typical description on the Sabbath that followed (Mark 1:21-34 ||). We have repeated mention of a particular house to which our Lord resorted, which was probably St. Peter’s. During the early part of His ministry He must have spent much tune here, but during the latter part His visits can have been only occasional.

Perhaps we should be right in inferring from the presence of the ‘centurion’ (Matthew 8:5 ff., Luke 7:2 ff.) that Herod Antipas had a small garrison here. St. Luke tells us that this centurion, though a Gentile, had built the synagogue of the place. Is it too sanguine to believe that this was the very building the remains of which are still most conspicuous among the ruins? There appears to be good reason for the view that they are really the remains of a synagogue. A comparison with similar buildings elsewhere in Galilee brings out the distinctive features of the ground plan, and the presence of religious emblems seems to render this probable. The richness of the architecture (cf. pl. xvii. in the present writer’s Sacred Sites of the Gospels) may seem to suggest that the ruins date from the palmy days of Galilaean Judaism (a.d. 140–300), and Schürer refers them to this period. But there is one argument that perhaps points in a different direction. There was a synagogue at Chorazin hardly less elaborate than that at Capernaum, though with its ornaments cut in the black basalt, and not in limestone (Wilson, Recovery, ii. 3, 4, 7). Now, we know that when Eusebius wrote his Onomasticon, the site of Chorazin was already ‘deserted’ (Onomast., ed. Klostermann, p. 174). This desertion is not likely to have been very recent. And it is perhaps after all more probable that elaborate building took place at a time when Galilee had a prince of its own with architectural ambitions, who must have gathered around him a number of skilled artificers at Tiberias. The Herods were all builders; and the period of their rule was probably that in which Galilee enjoyed the greatest material prosperity.

6. Later history.—From a.d. 150 onwards the shores of the Sea of Galilee became a stronghold of Rabbinical Judaism. The fanaticism of this district would not tolerate the presence of Christians; it is expressly stated by Epiphanius (Haer. xxx. 11; cf. Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, ii. 261) that down to the time of Constantine no one had ever dared to erect a church either at Nazareth or Capernaum, or at other places mentioned in the neighbourhood. That means that there must have been a complete break in the Christian tradition; so that, when we read later that a church was built on the supposed site of Peter’s house, it is not likely that the guess had any real authority (Itin. Hieros. pp. 112 f., 163, 197). Still Capernaum was one of the sacred places, and from the 4th cent, onwards it was frequented by Christian pilgrims. Eusebius (and Jerome after him) mentions the place as on the Sea of Gennesaret, but throws no further light upon it beyond fixing its distance as two Roman miles from Chorazin (Onomast. pp. 120, 174). We have seen that Theodosius came to it from Tiberias after passing through Magdala and Seven Fountains (Itin. Hieros. p. 137 f.). Arculfus (circa (about) 670 a.d.) did not enter Capernaum, but saw it from a neighbouring height stretching along the Lake, and observed that it had no wall (ib. p. 273 f.). The nun who tells the story of St. Willibald (circa (about) 723 a.d.) makes him first come to Capernaum, then to Bethsaida, then to Corazaim, ubi Dominus daemoniacos curavit, where there is an evident confusion between Chorazin and Gerasa (mod. Kersa), the scene of the healing of the demoniac. The same blunder occurs in the anonymous Life, so that it probably goes back to St. Willibald himself (see Tobler, Descript. Terr. Sanct. pp. 26, 63). We have seen that the history of Khân. Minyeh, so far as we can trace it, belongs to the Saracenic and Turkish periods. Saladin halted at al-Munaja in 1189, but the building of the khân is referred by Sepp to Sinan Pasha under Suleiman the Magnificent (1496–1566).

Literature.—The most important descriptions and discussions are as follows:—On the side of those who would place Capernaum at Khân Minyeh: Robinson, BRP [Note: RP Biblical Researches in Palestine.] 2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ii. 403–408, iii. 344–360; Sepp, Neue Entdeckungen (Munchen. 1896); G. A. Smith, HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geog. of Holy Land.] 4 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] p. 456, and in Encyc. Biblica. On the side of those who identify Capernaum with Tell Hûm: W. M. Thomson, LB [Note: The Land and the Book.] (ed. 1901) pp. 350–356, cf. also 359 f.; Sir Charles Wilson, The Recovery of Jerusalem (London, 1871), ii. 375–387; and a solid phalanx of the most judicious German writers, e.g. Furrer in Schenkel’s Bibel-Lexikon (1871); Socin (in Baedeker’s Pal. [Note: Palestine, Palestinian.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] p. 291 f.); Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ii. 445 f.; Guthe, Kurzes Bibelwörterbuch, and elsewhere; Buhl, GAP [Note: Geographic des alten Palästina.] (1896) pp. 223–225, cf. 242. The writer of this article gave a hesitating adhesion to the former view in Sacred Sites of the Gospels (Oxford, 1903), but retracted that opinion in JThSt [Note: Journal of Theological Studies.] for Oct. 1093, vol. v. pp. 42–48.

W. Sanday.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Capernaum'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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