Capernaum and the Church of the Beatitudes

Fourth-century synagogue in Capernaum, Israel (Lori Erickson photo)

The place in Israel where the story of Jesus came most vividly to life for me was Capernaum. Much of Jesus’ public ministry took place in this town, which lies on the northern shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. During Jesus’ day, Capernaum was much more important both economically and politically than his hometown of Nazareth. Located on an important trade route known as the Via Maris and surrounded by fertile land, it also bordered a part of the Sea of Galilee particularly rich in fish. In the time of Jesus, Capernaum would likely have been viewed as a wealthy town.

It was in Capernaum that Jesus called his first disciples: Peter, Andrew, James and John, who were all fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, and Matthew, who was a tax collector. In addition to preaching, the Gospels tell of him performing many miracles in the area, including curing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever and bringing a child back to life.

The ruins of St. Peter's House, Capernaum, Israel (Lori Erickson photo)

Today the major sites in Capernaum include the ruins of what tradition identifies as Peter’s House (during Jesus’ time here, he likely lived in Peter’s house, though this may not have been the exact spot). The site lies near the lakeshore and was discovered beneath a Byzantine-era church. Next to it is a fourth-century synagogue made of white limestone, a stately structure with graceful columns and inscribed pillars. Below the present structure are the remains of a first-century synagogue, which is where Jesus is believed to have preached. Despite the many visitors, this is a peaceful spot, full of the sound of birds and occasional church bells.

It is that synagogue that was most evocative for me, both because the existing ruins are so picturesque and because its foundation rests on the first-century building which Jesus likely entered many times. There are relatively few places in Israel where one can say with near certainty that Jesus was once there. But this is one of those spots. He likely walked here, preached here and healed here.

I am a Christian, but this mysterious teacher and healer is someone who remains in many ways elusive to me. But I feel I know I bit more about the man behind the stories by visiting Capernaum, by standing there watching the sunlight play across the waters of the Sea of Galilee, by seeing that same landscape that once he viewed.

A few miles away is the Church of the Beatitudes, another of my favorite places in Israel. It commemorates Jesus’ Sermon the Mount, the famous series of verses that begin “Blessed are…” Even the faithful admit that this probably isn’t the exact place where Jesus said these words. But it’s quite likely that it was a place similar to this, a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, a place kept cool by breezes and serenaded by birds. An added bonus is that from this scenic spot, In the words of Biblical scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “from here one can see virtually all the places in which Jesus lived and worked.”

A Franciscan church was constructed here in the 1930s, an octagonal, Byzantine structure built of local basalt with a colonnade of white stone. It includes a hostel for pilgrims and a beautiful set of gardens.

Church of the Beatitudes near Capernaum, Israel (Lori Erickson photo)

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