Saturday, July 17, 2010
A Biblical Scholar's First Impressions of Israel IX: Capernaum
Before going to Capernaum, I felt that I knew a bit about it, not least because of the superb filming and CGI reconstruction that took place for the BBC's Son of God (2001; shown in the USA as Jesus: The Complete Story). In that programme, the modern church that now stands atop the excavations of first century Capernaum, was flown away like a flying saucer, and the ancient walls arose and and the first century town came to life. Seeing those excavated remains in reality, though, was special. And if it weren't for the overwhelming heat, we might have stayed even longer than we did.
Capernaum is unlike any other of the ancient sites you might visit in Israel. The modern town of Kefar Nahum is separate from the ancient site, so when you approach it, it is just for the excavations and the church -- no businesses, no cars; just a little gift shop and port-a-cabin where you pay your 5 shekels each (just over a dollar) for entry. As with any of the "holy sites", the women get asked to cover their shoulders at this point, so we got used to carrying an extra shirt around in our back-pack.
The site features an impressive fourth / fifth century synagogue as well as remains of a first century one. As we entered the site of the excavated synagogues, we passed by a group of American tourists sitting on benches listening to a tour-guide reading out the story of Mark 1.21-28 and making something of a meal of it. Then, nearby are the excavations of first century housing including "Peter's house", over which the modern church structure hovers. We entered into the church so that we could look through the glass floor at the excavations below, but the church was full of earnest, frowning private worshippers who did not appreciate our presence.
It is an odd experience to spend time in Capernaum. For those interested in the Historical Jesus, it is a site of greater interest than Bethlehem or Nazareth, but it is the latter two that have generated the tourism, the trade and the pilgrimage.
Photo credits: Viola Goodacre