Jesus Is At Home
After a preaching tour around the Galilee, Jesus returns to Capernaum. Mark comments that “… it was reported that he was at home.” Why did Capernaum, the City (Kefar) of Nahum become the home of Jesus? First, let us consider the possible differences between Nazareth and Capernaum.
Like Capernaum, Nazareth is located near the Via Maris, the road of the sea. However, unlike Capernaum, first century Nazareth was a tiny community perhaps as small as 150-200 persons. Edwardo, the curator at the museum located beneath the Basilica of the Nativity in modern Nazareth, tells visitors that 500 persons lived in first century Nazareth. Either number indicates a relatively small community located six kilometers from Sepphoris, a city of approximately 30,000 persons. Following the death of Herod the Great, Hasmonean nobility living in Sepphoris revolted against Rome and the Romans burned the city. Herod Antipas chooses to rebuild Sepphoris and make it his first capital in the Galilee. This rebuilding takes place during the boyhood years of Jesus. Sepphoris stood as a modern Greco-Roman city in contrast to the small village and traditional Judaism of Nazareth.
Many students of the land believe that the Nazareth of Jesus boyhood was a community of pious or Hassidic Jews. Of course, this does not refer to the modern Hassidic movement, which arose in the ghettos of Eastern Europe. Rather, it is the Hassidic movement of the inner testamental period who, some believe, gave rise to the Pharisees. These ‘pious ones’ avoided the political scene, choosing rather to withdraw into conservative communities who awaited the eschatological kingdom of God.
The Nazareth community, in all probability, consisted of a relatively small group of David’s descendents. The Hebrew ‘netzer,’ translated as branch in English, was a common Messianic metaphor (See Isaiah 11:1). If, indeed, the Nazareth community consisted of a very narrowly conservative Davidic sect (Netzers), it might explain why Nathaniel might say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” but not why someone from such a conservative background would move to Capernaum.
Capernaum was a major fishing port on the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Located near the warm springs of the Heptapagon (place of the seven springs), the tropical tilapia or St. Peter’s fish, congregated in schools making the fishing of the area excellent during the cooler months of the year. Spotters standing on the hillside could direct the fishing fleet to the heaviest concentrations of fish. Because fishing required payment of a permit tax, collections at this large port were important.
The city was also located near the Via Maris or Road of the Sea, one of the major trade routes through Israel. Millstones used in the production of Olive Oil, grinding grain, etc. were produced from the basalt stone readily found in the area. Production of these stones was the second major industry of Capernaum with the proximity of the road making transporting the stones more accessible. Modern pilgrims visiting the site may notice the collection of stones and mills found in the excavation of the city. All of this contributed to the importance of Capernaum among the Jewish cities of the Galilee. And, as you may imagine, contributed to the large, rather successful working class community living in Capernaum.
Capernaum would have been a contrast in sounds. When the fishing fleet put out their nets in the warm spring waters, the air would have been filled with the shouts of spotters on the hillsides, the songs and groans of those hauling the nets, the splash of water and bumping of oars against the wooden sides of the boats among others. The streets of the city echoed with chisels and hammers tapping on stone, movement of people and animals in the streets, the cries and shouts of children playing in the open courtyards of their homes mingled with the conversations of the women cooking and sewing in these same communal courtyards. (Homes in the lower city of Capernaum were primarily Insulas that consisted of a multi-generational family collection of sleeping rooms, storage rooms and other rooms built around a communal courtyard. Homes in the upper city, which housed the wealthy class including Matthew the tax collector, Jairus the synagogue leader and the Centurion, were more on the order of Roman villas.).
Later, when the fishing slowed and the time for cleaning nets would come, the fishermen moved just west of the main city to the shoreline springs of the Heptapagon to clean and mend their nets. The noise of the city would be lost to the subdued conversations associated with work requiring a different kind of concentration. It would be during these times that Jesus would say to fishermen: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
The presence of a major synagogue in the city reinforces the importance of religion to the community’s life. However, this must be understood in the light of first century Judiasm. Rather, than being monolithic, first century Judaism consisted of groups as varied as the plethora of Christian denominations existing today. Even among such group designations as Pharisee, the differences were sharp. Groups of Pharisees disagreed over laws of ritual cleansing and the Sabbath. Rabbi Hellel taught that those who had the power to heal should do so, even on the Sabbath. Rabbi Shemmai taught that healing should take place on other days but not Sabbath. The Mishna, which records the discussions on interpretations of the law, reinforces this diversity.
Because Jesus is never condemned for healing on the Sabbath while in Capernaum, we may wonder if the Judaism of the city did not lean toward the more liberal interpretations of the law. Certainly, the eclectic nature of the community with tax collectors like Matthew, Centurions, and men, as Peter, who had moved from their home cities* to this one, would indicate a broader point of view than the monolithic nature of the Davidic Sect in Nazareth. *(The norm called for men to remain in the village of their birth.).
Although none of these observations answer the question as to why Capernaum became home for Jesus during the time of his Galilean’ ministry, they may help us understand the radical nature of change going on in our Lord. The self-understanding of Jesus at the end of his ministry embodies a radical paradigm shift from the one expressed to the gentile woman as he said: I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matt. 15:24).
The eclectic make-up of the twelve apostles echoes the nature of Capernaum’s population. Perhaps such diversity encouraged conversations that radically challenged the traditionally anticipated interpretations. Perhaps because they were concerned about such diversity, the religious authorities in Jerusalem would send delegations to the lake cities to make determinations concerning their orthodoxy (Matt. 15 and Mark 7). The distance from Jerusalem made such scrutiny difficult. The thriving, diverse region of Capernaum appeared to offer the perfect setting for Jesus to develop a theological framework rooted in Jewish scripture and tradition and yet free from the narrow interpretations of any particular sect. Within a few walking steps, Jesus could move from the multitude in the citu to the Eremos (Greek for the lonely place. Eremos is often mistranslated as desert, though visitors to the Galilee quickly note there is no desert there). More than once, it would be in the Eremos where the disciples of Jesus would come looking for him after he had spent the night praying alone.
One final thought. Jesus mother and brothers come to him in Capernaum and try to take him home. In Mark, his relatives (presumably from Nazareth), think he has lost his mind (Mark 3). The expectation for the eldest son to remain at home and assume the responsibility of the family in the death of the father can be known from peasant traditions which continue until today, especially among the Palestinians in Israel. When family members ask to speak to him, Jesus remarks that his family are those who do the will of God. This radical broadening in his self-understanding is easy to miss for western people accustomed to people moving away from home as the norm.
Although these observations only highlight the inquiry surrounding Capernaum, the question seems important to me, as I look at the spiritual development of our Lord. I find myself asking how my own choices encourage or discourage growth. Do I protect myself (intentionally or unintentionally) from interactions with persons and places that might introduce a radically different understanding from the lessons of my Nazareth? Do they afford me the opportunity of an Eremos for prayer and reflection? Am I in a place where people challenge my point of view and thus help me to think through and learn to articulate my own faith? Or, am I fearful of such potent diversity.