The House of Peter: The Home of Jesus in Capernaum?

How the remnants of the humble dwelling of Jesus in Capernaum illuminate how Christianity began

Beneath the foundations of this octagonal Byzantine martyrium church at Capernaum, archaeologists made one of the most exciting Biblical archaeology discoveries: a simple first-century A.D. home that may have been the house of Peter, the home of Jesus in Capernaum. Photo: Garo Nalbandian.

For much of his adult life, Jesus resided in the small fishing village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. It was here during the infancy of early Christianity that he began his ministry in the town synagogue (Mark 1:21), recruited his first disciples (Mark 1:16–20) and became renowned for his power to heal the sick and infirm (Mark 3:1–5).

Early travelers to the site had long recognized the beautifully preserved remains of the ancient synagogue that many believe marked the site, if not the actual building, of Jesus’ earliest teaching. But an important detail of how Christianity began still remained: Where in the town had Jesus actually lived? Where was the house of Peter, which the Bible suggests was the home of Jesus in Capernaum (Matthew 8:14–16)?

Italian excavators working in Capernaum may have actually uncovered the remnants of the humble house of Peter that Jesus called home while in Capernaum. (This house of Peter was one of the first Biblical archaeology discoveries reported in BAR more than 25 years ago.)

Buried beneath the remains of an octagonal Byzantine martyrium church, excavators found the ruins of a rather mundane dwelling dating to the first century B.C.

Although slightly larger than most, the house was simple, with coarse walls and a roof of earth and straw. Like most early Roman-period houses, it consisted of a few small rooms clustered around two open courtyards. Despite later proving to be one of the most exciting Biblical archaeology discoveries, the house appeared quite ordinary. According to the excavators, however, it is what happened to the house after the middle of the first century A.D. that marked it as exceptional and most likely the house of Peter, the home of Jesus in Capernaum.
 


 
In the free ebook Who Was Jesus? Exploring the History of Jesus’ Life, examine fundamental questions about Jesus of Nazareth. Where was he really born—Bethlehem or Nazareth? Did he marry? Is there evidence outside of the Bible that proves he actually walked the earth?
 


 
In the years immediately following Jesus’ death, the function of the house changed dramatically. The house’s main room was completely plastered over from floor to ceiling—a rarity for houses of the day. At about the same time, the house’s pottery, which had previously been household cooking pots and bowls, now consisted entirely of large storage jars and oil lamps. Such radical alterations indicate that the house no longer functioned as a residence but instead had become a place for communal gatherings, possibly even the first christian gatherings, a key factor in how Christianity began. As with many Biblical archaeology discoveries, often the small details most convincingly tie ancient material remains to Biblical events and characters.

For instance, the excavators found that during the ensuing centuries, the plastered room from the original house had been renovated and converted into the central hall of a rudimentary church. The room’s old stone walls were buttressed by a newly built two-story arch that, in turn, supported a new stone roof. The room was even replastered and painted over with floral and geometric designs of various colors.

The building’s key role in understanding how Christianity began was confirmed by more than a hundred graffiti scratched into the church’s walls. Most of the inscriptions say things like “Lord Jesus Christ help thy servant” or “Christ have mercy.” They are written in Greek, Syriac or Hebrew and are sometimes accompanied by etchings of small crosses or, in one case, a boat. The excavators claim that the name of Peter is mentioned in several graffiti, although many scholars now dispute these readings.

This simple church building, helpful in determining how Christianity began, survived for more than 300 years before it was finally replaced in the fifth century by a well-built octagonal martyrium church. Octagonal martyria were built to commemorate an important site, such as the original house of Peter that once stood here. The inner sanctum of the octagonal building was built directly above the remains of the very room of the first-century house that had formed the central hall of the earlier church.

Biblical archaeology discoveries are not cut-and-dry cases. Though there is no definitive proof in this instance that the house ruin uncovered by the excavators actually is the ancient house of Peter, there is layer upon layer of circumstantial evidence to support its importance in early Christianity and its association with Jesus in Capernaum and his foremost disciple, Peter. Were it not for its association with Jesus and Peter, why else would a run-of-the-mill first-century house in Capernaum have become a focal point of Christian worship and identity for centuries to come?

——————

Based on “Issue 200: Ten Top Discoveries.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Jul/Aug Sep/Oct 2009, 74-96.
 


 
In the free ebook Who Was Jesus? Exploring the History of Jesus’ Life, examine fundamental questions about Jesus of Nazareth. Where was he really born—Bethlehem or Nazareth? Did he marry? Is there evidence outside of the Bible that proves he actually walked the earth?
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Apostle Peter in Rome by Nicola Denzey Lewis

Has the Childhood Home of Jesus Been Found?

Early Christian Art Symbols Endure after Iconoclast Attack
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on March 29, 2011.
 


 

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  • abram says

    From:
    Abram Epstein
    Author: “A Documented Biography of Jesus Before Christianity”
    FB: Abram’s Historical Writing

    There is certainly nothing to be ashamed of in unabashedly accepting traditional Christian Gospel dogma as the basis for attributing an Italian archeological house excavation in Capernaum as that of a home once belonging to Simon/Peter, or perhaps Jesus; but only if one does so to honor Christian tradition, rather than history.
    First, I must observe the BAR staff introducing the subject refers to Jesus’ early teaching (in Capernaum) as occurring during the “infancy of Christianity.” To wit: Until Jesus died, there was NO Christianity. Christianity was the theologizing of his life and death. Therefore, to correctly speak of the “infancy” of Christianity, one would need to be referring to the justification of his crucifixion and disappearance from the tomb, his resurrection.
    Further (and more controversially), to speak of Jesus’ teaching as a component of Christianity during his life is to assert he was FOSTERING Christianity before he died. Of that, there is no objective textual evidence, other than arguably apparent emendations. What is even more striking were his protests against being called the messiah, now buried beneath the dramatized miraculous acts, such as resurrecting the dead, confronting a myriad demonic denizens of satan’s realm, or supposedly confiding his messiahship.

    Therefore to state Jesus’ teaching was a stage of Christianity is to become a voice arguing from faith (not evidence) Jesus was, during his life, fully aware of what would happen to him, and how his devotees might be saved though their belief in him. Does BAR wish to be in the Christian fold? Again, no shame in making that choice: It’s just academically honest to state it is one.

    But let’s look at Biblical Archeology Society Staff’s opening description:

    For much of his adult life, Jesus resided in the small fishing village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. It was here during the infancy of early Christianity that he began his ministry in the town synagogue (Mark 1:21), recruited his first disciples (Mark 1:16–20)….

    1. “For much of his adult life?”
    Comment: Where do the Gospels say that? And for how long a period?
    Maybe that was left on the cuttingroom floor.
    2. “Where was the house of Peter, which the Bible suggests was the home of Jesus in Capernaum (Matthew 8:14–16)?”
    Comment: Actually, the text of Matthew 8:14 does mention Peter’s house–but omits the all-important reference to its being in Capernaum!
    Where then, if at all, do the Gospels “suggest” Jesus (or, perhaps Peter) had a house in Capernaum? One might think of Matthew 9:1-8 and Mark 2:1–2:12. The latter states: “When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home…so many gathered…there was not room for them in front of the door…”
    I believe (and here all of us must confess to conjecture), there was very likely a house in Capernaum where Jesus was known to occasionally find welcome.. To whom did it belong? First, let us dismiss the possibility Jesus owned it.
    Arguing to the contrary, we would have to reconcile his famed declaration: (Matthew 8:20)
    “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but this son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” As a legal resident of Capernaum, furthermore, he would almost certainly have become known as Jesus the Capernaumian (sparing you the Hebraic translation). Has anybody ever heard of Jesus being called Jesus of Capernaum?
    Bear in mind the famed banishment from the three towns (Chorazin, Beit Zaida and Capernaum), does not make legal sense if Jesus had property in one of them. Only a court would have had a right to divest him of such proprietorship and prevent access to his own home.
    Hard to imagine such a proceeding would have escaped the anti-Jewish talons of the Gospel record.
    More concrete as evidence, is the actual single source naming Capernaum as the site of Peter’s house where Jesus performs the healing of his mother-in-law.
    [Scholar’s corner: This occurs in a second century non-Canonical Gospel (only known through quotations of a fourth century church writer, Epiphanius), “Gospel of the Ebionites” which states: ‘…Coming to Capernaum, Jesus entered the house of Simon who is called Peter and said…”
    On its face, this “evidence” is fatally flawed. The Ebionite fragmentary tract is plainly a composite and has no historical reliability. Instead of the first four disciples (Simon, Andrew and the Zebedees) being on hand, Jesus is shown choosing all Twelve. No parallel text supports this distortion.

    Let us therefore focus on the three salient questions:
    1. Where was Jesus’ house?
    2. Where was Simon/Peter’s house?
    3. Whose excavated house in Capernaum was it?

    Comment (Answers):

    1. Jesus’ only house was in Nazareth.
    He was known as Jesus of Nazareth and he was crucified
    as a resident of that domain. Further, he called Nazareth his home. Mark 6:1 states: “He left that place and came to his hometown…[and the congregants in the Nazareth synagogue recognized him and said] Matthew 13:55 together with Mark 6:3 “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Son of Mary and the brother of James and Joseph, Simon and Judas?…And Jesus said to them: Prophets are not without honor except in their own town…and in their own house” (underlining mine).
    2. Peter’s house, which may well have belonged to his mother-in-law, and a wife of whom we know nothing, was located (according to John 1:44) in the Sea of Galilee fishing village, Beit Zaida. Others who lived in Beit Zaida and were to become followers of Jesus as disciples, included: Andrew (Simon/Peter’s brother), The Zebedee brothers, and somewhat later, Philip. Nethanel seems to have joined the group for a brief period and was also from Beit Zaida.
    3. FINALLY, in whose home did Jesus stay while at Capernaum– a house in which he may have felt relaxed enough to visit on a casual basis and one which his flock of followers might even think of as his.
    I’m guessing it was one of his siblings. He had a very close, one-on-one relationship with them. Probably he dealt with their sarcasm and verbal jabs more than we know (James is a separate story) but his telling his sibling-brothers to go ahead for the Feast of Booths Temple pilgrimage without him (John 7:2–7:8), saying in one of the Gospels’ most revealing remarks, “the whole world hates me..” describes his staying behind in one of their domiciles, very likely in Capernaum.

    No question Capernaum played an important role in Jesus’ final year. The chances of a house having his name on the mailbox is return-to-sender.

    Abram Epstein, a New Yorker, has served as Director of Education for several synagogues and actively participated in the Manhattan Educators’ Council. His graduate studies at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center focused on ancient Near Eastern religion and Biblical Judaism. He is a recipient of the university’s prestigious Founders’ Award for Academic Accomplishment and has a screen credit as Historical Consultant for “The Seventh Sign” starring Demi Moore. His books include, “The Historical Haggadah,” “The Matthias Scroll,” “A Documented Biography of Jesus Before Christianity” and most recently, “The Matthias Scroll–Select Second Edition.”

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