By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
This is a continuation of reflections on the March pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Father Ernie Davis, pastoral administrator of St. Therese Little Flower Parish.
The town was called Kefer Naum. (Kefer is Hebrew for town, thus, the town of Naum or Nahum.) Its name has been corrupted over the centuries —we know it as Capernaum. On a sunny, warm morning, the Sea of Galilee sparkled merrily behind the ruins of the town — you could almost hear it laughing.
The town’s site is about 2 ½ miles from the where the Jordan River enters the Sea of Galilee. Jesus liked the town; he may have owned property there (Matthew’s gospel mentions that “Jesus went to his house”). Whether he called it Kefer Naum or Capernaum, Jesus called it home for about 20 months. Christian tradition holds that several of the Apostles, particularly Peter, Andrew and Matthew, had homes there, and that it was the place of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. The Capernaum area was where Jesus began his public ministry.
The town, founded about 200 years before Jesus’ birth, was considered so unimportant that it’s not even mentioned in the Old Testament. Capernaum’s importance grew rapidly in the first centuries A.D., becoming a commercial hub on the Sea of Galilee and a customs station for the merchants there.
Capernaum was abandoned around 1200 A.D., and mostly forgotten until the mid-19th century. In 1837, Edward Robinson, an American biblical scholar and explorer traveled to the Holy Land. While there, he discovered the ruins of ancient Capernaum. British army captain Charles William Wilson identified the remains of a 5th century synagogue in 1862. Then, in 1894, Neapolitan Franciscan Fra Giuseppe Baldi, the official Custodian of the Holy Land, purchased the land. It took eight years of negotiations, obstacles and headaches, according to Custodia Terra Sanctae, the website of the Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Land, but in Sept. 1894, what was called the “Capernaum affair,” finally ended. All title to the land was given to the Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land in perpetuity.
Fra Baldi was able to recover many artifacts, including stones and building materials looted by area Bedouin tribes.
By the early 20th century, the Franciscans had begun full-scale excavations of Capernaum, and to prevent additional looting, erected a fence, now a gated stone wall. Between 1905 and 1926, the 5th century “white synagogue” and an octagonal church dating from the Byzantine era were uncovered. Under the synagogue’s white limestone foundation floor can be seen, oh so clearly, foundations of the basalt synagogue built in the early 1st century by the centurion in gratitude to Jesus for the healing of his servant. It was in that synagogue, after the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, that Jesus taught the people about the bread of life. John 6 says, “‘Let me tell you again and let there be no misunderstanding … Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life unending and I will raise them up on the last day. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them.’ He spoke these words in the synagogue at Capernaum.”
Around 1950, an Australian community of Jews relocated to Israel and purchased land for farming. They brought with them eucalyptus trees to remind them of home, but discovered the land was too swampy for the trees. The community donated them to the Franciscans at Capernaum, and the trees throve.
The communal-styled house where Peter lived with his mother-in-law is often mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels (those of Mark, Matthew and Luke), as a base from which Jesus would go out to teach, heal and perform other miracles. The foundations were discovered, in 1968, under the foundations of the Byzantine octagonal church some 32 yards south of the synagogue.
That house, where Jesus lived with Peter and his mother-in-law, was most likely built of local basalt rock by Greeks who had inhabited the town at least 50 years before Jesus was born. Near the end of the 1st century A.D., it became a “domus ecclesia,” a house for religious gatherings.
About 300 years later, it was enlarged and set apart from the town by a wall enclosing the “domus ecclesia.” Around 450 A.D., an octagonal church was built on the foundations of the house and remained in use until the 7th century.
According to Christian tradition, three churches were built in the region during the 4th century, the Church of the Multiplication, the Church of the Beatitudes, and the Church of the Transfiguration. During excavation of the site believed to be near where the miracle of the loaves and the fishes occurred, a rock was discovered with the symbol of a basket carved into it. The basket contained four loaves and two fish; the gospel story says the fifth loaf was in Jesus’ hands. Stones found carved with graffiti in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, contain the names of Jesus, Peter and other early Christian symbols.
The three churches have been rebuilt. The new Church of the Multiplication is in Tabgha, an area on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Tabgha is the traditional site of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and the fourth resurrection appearance of Jesus. The “new” Church of the Multiplication, built in 1982 of local stone by the Benedictines, is to the exact specifications of the original church, built about 450 A.D. Two stones, now under the altar, pinpoint where Jesus was standing when he performed the miracle, according to local Christian tradition.
Tabgha is also the site of the Church of the Primacy of Peter.
Seeing, walking over and touching ancient foundations, stones, water and trees that were mentioned in the gospels was truly mind-boggling. Pilgrim Maggi Choplin later voiced what we all probably felt. “I remember thinking how grateful I was that I had this wonderful opportunity to ‘see and feel’ the gospel,” she said, “and that I wish every Christian had this opportunity. The gospel readings now have such greater depth for me since I had the opportunity to see and feel the places where the events … occurred.”
Capernaum is where Jesus called to Peter, Andrew, and others, to join him and be fishers of men; where he cured the paralytic in the synagogue on the Sabbath and raised the ire of the high priests; where he cured Peter’s mother-law, the man with the withered hand and the paralytic lowered through the roof of the house where Jesus was. It was also where he was accused of being in league with the devil and of being insane.
The modern Church of St. Peter in Capernaum, over the foundations of Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, seen under a glass floor, was built by in 1990. Mass was in progress and most of us were unable to see inside, but its circular shape and window walls would offer stunning views of the town ruins, the Sea of Galilee. The excavations are ongoing.
Back on the tour bus, we were driven around the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the Ein Gev kibbutz, a thriving complex of homes, businesses, a synagogue and school. Overlooking the water, the kibbutzim have built a gift shop and restaurant. We trooped in and were served tea, water and salads of greens, peppers and olives, with baskets of warm pita bread and plenty of hummus. Servers came by to ask did we want our fish (St. Peter’s fish, or tilapia) with or without the heads. I requested mine without the head as I didn’t like the idea of taking a bite while the fish was staring at me.
We then boarded one of the boats that ply the Sea of Galilee. In 1986, Billy had told us, two brothers found the remains of a 1st century boat exposed in a muddy field. It took 14 years to restore and conserve the boat, which was approximately 8 meters (8.75 yards) long and 2 ½ meters (2.75 yards) wide. Through research, the brothers determined the boat was either used for fishing or transportation. After restoration was completed, Billy said, the conservation was overseen by the conservator of the Steamboat Arabia in Kansas City. I thought, “What a connection if it’s true!” The boat is displayed in a museum in Jerusalem.
An entrepreneur saw the value of having similar boats available for rides on the Sea of Galilee, and had four built. Named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the boats offer visitors an opportunity to see the kind of boat and fishing equipment Jesus, Peter and the other Apostles would have traveled in and fished from.
A young woman in the crew raised the American flag, which pulled us, and a group from Minnesota also on pilgrimage, to our feet. Singing The Star Spangled Banner at the top of our lungs, we felt the boat lurch slightly as the engines started. After the national anthem, we settled into a round of hymns, spirituals and Christian rock. At one point, not knowing all the words to a particular song, I glanced out the window and down at the water. A school of fish kept pace with the boat, some of them jumping after a winged lunch, but most simply swimming, perhaps listening to the songs we were singing.
The laughing, sparkling water, the fish keeping us company and the music we were making are memories that will long make us smile. Joan Johnson remembered, “In the boat on the Sea of Galilee with our leader(s) depicting Jesus and we, the Disciples, rising in unison as the American flag was unfurled and singing our National Anthem. The friendliness of [everyone] on the boat from many different states was wonderful!”
Where the Jordan River flows through the Sea of Galilee, the water is clear and sparkling. The traditional site of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist near the Israeli-Jordan border is apparently a different story. Deep in Palestinian territory, it is controlled by the Jordanian military. A visitor must contact and make application to the Jordanian and the Israeli military authorities to gain access to the site. Once approved, soldiers will open the gates, remaining with visitors until they leave. However, Billy said, the site has become polluted over the centuries and is unpleasant to visit. “You would not want to enter the water to renew your baptismal promises!” he said.
The Jordan River is considered one of the most sacred rivers in the world. The headwaters of the river are approximately 657 feet above sea level on the slopes of Israel’s Mount Hermon. The historical source of the river was in a huge cave at the foot of the mountain. The name Jordan comes from the Hebrew word yardane, meaning descender, and the river definitely descends from the heights of Mt. Hermon, ending at the world’s lowest spot, the Dead Sea, 1378 feet below sea level. Along the way, the river flows through the Sea of Galilee from north to south. It winds for 143 miles to the Dead Sea, flowing sluggishly through huge pipes and culverts, often choked with weeds.
For 19 centuries after the Baptism of Jesus, the water remained clear and fast flowing, with broad fords where people could cross the river or enter it to be baptized. The river changed dramatically after 1932, when the Naharayim hydraulic plant was built to produce electricity using the water of the Jordan and its tributary, the Yarmukh River. The Degania dam, located next to the Yardenit Baptismal Site, was constructed at the same time to hold back the flow of water.
Then, in the 1960s the Jordan was diverted to flow into Israel’s densely populated central region. The Jordanians were then in the process of damming the Yarmukh and diverting its water to the Ghour Channel, on the Jordanian side of the Jordan Rift Valley.
Yardenit, the new baptismal site, is located near where the Jordan flows through the Sea of Galilee — the water is still crystalline. There, you feel as if you were on the shore watching John baptize the One whose sandal he felt unfit to tie, if you ignore the gift shops and parking lots and look toward the river and its stone course. Mark 1: 9-11, shown on a plaque at the site, states, “… in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
The land and the river through the site are owned by the Kibbutz Kinneret, which practices good stewardship of both. Stone quays and steps have been built for pilgrims, and those wishing to be baptized, to walk to the water, avoiding the swift undertow. The management of Yardenit has taken the extra precaution of arranging that the Israeli Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Water check the water quality frequently “to ensure that all pilgrims experience a safe sense of purification and spiritual rebirth” at Yardenit, the site’s web page states.
Fishing birds alight on the river or at its very edge, searching for a meal. Otters, sleek heads bobbing above the water, swim by on some otterish errand. Men, women and children in white robes walk into the water, hands crossed over hearts or folded in prayer, to be baptized or renew baptismal promises.
After renewing our promises, armed with empty plastic water or soda bottles, we carefully descended the wet, slightly slick steps to fill them from the waters of the Jordan. Clutching dripping bottles, we strolled back to the tour bus. Once we were seated, the bus lurched into action and again we were on our way. We would spend that night and several more in one of the holiest cities in the world, Jerusalem.