We are told in the Gospels that Jesus preached in the synagogue of Capernaum. When you visited Capernaum several years ago, the impressive remains of a synagogue was the first thing that met your eyes, today the modern, Catholic church of St. Peter outshadows the ancient ruins of the synagogue.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and many consider the new church as being very beautiful.It emphasizes the house of St. Peter, where Jesus healed Peter's mother in law.The flying saucer effect is created by means of "miraculous" engineering techniques that make it appear to hover over the ancient house.As if it came from heaven.
When you stand in the church, on its glass floor, it's almost embarassing the way you look down into the house, giving you an intimate view of the exact place of the miracle. You need to remind yourself that the room you're looking into was inhabited 2000 years ago and it's not rude to peek inside it today.
In the 6th Century, the time of the emperor Justinian a church was also built over Peter's house, then also dominating the synagogue, which was built in the 5th Century.
It's not known whether the Jews of Capernaum left the city or adopted Christianity because of the religious persecution at the time of Justinian.Perhaps the Jews and the Christians left or converted to Islam when the Moslems conquered the town in the 7th Century.
One thing we do know is that the town was destroyed by the earthquake of the 8th Century and left deserted untill the end of the 19th Century, when the Ottoman Turks returned the site to the Christians and appointed the Catholic church as the official guardians of the town.
In 1931 the Franciscans carried out extensive archaeological excavations and revealed the interesting remains we see there today.
The synagogue of the time of Jesus.
With all the changes in the fortunes of Capernaum it's difficult to find the original synagogue of the time of Jesus, presumably it's under the 5th Century structure. What makes it even more difficult is that synagogues of that time weren't easily distinguishable from other structures, like homes. In those days they were only used as meeting rooms mainly for Bible study. The Gospels describe the synagogue as a place where Jesus reads the Scriptures before the congregation, both in Nazareth and Capernaum, the two places where synagogues are mentioned in connection with Jesus. Elaborate ceremonies like sacrifices, bringing of the first fruits, parading with the Palm branch on the festival of Tabernacles, public worship, national gatherings etc. don't take place in synagogues, these take place in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Synagogues of the time of Jesus are local meeting places, whereas the Temple is the place for national gatherings. Synagogues represent local or communal unity, but the Temple represents national unity.
The great tragedy of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans is that this symbol of national existence was removed, the Jewish people no longer existed as a nation. The Romans understood this very well, that's why they went to such trouble to destroy the Temple. They wanted to destroy the existence of the Jewish people as a nation, and by destroying the Temple one can say that they succeeded.
The Jewish People, however continued to exist as a collection of communities, scattered throughout the world. The Rabbis transferred the emphasis of Jewish life from the Nation to the congregation. They never gave up the hope that the Jewish people would once again exist as a nation, that hope became the loadstone of survival, Jews and Jewish congregations survived so that one day in the future G-d would bring our nation into existence again.
On the one hand the synagogue became the centre of the congregation, on the other it was through the structure and decorations of the synagogue and the form and content of worship services and prayers held there, that the Jew kept the hope of Nationhood alive, expressed in the hope of the rebuilding of the Temple.
The synagogue can never take the place of the Temple. It would mean that the Jewish people has given up the hope of existence as a nation and replaced it with the acceptance of existing only in the form of a community.
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Leon Gork (Tour Guide)
P.O.Box 4354 Jerusalem 91042
Tel/Fax 02 5810732....Cel.053 801867/823905
Treasurer:Jerusalem for Bicycles
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