Summary: An investigation into the significance and evidence for Simon Peter’s home in Capernaum shows that the case for the traditional location is stronger than many are aware of.
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. – Acts 4:13 (ESV)
Peter’s House, Place of “Extraordinary Things”
When Jesus told his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you (John 14:2),” they recognized the language of marriage and family customs. In New Testament times the groom would prepare a new home for himself and his bride-to-be; it might be attached to the home of his parents. Then he would come to take his new bride there, and the wedding procession of villagers would follow, all of them joining in a multiple-day wedding feast in that new home. Jesus meant that he would come back to take his church, known later as “the Bride of Christ”, to be with him in that home he would prepare.
Peter and his brother Andrew, some of Jesus’ first disciples, were originally from the Galilean town, Bethsaida. Peter had found his way to near-by Capernaum, perhaps building a new home there for himself and his wife, adding on to an existing row of houses. Andrew must have followed. From his Capernaum home Peter directed his fishing boats as they set out daily on the Sea of Galilee.
Then came the day Jesus called Peter and Andrew to be his disciples. They made Jesus and his Kingdom proclamation their new priority, walking away from their current responsibilities for a far greater one. Jesus had grown up in Nazareth, also close by. But Jesus was not welcome there, because he had spoken in their synagogue about himself as the fulfillment of prophecy. They tried literally to throw him out (Luke 4:28-30). “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he would say. (Matthew 8:20)
When he was not preaching in all the towns and villages throughout the land, Jesus returned to Capernaum. The Gospels tell us that during those times Jesus stayed at the home of Simon Peter. Kfar Nahum, Capernaum, this small town of about 1500 people on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, became the base of operation for Jesus of Nazareth.
Discovering the Home of Simon Peter
In the 19th Century the abandoned site of Capernaum was recognized and recovered from Bedouins. Excavations began in 1905. Franciscans Vendelin von Benden and Gaudenzio Orfali continued the work. These excavations uncovered the ruins of a synagogue and an octagonal church that had been destroyed by the early Seventh Century.
In 1968, Virgilio Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda resumed the work. They established that the central room of the octagonal church was from a First-Century B.C. Capernaum house which had become a place of worship for Christians from very early on. They also established that the white limestone synagogue was from the Fourth Century, probably built on the black basalt foundation of the synagogue from Jesus’ time.
The central room of the octagonal church had been plastered, re-plastered, and painted with intricate designs—remarkable and unique in Capernaum. Found on pieces of plaster were prayer expressions like “Lord Jesus, help your servant” and, ”Christ have mercy”. There is debate about whether Peter’s name actually appears in the graffiti. (See stunning biblical mosaics discovered near Capernaum.)
It became clear that the use of the central room had changed with the passing years. The lowest level still held evidence from daily home life—lamps, coins, cooking pots. Even fish hooks were found in that lowest level. But above that level the signs of daily life were missing, just evidence of large pottery for accommodating larger numbers.
Three “churches” were discoverable from the archaeological remains of the octagon. The Fifth Century church (the third and last) had been built upon a Fourth Century expansion (second church) of the (original) room used in the First Century for worship. All this time, the central room maintained its place of honor. Through the centuries Christians had identified this room as the original dwelling of Peter, and his guest, Jesus of Nazareth.
For years the octagonal wall footings were protected by only a large sheet of corrugated metal laid over the octagon. But a modern church would be built above the remains of Peter’s house. It’s there today. It is suspended on piers, and designed with a glass floor, so worshipers and modern-day-pilgrims can look down upon the place where Jesus and Peter stayed. In fact, it’s possible to study the walls better from within the upper church than if the church had not been built. (See the discovery of a shrine to Jesus’ apostles, including Peter, found at a site believed to be biblical Bethsaida.)
A View of Jesus’ Ministry in Capernaum Back Through Time
Diagrams at the site show which walls were added to the originals, and when. The reflective Bible student looking down will remember that Jesus came to Capernaum with his disciples and first cured a demon-possessed man in the synagogue.
And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. – Mark 1:29-34 (ESV)
Looking down through the glass floor of the church it becomes possible to envision just where the crowds gathered, trying to get to Jesus so he would cure their sick. The location of the doorway where they assembled can be discerned among the stones.
The size and tenacity of such crowds is underscored by another Gospel account:
And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” – Luke 5:18-20 (ESV)
The view down through the glass floor is from the same place those friends of the paralytic were when they removed the tiles, the packed earth, and the branches that comprised the roof. Nothing was beyond repair, but imagine the dust and dirt falling on all the people gathered within, Jesus included. He doesn’t seem to have been bothered at all, but rather encouraged by the degree of faith that was behind this bold act.
And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.” – Luke 5:26 (ESV)
The residents of Capernaum eventually proved unbelieving, despite what they had received at the hand of Jesus. He would say: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” (Matthew 11:23)
Can it Really Be Peter’s House?
It will not be possible to prove absolutely that the inner room of the octagonal church in Capernaum was once the home of Peter. But let’s put this in perspective. (1) Capernaum was not destroyed by the Romans in the Jewish revolt. Buildings stayed intact, and people kept living in their homes. Nothing interrupted their remembering. (2) Evidence from archaeology says the worship use of this building began as early as the second half of the First Century. That is a short time for the true location of Peter’s house to have been lost. (3) Why would early believers have chosen this place and treated it as they did if it weren’t associated with Peter? (4) Jesus was already famous during the time of his public work; not just later. There was no need to reconstruct a lost past.
And last, an analogy. In Galena, Illinois, stands a small house said by all to be the pre-Civil War home of Ulysses S. Grant. He had failed at many things, and was not well-known when he left for the war.
Afterward, Grant was one of the most famous men in the nation. What is the likelihood that people have been wrong about where his pre-Civil War house really was? Virtually none. It stands to reason the people of Capernaum were right about which house was Peter’s as well. Keep thinking!
TOP PHOTO: A view of one excavated part of Capernaum, a neighborhood from the biblical town. Stones here are black basalt. (credit: Ethan Baltz)