The Synagogue at Capernaum
By Alex Stein
The synagogue at Capernaum is a mystery. Its Franciscan excavators date it to the fourth century, based on coins found underneath the flooring; (it was considered to be good luck to leave coins in the foundations of a building). Israeli scholars have often preferred a third century date, claiming that the coins were left there during later renovations. In part this is because the white limestone building resembles many other structures in the area that were built in the second or third centuries. The limestone, which marks a stark contrast to the dark basalt which dominates the rest of the site, must have been imported at some expense from further afield.
It is also because our understanding of how the synagogue emerged is very murky. We know that the synagogue was a replacement for the ruined temple – instead of sacrificing three times a day Jews now began praying three times a day. But it took time for the institution to develop, and because it was the presence of the Torah scrolls which defined the building’s holiness, and not any specific architectural feature, it is not always easy to determine what was and wasn’t a synagogue.
Over a hundred ancient synagogues have been found in Israel, and scholars have come up with different theories to explain their evolution, both chronological and regional, without reaching consensus. By the fifth century we start to see glorious synagogue mosaics in places like Tzippori and Beit Alpha, complete with Temple imagery, biblical scenes, and donor inscriptions (the better-placed inscriptions in Greek, the peripheral ones in Aramaic).
Many people are surprised when they see mosaics in a synagogue, as they think they were unique to pagan temples or churches, and they are even more surprised when they see human figures or clear depictions of the sun god Helios. Some argue that this indicates the existence of a non-rabbinic Judaism; a more likely explanation is that there was nothing wrong with mosaics because a mosaic is not the same as an idol and so doesn’t contravene the prohibition on graven images.
Another issue is whether or not there was a women’s gallery. Capernaum, for example, had an upper floor, but we have no way of knowing if women sat there or if it was used for some other purpose.
And of course there were synagogues which predated the destruction of the Temple, in places like Gamla and Masada, which were used for study and reading the Torah and communal gathering, but not for communal worship, which would only develop after the destruction of the Temple.
Capernaum is famous because it was Jesus’s base in the Galilee during his ministry, and some argue that the black basalt remains underneath the fourth century synagogue are the remains of the first century synagogue – the synagogue of Jesus. Some have taken this argument a step further and claimed that this is why the Byzantine authorities allowed Jews to build such a grandiose building.
Many questions, and many answers. That’s what’s so exciting about Capernaum, and other ancient synagogues in Israel, which are crucial stops on the way to the synagogues we know today, even if we are yet to fully understand how.