Article Title: Synagogue at Capernaum

WE ARE HIS WORKMANSHIP | EPH 2:10

As Professor Darrell Bock says in this issue, “good works are part of what God is hoping for from us as He reshapes us. The fruit of the Spirit is nothing but the good works of a solid character.” As the poiema (“handiwork, workmanship”) of God, all believers evidence the process of His working in our lives in many ways, including in solid, tangible works. In Luke 7:1–10, a centurion requests healing from Jesus—not for himself, but for his servant. Jewish representatives from Capernaum describe the centurion’s respect for their community and his regard for his servant: “This man deserves to have you do this.” The Jewish elders also tell Jesus that the centurion “has built our synagogue.” The centurion modeled countercultural living. He turned away from Rome’s scorn for Jews; and his compassion for his servant went beyond the expected attitude toward servants as mere property. His character was manifested in a costly way—a building, something that could not be hidden or denied. This outworking of poiema catches Jesus’s attention, who heals the servant and praises the centurion’s faith. 

Physical evidence of the centurion’s contribution continues to speak today. Visitors to Capernaum can see glimpses of the seaside fishing village as it was at the time Jesus lived and taught there—but they must dig beneath the surface. Under the ruins of a Byzantine church lies a house that may have been Simon Peter’s residence. Near that house are the remains of a synagogue. Several times in the Gospels, we see Jesus in a Capernaum synagogue (Mk 1:21–28; Lk 4:31–37; Jn 6). Because of its probable connection to Jesus, the synagogue ruins in Capernaum hold great interest. It is the most significant of only a few remaining examples of first-century synagogues; others are identified at Masada, Herodium, Gamla, and Magdala. The history of its discovery, the road to finding and identifying Capernaum’s first-century synagogue, is a fascinating story.¹

From several architectural fragments at the site, Edward Robinson first identified the synagogue in 1830. The site continued to attract interest—and looters. So, in 1894, the Franciscan Order purchased the site to prevent further damage. From 1921 to 1926, a Franciscan friar directed the excavation of the synagogue, dating it to the early first century. Scholars later amended that estimate, suggesting that what’s visible on the surface must have been built later, sometime during the second through the fifth centuries. 

In 1968, the Franciscans excavated again. Scholars agreed that the synagogue was not the building where Jesus preached. The surface-level building was constructed of white limestone blocks—a spectacular contrast to the gray or black basalt used in most of the town’s structures. 

But the 1968 excavation revealed clues about something just below the surface of the limestone building: black basalt walls. These walls had been assumed to be the foundation of the synagogue, but some details didn’t fit. Along with the different material, the basalt walls puzzled researchers because of their occasional misalignment with the upper structure. If the walls were a foundation, then why didn’t they perfectly match the limestone building above? 

Further work in 1981 brought answers. Several feet below the floor of the later synagogue, the team found a black basalt cobbled pavement—clearly the floor of the earlier building. The thickness of the basalt walls indicate that the earlier structure was a public building. The basalt walls don’t precisely line up with the synagogue structure above because they weren’t that building’s foundation, as previously assumed: they were a first-century synagogue. 

A century after the first archaeological investigation, we now see evidence of two synagogues, and we can understand the earlier building not only as the site of several key moments in the Gospels but also as the ongoing workmanship—the poiema—of a faithful centurion. 


¹ Many of the details in this overview are indebted to the classic report by James F. Strange and Hershel Shanks, “Synagogue Where Jesus Preached Found at Capernaum,” Biblical Archaeology Review, December 1983. 

About the Contributors

Neil R. Coulter

Neil R. Coulter

Neil R. Coulter served as an ethnomusicology and arts consultant for twelve years in Papua New Guinea, with Wycliffe Bible Translators. In that role, he worked with local communities to compose songs in indigenous languages and musical styles. His research interests range from endangered musical traditions to U2 to film scores. He teaches ethnography, theory, and communication at the Center for Excellence in World Arts at Dallas International University, along with teaching at Dallas Theological Seminary and editing the DTS Magazine. In his spare time, Neil loves road trips with his family, reading books, watching classic movies, and playing saxophone.