From Bible Encyclopedia
A Galilean city frequently mentioned in the history of our Lord. It is not mentioned in the Old Testament. After our Lord's expulsion from Nazareth (Matthew 4:13-16; Luke 4:16-31), Capernaum became his “own city.” It was the scene of many acts and incidents of his life (Matthew 8:5, Matthew 8:14, Matthew 8:15; Matthew 9:2-6, Matthew 9:10-17; Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 1:32-34, etc.). The impenitence and unbelief of its inhabitants after the many evidences our Lord gave among them of the truth of his mission, brought down upon them a heavy denunciation of judgement (Matthew 11:23).
It stood on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The “land of Gennesaret,” near, if not in, which it was situated, was one of the most prosperous and crowded districts of Palestine. This city lay on the great highway from Damascus to Acco and Tyre. It has been identified with Tell Hum, about two miles south-west of where the Jordan flows into the lake. Here are extensive ruins of walls and foundations, and also the remains of what must have been a beautiful synagogue, which it is conjectured may have been the one built by the centurion (Luke 7:5), in which our Lord frequently taught (John 6:59; Mark 1:21; Luke 4:33). Others have conjectured that the ruins of the city are to be found at Khan Minyeh, some three miles further to the south on the shore of the lake. “If Tell Hum be Capernaum, the remains spoken of are without doubt the ruins of the synagogue built by the Roman centurion, and one of the most sacred places on earth. It was in this building that our Lord gave the well-known discourse in John 6; and it was not without a certain strange feeling that on turning over a large block we found the pot of manna engraved on its face, and remembered the words, 'I am that bread of life: your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.'” The Recovery of Jerusalem.
The woe spoken by the Master against this great city has been fulfilled to the uttermost (Matthew 11:23; Luke 10:15). So completely has it perished that the very site is a matter of dispute today. In Scripture Capernaum is not mentioned outside the Gospels. When Jesus finally departed from Nazareth, He dwelt in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13) and made it the main center of His activity during a large part of His public ministry. Near by He called the fishermen to follow Him (Mark 1:16), and the publican from the receipt of custom (Matthew 9:9, etc.). It was the scene of many “mighty works” (Matthew 11:23; Mark 1:34). Here Jesus healed the centurion's son (Matthew 8:5, etc.), the nobleman's son (John 4:46), Simon Peter's mother-in-law (Mark 1:31, etc.), and the paralytic (Matthew 9:1, etc.); cast out the unclean spirit (Mark 1:23, etc.); and here also, probably, He raised Jairus' daughter to life (Mark 5:22, etc.). In Capernaum the little child was used to teach the disciples humility, while in the synagogue Jesus delivered His ever-memorable discourse on the bread of life (John 6).
From the notices in the Gospels we gather that Capernaum was a city of considerable importance. Some think that the words “shalt thou be exalted,” etc. (Matthew 11:23; Luke 10:15), mean that it stood on an elevated site. Perhaps more naturally they refer to the excessive pride of the inhabitants in their city. It was a customs station, and the residence of a high officer of the king (Matthew 9:9; John 4:46, etc.). It was occupied by a detachment of Roman soldiers, whose commander thought the good will of the people worth securing at the expense of building for them a synagogue (Matthew 8:5; Luke 7:5). It stood by the sea (Matthew 4:13) and from John 6:17 (compare Matthew 14:34; Mark 6:53), we see that it was either in or near the plain of Gennesaret.
Josephus twice mentions Capernaum. It played no great part in the history of his time, and seems to have declined in importance, as he refers to it as a “village.” In battle in el-Baṭeiḥah his horse fell into a quagmire, and he suffered injury which disabled him for further fighting. His soldiers carried him to the village of Capernaum (this reference is however doubtful; the name as it stands is Kepharnomon which Niese corrects to Kepharnokon), whence he was removed to Tarichea (Vita, 72). Again he eulogizes the plain of Gennesaret for its wonderful fruits, and says it is watered by a most fertile fountain which the people of the country call Capharnaum. In the water of this fountain the Coracinus is found (BJ, III, x, 8). Josephus therefore corroborates the Biblical data, and adds the information as to the fountain and the Coracinus fish. The fish however is found in other fountains near the lake, and is therefore no help toward identification.
The two chief rivals for the honor of representing Capernaum are Tell Ḥūm, a ruined site on the lake shore, nearly 2 1/2 miles West of the mouth of the Jordan; and Khān Minyeh fully 2 1/2 miles farther west, at the Northeast corner of the plain of Gennesaret. Dr. Tristram suggested ‛Ain El-Madowwerah, a large spring enclosed by a circular wall, on the western edge of the plain. But it stands about a mile from the sea; there are no ruins to indicate that any considerable village ever stood here; and the water is available for only a small part of the plain.
In favor of Tell Ḥūm is Eusebius, Onomasticon, Which places Chorazin 2 miles from Capernaum. If Kerāzeh is Chorazin, this suits Tell Ḥūm better than Khān Minyeh. To this may be added the testimony of Theodosius (circa 530), Antoninus Martyr (600), and John of Würtzburg (1100). Jewish tradition speaks of Tankhum, in which are the graves of Nahum and Rabbi Tankhum. Identifying Kefr Nahum with Tankhum, and then deriving Tell Ḥūm from Tankhum, some have sought to vindicate the claims of this site. But every link in that chain of argument is extremely precarious. A highway ran through Tell Ḥūm along which passed the caravans to and from the East; but the place was not in touch with the great north-and-south traffic.
There is also no fountain near Tell Ḥūm answering the description of Josephus. Of recent advocates of Tell Ḥūm, it is sufficient to name Schürer (HJP, IV, 71) and Buhl (GAP, 224 f). In this connection it may be interesting to note that the present writer, when visiting the place recently (1911), drew his boatman's attention to a bit of ruined wall rising above the greenery West of the lagoon, and asked what it was called. Kanīset el Kufry, was the reply, which may be freely rendered, “church of the infidels.” This is just the Arabic equivalent of the Jewish “church of the mīnīm.”
For Khān Minyeh it may be noted that Gennesaret corresponds to el-Ghuweir, the plain lying on the Northwest shore, and that Khān Minyeh stands at the Northeast extremity of the plain; Thus answering, as Tell Ḥūm cannot do, the description of the Gospels. The copious fountains at eṭ-Ṭābigha, half a mile to the East, supplied water which was conducted round the face of the rock toward Khān Minyeh at a height which made it possible to water a large portion of the plain. If it be said that Josephus must have been carried to Tell Ḥūm as being nearer the scene of his accident - see however, the comment above - it does not at all follow that he was taken to the nearest place. Arculf (1670) described Capernaum as on a “narrow piece of ground between the mountain and the lake.” This does not apply to Tell Ḥūm; but it accurately fits Khān Minyeh. Isaac Chelo (1334) says that Capernaum, then in ruins, had been inhabited by Mīnīm, that is, Jewish converts to Christianity. The name Minyeh may have been derived from them. Quaresimus (1620-26) notes a Khān called Menieh which stood by the site of Capernaum. Between the ruined Khān and the sea there are traces of ancient buildings. Here the road from the East united with that which came down from the North by way of Khān Jubb Yusif, so that this must have been an important center, alike from the military point of view, and for customs. This is the site favored by, among others, G. A. Smith (HGHL, 456 f; EB, under the word) and Conder. Sanday argued in favor of Khān Minyeh in his book, The Sacred Sites of the Gospel, but later, owing to what the present writer thinks a mistaken view of the relation between Tell Ḥūm and the fountain at eṭ-Ṭābigha, changed his mind (Expository Times, XV, 100ff). There is no instance of a fountain 2 miles distant being called by the name of a town. Tell Ḥūm, standing on the sea shore, was independent of this fountain, whose strength also was spent in a westward direction, away from Tell Ḥūm.
The balance of evidence was therefore heavily in favor of Khān Minyeh until Professor R. A. S. Macalister published the results of his researches. He seems to be wrong in rejecting the name Tell Ḥūm in favor of Talḥum; and he falls into a curious error regarding the use of the word tell. No one who speaks Arabic, he says, “would ever think of applying the word Tell, 'mound,' to this flat widespread ruin.” In Egyptian Arabic, however, tell means “ruin”; and Asad Mansur, a man of education whose native language is Arabic, writes: “I do not understand what the objectors mean by the word 'tell.' In Arabic 'tell' is used for any heap of ruins, or mound. So that the ruins of Tell Ḥūm themselves are today a 'tell'” (Expos, April, 1907, 370). Professor Macalister is on surer ground in discussing the pottery found on the rival sites. At Khān Minyeh he found nothing older than the Arabian period, while at Tell Ḥūm pottery of the Roman period abounds - “exactly the period of the glory of Capernaum” (PEFS, April and July, 1907). If this be confirmed by further examination, it disposes of the claim of Khān Minyeh. Important Roman remains have now been found between the ruined Khān and the sea. It is no longer open to doubt that this was the site of a great Roman city. The Roman period however covers a long space. The buildings at Tell Ḥūm are by many assigned to the days of the Antonines. Is it possible from the remains of pottery to make certain that the city flourished in the time of the Herods? If the city at Tell Ḥūm had not yet arisen in the days of Christ, those who dispute its claim to be Capernaum are under no obligation to show which city the ruins represent. They are not the only extensive ruins in the country of whose history we are in ignorance.