When some atheists go beyond simple rejection of God and the deity of Christ to declare that Jesus never existed, they depart decisively from mainstream scholarship. Views of Jesus vary enormously among specialists (and others) on Christian origins, but few (if any) serious scholars of the subject—whether they’re believers or not—doubt his historical reality. Such denial is largely the province of cranks.
One place where the reality of the historical Jesus seems particularly accessible lies on the northwestern shore of Lake Kinneret, the biblical sea of Galilee. The ruins of ancient Capernaum (Hebrew “Kfar Nahum,” “the village of Nahum”) were identified by the American explorer Edward Robinson in 1838.
Capernaum was probably settled as a small lakeside fishing village during the second century before Christ. By the first century A.D. — the time of Jesus and Peter — Capernaum belonged to the Jewish tetrarchy of Herod Antipas, which lay mostly to the west. But it was very near the border of the predominantly Gentile dominions of Herod Philip, to the east. As a border town, and consistent with the gospel accounts, its population included tax collectors (or toll gatherers) and military officers (a centurion, for instance), and very likely also prostitutes and beggars.
Capernaum is best known, of course, for its close association with the origins of Christianity. According to the gospel of Luke, Capernaum was home to Andrew, Peter, James and John, as well as the tax collector Matthew, all of whom became apostles. Moreover, Matthew 4:13 describes it as the home base of Jesus, making it effectively the headquarters of the Christian movement during his mortal lifetime. He healed a man with an unclean spirit there, and Matthew 8:5-13 names Capernaum as the place where a Roman centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant.
Mark (1:21-27), Luke (4:31-44), and John (6:24-59) report that Capernaum had a synagogue in which Jesus himself taught. Thus, there was considerable excitement when, in 1866, the British Captain Charles W. Wilson identified the remains of a synagogue at Capernaum that is among the oldest in the world. However, dating from the fourth or fifth century after Christ and constructed of beautifully carved white stone brought from distant quarries that contrasts sharply with the black basalt stone of the residential buildings around it, that structure cannot be the synagogue known to Jesus. Beneath it, though, lies a foundation of simpler, plainer, local basalt, which many believe to belong to a synagogue of the first century, probably the very building mentioned by Luke.
Even more interesting than the synagogue, perhaps, is an ancient structure located only 100 feet away, nearer to the lakeshore. A large, modern, UFO-like Franciscan church hovers over it. Discovered in 1968 amidst a maze of dwellings from various historical periods, this is believed by many authorities to be Peter’s house, where Jesus likely stayed while in town and where he cured Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever.
Is it authentic? In my opinion, it may well be.
The house was built in the Late Hellenistic period—that is, just prior to the birth of Jesus. Already in the third quarter of the first century A.D., only a few decades after the death of Jesus and perhaps only a decade or so after the martyrdom of Peter, it seems to have been transformed into a “domus-ecclesia,” a Christian “house-church.” Its rough walls and floor were plastered, something that—significantly perhaps—appears to have been done nowhere else in the village. And it seems no longer to have served as a residence. While many lamps from the period have been found at the site, and while daily utensils have been found nearby, and while other houses around it plainly continued to be occupied, essentially no domestic ceramics dating after the middle of the first century have been recovered from this particular spot.
In the fourth century, the house-church was enlarged and set off from the rest of Capernaum by an enclosure wall. Several graffiti still survive from it, containing expressions of Christian worship and referring to “the Lord,” “Christ,” “the Most High,” and “God.” Written in multiple languages, they indicate that the site was visited by foreign pilgrims as well as by local worshipers.
In fact, the late fourth-century pilgrim Egeria seems to have described this very building in a letter to other Christian women back in her native France: The house of “the prince of the apostles” in Capernaum, she wrote, had been changed into a church, but the original walls were still standing.
In the latter fifth century, a church consisting of two concentric octagons (and eventually featuring a pool for baptisms) was built over the structure. The octagonal form shows this to have been a martyrium, a Christian building-type common in late antiquity that was intended to commemorate sites of special significance (often, the tombs of saints). The double-octagonal shape permitted pilgrims to walk around the sacred space without actually stepping on it. (The early-seventh-century Muslim Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built by Christian workers because Islam hadn’t yet developed its own architectural tradition—it is the oldest intact Muslim building in the world—is of the same form.)
In Capernaum, Jesus seems tangibly attested as a real historical figure. Those who visit are almost certainly walking where Jesus walked.
But what about the apostle Peter, originally called Simon bar Jonah? He was born in the small village of Bethsaida, located roughly six miles from Capernaum at the north end of Lake Kinneret. His father’s name was Jonah, and his mother’s name is lost to history.
Bethsaida’s name (“House of Fishing”) suggests its main industry.— Meat was expensive in first-century Palestine, except during religious festivals, when so many sacrificial animals were slaughtered that prices were discounted. (Obviously, nobody had a refrigerator.) So fresh, smoked, and pickled fish was a vital protein source, and fishing was a solid, working-class trade.
Simon and his brother Andrew likewise took up fishing, presumably following their father. Eventually, they moved to Capernaum. How well did they do there, economically speaking? It isn’t clear.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, plainly owned boats and employed hired help. According to Mark 1:16-18 and Matthew 4:18-20, though, Jesus called Peter and his brother Andrew to the ministry while they were casting small fishing nets from the shore into the lake. And we know from Matthew 17:27 that Peter also fished with a line and a hook. Both of these were techniques employed by poorer fishermen with limited financial resources.
By contrast, Luke’s gospel represents Peter as a boat owner and as an actual business partner with James and John. But Luke tends to elevate Peter’s status, perhaps with an eye to impressing his Gentile audience with the man who, by then, had become prominent as the chief Christian apostle. Luke also seems to have been unfamiliar with Galilean conditions. For example, whereas the account of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12 accurately implies that the man’s friends dug through the dried mud, reeds, and straw of a typical Capernaum house roof in order to lower him down to Jesus, Luke 5:17-26 describes them as removing “ceramic tiles” — something that would have been familiar to Luke and his urban Gentile readers, but quite unlikely in Capernaum.
Thus far, the archaeological data indicate that the village’s residents followed Jewish kosher and purity rules. Excavations suggest that Capernaum was a lower- to middle-class town in which a population of conservative Jews depended on fishing, agriculture, and small commerce for their income and, on the whole, had little contact with Gentiles.
In this light, Peter’s reported uneasiness at Jesus’ indifference to ritual hand-washing (Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23) makes perfect sense, as does his exclamation, during his vision of the clean and unclean beasts, that he’d never eaten anything profane or unclean (Acts 10:9-16). So, too, does his preference for eating with Jewish Christians instead of Paul’s Gentile converts (Galatians 2:11-14).
The evidence from Capernaum strongly suggests that Peter needed to overcome his early upbringing before he was wholly able to embrace the idea of Gentile Christians, and writing his letters probably required help from better-educated assistants. An untraveled man with a rural accent (Matthew 26:73), regarded by the Jewish elite as unschooled and ordinary (Acts 2:7-8; 4:13), he and his fellow apostles were dazzled when they saw Jerusalem (Matthew 24:1).
So, the most important questions transcend archaeology: How did such a man as Simon bar Jonah, from such an undistinguished background, become so important, historically — to the point that he even attracted the murderous attention of the Emperor Nero? What took Peter to Rome? What transformed this commonplace fisherman into an apostolic martyr?
Had he simply followed the path of his ancestors and neighbors, Simon would have grown old fishing the waters of Lake Kinneret. He might perhaps have walked the 120 miles to Jerusalem once or twice in his life at festival season, taking roughly six days each way. He would have been completely forgotten at least 19 centuries ago.
That, however, isn’t what happened. Roughly four decades after the two sets of brothers—the sons of Zebedee and Peter and Andrew—established their lakeside fishing businesses, just after nightfall on 18 July in A.D. 64, a fire started in a crowded Roman neighborhood near where the Coliseum now stands. Rome was mostly built of wood then, and, fanned by a hot summer breeze, the flames spread rapidly. They burned for a full week, destroying 10 of the city’s 14 districts.
When news of the fire reached him, the Emperor Nero was trying to avoid the summer heat at his lavish villa in the seaside resort of Antium (modern Anzio), his birthplace. He hurried back to direct the firefighters and provided makeshift temporary housing for scores of thousands displaced by the disaster. But then his massive ego kicked in. As he saw it, the destruction of most of Rome had provided him an opportunity to redesign the city more to his liking, with more marble and with an enormous new imperial palace very near where the fire had started, surrounded by a huge park featuring a 120-foot-tall statue of himself.
Resentful rumors began to circulate that Nero had set the fire deliberately. So he settled on a strange new sect called “Christians” as his scapegoats. Nobody knows how many of them died—thrown to wild beasts at the circus, crucified, drenched with oil and set aflame to illuminate Nero’s parties—in the horrific persecution that followed, but early Christian sources testify without a dissenting voice that Simon Peter had come to Rome and that he was among Nero’s victims. And there is, in fact, a strong case to be made, based upon excavations beginning in 1940, that his tomb is located precisely where tradition has long claimed it to be—directly under the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City—and even, some say, that his very bones have been identified.
Simon Peter’s apparent martyrdom in Rome poses a powerful challenge, and not merely to historians.
“He was known throughout the world,” wrote the chronicler Eusebius two and a half centuries after Peter’s death, “even in the western countries, and his memory among the Romans is still more alive today than the memory of all those who lived before him.”
How did Simon Peter become famous? Why was he executed by imperial decree? For that matter, what brought this seemingly quite commonplace Galilean tradesman to Rome at all? A native speaker of Aramaic, he may have possessed some Greek. But Rome’s language was Latin, of which he probably knew relatively little if anything at all. What led this provincial rustic to the world’s largest city—in his day, a pagan metropolis of a million inhabitants—from the backwater Jewish village of Capernaum (estimated population between 1,000 and 1,500)? Ancient travel was uncomfortable and dangerous, hardly a vacation, and, being in his middle to late 60s, Simon was quite old for his day.
Plainly, something transformed the ordinary village fisherman Simon of Bethsaida into the courageous, far-traveling, world-historical apostle Peter. It can transform us, too, if we allow it.
This essay draws from Matthew Grey, “Simon Peter in Capernaum: An Archaeological Survey of the First-Century Village,” published in “The Ministry of Peter, the Chief Apostle” (Deseret Book: 2014). For very readable accounts of the excavations beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, see John Evangelist Walsh’s “The Bones of Saint Peter” (1982, 2011), or Thomas Craughwell’s shorter and less detailed “St. Peter’s Bones” (2013).
Jo Ann OkelberryMay 4, 2022
This article is so fascinating. I learned so much. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and understanding with us.