Travelling to the Holy Land in the early 1990’s, when approaching or visiting a “holy site”, we would be told, ‘it is reported to be where’, ‘it is recognized as’, ‘many believe.’ Rarely would the guide (or local historian) ever say, ‘without a doubt, this is the place where a certain reference to place and time in the scriptures happened.’
That is OK.
This week, I was reading an article about ‘The House of Peter.’
Scripture tells us that Jesus spent a great deal of his life in and around Capernaum. One regular reference to this city cites ‘the home of Peter.’ It is obvious Jesus and Peter spent a great deal of time together. In many ways, we can trace the roots of our Christian life to this time and place.
Archeology and archaeologists have recovered many layers of our history. This is a real gift to our study of the history of our faith. They help to answer the question, ‘how did we get here?’
Early travellers to the region, and in particular to Capernaum, have long believed the remains of an ancient synagogue marked the site, if not the actual building, where Jesus taught some of the early followers.
There are many questions:
‘Where in the town did Jesus actually live?
Where was the house of Peter?
Where was the synagogue located?’
Scraping away the layers of history, archaeologists have made some interesting discoveries. Beginning at the layer of ‘the obvious,’ the foundations of a Byzantine martyrium church.
The building was in an octagonal form. Digging deeper into the ruins, they quickly discovered this church had been built over the ruins of a simple 1st Century b.c., home. They believe this may have been the home of Peter. By mere association between Peter and Jesus, then this could actually have been the home of Jesus.
The findings get more interesting.
In peeling the layers back to the 1st Century BCE, they discovered significant parts of our history. What was first a simple dwelling—with coarse walls and a roof of straw and earth—the next layer uncovered the walls that had been plastered-over in the ‘main room.’ This was a rarity at that time. The previous household pots and bowls had been replaced by large storage jars and oil lamps. This indicated a new use for this large room. Possibly, the space had now changed from a private home to a place for community to gather.
The excavators have since discovered: the original plaster was replaced by a more sophisticated style of covering, containing floral and geometric designs. Later, inscriptions were added reading, “Lord Jesus, help thy servant” and “Christ Have Mercy.”
Is this beginning of Christianity, gathering in community for worship? Possibly.
What is significant: as time followed, an octagonal martyrium was built over top. Octagonal martyria are known to have been erected over (what was once) a significant place in history, to commemorate its significance. This is what has led the scholars, over the years, to say this couldbe where Jesus lived in the early years of his ministry.
What is a martyrium or martyria? Wikipedia shares this:
The oldest Christian martyria were built at "a site which bears witness to the Christian faith, either by referring to an event in Christ's life, or Passion, or by sheltering the grave of a martyr". Martyria, mostly small, were very common after the early 4th century, when Constantine and his co-ruler, Licinius, became the first Roman emperors to declare religious tolerance for Christianity in the Roman Empire (Edict of Milan, 313 AD). Martyria had no standard architectural plan and are found in a wide variety of designs. There was often a sunken floor, or part of it, to bring the faithful closer to the remains of the saint, and a small opening, the fenestella, going from the altar-stone to the grave itself.
This is possibly how we got here: four walls, pews (seating), and altars.