Thursday, January 21, 2010

From Nazareth to Capernaum

While Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea about 6 miles south-west of Jerusalem, he grew up in Nazareth in Galilee and was known by all as Jesus of Nazareth.  Interesting, then, is the fact that he seems not to have spent very much time there once he began his ministry.  Doubtless this is because of his conviction, recorded both in the Synoptics and John (Matthew 13:57, Mark 6:4, Luke 4:24 and John 4:44) that a prophet is not accepted by those from where he comes or as we might say ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.  This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 4:14-21) records a visit Jesus did make to Nazareth.  This is a visit that ends with the people there trying to kill him.

St Luke uses this passage to introduce the ministry of Jesus and its themes.  Probably St Luke felt it appropriate to begin his account of the ministry of Jesus with a story from where Jesus grew up.  St Luke himself, however, records that Jesus’ ministry was well under way before he went back to Nazareth and that the people of Nazareth had already heard about it.  Jesus says that they will doubtless say to him, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ (Luke 4:23)

Nazareth, in lower Galilee, is about 16 miles south-west of the Sea of Galilee, 9miles south of Cana, where he performed his first miracle, and about 25 miles from Capernaum on the north of the Sea of Galilee.  The mention of Capernaum is an important one for Jesus seems to have made both his home and base there once he embarked on his ministry.

Before discussing Capernaum, it is worth mentioning ‘The Mystery of the Two Missing Cities’!  The first is Sepphoris, a very significant city.  Nazareth was just 4 miles south of Sepphoris.  It would have been almost impossible for Jesus not to have gone there at some time in his life, and yet there is not a single mention of it in the New Testament.  The second missing city is Tiberias, effectively the main city of Galilee.  St John tells us that the Sea of Galilee was also known as the Sea of Tiberias (John 6:1) and mentions an occasion that some boats came from Tiberias with people looking for Jesus (John 6:23).  But it is only in St John’s Gospel that Tiberias is even mentioned and Jesus is never recorded as having gone there himself.

The reasons for this seemingly deliberate avoidance by Jesus of even talking about these cities, let alone visiting them are complex.  Tiberias was built on graves, which made it unclean for Jews, so that may be part of the explanation when considering Tiberias.  Sepphoris is much harder to explain.  Whatever the reason, Jesus avoided the two biggest population centres in Galilee although, given the relative closeness of places in the region, doubtless people from each went to hear Jesus as we know, from John, they at least did from Tiberias.  What they thought about Jesus’ refusal to go there personally we can only guess.

So why Capernaum?  It was certainly conveniently placed as a base for Jesus’ ministry around the Lake and its villages, and it was just 9 miles from Tiberias.  Perhaps more important was that this was where some of his earliest disciples seem to have worked and lived. 

St John tells us that Andrew and his brother Peter, who were fishermen, together with Philip were from Bethsaida.  The location of Bethsaida is not absolutely certain, but it was probably a place in Galilee about 2.5miles from Capernaum going north-east around the Lake.  By the time of the ministry of Jesus, however, Peter and Andrew were certainly living in Capernaum.  St Mark tells us that after Jesus had preached in the synagogue in Capernaum, he entered the house of ‘Peter and Andrew’ (Mark 1:21) where apparently Peter’s mother-in-law also lived and presumably Peter’s wife!  Again, St Mark tells us that when they entered the house they discovered Peter’s mother-in-law ill in bed with a fever (Mark 1:30)

The fact that James and John, who were also fishermen, are associated so closely with Peter and Andrew (Mark 1:19) and with this visit to Peter’s house (Mark 1:29) may suggest that they too lived in Capernaum.  There is some suggestion that Jesus rather than simply staying at Capernaum in St Peter’s house may have actually moved his own family there as well.  I will talk about family next!  

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