Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Ancient Synagogue In Capharnaum (Capernaum)

Ancient synagogues have been found all over Israel and the Diaspora with their own unique stories, but most of these structures are completely destroyed. However, there are a few ancient synagogues that have withstood the decimation of time or have been reconstructed in order for archeologists to better understand their significance and meaning. One of these unique synagogues is located in the town of Capharnaum (Capernaum). The archeologists have discovered many details and important facts about this structure. For example, there seems to be an older synagogue that existed centuries earlier on the very spot of the current synagogue. Also, like every great archeological find there is a debate over when the standing synagogue was constructed, either in the second, third or fourth century C.E.

The first thing to look at when trying to describe this synagogue, or any other synagogue, is the city it was built in. Archeologists must first research the history of the surrounding city of Capernaum if they are to understand this synagogue. The history behind this city is quit interesting. Around the beginning of the Common Era, the fishing village of Capernaum was entirely Jewish. Later, a Roman garrison was stationed there with a centurion at its head. However, it seems that it was this Roman centurion that ordered the building of the synagogue.

The first synagogue, that was ordered to be built by the Roman centurion, no longer exists, but as archaeologists have shown in recent digs, its remnants lie buried under the present synagogue. The present synagogue was either built in the second, third or fourth century on top of the ruins of the original synagogue. Richard Horsley suggests that it was early Christians that used the original synagogue and not Jews. His ideas are based on the fact that this synagogue was never mentioned by Galilean rabbis and it is in close proximity to the Byzantine church that Constantine constructed over the reputed "house of Peter." If this synagogue was used by Christians then the foundation beneath it probably did not belong to a functioning Jewish synagogue. Contrary to Horsley, St. Epiphanius informs us that until the fourth century C.E. the population of Capharnaum was entirely Jewish. Although, some passages of the Mishna stress that the Jewish population of Capharnaum during the first three centuries of the Christian era formed two distinct and antagonistic blocks which were Orthodox Jews and Minim (heretics). From the context it is clear that the Minim of Capharnaum were Jews converted to Christianity.

The reason archeologists believe there to have been a building in the first century under the White Synagogue, the name of the currently standing synagogue, is because archeologists have actually cut open the floor and found remains dating back to the first Century. There are several reasons why these remains are thought to be a synagogue. Firstly, the area of the first century stone pavement found under the White Synagogue is too large to be interpreted as belonging to a private house, and is therefore better understood as the remains of a public building. Another reason for this is that it is well known that religious structures were normally rebuilt in the same sacred area through the centuries. In the specific case of Capernaum, the presence of an earlier synagogue would better explain why the fourth (or second or third) century Jewish community of the village chose this very spot to raise the monumental White Synagogue. This holds true even in spite of the fact that the area was extremely close to a Christian shrine.

The synagogue must have stood out among the humble dwellings of the population. It was built almost entirely of white blocks of calcareous stone brought from outside of the city and those white stones lie on a base of basalt stone. The building consists of four parts which were the praying hall, the western patio, a southern balustrade and a small room at the northwest of the building. In the praying hall there was a place for the Torah scrolls and that was on the side that faced toward Jerusalem. In the center of the room there were two bimas where the Torah scrolls were probably read from. The internal walls were covered with painted plaster found during the excavations. The synagogue still has two inscriptions to this day that remember the benefactors that helped in the construction of the building. Also, there is amazing artwork in the synagogue. The architectural ornamentation of the Capernaum building has Corinthian capitals and intricately carved stonework. One relief carving of a cart seems to depict a portable Ark of the Covenant. The most interesting piece of artwork in the synagogue is the swastikas, but most scholars deem them normal decorations for that time.

With all great archeological finds there is always a debate as to what is really found. In the case of Capernaum there are several different theories as to when the synagogue was built. Stanislao Loffred, a Franciscan, has recently found 30,000 Roman coins and pottery shards that date back to the fourth Century beneath the floor of the Synagogue. Yet, Albright previously dated the synagogue to the third Century along with Watzinger who claimed the synagogue to be early third or late second Century. One might answer for these two earlier scholars that the coins found were just left there when repairs were made to the synagogue since there are proponents that give off the impression that the building was erected in the second century or third. One last theory is that the synagogue was rebuilt by Julian the apostate after a major earthquake ravaged the structure. All of these theories have been based on artwork, style and historical events. Furthermore, the use of the different carvings on the walls and the structures of the columns add weight to these earlier archeologist’s claims.

The decorations in this synagogue are numerous. The archeologists found figures of animals, as in a cornice depicting a sea horse and two eagles with a wreath in their beaks. An eagle also appears in the center of the lintel above the main entrance to the prayer hall. On the lintel above the western entrance to the prayer hall appears a lion; statues of lions were apparently also placed on both sides of the roof. These motifs were not very common for a synagogue, but some motifs were found that were very common. For example, a seven-branched menorah with a ram's horn and an incense shovel appears on one capital; on a lintel is a chariot, which is widely regarded as depicting the Ark of the Covenant. Other carvings include palm fronds, clusters of grapes and pomegranates. There are also geometric motifs, including rosettes, stars, pentagons and hexagons. These decorations along with other factors led Watzinger to believe that this synagogue was built between the second and third Centuries since it has many Roman architectural elements from the third century. The researchers conclude this since the synagogue includes Roman architectural elements like the architraves, the friezes, the cornices and the different types of motifs. However, Stanislao Loffred believes the coins and pottery to be the main evidence of the age of the synagogue and dismisses these decorations and says they could have been made in the fourth or fifth century.

Stanislao Loffred, believing that the Roman coins and pottery is the end all be all in dating the synagogue, seems to be mistaken. The architecture of the building and the decorations seem to be much more telling and important when it comes to dating the synagogue. If the carvings on the wall and the columns holding the building up support a second or third century structure, how could one assume that Roman coins from years later were definitely there at the building of the synagogue. Perhaps those coins were dropped there at a later date. Surely, that is more plausible than the decor of the building being out of its place in history.

The synagogue in Capernaum is one of the grandest structures left from ancient times. It seems to have been built in the second or third century. The coins found there should not defeat the structure or the carvings in anyway for dating purposes. The synagogue could have been populated by Jews or by Christians. The town, however, seems to have been inhabited by Jews and Christians and they seemed to have co-existed amicably among one another.

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