According to Matthew 11: 20-24, Jesus performed most of his miracles in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. This evangelist tells us that "leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum" (4:13) and later he singles out the village as "His own city" (Mt 9:1). Indeed, many references in the gospels place Jesus very centrally here. Why did Jesus choose Capernaum as a base? The Bible gives no reason, and we shall probably never know. The principles of historical geography apply mainly to large groups; in the case of a teacher and a handful of students, more particular motives may come into play. 


At its height in the Byzantine period, Capernaum probably did not have more than 1500 people. It spread over 15 acres, stretching for 300 yards along the north shore of the Lake of Galilee. Graves mark its northern limit at less than 200 yards inland. (Jews do not bury inside their towns.) The sole village on this shore, it included within its sphere of influence the springs of Tabgha almost two miles to the west and the mouth of the Upper Jordan three miles to the east. 

Although the Franciscan archaeologists found walls and pavements dating from the second millennium BC, they discovered nothing from the entire Israelite period (1200 - 587 BC). This makes good geographical sense: in that time, there were as yet no bridges in the land, so the Great Trunk Road could not cross the mouth of the Upper Jordan en route to Damascus. Instead it stretched due north to Hazor, from which one could either head east to ford the river or farther north to circumvent its springs.

The Romans introduced bridges. The trunk road could now make a major shift, following the northern shore of the lake and crossing the mouth of the Upper Jordan. To this shift the village of Capernaum owed its blossoming. (Indeed, 100 yards to the north of its shoreline a Roman milestone was found.) Thus, if you were using the trunk road coming from the tetrarchy of Herod Philippus, this was the first town you encountered in the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. It makes sense, then, that the tax collector lived here.

Coins and imported pottery indicate that the village's commercial contacts were mainly with the north: the Upper Galilee, the Golan, Syria, Phoenicia, Asia Minor and Cyprus. There was hardly any contact, it seems, with the central or southern parts of the country.

The village had other advantages, apart from the road. The northern shore is a favorite haunt of tilapia galilaea, today called Peter's fish, a culinary favorite then as now. Tilapia is found in nature only here and in the lakes of eastern Africa, such as Lake Victoria. Both regions belong to the Syro-African rift valley: there may have been a time (before the rising of the land and the formation of the Dead Sea) when these bodies of fresh water were connected. If this fish is of African origin, we can understand its preference for the northern shore: the springs at Tabgha are warm. They are probably the springs that Josephus meant, when he wrote of a spring called "Capernaum, which some consider to be an offshoot of the Nile, because it breeds a fish very like the perch caught in the lake of Alexandria." 

In addition, the natural rock cover is a type of basalt that has just the right texture for grinding grain. Many millstones, some unfinished, were found at Capernaum, suggesting that it may have manufactured them for export.

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), (c) Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. (

© 2003 Near East Tourist Agency (NET)
Text © 2003 Stephen Langfur