Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Capernaum Synagogue

We saw already (p. ) that after the Gospels, in Luke 7:1-10, the Capernaum Synagogue was built by a Roman centurion, mentioned in the Bible, who was stationed there. The Gospel relates in Luke 7:3-5:
(3) "When he (the centurion) heard of Jesus he sent to him elders of the Jews,
asking him to come and heal his slave. (4) And when they came to Jesus, they
besought him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, (5)
For he loves our nation, and he built us our Synagogue".

This astounding fact, that a Roman commander built the Synagogue of Capernaum would never have been allowed by a traditional orthodox Jewish community, and we are of the opinion, that it could have been done only by a congregation of more liberally minded Jews - the Judeo-Christian one. And in fact we find more evidence for it: Midrash Kohelet Rabba I relates that Hanina, nephew of the famous Tanna R.Yehoshua was seduced by the Minim (the Judeo-Christians) of Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) to ride an ass on the Shabbath - pp. 3-4-7 of the manuscript, - Although his uncle was able to deliver him from the spell, he had to leave the country and spent the remainder of his life in exile in Babylon. Traditional, orthodox Jews could never have required such an abuse, which shows, therefore, that a Judeo- Christian congregation must have existed at Kfar Nahum as early as the first century C.E.

Capernaum was the center of Christ's religious work and it is evident that his followers from an early stage formed an organized religious congregation there. The recent excavations of a private House Synagogue at St. Peter's house site, a “domus ecclesia” of the second and third centuries C.E. and of the octagonal Church of the fifth century above the domus ecclesia confirm this.

If, after the Gospel in Luke 7:1-10 the Capernaum Synagogue in contrast was built by a Roman centurion who was asking Christ by the Jewish elders to save his servant, it follows that the Synagogue was erected still in the life-time of Christ, may be around 20 C .E.

Yet, the acception of David’s Star by the Judeo-Christians cannot have been in the lifetime of Christ. It has to be postponed till after his death and after his resurrection- around 28-29 C.E. David’s Star has to be understood as an esoteric sign, composed by two unilateral triangles, interlaced one to the other. The higher one symbolizing God in his Completeness and Holiness and the lower one Christ as son and partner of God after resurrection.

As we know already (from p. ) the Pelta sign is the typical neo-Christian Samaritan sign instead of the Davidic one (which they could not accept). It follows for us that Samaritans have been present in Capernaum from a certain time. Christ's several meetings with them, and his high estimation of them [22], may be an additional proof of their presence in Capernaum. In contrast to the former Jewish animosity against the Samaritans, they were accepted now with open arms by the Judeo-Christians, filling up their lines.

David’s star, then, has been accepted in Capernaum already in the first century C.E. after Christ resurrection 28-29 C.E. But how the Symbol was transferred to Italy and Pompeii is not known. May be that the same commander, who built the Synagogue, was helpful in its transplantation. Peter and Paul may have been helpful in its distribution. But, it is obvious that the Jewish community as such could not accept David’s Shield as a Symbol of their own after its neo-Christian creation.

Excavations of Capernaum


The latest excavations of the Capernaum Synagogue by Corbo and Loffredo from the Franciscan order have thoroughly revised its chronology. Whereas Orfali, its first excavator and restorer (1905-21) believed that the structure he was working on dated to the first century C.E. and was the very Synagogue that Christ visited, the last recent soundings and trenches have brought to light no less than three construction stages. The last stage, the limestone building now occupying the site, has to be dated to the late fourth century C.E. - some thirty thousand coins and numerous pottery-finds leave no room for doubt. Of the first stage, the Synagogue visited by Christ, we have, below the fourth century prayer hall, a basalt floor and finds from the first century C. E., and at the second structure, clearly datable to the third century C. E., we have a low wall of basalt blocks, on which the third and currently visited Synagogue stands.

Corbo and Loffredo's conclusions have now been confirmed by Hanswulf Bloedhorn's close study of the column capitals from the site [23] . By examining the relationship between the Kalathos (the load-bearing core of the capital supporting the entablature), he has identified three types – “K”, third century, “N”, fourth century, and a late “N”, of the fifth century. They are stylistically related, but display clear differences.

The decoration of the earliest type “K” shows the widespread influence of the Asia-Minor architectural school. In the second and third centuries C.E. an extensive trade in architectural elements -. Pillars, pillar-bases, capitals, friezes etc. - developed in Asia Minor's large marble quarries and spread its influence over the surrounding lands, including the Holy Land. At Capernaum this stylistic influence is very clear in the Frieze and particularly in its Cyma decoration, though they may have been executed by local craftsmen. The forms deployed can be confidently dated to the first century that is to the second Synagogue. Bloedhorn is of the opinion that this building was brought down by the powerful earthquake of 363 C.E. and its decorative Friezes reused in the third stage of construction, i.e. in the now existing building.

It is quite astonishing that the Capernaum Synagogue the most prominent of all Galilean Synagogues, receives no mention in any Jewish source. Perhaps the reason is its very association with the Judeo-Christians. In the first century there is no question but that 'orthodox' Jews and Judeo-Christians both used the Synagogue.

The latter were the sons and daughters of their Jewish parents and both maintained common tradition of observance. But this common tradition (and mutual tolerance) seems to have continued through the second and even the third Synagogue for, to our surprise we find the most important of Jewish symbols, the Menorah with lulav and etrog only on a capital in the east courtyard, which was added to the Synagogue only in the fifth century C.E. (Pl 24). It would appear that only at this late date did the two creeds make their final separation, when the Judeo-Christians transferred their prayer services to the octagonal church, newly erected over the remains of St. Peter's house. This final sundering: making the ‘Orthodox’ Jews now the Synagogue’s sole proprietors gave them a free hand not only to put up their own symbols (on the capital mentioned, for instance) but also to remove from the Friezes and elsewhere pagan figurative elements - gryphons, eagles - which the Neo-Christians more lenient interpretation of the Second Commandment had allowed to remain.

Until now we have been unable to explain whose hand had erased these Symbols but, in contrast to this relative liberal composure of the Capernaum community the resistance of the traditional Jewish population against a new creed in their midst was very sharp. It led to extremities like the stoning to death of Stephen [Acts 7:56-58] , the first martyr, or the conspiracy of 40 men to kill Paulus [Acts 7:56-58] , while he was in prison, or even the crucifixion of Christ itself [Ibid 23:12-23] (this is only a small number of cases). Paulus, by himself, is relating in his letter to the Galatians [The letter of Paul to the Galatians 1:13-23] with which cruelty he himself was dealing with the ‘heretics’ (the neo-Christians) as long as he was a Jew (under the name of Saul).

The schism between the old and the new creed divided the population and even the families, generating high communal tension, which was not resolved until the defeat of the Bar-Kokhba uprising (132-135 C.E.) when Jews were forcibly resettled by the Roman victors. While the elder Jewish population were forced north into the Galilee or out of the country altogether, it seems that the younger population, the Judeo-Christian one, remained in their settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Negev where most of the neo-Christian sites were discovered. They now founded their own religious congregations, built their own Synagogues, and, in the course of time also a new religious symbolism developed.

The Frieze of Capernaum


All the 6 pieces of the Frieze of Capernaum, which remained there, (Pls. I-VI) are exhibited together in one row, so, that it is easy to compare between them. The first piece (on the right side, Pl. 1 a,b,c) is composed by 3 medallion units and shows a clear difference in style opposite the other pieces. It is composed in a much bigger shape and greater plastic boldness. The two floral motives and the geometric one between them are protruding on the top of small supports which are binding them to the ornamental background.

So, the right piece of the Frieze is still nearer to the Hellenistic form-appearance and belongs to the first Synagogue, built, as we saw, still in the time of Christ by the Roman commander of Capernaum (according to Luke 7:10)

The second stylistic part of the Frieze, beside the first one, is the main Part, consisting of some 19 medallion units, which are all of uniform design, in flat relief style forming an integrated whole. All the 19 units are composed by the same design, i.e. 4 Accanthus leaves encircling a symbolic Sign in their center. The Accanthus leaves are changing direction from one to the other.

We can differentiate two stages of preservation, an earlier one and a later one. At the first stage of 5 medallion units the whole entablature, including the Cyma decoration was broken away, while at the second stage it is kept almost in its entirety, as only the units 4-6 happened the same distruction.

All the medallions are bound together horizontaly by a kind of chain of half-rounds. Yet, this chain reoccurs above and below each Symbol, binding it to four sides (Pls. 1-6).


The Frieze remains of Capernaum in their chronology

(Photos by Gabi Goldman, son of Dr. Goldmann)




(left to right): 1. Sunflower (?)
2. (in the middle): Solomon's Seal (?)
3. (to the right): Six-petalled Lily with petals turned inside.
Hellenistic style


(From left to right)
1. Crossed Lily Signs
2. Magen David, much destroyed
3. Six-partite Lily
4. Five-partite Rosette
5. Rosette five-partite flat relief Roman style. After Christ's death c. 30 C.E.
Cyma decoration destroyed

(From left to right)
1. Two horizontal Accanthus leaves
2. Magen David with Peltae in outer corners
3. Six-petaled rosette
4. 7-petaled Rosette
Circumference around Symbols



(left to right)
1. 3-Loop Sign
2. Wine leaf Sign
3. Magen David with disks. After c. 30 C.E..
Cyma decoration destroyed


(left to right)
1. 3-Loop Sign
2. 2 Rimonim (Pomegranates)
3. 7-petalled Rosette
4. 6-petalled Lily
Circumference around Symbols
After c. 30 C.E.

(left to right)
1. Destroyed
2. Bundle of grapes
3. Solomon's Seal with disks
Circumference around Symbols
After c. 30 C.E.

(Right to left): 1. Single illustration of the Ark of the Covenant on wheels
2. Three half Accanthus leaves behind
This belongs to another group of ornaments

Part I which is composed by 3 units of the Capernaum Frieze, is much covered by soot, covering especially the Cyma decoration crowning the Frieze. It is evident, that the first Synagogue had to suffer a heavy conflagration. In spite of that the design of this first Frieze is still quite recognizable. It is composed of two layers: a) the background-layer with Medallion-units of regular ornamentation of the time, reminding the ossuar decoration Jerusalem’s, and b) the second layer of 3 bolding Signs, of 2 huge flowers and a geometric abstract one in the center on the top of short supports across the background-layer. Both layers are covered by the beautiful Cyma decoration, consisting of a Greek entablature of teeths and eggs crowned by the Cyma decoration consisting of big Acanthus plants and four-petaled Lily flower plants with two lower petals turning outside and two higher ones turning inside, both plants alternatingly arranged.

The 4 Magen David Signs of Part II appear here the first time in Neo-Christian history. They were created by the Judeo-Christians of Capernaum after Christ's death and ressurection in c. 30 (as we saw already). But we can be sure that the whole original Capernaum Frieze had much more of them. As a new creation of the Judeo-Christians the Magen David Sign had to be propagated intensively by its multiple representations, in order to be accepted and assimilated.

Recurring now to the first group of remains of the Capernaum Frieze, Part I, we find the second medallion (in the middle between the two floorial ones) much destroyed in its lower part, but seemingly being a variation of the 5 pointed Solomon's Seal, which was much in use instead of the Magen David. but, what is of high interest to us is the addition of the Pelta Sign in the outer corners of it.

We know already, that the Pelta Sign was accepted by the Samaritans as their main religious Symbol, instead of the Davidic Star of the Judeo Christians.

But, to our great surprise, we find the same addition of the Pelta Signs now to Solomon's Seal of the first group and also to the Magen David itself, in the second and third pieces of Remains of the Capernaum Frieze. As the Magen David of the second Frieze Remain was much destroyed (as we saw already) the addition of the Pelta Sign is much disturbed, but there can be no doubt about it.

The combination of David's Star with the Pelta Signs is most clear in the third Remain of the Frieze and here the appearance of the symbol is much accentuated by the addition of a circumference arround the central symbol. This addition of a circle arround the Symbol is generally applied to the third Remain of the Frieze and to the 5th Remain too, while in the first and second Remains it does not yet appear.

Yet we know already that the Davidic Star was not accepted (and could not have been accepted) by the Samaritans, but now, here in Capernaum we find both together.
As explanation of this riddle, we claim that there was an early influx of Samaritans into Capernaum, and that they were accepted by the Judeo-Christian Community as friends and allies, shown by the addition of their national Sign - the Pelta - to the religious Signs of the Judeo-Christians - David's Star. (in units I II III). By that the old enmity between Jews and Samaritans was overcome and a new friendship was founded. So, by this addition of the Samaritan Sign from the first phase of the Judeo-Christian community of Capernaum it becomes clear that both communities had been united from the beginning of the Judeo-Christian community there.

These additions of the Samaritan Pelta Signs, one after the other, to the Davidic Sign, is a clear proof of their presence there and their authority together with the original Judeo-Christian population.

And so it comes that the Star was now combined with another symbolic Sign, and this sign is the Disk, which appears in both cases (IV and VI) in the reduced shape of the "Knob", filling the outer angles of the Star and of its center.

The Disk is an ancient Jewish symbol, which appears already in the 9th-10th centuries B.C. on capitals of engaged pillars like these ones of the entrance hall of the First Temple according to I Kings 6-19 .

As one of the most frequent Jewish symbols the Disk appears much on the Jerusalem Ossuar ornamentation.

The Disk appears in the monuments in very different diameters, from big ones in architecture, at the Sha'ar-Ha'Rachamin of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for instance, to small ones on Ossuars and Crosses.

To our opinion the closed circle of the Disk is a Symbol of God's unity and, at the same time, of the unity of the world, and so God's nearness or presence - the so called "Shekhinah" - is represented by it.

In our cases - at Capernaum - the Disk is one of the symbolic Signs of the Judeo Christians, realizing their sticking to the ancient Jewish religious tradition.

In the same spirit we have to understand two additional symbols in Remains IV and VI, the so called "3 Loop Sign". The sign, again, is a frequent Samaritan one, being accepted too by the Judeo Christina Community of Capernaum.

This Sign is composed by 3 interlocking Loops, each in the shape of a near 8.
It is, according to my supposition, the symbol of the 3 partite blessing of the Jews by the Cohanim (the priests), asked by God (in Num. 6: 23-26)
This suppositon has been confirmed by an article of Prof. A.G. Katsch from the New York University concerning Jewish Manuscripts in the U.S.S.R. [25]
A Massoretic design in micrographic writing, forming at the same time the design of the "3 Loop Sign" has in its center a piece of paper with text of the Tri-partite blessing of the Cohanim. The blessings are accompanied still today, in the synagogue service of Shabbath, by the bowing movements of the Cohen to three sides, by covering himself and his outstreched hands by the prayer showl (the Talith). The ceremony is performed twice in the Shabbath service of the synagogue.

24. Menorah, Lulav and Ethrog in the courtyard of Capernaum, 5th century C.E.