20 July 2010

17 July 2010


Today we began at Capernaum (Kafer Naum), Jesus’ home base during his public ministry (cf. Mark 2:1). Capernaum is located just a short distance (about three miles) southeast of the northernmost point of the Lake of Galilee—about eleven o’clock from due north. Circumambulating the Lake counterclockwise, one comes to Heptapegon (named after its seven natural springs), Ginnosaur, and then Magdala at the nine o’clock point. Each town was about three miles from its nearest neighbors, so a one-hour walk would take you from one to the next. Somewhere along the way, although we don’t know exactly where, is the site of Jesus’ lakeside call of four fishers (Andrew, Simon “Peter”, James, and John; Mark 1:16-20) who were counted among his intimate companions for the next few years (three, according to the Synoptic tradition). At least two of these early disciples (the brothers, Andrew and Simon) made their home in Capernaum, as we know from the story of Jesus’ miraculous cure of Simon’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31).

Given that Capernaum was the first town across the border from the territory of his brother, Herod Philip, Herod Antipas invested it with a customs office and a small garrison (about 80 men) under the command of a Centurion. Capernaum thus is the setting for Jesus’ invitation to a tax collector to join his community of disciples. (Mark 2:13-14 names the tax collector “Levi”; but cf. Matt 9:9, which tells of a tax collector named “Matthew.”) Luke’s famous story of the long-distance cure of the centurion’s deathly-ill slave (Luke 7:1-10)—in which Jesus marvels at the faith indicated in the Gentile man’s insistence “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Luke 7:7-9)—also takes place, you guessed it, in Capernaum. In the course of that story, we discover that this same centurion loved the Jewish people and “built” their local synagogue (Luke 7:5). This suggests that: (a) Roman-Jewish relations in the town of Jesus’ day were relatively amicable, since the commander of the Roman garrison under Herod Antipas funded the building of the Jewish synagogue; (b) this particular centurion was likely a “God-fearer,” that is, a Gentile proselyte who had not been circumcised and therefore had not yet formally “converted” to Judaism; and (c) the Jewish community there may not have been very wealthy, since they themselves did not fund the building. So where did a lowly centurion get that kind of money? The customs officers collected tax money from Jewish merchants, and the local officials typically skimmed a sizeable portion of that tax money; graft was one of the perquisites of public office in the Roman world. Ironically, then, the centurion probably built the synagogue with funds garnered from Jewish customs taxes.…


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The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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