the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

"Holy Land" Spring 1997

(A pilgrimage to Capernaum in the year 28 A.D.)
by Fr. Patrick Noonan, O.F.M.

During his stay in Capernaum and the surrounding region, Fr. Noonan reflected on what it may have been like during the first century. In his story he presents an original re-creation of Capernaum as he imagined it to be. Fr. Noonan currently serves the Lord in South Africa.

"The Boat People" normally refers to Vietnamese stowaways floundering in Asian seas in the wake of the Vietnam War. It is also an appropriate name for the first century community who inhabit a strip of land not more than 500 meters bordering the northwest lip of the Sea of Galilee. For the most part, they are decent, simple people who etch out a livelihood from fishing, agriculture, and a little glass industry. The menfolk are bronzed and weather beaten (from constant exposure to the elements, such as weather storms suddenly thrown up by winds rushing down from the wadis of neighboring mountain ranges - and due to relentless summer heat that was a feature of this part of the Great Rift Valley). They are noticeably broad shouldered from a lifetime of hauling in heavy nets that are, as often as not, laden with at least seven varieties of indigenous fish. Round (and often razor sharp) submerged rocks brush the shoreline ensuring that these fishermen are stocky and surefooted. They must be, to maintain balance during the launching or birthing operations of their many wooden, ribcaged fishing vessels.

The villagers are wise in the ways of the waters and are caught up in a predictable cycle governed for the most part by the laws of nature. When not at work, they are found on the foreshore in small groups rearranging and sometimes mending their damaged nets. And their conversation is predictable too: nets, fish, weather, women, and passing weary travelers.

Travelers indeed. The most northern portion of town is reserved mainly to catering the passerby and "globetrotting" business people plying their way on the Via Maris. [This imperial highway links Africa with the East.] Their wants include drink, food supplies, cross-border trade, travel accommodations, and custom booth exchanges. The fishing folk, a close knit community, are bonded by the nature of their livelihood and live about 100 meters south of the throbbing commercial area. The village as a whole sees all types traveling through from Africa, from Asia, and from Europe.

It is satisfactory to have a military garrison, however small, for a frontier town with a customs office. Tiberias, the nearest city (16 km. to the south), is where these mercenaries spend much of their off-duty time. In general, the soldiers are well-disciplined and unlike other places have a relatively good relationship with the community. Would it be cynical to claim that their "minds and hearts" policy led the officer in charge, a Roman centurion, to build a synagogue for the residents? Indeed this unusual gesture by a non-Jew continues to provoke certain comments in neighboring villages and towns as far as Tiberias. Anyway, fraternizing is frowned upon (as is in most situations of oppression) and women seen in the company of off-duty soliders are noted by the local cadre of anti-occupation guerillas.

Wives customarily busy themselves with daily household chores. In fact, they are the quiet backbone of the community. This frequently happens in situations and places when the men may be cowering into reluctant silence by an occupying force. Sometimes the women help with boat repairs especially after storms, like paring wooden clamps and repairing torn sails, and things like that. Familiar family sounds, neighborhood chatter, (homes will be built close together for the next 2,000 years), hens scampering, sleeping dogs in the shadows, washing clothes, drying them (on flat, fragile, earth-mixed-with-straw rooftops over beams supported by black basalt stone walls)...this is the order of everyday life.

And as the sun loses height over arid mountains of the Tetrarchy of Philip (one day the Golan Heights) evening descends over Capernaum and shadows lengthen. Oil lamps begin to flicker from darkened windows and hungry extended families noisily reunite over supper. Soon household sounds will become muffled and die away as silence creeps over the sleeping village and finally makes it one with the silence of the nearby depths...

Then one day a lone, wistful figure is seen coming from the southwest. Thinking he was on the way to Damascus, `Capernaum' greets him as usual.

Tuesday, 17 April, 28 A.D.: The stranger, a member of the Nazarene clan (who had settled in Nazareth as immigrants after the Babylonian exile) calls on his grandparents Ann and Joachim, at Sepphoris. Then he cuts across the Azotis plain which leads through the unspectacular Valley of the Doves where it converges with the Roman highway, the Via Maris. There, at the lucid springs on the foot of Mount Arbel he washes and quenches his thirst before setting out on the last leg (10 km.) of his trek to the lake, to meet some boat people, in particular, some families.

Friday, 20 April, 28 A.D.: Passing Tabgha where springs enter the cooler lake waters, he notes much fishing activity both on and off-shore. The springs attract oceans of fish and fishermen to this spot especially in the winter. For the last few kilometers, he feels a growing consciousness of the contours of the area, the variety of people he passes, the wheat beginning to surface and brush the fields; a sense of mission too, colored with a hint of fear, perhaps even foreboding. He acknowledges their greeting in a friendly sort of way, and passes on, or so it seems. From that day forward this seaside village began to receive a prominence it never asked for, nor perhaps ever deserved.

In fact, he turns off the old Roman byroad into a fairly crowded main street leading down to the lake shore (they preferred to call it `lake' rather than `sea'). Pausing at some length, he gazes over the imposing facade of the startling black synagogue to his left. A donkey-drawn cart of fresh fish destined for neighboring villages rumbles past brushing him and other pedestrians to the side of the road. A cat scampers through a stone drain outlet. A Jewish cultic priest emerges from the building, tall, dignified, sage like. Their eyes meet briefly as the Pharisee descends the steps and filters into the stream of passersby. (Imperceptively, there is a movement of adrenalin that surprises him.)

A little further on he turns left and almost immediately passes through a stone portal on a his right into an L-shaped private courtyard. An elderly woman with perspiration on her brow, looks up from scrubbing traditional Herodian oil lamps. A girl gathering washing on the roof opposite observes him curiously. Drawn by human voices on his left he enters a spacious room. Animated chatter fades and finally dies...

The rest we know. The upright, hardworking Jewish parents: Jonah, Zebedee, Salome and Alpheus are quite mystified as they ponder their sons' strange new "calling." What will happen to their family business? Their families cannot live on air, they say. Several sons had left Bethsaida for cross border work and better tax conditions. A successful fish merchant, Simon Peter, is, as most of his business colleagues are, a "blow in" from Bethsaida. After consulting his native born wife, he opens his rather ancient home to the peculiar stranger. There is no way they can know how he will upset the proverbial applecart, rock the lifeboat, scandalize, provoke, mystify, astonish, name call, and in general outpace the opinion makers of this conservative lake district. His striking personality is also inducing great passion, intense love and loyalty, and a faith that is to become mind boggling in its depths.

All sorts of miracles and healing wll be discussed in the narrow streets and courtyards of the town including that of the servant of the centurion! And yet, though Capernaum produces good, even great disciples; even though it is "His own city," in the end, it incurs His displeasure (Luke 10:23-24). They find His teaching too difficult, too unconventional. Many return to their farming and fishing unphased, untouched by it all.

Centuries later: Like millions of pilgrims before me, I too, have sat on the lake shore at various times and in various places. I have pondered quietly the large expanse of water traversed so regularly by this Jesus and His less than sophisticated group of followers. I have seen what they saw daily and have tried to savor, to discern, in however limited a way, their earthy and earthly experience of the lakeshore that was their home. I can never forget the tangible silence of the deep after His Word was related far out on a stilled sea of a Saturday morning; or the profound awareness of touching or being touched by pivotal salvation history - as worship was celebrated at local sites. These moments were not too dissimilar to events preceding and including the fish diet breakfast at Tabgha Bay after the Resurrection!

Capernaum, with its strong community sense, its regular rhythm of everyday chores, its unity of spirituality and life, its hallowed and ancient tradtional values, its infectious sense of celebration - these shared "African" traits are among some of the reasons why the Bible story speaks so loudly on the neighboring soil of Africa.

But that Jesus, Son of God, Lord of History, made the home of Peter His home; that He sat on these black volcanic stones... walked these streets and narrow passageways... ascended these steps... looked through these windows... engaged crowds in these courtyards... chatted in this room deep into the night... These are "intimations of immortality," of eternity.

© copyright 1997

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