An interesting story in the life of Jesus is recorded for us in the Gospel of Mark relating to the three cities of Bethsaida, Korazim, and Capernaum located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. According to the gospel of Matthew 11:20-25, the text reads:
“Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgement, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee. At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”
By Roy B. Blizzard
The three cities of Bethsaida, Korazim, and Capernaum were the three largest and most important along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee in Jesus day. Bethsaida, which literally means house of fishing, seems to have been the most populated city in Galilee. The nearly 25 acre site was occupied by both Jews and non-Jews with each group maintaining its own lifestyle. John 1:44 tells us that the apostles Philip, Andrew, and Peter were from Bethsaida where Jesus was most active in his early ministry.
According to Matthew, mighty works were done in all three of these cities, however it is Mark that gives us the example of the miracle healing of the blind man in Bethsaida. Mark 8:22-25 reads:
“And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.”
An interesting question is why would Jesus spit in the man’s eyes? Not only is that story strange, but it certainly seems unsanitary. However, we are told that for eye trouble, there is a tradition that the spittle of the first born son of a father had healing powers but not the first born son of a mother. (B.B. 126b) By using spittle in this way, Jesus is declaring himself to be the first born son of the Father, and in other words, he is declaring himself to be God.
In each of these cities, one would expect to find a synagogue such as has been found in Korazim and Capernaum but none to date has yet been found in Bethsaida. Although no synagogue has been discovered there, the city is nonetheless to be associated with the early beginnings of Jesus’ movement. After more than fifteen years of excavation, what appears to be remains of a pagan Roman temple have been discovered. Although that identification is inconclusive, it is safe to say that it is not the foundation of a synagogue due to the structure of the foundational wall because it is lacking the typical seats associated with a synagogal wall of that period.
The archaeologists who excavated the site suggested that it might have been a Roman temple and if it is indeed a Roman temple, it could have been built for the cult of Livia Julia who was the wife of Augustus and the mother of Tiberius. Compared to other Roman temples, the remains of the structure at Bethsaida are very modest compared with those that had been built elsewhere such as Samaria and Caesarea Maritima. The lack of a synagogue, in addition to a lack of repentance might go a long way in explaining why Jesus would have cursed the city.
The second city cursed by Jesus was the city of Korazim and is the only one of the three not situated on the Sea of Galilee. It is located to the north of Capernaum some two miles away. Korazim is mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud Menahot 85a and was renowned for the good wheat that was grown there. The town was divided into five different quarters that covered an area of approximately 25 acres.
The largest and most significant was the central quarter of the town and contained numerous dwelling houses along with a paved court. Almost all of the stonework used in building was black basalt which was and still is a natural mineral to the area. Adjacent to the central court and oriented somewhat west and south towards Jerusalem was the ancient synagogue. In the third and fourth centuries CE, during the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, the town spread southward but did not experience it’s first period of real growth until the end of the Talmudic period in the 5th or 6th century. During that time, many repairs and modifications were made especially to the synagogue. Additional changes were made during the early Arab period and in the 13th - 15th centuries but by then only a small population continued to occupy the site.
The first excavations of Corazim began in the early 1900’s, then in the early 1920’s the Hebrew University and the British Mandate Government’s Department of Antiquities undertook extensive work. Further excavation and restoration activities were carried out between 1980 and 1983. For a tour of the remains and archaeological site at Korazim, be sure to visit www.biblescholars.org and go to the Israel Slide Show Gallery for a tour through Korazim as well as Capernaum.
The third city cursed by Jesus was Capernaum, which in Hebrew is called kefar nahum, which means the city of Nahum and is considered to be the traditional home of Nahum the prophet, and later was the home of Jesus as well. Capernaum was abandoned 1,000 years ago and two-thirds of the present day ruins belong to the Franciscans who purchased it from the Bedouins in 1894, while the remaining one-third belong to the Greek Orthodox patriarchate.
In 1838, the American scholar Edward Robinson visited the site and described the place as “desolate and mournful”. On his second visit, he correctly identified the remains of a synagogue and an octagonal building which was later designated as a domus ecclesia or church. The ruins of the ancient village stretch along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee covering approximately 15 acres. Occupation on the site covers the period dating from the 5th Century BCE to the beginning of the 10th Century CE.
However, Paleolithic flints have also been found at the site extending occupation back several thousand years before the Christian era. Saint Epiphanius relates that until the 4th Century CE, the population of Capernaum was entirely Jewish. At that time, there was a praxis or custom forbidding anyone other than Jews to live among them and this was also in effect in Tiberias, Sepphoris, and Nazareth. However, the Mishnah informs us that during the first three centuries of the Christian era, many "minim" (Jews who had converted to Christianity), lived in Capernaum.
There is an indication from some passages in the Mishnah which stress that the population of Capernaum during the first three centuries CE formed two blocks: First, the minim (heretics), i.e. Jews that had accepted Jesus as Messiah and second, Orthodox Jews. Although it is not generally known or widely related, many Jews of the first century simply accepted Jesus as their Messiah but continued to worship in a Jewish context. They would meet in the synagogue on the Sabbath as Jews and then at sundown when the first stars appeared in the heavens, they came together as ma’aminim or believers. (The term Christian was not used until decades later.) They simply referred to themselves as minim or believers and considered themselves to be Jewish and worshipped in a Jewish context.
As a matter of fact, the ma’aminim became so numerous, that by 90 CE they outnumbered the Orthodox Jews in the synagogue so much so that they convened a special counsel at Yavneh to deal with the specific question of “What are we going to do with all of these minim?”. At the counsel, Shmuel Hakatan was selected from the Orthodox Jews to compose an additional blessing to the traditional 18 (shemoneh esray) that were recited every day. This 19th blessing, known as the berkat ha minim, was a curse against all believers and reads:
“Let there be no hope for the informers and let all the heretics be eradicated immediately and all the enemies of your people be speedily cut off: and the kingdom of iniquity speedily uproot, shatter and crush and subdue speedily in our day.”
Actually, there are numerous different versions that are recited today that differ from one another, but basically it was hoped that the berkat ha minim blessing would be sufficient to drive the believing Jews from the synagogue. However, it failed in its purpose and by the end of the first century, many Jews considered themselves to be a part of the community of believers.
The aerial view picture below includes the synagogue remains on the left, occupation levels where people lived from before, during, and after the time of Jesus, and the domus-ecclesia (church) on the right. The following pictures are of the synagogue. Before leaving the subject, we want to recommend that you go to www.biblescholars.org and go to our Israel slide show gallery and view our presentation of Capernaum.
The excavations at Capernaum give us a unique look into the daily life of people from the three or four centuries before Jesus and the three or four centuries after the time of Jesus. Almost all of the events that are recorded in the first six chapters of Mark take place in Capernaum and realizing that one fact, it would do you well to reread those early chapters keeping Capernaum in mind. It is significant as well as inspirational to be able to visit the many cities along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and know that although they are in ruins today, it was here that Jesus lived and taught during a great part of his very brief ministry.