The city’s original name, Kfar Nahum, simply means The Village of Nahum. In other words, it was named for someone named Nahum. But the Greeks translated Kfar Nahum as Capernaum, and the Gospels and the writings of Joseph Flavius use the word Capernaum. Thus, “Capernaum” persists in modern language to this day.
Major historical events that took place in Capernaum are preserved in the Scriptures.
Capernaum’s location, along the banks of a lake filled with fish, and its proximity to the Tabgha’ springs and the Via Maris, allowed early citizens to devote themselves to both fishing and agriculture. They also benefited from commercial traffic between Galilee and Damascus.
Jesus was active in the village of Capernaum. He chose it as the center of his public ministry in Galilee. And according to the Gospels, there were apostles living in Capernaum. It’s said that one house belong to Pierre. Jesus may have stayed there. There is a synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus purportedly prayed every Saturday.
But in later centuries, especially after the Arab period beginning in the seventh century, the village, whose inhabitants were mostly Christian, failed. Capernaum was abandoned within two hundred years. Buildings collapsed, houses were destroyed, and nature slowly reclaimed everything in the area, including the stone. All that remained was desolation and ruin.
For hundreds of years, no one knew the location of Capernaum; it was buried by earth and time.
Practically untouched, Capernaum was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century when the Custody of the Holy Land claimed the area and began initial excavations.
The White Synagogue was unearthed in 1905. Professor Gaudenzio Orfali conducted archaeological research in 1921, and the Franciscan fathers Corbo Loffreda further explored and researched the synagogue in 1969. Excavations continued for another thirteen years, until they found what they were looking for: twenty-five open trenches, inside and outside the synagogue.
Why has there been so much interest in the White Synagogue? The existence of a synagogue in Capernaum in the Byzantine era is tangible proof that this small, first-century fishing village experienced economic growth for many years after Jesus lived there.
This prosperity can be explained by the Christian community’s fervent belief, and the inhabitants’ willingness to sacrifice anything to settle in the village that had received the Messiah and some of his apostles.
Why do we call it the White Synagogue?
The first thing you will notice about the synagogue is its brilliant white color. Natural light reflects off the synagogue’s white limestone and contrasts with the rest of the village, where the houses are made of black basalt stones.
This synagogue could not be the place where Jesus taught, because according to recent excavations and the coins that were discovered there, it was built in the fifth century.
Further, it’s likely that the places where Jesus and his followers prayed were private houses and dwellings, not public buildings.
The White Synagogue and the basilica of Peter’s house were very close to each other, which suggests that the two communities were at peace.
The synagogue consists of three parts. The most important section is on the west side: this is the prayer room itself. Rectangular in shape, it means 20.2 by 18.65 meters. Its architecture resembles a basilica, in that it has a central nave, two side wings, and a rear wing.
Aligned on a stylobate, or pedestal, sixteen columns divide the space. Two rows of stone benches flanked the peripheral walls of the east and the west wings. Painted plaster and stucco, the lime of antiquity, decorated the prayer room’s interior walls. We can count three separate entrances to the synagogue, arranged in the front and on the south side.
As is the case with other Galilee synagogues, the White Synagogue is oriented southward, toward Jerusalem. Contrary to most Christian churches, worshippers entered the synagogue from the front. The scrolls of the Law, which were read during religious assemblies, were preserved permanently on this south, central side of the nave.
The central door’s attractive lintel is decorated with graceful palm trees carved in the limestone. This limestone would have been extracted from quite far away and brought back to build the synagogue.
The smaller eastern side of the synagogue, to your right, is trapezoidal. The southern wall, 11.25 meters wide, is somewhat shorter than the north wall. This part of the building consisted of an open-air courtyard, surrounded by porticos supported by eleven columns on a stylobate. These porticos would have been covered by a roof on three sides. This area was not used for prayer but for community gatherings.
Along the front of the building we have the porch. Because the synagogue was in the middle of the village, close to houses, it was not practical to build an imposing porch. In fact, the porch is accessible by two side staircases. It’s nearly thirty meters long, and connects to the village’s two main streets.
Was the synagogue’s second floor reserved for women? Some argue that the staircase behind the synagogue testifies to this. But others argue that the walls and columns could not have supported a second floor. The question remains a mystery.
On the pavement’s stone slabs, “games” are engraved. These probably date from the Arab period when the synagogue fell into disuse. Indeed, the prayer room and the synagogue’s main stone walls display the same “games.”
Although Capernaum’s White Synagogue dates from the fifth century, it may not be the first synagogue to be built on the site. Excavations conducted in the 1970s uncovered the foundations of an older synagogue. The wall of the fifth century synagogue doesn’t follow the black wall’s lines, but it’s clear the builders attempted to try and follow it as closely as possible.
At what point, then, did this first construction occur? Opinions on the subject are divided, but the discovery of a basalt floor indicates that this initial construction dates to the first century. It would belong to the floor of the synagogue that existed in Jesus’s time, one that is cited in the Gospel of Luke. According to the story, a Roman centurion built that synagogue. But not all authors have reached a consensus on this theory.
This matter is unresolved, and it seems unlikely that it will ever be settled. The White Synagogue’s security prevents it from being more carefully and systematically searched, protecting its historical secrets.
We are left to admire the stunning decorative elements. Lintels, capitals, cornices: all these prove the synagogue had a luxury surpassing all that had been built up to that point.
The White Synagogue of Capernaum is one of Israel’s best-preserved synagogues. Its pristine condition allows you to experience the Holy Land in an authentic way, transporting you back to the origins of Christendom.
The institution of the synagogue has persisted through the centuries. The synagogue and its customs remain, to this day, a pillar of Judaism; the word synagogue designates both the community gathering around the Torah and the place where the gathering occurs.