Does archaeology support the Synoptic Gospels? Part II

You can read Part I of this post here.

(6) Peter’s house in Capernaum?

Aerial view of Capernaum

This fishing village  on the North shore of Galilee populated with about 1,000 to 1,700 people was Jesus’ “own town” (Matt. 9:1). He taught in the synagogue and set a man free of a demon after he interrupted Jesus’ sermon. Then Jesus went immediately afterwards to Peter’s house and healed Peter’s mother-in-law, who was sick with a fever. She got up and cooked them dinner. Finally, “the whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons” … (Mark 1:21-34).

A house has been excavated there, and it is possible that it may have been Peter’s. James Charlesworth reviews six parts of the puzzle that fit together and indicate that the house was Peter’s (pp. 49-50). Jerome Murphy-O’Connor says that no evidence contradicts the identification of the house with Peter (p. 220). Von Wahlde writes: “Almost all scholars now espouse this view” that the house belonged to the apostle (p. 546).

(7) First-century synagogue in Capernaum?

All four Gospels mention a synagogue at Capernaum. Impressive remains of a fourth-century synagogue stand near the shoreline of the Lake of Galilee. Excavations around it have revealed an earlier layer underneath the fourth-century synagogue. “Given the custom of building one synagogue immediately upon the site of the previous ones, the earlier building is almost certainly the synagogue in which … Jesus taught on the day of the multiplication of loaves” (John 6:59) (von Wahlde, p. 546). As we saw in the sixth example, Jesus ministered there on other occasions.

(8) The Galilean boat

Misleadingly called the “Jesus boat,” it has no clear connection to Jesus or his disciples. It was found in the mud on the northwestern shore of the Lake of Galilee. “It is poorly crafted and represents the possession of ordinary people. Perhaps about thirteen men could be crowded into it.” It has a shallow draft and sat low to the water, so fishermen could easily pull up a net with fish trapped in it. The boat’s low profile means that it would fill up with water quickly in a storm (Charlesworth, pp. 41-42). Recall that James and John, sons of Zebedee, and Peter were partners (Luke 5:6, 10). They owned at least two boats. Though the Galilean boat has no firm connection to the disciples, it at least sheds some light on what life was like for fishermen.

(9) Herod Antipas: a reed shaken by the wind?

Matt. 11:7-9 and Luke 7:24-26 discuss John the Baptist’s prophethood, after he was in prison. Jesus asks the people whether John was a “reed shaken in the wind.” The answer is no; he was a prophet. But why would Jesus choose that image? A possible explanation appears on local coins.

Herod Antipas minted coins with reeds on them because reeds symbolized cities on a river or lake, specifically the city of Tiberias. A “‘shaken reed’ could have become a name for the king who swayed with and survived many a political wind, who wavered between wives, and even between Sepphoris and Tiberias as his place of residence … The vivid phrase goes back to Jesus himself and reflects local color of the day, as he contrasts the uncompromising prophet with the ‘shaking reed’ of a kinglet from the Hellenistic Roman power elite” (Reumann, p. 672).

The connection between the passages in Matthew and Luke and the coins is not absolutely fixed. But it receives support from the textual context. Jesus also asks whether John was “a man dressed in fine clothes?” “No,” Jesus replies, answering his own question, because “those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces” (Matt. 11:8 // Luke 7:25).

(10) Qumran writings and table fellowship

The Essenes, probable writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, were extra-scrupulous about whom they invited to table fellowship and the assembly or the community of the last days. James D. G. Dunn quotes several passages from these texts. They show the kinds of persons who were excluded: the unclean, the paralyzed in their feet or hands, or the lame or the blind or deaf and mute or the blemished. In contrast, in Luke 14:12-13 and 21, Jesus says these people are acceptable for his table fellowship:

12 Then Jesus said to his host, „When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind … 21 „The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ (Luke 14:12-13, 21)

The wording of the excluded persons is similar to the Qumran texts: lame, blind, and crippled. This last word is a different Greek and Hebrew word from the Greek and Hebrew of “lame.” “Crippled” should be translated more generally, maybe as “seriously disabled” or possibly “blemished” or a range of physical disabilities. Now what about the poor? In the Synoptics, they receive ministry from Jesus, but in the Dead Sea scrolls that Dunn cites the term applies to the Essenes themselves, even though many may not have been poor.

Dunn draws the obvious conclusion: “In the Palestinian Jesus movement the table of God was open to all the poor, and not least to the disabled, the lame, and the blind – those specifically excluded by the self-styled ‘poor’ of Qumran” (p. 267).

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