January 4, 2009


One of the awesome things Charlene and I did on our pilgrimage to Israel last Spring [link, link] was to visit the remains of the synagogue in Capernaum, by the shore of the Sea of Gallilee. The synagogue was re-built in the 4th Century after an earthquake, but it is quite likely that the new one was much like the older one where Jesus preached. We were probably standing on the very floor He walked on!

This aerial view gives a good idea of what it's like. The local stone is an ugly black basalt, and many small houses have been excavated--you can see a little of that on the edges of the building. (I imagine and hope the houses would have been plastered and painted--the excavations look like worker-housing in Mordor.) The synagogue itself is limestone, brought from another place.

Synagogue in Capernaum, aerial view

In my picture below you can see the rows of benches running along the sides of the main room. This was traditional for synagogues. Of course all the pillars would have been the height of those in the back. A historically important thing you can see here is how the Jews were embedded within a Greek world. The architecture is Greek, although I don't think there was any analogous pagan religious building.

One of the things that tell us that Judaism and Christianity were not just "the ones the got lucky" out of the vast crowd of ancient religions is that neither of them "fit" into any existing religious architecture in the world. Neither pagan temples nor the grottos of the mystery cults were designed for the multitude, nor for reading and preaching to a community. (The "business" of a pagan temple mostly happened at the altar which was outside.)

Christianity in particular was so weirdly unlike anything existing that Romans often thought of it as atheism! We can't really grasp that point, since we now assume that Christianity is what religion "normally" is like. One clue is that the Christian church--the building that is--is adapted from the basilica, a Roman public building used especially for law courts.

Synagogue in Capernaum

...The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.

This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life...-- John 6, 52-68

Well, if nothing else, Jesus was not the kind of guy who told people what the polls said they wanted to hear...

Posted by John Weidner at January 4, 2009 5:23 AM
Weblog by John Weidner