Have you ever been to the site of Capernaum? It was the high spot of my visit to the Holy Land. There were other high spots too – for example drifting quietly in the middle of the Lake of Galilee, looking at exactly the same hills that Jesus saw. But Capernaum was the high spot for me because they believe they have found the old Synagogue there and, next to it, a house they call ‘The House of Peter’. They say that it might even have been the house of Jesus – if he had one. But that is sheer conjecture.
There is however considerable circumstantial evidence for the house being that of Peter. It is very clear from the finds that have been made that the early Christian Church – in the Third Century – venerated this exact spot as particularly sacred. There are all sorts of candles and other indications from that period that show that the Christen pilgrims came here to venerate this spot from the earliest times.
You will remember that Jesus healed the mother in law of Peter (Matt 8.14, Luke 4.38) and that she got up from her bed and prepared food for them. There is a suggestion in the text that the house was very near the synagogue. It is a very intimate moment in the gospels and entirely convincing.
The history of the Synagogue next door is also convincing. Apparently, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem prior to AD 70, synagogues were not built on any particular alignment. They could be north south or east west or any orientation between. However after AD70 the practice grew up, when building synagogues, of pointing the synagogue towards Jerusalem. The synagogue in Capernaum shows evidence that whereas it was set up on one plan, that plan was reversed by 180 degrees after AD 70. Initially it happened to be aligned in line with Jerusalem, but pointing away rather than towards Jerusalem. At some point after AD 70 it was reversed in its interior, so that when looking at its focal point you were looking towards Jerusalem. All of this makes the experts think that it is indeed the very synagogue that existed at the time of Jesus, subsequently reversed in orientation to conform to the new decision to point all synagogues towards the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem.
So there is a wealth of interest in the site generally, and it is perfectly possible to sense a real authenticity about the site. It is not far from the shore of the lake and in one’s imagination one can see the place bustling with people and the fishermen who played such an important role in the local economy.
Of course wherever one goes in the Holy Land the Guide of your visit will explain that this is the very spot where this or that happened, whereas we can be sure of only one thing: that there is very little we can be sure of when it comes to identifying exact locations in the New Testament times!
Visiting all these places in the Holy Land makes the New Testament come alive in some respects. You suddenly realise how precious it must have been for Jesus and the disciples to get back to the rolling hills of Galilee after a spell in hot crowded noisy Jerusalem. In some ways the countryside is very like parts of England – very green and peaceful.
A visit to the Holy Land pointed up for me the contrast between Jesus the man who walked those hills and the Christ who was raised from death and is alive for evermore. Jesus the man and Christ who is God.
Is there a conflict here? Do you find any difficulty in reconciling the two concepts? If you do, you are not alone. Let me suggest a way forward.
Most of us alternate from one to the other. When thinking about the message of Jesus we think of the man who was a real man and who walked around the Holy Land two thousand years ago. When we think of our spiritual bond to Christ we automatically think of the risen Christ, alive for evermore, seated at God’s right hand.
But they are not two separate people. They are one person. That is the claim of Christianity and it is a claim that we must hold onto above all else.
The Risen Christ is as real in my experience – and I hope in yours – as the person in the next room. The Jesus of Capernaum is a real person too – I can visualize and relate to him as another human being.
But he wasn’t just a human being you may object – he was the Christ. No, I would reply. He was a real human being and if we try to incorporate anything which affects in the slightest degree his humanity, then we have got it wrong. For in that moment we have changed our concept of him from being an ordinary human being into being some sort of superhuman god.
So what am I trying to say here? I am suggesting that, because we can understand his humanity – just like our humanity – it is not difficult for us to believe in him. We don’t know or understand divinity. Therefore we are at a loss as to how to describe Christ’s divinity.
Mostly, through the past centuries, everyone has emphasised his divinity - maximising it, or at least superimposing it on his humanity. That could be for several reasons. They didn’t understand his divinity but knew it was important, so it was placed first. How could they – or we – understand what his divinity means? Maybe they wanted to convince people that Jesus was more than just a man.
All we can say with complete assurance is that his divinity in no way altered his humanity. He was a man from Capernaum. He lived a human life. He ate and drank and slept, he laughed and cried and he was just like you and me. Whatever his divinity was, it made no difference to him as a man.
There are consequences of describing Jesus Christ like this. It means that suddenly we are up against a man living normally in the Holy Land, not a God walking the earth pretending to be a man, nor a half and half person – half man and half God. That is definitely the worst of all worlds!
Jesus Christ was a man. That much we know and are totally sure of. He was also divine – that we take on faith because none of us has the slightest idea what it means. All we can be sure of is that we should treat Jesus as totally man – that is the Jesus we can understand and relate to. To add anything that changes that picture even one scintilla is to falsify the picture – making him different from us in that essential regard. His divinity did not alter his being human at all. His being divine is simply the only explanation we can think of for what happened after he died and, when they thought about it, before he died too.
So now let us see some implications of what we are saying here. If he was totally a man (though also divine in some sense that we cannot understand) then he was heir to all the same problems, difficulties, misunderstandings and failures that you and I have in our daily lives. Ah, wait a minute, I hear you say. Do you mean then that as a man he could be wrong? You ask that question because we have been brainwashed by past images of Christ as divine. He was divine but not divine so as to make him mistake-proof as a human being.
When we look at the gospels we begin to see the writers saying exactly this. For example – in his hometown he could do no miracle. He failed to perform a miracle. Or take the views the gospel writers express about the end times, implying that the Kingdom of Heaven is about to appear on earth. We can spiritualize that if we want, but surely the reality is that both Jesus and Paul expected the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven in their lifetimes and both were wrong.
This takes us back to a previous article where I suggested that if the general opinion at that time was that the world was flat, then Jesus would have thought so too.
Now we begin to see the significance of a human Jesus, whose divinity did not interfere with his humanity. Now we are able to release Jesus from the weight of past centuries where his divinity was paramount – in art, in writings and in theology. We can move away from the divine Christ superimposed on his humanity.
In fact there is much work still being done. That is, study of the gospels from this point of view. This does not in any way detract from the orthodox belief that Jesus Christ was human and divine. But it makes us realise that we can now look at Christ in a different way than Christians have done over the previous centuries. We can see that there may have been an accumulation of error by some divines and artists and others around the figure of Christ for two thousand years. The balance and the understanding of how his divinity affected his humanity can now be corrected. Maybe this approach is going to finally reveal a new aspect of Jesus to us.
The newspapers report every so often about the restoration work done on some great work of art. As they gently remove the grime and varnish of the centuries the true colours of some early masterpiece are revealed, and the picture comes to life in a totally new way. We are back in the studio with the artist, looking at the glowing colours of his new painting.
So it is with Jesus. We must gently clean away the misconceptions of centuries and eventually we shall stand back amazed at the beauty of the painting and its colours. The living Christ will be revealed as the man he was two thousand years ago. The man who lived in Capernaum.