TRA Wordtalks

TRA 30th September, 2001
New Evidence about St Peter

Matthew 26:69-75

There is new evidence concerning the facts of the life, judgement and death of Jesus, from archaeological discoveries concerning His disciple friend, who denied knowing Jesus: Peter, the big fisherman. The discoveries concern where Peter lived, the work he did, and I want to suggest an interpretation as to what he said.

1. The Synagogue at Capernaum
In 1894 some German Franciscans purchased some synagogue ruins in what was believed to be Biblical Capernaum. Capernaum was a fishing community in the day of Jesus by the lake of Galilee. It had a customs house where Matthew worked. Mark 2:14 As the northern most city it also had a Roman detachment, from which a centurion had financially supported the building of the synagogue. Matthew 8:5-13 After Jesus left Nazareth, Jesus "went to live in Capernaum, a town by lake Galilee" Matt 4:12-17 Here He began to preach the Kingdom of God, and called the fishermen disciples Mark 1:16-20 Here Jesus called Matthew to follow Him. Mark 2:13-17 In the synagogue of Capernaum, Jesus preached and healed a man with an unclean spirit. Mark 1:21-28 In Capernaum Jesus was teaching in a house so crowded four men could not get their paralyzed friend before Jesus, so they removed part of the roof of the house to let him down before Jesus. This healing spread His fame. Mark 2:1-12 In Capernaum Jesus healed the slave of a centurion who helped build the synagogue in Capernaum; Luke 7:1-10 healed the daughter of Jairus who was a ruler in the synagogue; and healed Peter's mother-in-law who was ill, and who lived nearby. Mark 1:29-34 

In the synagogue Jesus gave His greatest teaching concerning the bread of life, and interpreted the significance of His death. John 6:25-59 Peter came from nearby Bethsaida, John 1:44 but shifted to Capernaum with his wife and her mother. The Franciscan monks excavated and re-erected a 4th century synagogue. Beside it is a courtyard. In the mortar on which the stone pavement was laid, they found some 2,920 coins belonging to the first half of the fourth century. In the courtyard more than 20,000 coins were discovered. Beneath the synagogue at Capernaum lies the foundation stones of an earlier synagogue built from black basalt from the first century A.D.. As there was only one synagogue in Capernaum, and as Jesus did preach there, this was the synagogue in which Jesus Himself preached. These were the stones on which he walked. 

2. The Church at Capernaum
In front of the synagogue are ruins of an unusual octagonal building. This church was built around two octagons, the inner one enclosing the foundations and walls of the earlier house. A baptistry was built on one side, and the floor covered with beautiful mosaics including a peacock, one of the early Church's symbols of eternal life. This church was built in the fifth century A.D., to honour the site of an earlier house-church. The archeologists suspected that if they removed the floor of the octagonal church they would probably find the remains of the house of Peter. Since 1968 archeologists carefully removed the floor of the fifth century church and found the remains of an earlier smaller house church from the first century.

3. The First home Church
In the fourth century a Spanish pilgrim Eteria wrote in her diary: "In Capernaum the house of the Prince of the Apostles (i.e. Peter) became a church. The walls, however, have remained unchanged to the present day." The pilgrim speaks of a "domus ecclesia", a private home used as a house of worship. Here was an actual home church, enlarged into a church. The plaster from the walls contained some paintings and writing from the time of Peter. The archeologists lifted the floors carefully in 1977 and found pieces of plaster, covered for the last 1,800 years. The plaster still had some words from the original walls! For four centuries that home was used for worship. The walls had been plastered three times, and each layer contains writing testifying to the sacred nature of the home. There are one hundred and thirty-one pieces of plaster graffiti written in four languages. The name of Jesus appears and He is called Christ, Lord, the Most High, and God. Peter is mentioned twice. 

Some prayers are broken but still meaningful: "O Lord Jesus Christ, help.....". "Christ have mercy....". "O Lord Christ....". There is an inscription from 3 Baruch 4:4-15: "The Lord says: 'Bitterness will be turned into sweetness, malediction will be changed into benediction, and the fruit of the vineyard will become the blood of God." a reference to the Lord's Supper. There are also several hundred pieces of plaster with decorative motifs, of boats fishing, crosses, a chi-rho ( an early Christian symbol for Christ), and several scraps of prayers and one longer prayer.

4. The home of the big fisherman
Contained within the home church, is the smaller home that used to be the home of Peter, the Big Fisherman. Archeologists carefully removed the floor of the house of worship from the first century and discovered the foundations of a home of a fishing family. This was where believers worshipped Christ in the first century. The home was then enlarged, with the interior walls used as filling for a new floor laid upon it. The Bible has a clue to the location of the house. Mark's Gospel says: "Jesus and his disciples came to the town of Capernaum, and on the next Sabbath Jesus went to the synagogue and began to teach.....Jesus and his disciples, including James and John, left the synagogue and went straight to the home of Peter." Mark 1:21,29 The home was "hard by", "adjacent", meaning "he went straight into", the house of Peter. I walked from the synagogue to the house in less than half a minute. 

5. The Jesus and Peter boat
There was a drought in Israel in 1985. The drought, plus the pumping out of water for irrigation lowered the level of the Lake below that for centuries. The timbers of an old boat appeared, and it was excavated. The timbers had survived, sunk in the mud beneath the water for centuries. They were black and waterlogged, but still kept their shape. It is 8.2 metres long and 2.35 metres wide. Its planks butt against each other, as did boats from the Roman era. Mortise and tenon joints hold the planks of cedar and oak together nailed by wooden pegs. But how to raise it? The Israeli government archaeologist, Shelley Wachsmann, pondered.

He gathered a team of volunteers. The boat's timber was in good shape. Its long immersion saturated it to the consistency of wet cardboard, so it was too soft to move. Yet if it were allowed to dry out its entire cellular structure would collapse. They sprayed polyurethane over the exposed inner portions of the vessel, and let this harden to the boat's exact shape. Protected by an impromptu 'dry dock' of sandbags the volunteers then dug below the boat and fibreglassed it. More polyurethane created a strong, protective cocoon. It is now being restored at Kibbutz Nof Ginnosar. 

Its style, and a cooking pot and a lamp found in it, point to an age of about 2,000 years. Radio carbon 14 test to the wood gave its date as 40BC to 40AD. Journalists named it the 'Jesus boat' or 'Peter's boat'. It came from their period but there is no way to prove any connection between it and Jesus and Peter. There was no name like 'Jonah and Sons' painted on the side! It would have needed a crew of five. Jesus called Zebedee's sons James and John to leave their father 'in the boat with the men he employed' to follow Him. Mark 1: 20. These boats worked in pairs with long nets catching shoals of Musht fish. Musht, large, edible and shoal-loving fish have remained plentiful in the Sea of Galilee from Jesus time to today. Often called 'St Peter's fish', they were almost certainly the particular fish netted in the 'miraculous' catch described in Luke 5:1-7. Today they remain a favourite with Galilean fishermen. I cooked some of those fish at dawn on a fire by the side of Lake Galilee and thought of Jesus cooking breakfast and calling the disciples to come and eat with him.

6. Jesus and Peter and Caiaphas's house
Peter was self-confident and courageous. Every fisherman on Galilee had to be courageous. I have seen the sign 'Beware of the westerly whips' warning fishermen today. The early church told how Peter, full of confidence, attempted to walk on water but sank. They told how he drew his sword to defend Jesus from the Temple police. Why then did such a courageous man then deny Christ? Jesus had predicted His disciples would fail him. But Peter said, 'Although the rest may deny you, I will never deny you.' You can see his strength and self-confidence. 'Lord I am ready to go to prison with you and to die with you!' 'I tell you, Peter,' Jesus said, 'the cock will not crow tonight until you have said three times that you do not know me."Matt 26:33-34 But why should he deny he ever knew Christ? He was not under torture, or even threatened with death by soldiers. A young servant girl simply recognised him.

I think bravery led him to follow the captured Jesus to the house of the High Priest Caiaphas. What takes a man furtively through the dark streets of Jerusalem to the courtyard of the High Priest? I think he was listening - trying to find out what would happen to Jesus. He was waiting for some word from a servant or soldier. While listening, waiting, thinking if he could rescue Jesus, he was recognised. Then Peter denied he knew Jesus. That denial was not cowardice to save himself. But as an act of bravery trying to remain under cover. When a servant-girl said, 'He was with Jesus of Nazareth,' Peter replied, 'I swear that I don't know the man!' When challenged again, he said, 'I swear I do not know the man!' Then a cock crowed and Peter remembered.

After the resurrection, Jesus appeared a week later along the Galilee Lake shore. Peter and the others were fishing. Jesus called to them to come ashore and have some breakfast. John 21:15-19 "When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep." The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. Follow me!" With each fresh question, one of the denials was erased. These last words to Peter were same same as His first words on the same shore of GaIiIee, 'Follow me!'. For the next thirty years, Peter was to lead the most incredible life as he followed the way of Jesus and cared for the young church. 

His home in Capernaum became the centre for the Christian thrust throughout Galilee. For the next four hundred years it was to be the centre of Christian witness and worship in that area. From there Peter extended his ministry to Jerusalem, Samaria, the Mediterranean coast, to Asia Minor, Greece and, finally, Rome. The largest church in the world, St Peter's in Rome, marks the end of his Christian ministry, but the house church in Capernaum marks its beginning. Do you make your house a home church from which you witness to Jesus? Do you follow Jesus as bravely

Gordon Moyes

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