Apostle Peter House
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38. Apostle Peter House

Octagonal Byzantine Church

Basilica on HillsideIn the small fishing village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus probably spent his early life and ministry. Here "Beneath the octagonal Byzantine church lies the remains of two earlier building campaigns and the Apostle Peter's house. The earliest remains testify to a common Insula or joined buildings, which were domestic habitations characteristic of the small fishing community at Capernaum. Within this complex, dating to the first century AD, was a large hall twenty-one feet by nineteen feet (400 square feet) that was venerated by Christians as the Apostle Peter house. This hall was likely used by the local community of Jewish Christians while the other rooms of the building continued to function as part of the domestic residence" write Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids in "Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development." This partial adaptation of the Apostle Peter's house, with the surrounding rooms continuing to throb with daily life. It probably continued into the late Roman period when the community enlarged the primitive house church by adding to the hall the main room on the east and dependencies on the north. It also enclosed the entire small insula of the Apostle Peter house within a sacred precinct to serve the needs of the community and pilgrims. Subsequently, this entire fifth-century complex was covered by the octagonal concrete and glass church we see today.

Capernaum Church House

Capernaum HousePeter's Capernaum church house was transformed into a house church or 'domus ecclesiae' for Christian worship. The archaeological excavations at Capernaum suggest that the former house of Peter also called the "Pilgrimage Church of St. Peter in Capernaum" was transformed into a "domus ecclesiae" or "church house" and may well be the most ancient example of an original house church. Unlike the house church remains at Dura-Europos, the building at Capernaum does not allow an unambiguous reconstruction of the original building and its history of structural development according to Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids in the "Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development." The fifth-century construction of an octagonal Byzantine church on the same site and the subsequent invasion by the Persians in 614 AD resulted in the end of Byzantine Christian rule and the demolition of Christian worship places. But with renewed interest in Galilee and detailed archaeological field reports, a satisfying reconstruction was made possible. Being in Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and just down the road from a very early synagogue it could well be the house of Saint Peter's mother-in-law. It was here that Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law as recorded in Matthew 8.14-15, "When Jesus came into Peter's house, he saw Peter's mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him."

White Synagogue

This miracle took place after Jesus had been preaching in the synagogue of Capernaum in Mark 1.21, "They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach." Interestingly, there are many Christian symbols engraved upon the stones in the Capernaum Synagogue which is also called the "White Synagogue" because of it's imported white limestone, which again ties the two places together. According to local tradition, a Gentile centurion built the community's synagogue. This may refer to the centurion in Luke 7.4-6, "When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, 'This man deserves to have you do this because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.' So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: 'Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.'"

Christian Basilica Building

Basilica PlanThe final stage of household development was the use of a Christian basilica building for worship after 250 AD. John Foster in "The First Advance - Church History 1: AD 29-500" wrote, "During the third and final stage of household development between 250 and 313 AD, larger buildings and halls called 'Aula Ecclesia', both private and public, were used. These larger buildings preceded the Christian basilica architecture of Constantine's era, and some of them may have previously functioned as 'domus ecclesiae.'" Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids added in "Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development" "Basilica buildings were rectangular in shape and had none of the formal features of later basilica architecture." About 250 AD, we heard of a few of these simple Christian buildings being built, where Christians were most numerous, in Pontus, Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. But in the year 250 AD came persecution, which was Empire-wide, and the Christians lost their buildings.

Sacred Place

Basilica ShellA number of the Christian basilica building remains were preserved beneath some of the churches in Rome that suggested earlier structures used by Christian communities. Many of these ancient Roman sites became the locations of the Christian basilicas, thereby preserving a tradition of a "sacred place." Basilica S. Crisogono was an indisputable example of an "aula ecclesiae" in Rome. It was located on the ancient Via Aurelia and was constructed by incorporating a large, pre-existing rectangular hall of 90 ft. by 50 ft. This particular hall dated to the beginning of the fourth century or c310 AD.

Christian Assembly Halls

BasilicaLarge Christian assembly halls like markets were used as worship places in the later period of the Early Church in Corinth. Pre-Constantinian basilica style structures were used as church buildings, but Christian assembly halls were not distinguishable as such. It was a common Roman type of assembly hall used for administration or market places. The only recognizable indications of their use for Christian assembly were the choir screens and side rooms that could have been reserved for the catechumens. Assemblies of the whole church could meet from time to time and on important occasions in a place large enough to accommodate them. Perhaps assembly halls were very large domus or rented halls. In Corinth, Gaius seems to have had a large enough house to meet and also to house Paul. The separation of the Eucharist from the agape meal and the growing numbers of believers necessitated the removal of worship from the venue of the private dwelling, and thus from the family setting. From then on, Christian worship was conducted in public Christian assembly halls and no longer took place in a family and home environment. The growing authority of the bishop concentrated more and more power in the hands, not of local leaders, but of a centralized authority which was responsible for larger and larger groups of believers. Although the "domus ecclesiae" continued to be used well into the fourth century, early in that same century Christians also began to use public buildings as places of assembly. This change coincided with the end of the periodic persecutions such as the Emperor Diocletian's (244-311 AD) in 303-5 AD and the recognition of Christianity by Constantine (274-337 AD) culminating in religious freedom in the Edict of Milan in 313 AD.✞

"Apostle Peter House"
by Ron Meacock © 2019

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