THE SCENE OF THE MINISTRY.
CHRIST'S first miracle of Cana was a sign that He came, not to call His disciples out of the world and its ordinary duties, but to make men happier, nobler, better in the world. He willed that they should be husbands, and fathers, and citizens, not eremites or monks. He would show that he approved the brightness of pure society, and the mirth of innocent gatherings, no less than the ecstacies of the ascetic in the wilderness, or the visions of the mystic in his solitary cell.
And, as pointing the same moral, there was something significant in the place which He chose as the scene of His earliest ministry. St. John had preached in the lonely wastes by the Dead Sea waters; his voice had been echoed back by the flinty precipices that frown over the sultry Ghôr. The city nearest to the scene of His teaching had been built in defiance of a curse, and the road to it led through "the bloody way." All around him breathed the dreadful associations of a guilty and desolated past; the very waves were bituminous; the very fruits crumbled into foul ashes under the touch; the very dust beneath his feet lay, hot and white, over the relics of an abominable race. There, beside those leaden waters, under that copper heaven, amid those burning wildernesses and scarred ravines, had he preached the baptism of repentance. But Christ, amid the joyous band of His mother, and His brethren, and his disciples, chose as the earliest centre of his ministry a bright and busy city, whose marble buildings were mirrored in a limpid sea.
That little city was Capernaum. It rose under the gentle declivities of hills that encircled an earthly Paradise, There were no such trees, and no such gardens, anywhere in Palestine as in the land of Gennesareth. The very name means "garden of abundance," and the numberless flowers blossom over a little plain which is "in sight like unto an emerald." It was doubtless a part of Christ's divine plan that His ministry should begin amid scenes so beautiful, and that the good tidings, which revealed to mankind their loftiest hopes and purest pleasures, should be first proclaimed in a region of unusual loveliness. The features of the scene are neither gorgeous nor colossal; there is nothing here of the mountain gloom or the mountain glory; nothing of that "dread magnificence" which overawes us as we gaze on the icy precipices of tropical volcanoes, or the icy precipices of northern hills. Had our life on earth been full of wild and terrible catastrophes, then it might have been fitly symbolised by scenes which told only of deluge and conflagration; but these green pastures and still waters, these bright birds and flowering oleanders, the dimpling surface of that inland sea, so doubly delicious and refreshful in a sultry land, all correspond with the characteristics of a life composed of innocent and simple elements, and brightened with the ordinary pleasures which, like the rain and the sunshine, are granted to all alike.
What the traveller will see, as he emerges from the Valley of Doves, and catches his first eager glimpse of Gennesareth, will be a small inland sea, like a harp in shape, thirteen miles long and six broad. On the farther or eastern side runs a green strip about a quarter of a mile in breadth, beyond which rises, to the height of some 900 feet above the level of the lake, an escarpment of desolate hills, scored with grey ravines, without tree, or village, or vestige of cultivationthe frequent scene of our Lord's retirement when, after His weary labours, He sought the deep refreshment of solitude with God. The lakewith its glittering crystal and fringe of flowering oleanders, through whose green leaves shine the bright blue wings of the roller-bird, and the kingfishers may be seen in multitudes dashing down at the fish that glance beneath themlies at the bottom of a great dent or basin in the earth's surface, more than 500 feet below the level of the Mediterranean. Hence the burning and enervating heat of the valley; but hence, too, the variety of its foliage, the fertility of its soil, the luxuriance of its flora, the abundant harvests that ripen a month earlier than they do elsewhere, and the number of rivulets that tumble down the hill-sides into the lake. The shores are now deserted. With the exception of the small and decaying town of Tiberiascrumbling into the last stage of decrepitudeand the "frightful village" of Mejdel (the ancient Magdala), where the degradation of the inhabitants is best shown by the fact that the children play stark naked in the streetthere is not a single inhabited spot on its once crowded shores. One miserable, crazy boatand that not always procurablehas replaced its gay and numerous fleet. As the fish are still abundant, no fact could show more clearly the dejected inanity and apathetic enervation of the present dwellers upon its shores. But the natural features still remain. The lake still lies unchanged in the bosom of the hills, reflecting every varying gleam of the atmosphere like an opal set in emeralds; the waters are still as beautiful in their clearness as when the boat of Peter lay rocking on their ripples, and Jesus gazed into their crystal depths; the cup-like basin still seems to overflow with its flood of sunlight; the air is still balmy with natural perfumes; the turtle-dove still murmurs in the valleys, and the pelican fishes in the waves; and there are palms, and green fields, and streams, and grey heaps of ruin. And what it has lost in population and activity, it has gained in solemnity and interest. If every vestige of human habitation should disappear from beside it, and the jackal and the hyena should howl about the shattered fragments of the synagogues where once Christ taught, yet the fact that He chose it as the scene of His opening ministry will give a sense of sacredness and pathos to its lonely waters till time shall be no more.
Yet widely different must have been its general aspect in the time of Christ, and far more strikingly beautiful, because far more richly cultivated. Josephus, in a passage of glowing admiration, after describing the sweetness of its waters, and the delicate temperature of its air, its palms, and vines, and oranges, and figs, and almonds, and pomegranates, and warm springs, says that the seasons seemed to compete for the honour of its possession, and Nature to have created it as a kind of emulative challenge, wherein she had gathered all the elements of her strength. The Talmudists see in the fact that this plain"the ambition of Nature"belonged to the tribe of Naphtali, a fulfilment of the Mosaic blessing, that that tribe should be "satisfied with favour, and full with the blessing of the Lord;" and they had the proverb, true in a deeper sense than they suppose, that "God had created seven seas in the land of Canaan, but one onlythe Sea of Galileehad He chosen for Himself."
Not, however, for its beauty only, but because of its centrality, and its populous activity, it was admirably adapted for that ministry which fulfilled the old prophecy of Isaiah, that "the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles," should "see a great light;" and that to them "who sat in the region of the shadow of death" should "light spring up." For Christ was to be, even in His own lifetime, "a light to lighten the Gentiles," as well as "the glory of His people Israel." And people of many nationalities dwelt in and encompassed this neighbourhood, because it was "the way of the sea." "The cities," says Josephus, "lie here very thick; and the very numerous villages are so full of people, because of the fertility of the land . . . . . that the very smallest of them contain above 15,000 inhabitants." He adds that the people were active, industrious, and inured to war from infancy, cultivating every acre of their rich and beautiful soil. No less than four roads communicated with the shores of the lake. One led down the Jordan valley on the western side; another, crossing a bridge at the south of the lake, passed through Peræa to the fords of Jordan near Jericho; a third led, through Sepphoris, the gay and rising capital of Galilee, to the famous port of Accho on the Mediterranean Sea; a fourth ran over the mountains of Zebulon to Nazareth, and so through the plain of Esdraelon to Samaria and Jerusalem. Through this district passed the great caravans on their way from Egypt to Damascus; and the heathens who congregated at Bethsaida Julias and Cæsarea Philippi must have been constantly seen in the streets of Capernaum. In the time of Christ it was for population and activity "the manufacturing district" of Palestine, and the waters of its lake were ploughed by 4,000 vessels of every description, from the war-vessel of the Romans to the rough fisher-boats of Bethsaida and the gilded pinnaces from Herod's palace. Ituræa, Samaria, Syria, Phœnicia were immediately accessible by crossing the lake, the river, or the hills. The town of Tiberias, which Herod Antipas had built to be the capital of Galilee, and named in honour of the reigning emperor, had risen with marvellous rapidity; by the time that St. John wrote his Gospel it had already given its name to the Sea of Galilee; and even if Christ never entered its heathenish amphitheatre or grave-polluted streets, He must often have seen in the distance its turreted walls, its strong castle, and the Golden House of Antipas, flinging far into the lake the reflection of its marble lions and sculptured architraves. Europe, Asia, and Africa had contributed to its population, and men of all nations met in its market-place. All along the western shores of Gennesareth Jews and Gentiles were strangely mingled, and the wild Arabs of the desert might there be seen side by side with enterprising Phœnicians, effeminate Syrians, contemptuous Romans, and supple, wily, corrupted Greeks.
The days of delightful seclusion in the happy valley of Nazareth were past; a life of incessant toil, of deep anxiety, of trouble, and wandering, and opposition, of preaching, healing, and doing good, was now to begin. At this earliest dawn of his public entrance upon His ministry, our Lord's first stay in Capernaum was not for many days; yet these days would be a type of all the remaining life. He would preach in a Jewish synagogue built by a Roman centurion, and His works of love would become known to men of many nationalities. It would he clear to all that the new Prophet who had arisen was wholly unlike his great forerunner. The hairy mantle, the ascetic seclusion, the unshorn locks, would have been impossible and out of place among the inhabitants of those crowded and busy shores. Christ came not to revolutionise, but to ennoble and to sanctify. He came to reveal that the Eternal was not the Future, but only the Unseen; that Eternity was no ocean whither men were being swept by the river of Time, but was around them now, and that their lives were only real in so far as they felt its reality and its presence. He came to teach that God was no dim abstraction, infinitely separated from them in the far-off blue, but that He was the father in whom they lived, and moved, and had their being; and that the service which He loved was not ritual and sacrifice, not pompous scrupulosity and censorious orthodoxy, but mercy and justice, humility and love. He came, not to hush the natural music of men's lives, nor to fill it with storm and agitation, but to re-tune every silver chord in that "harp of a thousand strings," and to make it echo with the harmonies of heaven.
And such being the significance of Christ's life in this lovely region, it is strange that the exact site of Capernaumof Capernaum, "His own city" (Matt. ix. 1), which witnessed so many of his mightiest miracles, which heard so many of His greatest revelationsshould remain to this day a matter of uncertainty. That it was indeed either at Khan Minyeh or at Tell Hûm is reasonably certain; but at which? Both towns are in the immediate vicinity of Bethsaida and of Chorazin; both are beside the waves of Galilee; both lie on the "way of the sea;" the claims of both are supported by powerful arguments; the decision in favour of either involves difficulties as yet unsolved. After visiting the scenes, and carefully studying on the spot the arguments of travellers in many volumes, the preponderance of evidence seems to me in favour of Tell Hûm. There, on bold rising ground, encumbered with fragments of white marble, rise the ruined walls of what was perhaps a synagogue, built in the florid and composite style which marks the Herodian age; and amid the rank grass and gigantic thistles lie scattered the remnants of pillars and architraves which prove that on this spot once stood a beautiful and prosperous town. At Khan Minyeh there is nothing but a common ruined caravanserai and grey mounded heaps, which may or may not be the ruins of ruins. But whichever of the two was the site on which stood the home of Peterwhich was also the home of Christ (Matt. viii. 14)either is desolate; even the wandering Bedawy seems to shun those ancient ruins, where the fox and the jackal prowl at night. The sad and solemn woe that was uttered upon the then bright and flourishing city has been fulfilled: "And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it had remained unto this day."