The picture above is a view of the excavations which are ongoing at Capernaum. The grey hexagonal building is the church built around Peter’s home. The white building is the 4th century AD Roman style synagogue.
2. Geographical Position of Capernaum
But Capernaum is important for our story because of its geographic position. It was a small city on the North shore of the Sea of Galilee right on the highway which went from the Mediterranean coast to Damascus. It was designed according to that period’s urban design of straight lines, which was built parallel to the main Roman imperial highway, the Via Maris, which crossed the village on the northern side. This road came from Damascus in the north and went to Alexandria in Egypt in the south. It also had a connection to Caesarea Maritima. The city position meant that it was a natural place for a customs station. At the customs station, customs taxes were gathered both by stationary and by itinerant officers. Mt 9:9; 17:24; Mr 2:14; Lu 5:27. Caravans stopped at Capernaum to resupply themselves with produce and dried fish. At the lake shore, where Peter and other fishermen worked, archaeologists discovered a fish sales area.
A little historical background is necessary to understand why the customs post was here.
By the time of Jesus and Peter in the early first century AD, Capernaum was situated on the border of two realms: the Jewish tetrarchy of Herod Antipas to the west (in which Capernaum was located) and the predominantly Gentile tetrarchy of Herod Philip to the east. Because of its new status as a border town, Capernaum’s fishing and farming population expanded to include officials from Antipas’ administration, such as toll/tax collectors (see Mark 2:13–17; Matthew 9:9–13; Luke 5:27–32) and military officers (see Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10). The growing village’s proximity to the lake and a local trade route also brought interregional traffic and may have attracted less reputable elements of society, such as prostitutes and beggars.
Rome had entered an era of vast prosperity in the reign of Augustus. Why? First time in over a hundred years there is no civil war. With a few exceptions, there is no war of conquest going on. Peace brings prosperity. The vast numbers of provinces added until the beginning of the reign of Augustus were finally filling the coffers of Rome and of Romans with goods, slaves, and money. Trade is expanding, particularly with India and China. India is reached both from ports of the Red Sea, as well as overland, while China is virtually only accessed by overland routes. These overland routes basically funnel through Damascus and then through Capernaum.
Matthew is a toll collector, a specialized tax collector. I will recount more about what it was like to be a toll collector.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the calling of Matthew (Matthew 9:9) by Jesus is as follows:
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
The story of Matthew’s calling in Mark (Mark 2:14) is the same as it is in Matthew, except that Matthew is called Levi and one other important detail:
As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
From this I conclude that Levi and Matthew is the same person. But then who is Alphaeus?
In Matthew 10:2-4, we are given a list of the Apostles of Jesus:
2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Thus, Alphaeus is the father of James. This is also confirmed in Luke 6:15. But we know from Mark 2:14 that Alphaeus is the father of Levi (Matthew). Thus, Matthew and James are brothers.
In John 19:25, we read:
25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas ( NB perhaps spelled Cleophas), and Mary Magdalene.
Thus Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a sister, also named Mary, who is married to a man, known as Cleopas (or perhaps spelled Cleophas). Some scholars think that that Alphaeus is the same as Cleophas; Alphaeus being his Greek name, and Cleophas his Hebrew or Syriac name. If so, then Alphaeus is thus the uncle of Jesus, as well as the father of James and Matthew.
However, Alphaeus may also have been the brother of Joseph. If so, then in that manner he was the uncle of Jesus, as well as the father of James and Matthew.