Much of Jesus’ Galilean ministry centred on Capernaum, so it comes as something of a shock to hear him denounce the city in rather forthright terms while things still appear to be going well. Admittedly, a warning note is struck early on when the faith of the centurion is taken as an ominous sign that “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12). But by chapter 11 he appears to have written the place off completely:
And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” (Matt. 11:23–24)
I’ve come back to this theme again, because I think it is important to let the text speak for itself, not to subject it to our developed theological conclusions or shield it from our anachronistic ethical misgivings. The Jesus who was born of a woman, born under the Law (Gal. 4:4), and who was raised from the dead to be seated at the right hand of the Father, was a historical figure, not a theological figure, and he needs to be respected as such.
So let me try and reconstruct the narrative context for the saying about Capernaum and the day of judgment.
From town to town before the Son of Man comes
We are again told that Jesus went throughout the cities and villages of Galilee, proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing people (Matt. 9:35; cf. 4:23). He has compassion on the crowds because they are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Indeed, there are too many of them for Jesus to help on his own, so he instructs the disciples to “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:36-38).
He then sends out the twelve to extend the reach of his mission in response to the perceived demand. They are not to go to the Samaritans and Gentiles, only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” They are to do exactly what he has been doing—announce that the kingdom of heaven has come near, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons (Matt. 10:5-8). If a town rejects their message, Jesus warns that “it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt. 10:15).
On the whole, Jesus is not optimistic about the long term success of their mission. They can expect to be harassed by both Jewish and Gentile authorities and violently opposed even by members of their own families (Matt. 10:16-22). But if they persevere with the task, if they endure to the end, they will be saved. The mission from town to town will become a flight from town to town to escape persecution, but they will not have “gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23).
This puts a precise temporal limit on the mission of the disciples to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The experience of the followers of Jesus, in Judea and scattered among the nations, in the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, is described by Matthew in the apocalyptic discourse. They will be hated, betrayed, arrested and put to death for the sake of Jesus’ name.
But once the “good news” of what YHWH is doing to judge and reform his people has been “proclaimed in the whole empire (oikoumenēi) as a testimony to all the peoples,” the end will come, the “sign of the Son of Man” will be seen in the heavens, and the heralds of Jesus’ kingdom will be delivered from their persecutors (Matt. 24:9-14, 29-31). All this will happen, Jesus says, before this current generation of Jews passes away (Matt. 24:34).
The disciples cannot expect to be treated any better than their master, and if they have “called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matt. 10:25). Jesus says that he has come not to bring peace to the land of Israel but a sword, and anyone who wishes to follow him must therefore be willing to take up his or her cross, lose his or her life.
But he assures them that if they acknowledge him before men, he will acknowledge them before his Father in heaven—though conversely, if they deny him, he will deny them before God (Matt. 10:32-33).
At this point, disciples of John, who is in prison, come and ask whether Jesus is the one whom John prophesied would come after him. Jesus’ response echoes passages in Isaiah that speak of the restoration of Jerusalem following the punishment of destruction and exile: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt 11:5; cf. Is. 35:5-6; 61:1-2).
In other words, Jesus’ coming to heal and restore does not obviate the disaster of the war against Rome. If anything, it presupposes it. John is the messenger sent to prepare the way for the Lord, who will come on a day that the temple establishment will not be able to endure (Matt. 11:10; cf. Mal. 3:3:1-3). He is the Elijah who will call Israel to repentance “lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Matt. 11:14; cf. Mal. 4:5-6).
Their blood cries out for vengeance
Those who are not offended by Jesus will be “blessed” (Matt. 11:6): the blind will see, the lame will walk, and so on. But already it has become apparent that the towns and cities in which most of his mighty works were done have indeed been offended by his preaching; they have not believed the warning about the coming kingdom of God; they have not repented
When the day of God’s judgment against Israel comes, these cities will fare worse than the classic biblical archetypes of divine judgment. The “woes pronounced against Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum anticipate the sharp denunciations of the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23, which culminate in the shocking prophecy that this generation of Jews will suffer the consequences of the nation’s age-old refusal to heed God’s prophets. Jerusalem will be destroyed, the temple will be left desolate, not one stone on top of another (Matt. 23:37-24:2).
The two murdered “prophets,” Abel and Zechariah, stand for the witness of the entire scriptures against the current generation of Israel (Matt. 23:35)—the death of Zechariah “in the court of the house of the LORD” is described in 2 Chronicles 24:21, the last book in the Hebrew Bible. God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10); and as Zechariah died, he cried out, “May the LORD see and avenge!” Jesus is saying, in effect, that their deaths will be avenged in the appalling punishment of Gehenna, the day of judgment, that will come upon Jerusalem. His anger is apparent, but he takes no pleasure in saying it (Matt. 23:37-39).
Harrington gets this right: “The threat appears to be the destruction of Jerusalem, already a reality when Matthew wrote. The destruction is taken as a punishment for persecuting the prophets of old and the Christian missionaries.”1 Hagner thinks that he can have his cake and eat it: “Already in that generation they were to experience a foreshadowing of eschatological judgment in the destruction of Jerusalem and their temple.”2 The text offers no ground for this distinction.
Jesus’ own death will be added to the catalogue when the crowd, at his trial before Pilate, declares, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:25). Matthew does not mean that all Jews will be held accountable for the death of Jesus. He means that the people of Jerusalem who condemned Jesus, as their fathers condemned the prophets before them, would be held accountable (along with their children, naturally) at the time of the war against Rome.
The cities of Galilee in the Jewish revolt
Jesus’ does not attempt to predict the exact fate of the Galilean cities. The central point is that the war would have a more severe impact on them than it would have on the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon or on the “land of Sodom,” wherever exactly that was. Capernaum is reproached in the language of Isaiah’s taunt against the king of Babylon: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades” (Matt. 11:23; cf. Is. 14:13-15). This precludes any thought of its people being raised from the dead to participate in the sort of post-mortem “final” judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15. The judgment is death, not something that happens after death.
There is no evidence, either, that Capernaum was caught up in the Jewish revolt against Rome. Josephus refers to numerous unnamed cities which were captured or destroyed by Rome, but we do not have to suppose that Jesus had detailed knowledge of the course of the war. Whatever actually befell Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, at this stage they are merely representative of the region in which Jesus had gone looking, with limited success, for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Josephus’ account for the final capture of Jotapata, however, powerfully illustrates what it might mean for a defiant, presumptuous, self-exalting Galilean city to be brought down to Hades on a day of judgment:
And on this day the Romans slew all the multitude that appeared openly; but on the following days they searched the hiding places, and fell upon those that were underground, and in the caverns, and went thus through every age, excepting the infants and the women, and of these there were gathered together as captives twelve hundred; and as for those that were slain at the taking of the city, and in the former fights, they were numbered to be forty thousand. So Vespasian gave order that the city should be entirely demolished, and all the fortifications burnt down. (War 3:336–338)