from jesus to christ - the first christians
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Why archaeological findings are requiring scholars to re-think Jesus' socio-cultural background.


The gospels claim Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Historians think it is more likely that he was born and grew up near the sea of Galilee in the village called Nazareth.

Allen D. Callahan:

Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School

The region was known for being a hotbed of political activity, and some of it violent. In the last few generations of New Testament scholarship, Galilee has gotten this, has achieved this reputation of being a hotbed of radicalism, you know, I don't know, the "60s Berkeley of Palestine."

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin

The Galilee, by most of the traditional accounts, is always portrayed as a kind of bucolic backwater peasants on the hillsides. And yet, our recent archaeological discoveries have shown this not to be the case. Nazareth stands less than four miles from a major urban center, Sepphoris.

Sepphoris was, um, founded as the capitol of the Galilee. And so, it was really invested, much like Caesarea Maritima, with all the trappings of Greek or Roman city life.


Recent archeological discoveries at Sepphoris challenge the conventional picture of Jesus' life

Eric Meyers:

Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University

One of the more exciting discoveries that we made at Sepphoris was a magnificent Roman villa with a gorgeous, gorgeous mosaic on its floor in a banquet hall.

The lady was dubbed Mona Lisa by the press when we found her because she's really an extraordinary depiction of a beautiful woman of Roman antiquity.

Eric Meyers:

And the picture we get is a community very much in the mainstream, but on the high end of the scale.

Sepphoris was not just a city with houses and with waterworks and things like that, but it had satellite settlements around. Nazareth to all intents and purposes was a satellite village attached to the region or municipality of Sepphoris.

Holland Lee Hendrix:

President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary

The findings are really requiring us completely to re-think, ah, Jesus's social economic setting because we really had thought of Jesus as being really out in the, in the hinterland utterly removed from urban life especially Roman influenced urban life. What the excavations at Sepphoris suggest is that Jesus was quite proximate to a thriving and sophisticated urban environment that would have brought with it all of the diversity of, of the Roman Empire and would have required, just to get on, you know as the price of doing business, a level of sophistication that one would not have thought, ahm, characteristic of Jesus, the humble carpenter.


Scholars today question the image of Jesus the humble carpenter - and disagree about his social class.


They were astounded and said "Where did this man get this wisdom? Is not this the carpenter's son?"

Matthew 13:55

John Dominic Crossan:

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University

The difficulty for us in hearing a term like carpenter is that we immediately think of a highly skilled worker, and at least in North America, in the middle class, making a very high income. As soon as we take that into the ancient world we are totally lost. Because first of all there was no middle class in the ancient world. There were the haves and the have nots to put it very simply. And in the anthropology of peasant societies, to say that somebody is an artisan or a carpenter is not to compliment them. It is to say that they are lower in the pecking order than a peasant farmer.

NEW Narrator:

Very few scholars now believe that Jesus was of such lowly birth

Holland Lee Hendrix:

I'm not entirely convinced that we could characterize Jesus as, as a peasant. I think that, that probably miscasts, ahm, Jesus especially in view of the more recent discoveries at Sepphoris and elsewhere.

L. Michael White:

He must be someone in the artisan class if he's working in the, in the building industry. And in all probability that would mean where he might grow up and live in Nazareth, he likely went to Sepphoris to earn his living. And this puts him in the interesting mix of cultures that would have been the daily life of a city like Sepphoris, through the marketplace, in the building. And Sepphoris itself as a city was built precisely at the time that Jesus was growing up and living just next door.

Eric Meyers:

You couldn't deal and wheel, either in the workplace or in the market without knowing a good deal of Greek. And I can't hardly imagine anybody worth their salt who wouldn't know some Greek.

Eric Meyers:

Jesus was tri-lingual, Jesus participated in both the Aramaic and Hebrew culture and its literatures as well as the kind of Hellenistic Greek that he needed to do his business and his ministry.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

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