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from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Surprises of Sepphoris

The archaeological excavations at Sepphoris are painting a new portrait of Jesus' world.

Paula Fredriksen:

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University

What do recent archaeological findings at Sepphoris tell us about Jesus' occupation, his social class, how he made a living?

Sepphoris was known as the jewel of the Galilee. It was one of the capital cities of the Galilee and it's the first capital of Herod's son, who is an independent Jewish client king of Rome during the lifetime of Jesus.... Sepphoris is a beautiful, wealthy city. It's a Jewish city. But like most wealthy Jewish cities in the Greco-Roman period, it's architectural statements are done in Greco-Roman idiom. That doesn't mean that it's Greco-Roman culture. No more than we would think that Thomas Jefferson [was] because Monticello has elements of Greek architecture....

Sepphoris... was moneyed. It was the center of trade for the area. And if Jesus were growing up in Nazareth, which is just a walk for somebody healthy... I think it's something like three miles. If he were a carpenter, or some kind of craftsman, he might have done work in Sepphoris....What does this imply about Jesus' social class? It's hard to know. I think that since he's depicted as a pious Jew, and since pious Jews have a six-day work week, and since on the seventh day they have particular obligations that don't allow them to take long journeys, (on the Sabbath you really are supposed to rest. You're not supposed to hike into Sepphoris and maybe, catch a play in the afternoon, or something like that.) I don't think that culturally, Sepphoris would have made all that much difference. I think as most people in his period who are not landed gentry, Jesus would have worked for a living for six days a week and rested on the Sabbath....

Eric Meyers:

Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University

Sepphoris was a city that existed already in Hellenistic times, first, second century BCE. But it was really developed by Herod's son Antipas, when he went there in 4 or 3 before the Common Era, after his father's death. The extent of his activities, however, as described by none other than Josephus, the historian of this era, is very complicated. It's alleged by many scholars that his building scheme resembled that of his dad's in Jerusalem. But after a dozen years excavating at the site, it's very difficult to come up with the fixings of a real eastern Roman city in the time of Jesus or at the beginning of the first century in the time of Antipas....

The theater that everyone assumes was built in the time of Jesus or in the time of Antipas, in my opinion and I think now in the opinion of all of the excavators of the site, was not begun until the second half of the century, if not the beginning of the second century, C.E.... We have wonderful upper class villas in which Jews and priests lived, some of them with very close connections to Jerusalem. And we have a series of first century ritual baths, used for complete immersion, to deal with the Levitical command as found in the Hebrew Bible, to honor the commandment of ritual purity, bodily purity....

So Antipas beautified the city, but it was not yet a great city of the Roman East. I'm absolutely certain of this. This happened later when the theater is erected and when Roman Legionnaires and soldiers come and establish their presence and make themselves known at the beginning of the second century. There's one other clue that tells us very much about the character of first century Sepphoris. And that surprisingly, comes from the bones that we find in these houses and in these villas. We have virtually no pig bones attested in the early Roman period at Sepphoris. Occasionally, we find an odd bone here or there of swine, but virtually none. When we go up to other centuries, even the second century, we find a significant increase, up to 8 or 10 percent of the bones are pigs, and no doubt these are being presented, by virtue of the presence of the Roman Army. And by the fourth century when there are Christians there we've got 18 percent, 20 percent pig bones....

I think the beginnings of Jewish culture in Sepphoris, as we can reconstruct them now from archaeology in the first century, might be characterized as upscale, living very much as some of the Jews from Jerusalem might have lived at the same time in the Jewish quarter. We have frescoed rooms. We have houses, each with its own private ritual bath. That's an extravagance, considering where the water had to be brought from and the kind of technical [manueverings] it took to get pure water mixed with standing water. But it was very much in the mainstream. I don't think they were doing anything that they shouldn't have done. It was not an assimilating community. The picture we get is a community very much in the mainstream, but on the high end of the scale. It was an upscale city in the making. Not yet a real city of the east, but a city surely that was born in the time of Antipas.


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. And this villa, which we call the Villa of Dionysus because so many of the scenes are concerned with the legend and mythology of the god Dionysus, has at two of its ends in this banquet hall, one very attractive woman and one not so attractive woman. The lady who is not so attractive was not depicted as well as the other, but she was also injured badly during the great earthquake which destroyed Sepphoris in 363. But the lady on the other side was dubbed "Mona Lisa" by the press when we found her because she's really an extraordinary depiction in stone of a beautiful woman of Roman antiquity. She might be one of the four seasons. But one has the feeling that behind that face was a real woman and a real figure. Because the artistry that depicts it in stone is so delicate and so exquisite and so painterly. And so she has become kind of synonymous with the site even though she's from the 3rd century, the high point of Hellenization at the site. She has now become synonymous with the Romanization of the site and Hellenization....

The discovery of these scenes of the mythology of Dionysus on the floor of a public house in a banquet hall in a Jewish town certainly blew most everyone's mind. And made us think for the first time that there was a much more liberal attitude towards the second commandment banning pictorial images in Judaism and that Jews in general were much more flexible with respect to image making and artistic presentation and activity, in the very period where the Mishna, the first major Jewish body of law to be codified in Palestine at Sepphoris in the third century, was being produced side by side with this great piece of work.

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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