New Testament Significance: Historical Jesus

Did Jesus ever visit Sepphoris in his public ministry?

The new testament does not mention Sepphoris. In fact, no tradition, orthodox or unorthodox makes mention of it. The gospels show an itinerant Jesus, visiting villages but never the big cities like Tiberias or Sepphoris. The sole exception to this is Jerusalem. Why was this? Some scholars suggest it was the result of popular resentment of Galilean peasants toward urban centres. They were regarded as parasitical, increasing the tax burden. Scholars also mention the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas, the local ruler. Tiberias was his seat of power and Sepphoris his creation. little reason for Jesus to assume a high-profile there or even visit these cities. A final suggestion mainly refers to Tiberias. It was built on a place where the Jews had buried people for many years, this made the whole city ritually impure. Numeri 19:22 shows that contact with a corpse makes unclean and 19:16 renders anyone touching a grave ritually impure. However, the fact that this only makes sense for Tiberias makes it a less likely explanation.

 

Sepphoris Aerial Photo

Sepphoris from the air

Was Jesus a carpenter in Sepphoris?

Joseph the father of Jesus is described as a tekton in the New Testament. This can mean a variety of things from carpenter or mason to shipbuilder. It is very likely that Jesus was Joseph’s assistant during his youth.

The family of Joseph and Mary grew up in Nazareth. This is well attested in the gospels and confirmed by most Historical Jesus scholars. Nazareth was a miniscule town. The Old Testament does not mention it, neither does the Mishna or Josephus. Excavations suggest a population of about two to four hundred inhabitants.

Interestingly, the village was about a two hour walk from Sepphoris (the city on a hill of Matt 5:14?). Right at the time of Jesus’s youth the city was rebuilt by Herod Antipas. It had been sacked before for its involvement in a Jewish uprising. The new city was to be a glorious city built with Hellenistic architecture and propagating Hellenistic culture. Excavations confirm that it was a grand city, draped on a hill. Among its characteristics is a clear Roman lay-out and a large theatre. It was known as ‘the jewel of Galilee’. The fact that all this was built, a two-hour walk from the apprentice tekton Jesus of Nazareth has led scholars to believe Jesus worked in Sepphoris. Some even went as far as claiming that Joseph settled in Nazareth precisely for this reason.

Another argument that scholars put forward to support this hypothesis is Jesus’ use of the word hypocrites in the New Testament (e.g. Matt 23:13). This was a theatrical term in Greek theatre. This would suggest that Jesus was aware of Greek theatre and the most likely point of contact between Jesus and Hellenistic culture was Sepphoris and its theatre.

These arguments have to be seen in light of some critical comments. Firstly, there is no evidence of commuting between Nazareth and Sepphoris. At any rate, a daily 4-hour walk to work and back is considerable. On top of that, most historical evidence shows that peasant towns in Galilee showed little mobility of its inhabitants apart from the rare pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As to Jesus’ attending theatre in Sepphoris, there is not the faint possibility. It was built 50 years after his death. A leisurely visit seems unlikely as well, mobility as mentioned was limited and the 6-day workweek left only the highly regulated Sabbath free.

All in all, the likelihood of Jesus working or enjoying some spare time in Sepphoris is small, Jesus seeing the actual mosaic of this blog is even smaller. However, Jesus certainly knew of Sepphoris. Since it was situated on a high hill, visible from miles, he probably looked at it more than once. 

 

Galilee Map

Map of Galilee