Sepphoris, ancient town in Galilee, Jesus and Joseph

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The entrance to the Sepphoris Valley (Nahal Zippori) is 3 km south-east of Kiryat Atta, or 4km south of Somech Junction.

 

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Joseph's story

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Sepphoris - ancient Galileean town

Sepphoris  is not named in the Bible, but it was a large town near Nazareth.

  • Procession of Dionysius, SepphorisIn about 17-20CE when Jesus was a young man, Sepphoris was built as a model Graeco-Roman city, and briefly become the capital of Galilee. It was very much a Greek-style city - see the mosaic from Sepphoris at right. It shows a procession honoring the Greek god Dionysius, so it was flagrantly non-Jewish.

  • Sepphoris had a theatre for 4,000 people, public squares, a fortress, a palace, colonnaded streets, city walls, archives, a treasury, and an arms store - and a population of around 30,000.

  • It is tempting to wonder whether Joseph and Jesus took part in the re-building of this city - Joseph was probably a builder rather than a carpenter, since there would have been limited demand for wooden furniture in Nazareth. It is quite possible that he and the young boy Jesus found contract work there, helping with its re-construction (which took many years)  when it was destroyed after the death of Herod the Great in 4BC.

  • In Jewish society there were three main levels: the rich, who were usually landowners and entrepreneurs; the poor, who worked on the land or at a variety of trades; and the destitute, who had neither land nor job and survived by begging. Jesus and his family belonged to the middle group. They were neither rich nor poor.

Sepphoris: the Mona Lisa of Sepphoris, mosaic in situ, viewed from above

Above & below: Two of the 1st century AD mosaics excavated at Sepphoris. 
The woman in the upper mosaic has been dubbed 'the Mosa Lisa of Sepphoris'.

Sepphoris, mosaic of a human face

Sepphoris and all Galilee were ruled by Rome at that time, and it was a busy administrative center for the area. There were certainly a number of Roman officials and soldiers quartered in the city, and there is speculation that one of these may have been the natural father of Jesus of Nazareth. 

When Herod Antipas took over, he decided to rebuild the city as a showcase of Greek architecture and culture - not a popular move with devout Jews who were clinging tenaciously to their Jewish culture.

Sepphoris: ancient street and pavement in the town of Sepphoris

  Excavated streets in Sepphoris; Joseph and the young Jesus, 
from nearby Nazareth, may have worked here as builders

Sepphoris: the Greek-style theater

The Greek-style theater at Sepphoris. The front seats and stage have been reconstructed so that performances can be put on, much as they were 
in the time of Herod Antipas - and Jesus

Sepphoris: aerial view of the excavations

Aerial view of Sepphoris

Flavius Josephus described the rebuilt Sepphoris as the "ornament of all Galilee," which suggests that this small city was beautifully designed. Josephus also claims that Sepphoris was the "strongest city in Galilee".

Excavations in Sepphoris confirm this praise. Sepphoris had the best of Roman design:

  • streets laid out on a grid and streets paved with crushed limestone. 

  • a Roman theater partially cut into the hillside; in the afternoons and evenings the people of Sepphoris went to the theatre for entertainment, probably mimes, light comedy, or music. 

  • houses and the elegant mansions of the wealthy grouped around public buildings.

Everything in Sepphoris speaks of conspicuous consumption. The villas are richly decorated, the architecture was ultra-modern and fashionable, houses had mosaic floors, fresoed walls and fluted columns.

All this, remember, was within walking distance of Nazareth, conspicuously poor where Sepphoris was flamboyantly wealthy. The imbalance in wealth and the contrasting set of values must have made a profound impression on the young man Jesus.


Extra Information about Sepphoris

While a distinctly Jewish town, Sepphoris was cosmopolitan and, unlike many of its neighbours, managed to forge a working relationship with Rome even after participating in two wars against the empire. Elaborate mosaics from synagogues, churches, and palatial residences, and coins and intricate gold-and-pearl jewelry, illustrate the extent to which the predominantly Jewish population embraced a Roman life-style.
Particularly striking is a finely-made life-size mosaic image of a hunter (see below), one of two such figures discovered on the floor of an early Byzantine municipal building.

Head of the hunter, mosaic, Sepphoris

Mosaic image of a hunter, Sepphoris

Then there is the famous Mona Lisa of Galilee. Discovered in l987 in a Roman residence on the site's eastern summit, the portrait of a young woman was one of l6 mosaic panels showing scenes from the life of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine.

The so-called Mona Lisa of Sepphoris

The construction of buildings adorned with classic pagan motifs alongside other buildings with such quintessential Jewish elements as miqva’ot (ritual baths), found in the earliest Roman strata through the Byzantine layers, indicates that the local Jewish population saw no conflict between a traditional Hebrew way of life and the gentile culture of the Greco-Roman world.

Though the site remained a center for rabbinic scholarship for more than two centuries, its multiethnic population practiced a variety of religions. Included in the exhibition are fertility figures; small bronze votive statues of Dionysos, Prometheus, and Pan; and oil lamps bearing crosses and such familiar Jewish symbols as the menorah (candelabra) and shofar (ram’s horn).

The cosmopolitan nature of the city is also revealed in the many stone and mosaic inscriptions written in Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Syriac. Different languages appear together in several of the texts, including a grave marker inscribed in Aramaic and Greek, suggesting that many of the city’s scribes were multilingual.

 

See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible

  

 

 

 

Sepphoris, Nazareth, Herod Antipas, Joseph and Jesus, the columned streets, Greek-style theater, mosaics

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