Archaeology

Sepphoris—A City Set On a Hill

A recent book has been published describing results of some recent excavations in an important city just a few miles from Nazareth, Jesus’ boyhood home. Jesus and the Forgotten City by Richard A. Batey, 1991, is a colorful story about an urban center that could have influenced Jesus’ early life experiences. A brief synopsis of this material was prepared by Batey in the May/June 1992 issue of The Biblical Archaeology Review. Three reviews were published in the June 1992 issue of Biblical Archaeologist with variant conclusions which we shall consider here.

The core of the story is derived from recent archaeological research on a hill top city that had been selected and built up by the Romans during their occupation of Palestine in the first century BCE. Sepphoris was the center of government selected by Herod Antipas for the district of Galilee after his father, Herod the Great, died. Herod’s death coincided with and perhaps sparked a local Jewish rebellion against the Roman authorities, which then resulted in the massive destruction of Sepphoris. This Batey dates to 4 BCE. Subsequent rebuilding and enhancements by the Romans produced a military strategic center of commerce, government, theater and religion. This reconstruction project lasted a good number of years concurrent with Jesus’ youth in Nazareth, only three miles from Sepphoris.

Batey suggests that Jesus may have derived certain terms or figures of speech from this Sepphoris environment:

A city set on a hill—"You are the light of the world, a city set on a hill cannot be hidden." This would be an appropriate image for local people, based on the dominance of the city and its visibility at night.

The son of a carpenter, or artisan (Greek: tekton; Mark 6:3)—Skilled trades would have been indispensable for the rebuilding of this Roman project. It would be well understood to the average person in the area and have identified Jesus with the common people instead of those of high birth.

Hypocrites; Matt. 6:5, 6—This term describes an actor in the Roman theaters (prominent in Sepphoris), and was a telling admonition among the Jews about outward shows of worship and prayer which were performed insincerely, as a show.

Contact with Herod Antipas, representing the Roman government, was generally avoided by Jesus. (Compare Matthew 14:1 and 13) Herod was concerned about the popularity of John and Jesus, and as a result, Jesus withdrew from Herod’s attention. (See Herod Antipas: Harold Hoehner, 1980, Zondervan press.) Jesus’ judgment concerning undesirable Roman influences is shown in Mark 8:15: "And he was giving orders to them, saying, `Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.’"

Sepphoris was a secondary center for the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court, since 63 BCE, when Pompey conquered Palestine. The Sepphoris Jewish court became more important after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Early in Jesus’ life it could have been a source of instruction by learned Jewish teachers. Ironically, being close to this local ruling body may have motivated Jesus from the Sepphoris area to towns less dominated by them when he began his teaching ministry. The influence of the Herodians, sympathetic to the Roman authority, would have also been strong in a Roman center like Sepphoris. This is quite the opposite of the earlier revolt by the Jewish inhabitants following the abortive Jewish revolt around Sepphoris at the death of Herod the great (popularly dated in 4 BCE, but more likely in 1 CE.)

The archaeological record can be interwoven with general cultural circumstances if Sepphoris is to be connected with Jesus as is suggested by Batey.

Some major questions concerning the influence of Sepphoris upon Jesus remain:

1. Why doesn’t the New Testament ever make mention of Sepphoris? The answer supposes that Jesus did not focus on this sort of environment during his ministry and that thus it played little or no role in the New Testament story. Early Christian writers do not make mention of Sepphoris, although it is named numerous times in Talmudic literature.

2. References that Batey makes about words like hypocrites, which he claims is based on Jesus’ acquaintance with the theater in Sepphoris are purely suppositions. It is known that the word rendered hypocrite, an actor on a stage, was in general use, meaning playacting or hypocrisy. Evidence is not even clear that the theater in Sepphoris was even built until the time of Felix in 52-60 CE. The analogy is still appropriate in either case. Based on some of the technical criticisms, the book by Batey should be used cautiously due to its being written for a popular audience. A forthcoming book by Meyers, Meyers and Netzer, titled Sepphoris, to be published by Eisenbrauns in late 1993 should be more critically accurate.

The place of Sepphoris in the life of Jesus is suppositional, but not unreasonable, considering the proximity of Sepphoris to Nazareth, and the occupation of Jesus’ father Joseph as a carpenter. At the very least, it awakens us to background points that illuminate the words and actions of Jesus within his cultural upbringing and his ministry in Galilee. (Editor’s note: The case for Sepphoris being the figure for Jesus’ reference to a city set on a hill is most reasonable, but should be considered side by side with an alternative view that the city referred to was Safed, or Sfat.

Located at the summit of the Galilean hills between Capernaum and Acco, it was visible from either of the two locations where scholars feel the Sermon on the Mount was delivered—the traditional site near Capernaum on the north of the Sea of Galilee or at the Horns of Hattim overlooking the city of Tiberias, further south.

Safed today is an artist colony. Its prominence in Jewish history, however, goes back to the role it played after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. When the destruction of Jerusalem became evident, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai arranged to have himself secreted out of the city in a coffin. Boldly approaching the tent of the Roman general, Titus, he predicted the general’s succession as the next Caesar, requesting in return the right to establish a rabbinical school at Safed after the fall of Jerusalem.

His success is recorded in A History of the Jews: "The Sanhedrin for example, which used to meet in Jerusalem and which always everywhere had been looked upon as the central legislative and judicial body, could meet no more. Rome had forbidden its revival as it forbade everything else that pertained to Jewish national life. Quietly Johanan ben Zakkai gathered seventy-one scholars, the number that used to sit in the Sanhedrin, organized them under similar offices, and set for them the same functions."

Thus Jesus’ words could have been prophetic of the role that the city his audience would have seen "set on a hill" was to play in preserving the Jewish religion.).


Editor’s note: The case for Sepphoris being the figure for Jesus’ reference to a city set on a hill is most reasonable, but should be considered side by side with an alternative view that the city referred to was Safed, or Sfat.

Located at the summit of the Galilean hills between Capernaum and Acco, it was visible from either of the two locations where scholars feel the Sermon on the Mount was delivered—the traditional site near Capernaum on the north of the Sea of Galilee or at the Horns of Hattim overlooking the city of Tiberias, further south.

Safed today is an artist colony. Its prominence in Jewish history, however, goes back to the role it played after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. When the destruction of Jerusalem became evident, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai arranged to have himself secreted out of the city in a coffin. Boldly approaching the tent of the Roman general, Titus, he predicted the general’s succession as the next Caesar, requesting in return the right to establish a rabbinical school at Safed after the fall of Jerusalem.

His success is recorded in A History of the Jews: “The Sanhedrin for example, which used to meet in Jerusalem and which always everywhere had been looked upon as the central legislative and judicial body, could meet no more. Rome had forbidden its revival as it forbade everything else that pertained to Jewish national life. Quietly Johanan ben Zakkai gathered seventy-one scholars, the number that used to sit in the Sanhedrin, organized them under similar offices, and set for them the same functions.”

Thus Jesus’ words could have been prophetic of the role that the city his audience would have seen “set on a hill” was to play in preserving the Jewish religion.