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24. Sepphoris: the Forgotten City

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3fXxXHOvUg

Located six km north-northwest of Nazareth, Sepphoris was an urban center in Galilee in the Roman and Byzantine periods. Under Roman rule Sepphoris became the capital of the region, and until Herod Antipas moved to his new capital city Tiberias, he lived in Sepphoris.

The main street (Cardo) of Sepphoris

The main street (Cardo) of Sepphoris, exposed in the 1980's by the joint archaeological expedition Photo © Nature Parks Authority.

During the late Roman period the city was also known by other names such as AutocratisEirenopolis, and Diocaesarea, although her original name, “Sepphoris”, remained in use throughout the Byzantine period (4th-7th century CE). In the Crusader period Sepphoris was known as La Sephorie, and a fort built on the hilltop can be seen today. By Christian tradition, Sepphoris was the hometown of Anna and Yoachim, parents of Mary, the mother of Jesus. However, this tradition is not well founded as the parents of Mary are not recorded in the Gospels, and nor is Sepphoris. In fact, Sepphoris is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament or in Apocrypha.

The theatre of Sepphoris

The theatre of Sepphoris. The use of the term "hypocrite" ("Actor" in Greek) in some of the sayings of Jesus may indicate he was familiar with the theatre of Sepphoris. Photo © Nature Parks Authority.

And still I believe Jesus knew Sepphoris quite well. Being the son of a craftsman (“tekton in Greek), whatever Joseph created in his workshop at Nazareth, he probably had to attend the market in Sepphoris to sell it. It is unlikely there were enough clients in his own small village. Assuming Jesus escorted his father to the market, he would have known Sepphoris, and perhaps attended some of its cultural and educational institutions. But as the Gospels do not record Jesus between the ages of 12 to 30, we have no knowledge of his acquaintance with Sepphoris.

Details of some of the mosaic floors recovered in houses along the main street of Sepphoris. Photo © Nature parks Authority.

Details of some of the mosaic floors recovered in houses along the main street of Sepphoris. Photo © Nature parks Authority.

A detail of a large Triclinium mosaic discovered in the upper city of Sepphoris presents a young female's bust (Aphrodite?)

A detail of a large Triclinium mosaic discovered in the upper city of Sepphoris presents a young female's bust (Aphrodite?) looking at the viewer with a mysterious face expression. Connecting the gesture to 16th century art, she earned the nickname "the Mona Lisa of the Galilee". Photo © Nature parks authority.

To learn more about Sepphoris in the first century CE, several archaeological expeditions investigated the site. The first was the American archaeologist L. Waterman, who in 1931 exposed the city’s ancient theatre. The excavations were resumed in 1985 by a joint Israeli and American team. These ongoing excavations revealed a well-planned city around a hilltop, with intersecting streets, numerous private, public and religious buildings, and an elaborate water system. Many floors were ornamented with mosaics, most depicting Greco-Roman themes. Archaeological and historical sources also attest to the large Jewish community that thrived in Sepphoris until the 7th century CE.

Sepphoris, it seems, was an important Jewish urban center in the days of Jesus, and although it must have influenced Jesus’ acts, thoughts and philosophies, it ended up being omitted from his biographies, both canonical and apocryphical. Yet this forgotten city, I believe, played an important role in his life and message.