Wednesday, May 25, 2011

(2) Holy Land

Nazareth proved to be more interesting for me. Today Nazareth
is a huge Arab town, a far cry from the small village where Jesus
lived as a boy and young man. We went to the Church of the
Annunciation, where again 4th century Christians declared this
to be the spot where the angel Gabriel came to Mary and
announced that she would give birth to the Son of God. Under-
neath the church we visited were excavations. They consisted
of limestone caves, some of which contained pottery and other
cooking material. While down there, some archaeologists were
at work. They speculated that people may have lived in these
caves back during Jesus' time. This kind of boggled my mind,
that Jesus might have grown-up in a cave! Why not, as the
excavators put: these caves were warm in the winter and cool
in the summer. Still there's some confusion, in that these
excavations are considered by some to be tombs.

Since my visit to Nazareth I have been fascinated with the on-
going archaeological evidence coming forth about 1st century
Nazareth. For example an ancient Nazareth farm has been
unearthed, where a wine press was discovered. The evidence
shows that likely some of the early villagers made their living
growing grapes, olives, and grain.

Also archaeologists have been investigating the discovery of a
large bath in Nazareth. Identified as a Roman bath, it consists of
a hypocaust and frigidarium. Startling, but this evidence strongly
suggests that this bath had to be used by a Roman garrison. This,
too, boggles the mind--in that there were legionaries present near
or in that small village. Again, maybe not so surprising, since
Galilee was a major crossroads of the Roman Empire and
probably was well protected by Roman soldiers.

What this seems to suggest is that Jesus was upfront with the
Romans. As a boy, he could have talked with these legionaries.
Perhaps got ideas from them, even religious ideas from these
soldiers whose religion was more than often centered around the
Sun God Mithras. Beyond this, just four miles away from Nazareth
was the ancient capital of Sepphoris--a large town whose
population (during the time of Jesus) consisted mostly of urban
Jews and some pagans.

Unfortunately, as I passed by Sepphoris, though pointed out to
me, I didn't know anything about it at the time. But I do now!

Built on a hilltop, Sepphoris can be seen for miles. Even I saw it,
being only four miles away from Nazareth. Today its ruins are
being excavated. At the time I passed by, I didn't know that
Sepphoris was actually the capital of Galilee during the time of
Jesus. It was the administrative center of Herod Antipas, who
actually resided there upon occasion,

Following a revolt in 4 b.c.e. the Roman Governor of Syria
destroyed the city; but by the 1st century c.e. Herod Antipas was
rebuilding Sepphoris. Jesus was a boy and a young man during
this major building period; and it has been speculated by scholars
that he and his earthly father, Joseph, may have been involved in
this new construction.

As these scholars put, both the gospels of Matthew and Mark note
in the Greek that Jesus was a *tekton,* which meant "builder"
rather than the inaccurate later translations calling him a carpenter.
Essentially he was a skilled craftsman, skilled in both wood and
stone work. The close proximity of Sepphoris, being walking
distance from Nazareth, as well as a likely job market, makes it
highly suggestive that Jesus probably worked there--or at least had
visited there. Tradition has it that his mother's parents Joachim and
Anna came from Sepphoris and that Mary, herself, may have
grown-up there.

During his day, Jesus would have found Sepphoris a bustling
city with a population around 30,000. The inhabitants were
mostly urban Jewswith perhaps some pagan citizens as well.
Mainly Sepphoris served as an administrative center, replete
with a civil basilica with white mosaic floors and offices upstairs.
Hence it was understandable that amongst its citizens, there were
judges, scribes, and chief tax collectors.

Also the city was wealthy, providing support to the administrative
center. Thus there were also lawyers, physicians, soldiers. Of
course there were others amongst the population, ranging from
owners of estates to tenant farmers. Architecturally Sepphoris was
a Greco-Roman city with two market places that attracted caravans
from many nearby towns. There were colonnaded plazas,
mansions, a theatre (under debate, however, as to whether it
existed during the 1st century c.e.), cisterns, and a complex
drainage system.

Learning about Sepphoris causes one to pause and wonder
about this far greater and more sophisticated milieu to which
Jesus was surely exposed. We certainly didn't learn about this
next-door neighbor in Sunday School or in the Scriptures. Yet
here it is! I saw Sepphoris with my own eyes. It has been there
all along.