Thursday, June 7, 2012

What About Sepphoris?

Though raised as a Christian, I have often wondered at the lack of precise historical details regarding the life of Christ.

For instance remarkably little information is given regarding Christ's formative years. We know from the Gospels that after the birth his parents fled with him to Egypt. The long held reason for this is that Herod (the Great) was coming the end of his reign. Then hearing of the imminent birth of the Messiah, which had been prophesied, out of jealously had ordered the slaughter of all new born babies. Now though Herod was a particularly unsavoury character with the death of - even - several family members on his hands, it seems that this story is unlikely.

However we do know that when Joseph and Mary returned from Egypt with the baby Jesus that they settled in a small village of Galilee i.e. Nazareth.

What is now fascinating is that extensive archaeological work has revealed that 4 miles or so from Nazareth was the capital town of Galilee commonly referred to as Sepphoris.

What is even more interesting is that this town - which effectively had been completely destroyed by the Romans due to civil strife following Herod's death - was then rebuilt during the reign of Herod's son. And the commencement of such rebuilding coincides well with the decision of Joseph and Mary to settle in Nazareth.

It is also traditionally held that Mary's parents were from Sepphoris. So on this basis it seemed therefore to make eminent sense to locate to a village such as Nazareth, which was in touching distance of Mary's parents and which also offered the promise of gainful employment for Joseph for many years to come.
It is even possible that Joseph had met Mary on a previous visit to Sepphoris (presumably before it was razed to the ground)!

So if we accept all of this it is very likely that Jesus himself during his formative years spent much time working with his father in Sepphoris, which by all accounts was a modern cosmopolitan city and in the midst of a building boom at this time.

In many ways this would challenge the traditional account of Jesus as a holy and wise man (without doubt) but also as somewhat unsophisticated in sharing the life and concerns of the simple peasant.

What is even stranger is that Sepphoris (though the major town in Galilee within touching distance of Nazareth) is not mentioned once in the Gospel accounts!

Now one suspects that this omission might indeed have been entirely deliberate in serving a certain kind of religious propaganda in that the writers were anxious to convey Jesus through a carefully maintained profile.

As I was growing up, this image of humble beginnings (and indeed abject poverty) in the life of Jesus and rejection as an outsider was propagated at every turn.

However, though it in no way comprises his integrity - indeed to my mind it actually increases it - the reality was probably somewhat different. Though no doubt living as an exemplary Jew, Jesus would perhaps have belonged to what we would now classify as a comfortable - perhaps very comfortable - working class family.

He may well have come to despise from his earlier work associations in Sepphoris the wealth and worldly values of a prosperous town. However it would seem however that this would been the response of a sophisticated and well educated man (rather than that of a wise but somewhat illiterate peasant). In this regard his frequent reference to the Pharisees as hypocrites might owe something to a rejection of theatre life (which apparently thrived in Sepphoris during his time but would have been frowned on as suitable entertainment for orthodox Jews!)

Also it is known that Jesus choose many of his first followers from the ranks of fishermen. Now once again the status of a fisherman would have been much higher in the Palestine of his time than now in the EU for example (where fishing increasingly has become an uneconomic activity).

It is recounted in the Gospels that Jesus when spreading the good news met rejection in his own village! Is it possible that the reasons for this are somewhat more complex than we have imagined? If we accept that perhaps a substantial amount of his earlier life was spent with his father on building projects in Sepphoris, it is even possible that a degree of resentment already existed, where he was not really considered part of that village community, due to working in a prosperous urbanised setting that owed much to Roman patronage!

In a modern context we can perhaps compare this to the case of commuters who reside in satellite towns but through travel and work commitments fail to become deeply rooted in their communities.

We must understand that the popular notion of a Messiah at the time was someone who would free the Jewish people from the oppression of Roman rule and Jesus was certainly not pandering to this view. Also Sepphoris would have been considered as distinctly pro-Roman in sentiment, so Jesus' message of forgiveness and acceptance would not have gone down well with a traditional Jewish audience!

Indeed, so enraged - we are told in Luke's Gospel account - were the people after Jesus preached in the synagogue that they tried to throw him off from a hill! Now, there was no such hill in Nazareth. However Sepphoris was built on a hill which could be clearly seen from Nazareth. So could this be the hill to which the Gospel account refers?

Another aspect that always concerned me regarding traditional accounts of Jesus is the extreme localised setting in which the story is told.

It seems from these accounts that Jesus saw his mission as solely confined to bringing the "good news" to the people of Israel (which geographically - even in Jesus' time was a very small area). I often ask myself! What about the much greater world at large at the start of the first millennium? Where does it fit into this message of the good news?

However once again this may owe much to a very deliberate form of representation of the mission of Christ.

In other words if the existence of Sepphoris, which directly and indirectly may have had a substantial influence on Christ's development, can be edited out entirely of all Gospel accounts what other - perhaps even more important - details might be missing?

We come back to my original point. In terms of precise historical details regarding the life of Christ (especially in his formative pre-ministry years) we know remarkably little. We are heavily reliant here on Gospel and other Christian sources which were never specifically written as accurate historical records. So many of the accounts of the healings and parables of Christ cannot always be taken as strictly accurate in a literal sense, but rather representative in a more general way of what might have been considered consistent with his special role in life.

Even the brief account by the historian Josephus of the death of Jesus seems very much second hand (as a later recording of what he had been told by Christians) which again is not specifically concerned with historical accuracy.

I sometimes imagine if that we could recreate the life and times of Christ as they, in fact, historically unfolded as if in an actual video recording - that all sorts of startling surprises would await.

Of course interpretation of such events is always relative (reflecting the times in which they are evaluated).

But then in summary that is what I am really suggesting i.e. that we now need a modern re-evaluation of the life and times of Christ that can better communicate His essential message in the present age! And in this context the recent archaeological evidence regarding Sepphoris could be very useful in some important respects reshaping the conventional story!