Cities provide insights into Jesus' daily life

by W. Winston Skinner

Sepphoris, a large trade center near Nazareth in biblical times, and Capernaum, the adopted hometown of Jesus, both offer clues to his world.

Dr. James Tabor talked about the two cities and how information about them is transforming the scholarly view of what life was like for Jesus in Palestine during a recent visit to Peachtree City. Although Nazareth is a booming city, largely because of Christian tourists, today, it was a small, rather insignificant place when Jesus lived there.

“Nazareth is Peachtree City. It’s not Atlanta,” Tabor offered. “It’s almost precisely parallel, except Peachtree City is huge compared to Nazareth. Nazareth is really, really tiny.”

Sepphoris was a large city located about four miles northwest of Nazareth. “Ten years ago nobody had heard of Sepphoris – the average person who was really interested in Christianity,” Tabor said.

Sepphoris has now been excavated, and Tabor has spent two seasons there. The topography is significant because Sepphoris was a “metropolitan area built on a hill” that would have been visually imposing to residents in Nazareth.

“We’ve got to think of Nazareth not as the great metropolis where Jesus is from but a small insignificant village,” Tabor said, one not distinguishable from dozens of others around Sepphoris.

Nazareth, he noted, is not mentioned by the ancient historian Josephus. “He tells us a lot about Sepphoris,” Tabor said.

Sepphoris was a huge city with a strong Hellenistic and Roman flavor. Lamp lighted in the city would have made it visible to the surrounding area into the night.

Tabor noted Jesus’ saying: “A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” “There is no other city build on a hill in the Galilee,” he said.

Sepphoris had a theater, a stadium, a hippodrome and “a main street going north and south with other thoroughfares,” Tabor said. Herod Antipas, then ruler of Galilee, “had his capital at Sepphoris,” he said.

“Sepphoris is never mentioned in the New Testament,” Tabor said. Still, the city “fills in the blanks in a way that we couldn’t imagine.”

A traditional view often depicts Jesus as “a nomadic peasant figure who grows up in the middle of nowhere,” wanders in the wilderness and “teaches the flocks of people like sheep.”

“Did Jesus ever go to Sepphoris? Would he have gone there?” Tabor asked.

Tabor noted the word often translated “carpenter” in the New Testament is “tecton,” which more properly means “builder.” “Jesus built things. I would say probably stone rather than wood,” Tabor speculated, likely foundations, trenches and walls.

Tabor referred to comments Jesus made about a falling wall. He said Jesus and Joseph might well have been stonemasons who made their living in the lively construction trade in Sepphoris.

“It’s a family business. It’s a family trade,” Tabor said. “It certainly doesn’t stretch me to” suggest Jesus would likely have done much work in Sepphoris “if you’re living four miles outside the city.”

Sepphoris was burned by the Romans about 4 B.C. and was rebuilt by Herod Antipas. As Jesus grew to manhood, the city “is rising from the ashes” creating “a building boom four miles” from Nazareth.

“I want you to open yourself to the possibility of an urban Jesus, not just a rural Jesus,” he said. He noted Jesus talked about urban practices such as attending and giving banquets. 

Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee was a city described in the Bible as a place Jesus chose to bring his mother and family. During a drought a few years ago, “the ancient shoreline was exposed,” Tabor said.

Ancient docks of rock were visible, and a first century fishing boat was recovered. The boat has been preserved, and crafts serving tourists have been built using a larger version of the same “Jesus boat” design.

“This is archaeology done by the drought. Instead of digging, the water receded,” Tabor said.

The cities of Bethsaida and Magdala, the Hellenized city that was the hometown of Mary Magdalene, were nearby.

The five rock piers are large ones built to serve commercial vessels. Capernaum was a center of commerce and finance, and Tabor suggested Jesus formed “a base of operations” in the major commercial center.

He also noted that the New Testament relates Matthew was a tax collector at Capernaum before he became a disciple. He “was sitting by the sea at the toll collectors booth,” according to Mark, Tabor said.

Tabor said taxes were paid as freight was loaded and unloaded.

Capernaum would also have been filled with Roman soldiers and people coming from all directions.

In the 1970s-1980s Capernaum was excavated. Remains of a Byzantine church from 200-300 AD were found. The church had been built over a first century home that had graffiti on it about Simon Peter.

Tabor said even some particularly cautious scholars believe the house was the home of Peter, the apostle.

“Peter’s house is lakefront property. It’s not rural lakefront property where you park your boat to go fishing. It’s commercial,” Tabor said. This indicates Peter was a wealthy commercial fisherman.

“It was a safe haven. This is the house where they took off the roof to let down the paralyzed guy in Mark, chapter two. That would be Peter’s house,” Tabor said.

“You do get a sense this is downtown Capernaum,” he added.

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