“and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” –Matthew 2:23
We all know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Who doesn’t? We grew up with that story. We sing about it. We read about it. We watch Christmas pageants at church about it. There was a church built there to commemorate it. He was laid in a manger, in swaddling clothes, in a stable, in the city of David, as prophesied in the book of Micah 5:2. A star stood watch in the night sky. Heavenly hosts trumpeted the occasion. Shepherds visited him in Bethlehem that night. We know all of this like the backs of our hands.
Luke 2:4 states, “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.” We picture them traveling by donkey over rough terrain. We know all about the famous small town of Bethlehem but what about that unknown Nazareth and the area they traveled from? The other small town where Jesus spent most of his life is relatively unspoken of in scripture. It’s the town where Mary was believed to have been born. It’s where Joseph and Jesus set up a carpentry shop. With only about 500 residents and an area of only 60 acres, it’s no wonder Jews from other areas of Israel poked fun at it and historians overlooked it.
O, little town of Bethlehem you sure do get a lot of attention every December. However, it was Nazareth that molded Jesus for a couple of decades prior to his 40-some-month ministry. It was in Nazareth where he likely got his rabbinical training. It’s where he grew up as a carpenter. It’s likely where his earthly father Joseph died. Nazareth is not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament. There is little mention of it in the New Testament, except in connection with Jesus. He was “of Nazareth” after all. He put this village on the Biblical map! Nazareth was really of little significance in Galilee other than being Jesus’s hometown, which didn’t mean much to many people outside of Jesus’s circle in those days.
In fact, it even took some time for some followers in Jesus’s circle to warm up to following a resident of Nazareth. Nathaniel, one of his own disciples, questioned Philip in John 1:46, “’Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked. ‘Come and see,’ said Philip.”
A small town would not have likely provided Jesus much access to a broad cultural experience. Fact is, though, Nazareth was an ancient suburb of Galilee’s capital city of Sepphoris, a major metropolitan area with a royal bank and archives. Comparatively, Nazareth seems to have been considered a low-rent suburb. The cultural separation between the urbanized Sepphoris and the rural Nazareth was likely great. Since Sepphoris is actually mentioned nowhere in the Bible, any discussion about the effect it would have had on Jesus is strictly theory. However, because of its proximity to Nazareth, it’s hard to image the Sepphoris didn’t have some kind of effect on Jesus and his entire family.
Sepphoris, and its ruins located in western lower Galilee, was located just three to four miles northwest of Nazareth. Most of the excavated ruins can be found on the top of and, in the Roman-style theatre’s case, on the side of a hill. With its prominent location, the city’s acropolis could have been visible all the way to the high points in Nazareth. In his book Antiquities, first century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius called Sepphoris “the ornament of all Galilee.” The city was named after the Hebrew word for bird, ‘zippor’, because it seems to soar from its position on top of the hill, according to John McRay in his book, Archaeology and the New Testament. Jesus literally lived daily under its influence.
It didn’t become an ornament, though, until after Herod the Great’s death. Shortly thereafter, Sepphoris was burned during a conflict of local leaders early in the first century. Herod’s son, Herod Antipas (who beheaded John the Baptist and to whom Pilate sent Jesus), rebuilt it so the “zippor” was more like a “Phoenix”. The city’s strategic position, particularly on trade routes, made it attractive for Antipas. Early in his reign as governor of Galilee he made it his capital city and built there extensively for two decades. Because Antipas made it the focal point of Galilee, it became the largest city in the region and it was very well fortified. Sepphoris was a walled city, which would indicate its size and importance.
After it was rebuilt, Sepphoris’s population became predominantly Jewish. It was vital as a center of Jewish learning which was important considering Jesus grew up in its suburbs. Its Jewish population was believed to be as orthodox as any in the southern province of Judea. The probability of a strong orthodox upbringing may have been why God chose to have Jesus grow up as a Rabbi in Nazareth as opposed to the increasingly corrupt religious culture of Jerusalem.
Evidence of the Jews living in the city and a rabbinic culture comes from excavated decorations found there, such as a menorah mosaic in the synagogue. The excavated Jewish neighborhood in Sepphoris was found on the acropolis, the prominent part of the city. It’s also likely that some of the Jews there practiced Jewish rituals as well as Roman and Hellenistic customs. Other mosaic excavations show assimilation of both pagan and Jewish cultures. Sepphoris likely had a strong Gentile presence in the days of Jesus as well, even though it eventually became known for its Jewish population. Obviously, many of the Gentiles were Roman officials since the city was important in the region to the Roman Empire.
At the time of Jesus, Sepphoris was also a city of political activism. While it was severely damaged after Herod the Great’s death, it was never completely destroyed by any of the constant fighting in Palestine. Similar to much of the rest of the nation of Israel, the residents of Sepphoris would have known the harshness of Roman rule. Roman Governor Varus was harsh on those in the city who revolted when Herod the Great died. So, Sepphoris represents one of the best impressions of Roman and Jewish life in not just Galilee, but in all Israel during the first centuries. Excavations have also revealed a significant amount of Roman roads and buildings. The predominant architecture and building style in the first centuries was Roman and Greek because practically all ethnic groups in the Roman Empire built in this style. With the Roman culture so prominent, Jesus would have known at an early age that the people of Israel longed for political relief from the Romans but that a revolt came with heavy consequences.
The entire lower Galilee region was a crossroads of trade routes and the Jews there spoke Greek, according to McRay. All of Galilee benefitted from the fishing trade and agriculturally from the fig crop. Since those two commodities were so common in Jesus’s day-to-day life, it could explain why he taught so much using fish and figs. One reason he was such an effective teacher is that he used every-day objects people recognized as illustrations. Jesus would have been exposed routinely to the Greco-Roman culture through the multi-cultural trade commerce. While life was hard for people in many regions of Israel and Judea, the residents of Sepphoris seemed to have prospered because of the trade accessible to them.
Excavations indicate Nazareth was likely an agricultural town so Joseph and Jesus would have possibly had to visit Sepphoris to find consistent carpentry work during Herod Antipas’s extensive building program. It is within the realm of possibility that Jesus worked directly on the construction of the theatre at Sepphoris since it was believed to be constructed by Antipas, although there is debate whether it was his father or him. Coins found around the stage date the theatre’s construction to the time of Antipas, so if Antipas didn’t have it built originally, he likely enlarged it, at the very least. Multiple excavations seem to differ whether or not it was originally built by Herod the Great or Herod Antipas. With all the access to commerce, Joseph and Jesus probably also used Sepphoris to sell whatever wares they made.
Jesus’s family likely made the short trip to visit on social occasions as well because it’s believed Sepphoris was the hometown of Mary’s parents. One of the prominent artifacts found in archaeological excavations in Sepphoris is the theatre. Its ruins are rather damaged and with 3,000-4,500 seats it is not as big as some other Roman theatres in Israel. Still, it gives us a glimpse of what entertainment was like when Jesus was growing up in Nazareth, even though most Jews didn’t regularly attend performances.
Cultures haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. Think about the trend-setting American cities like New York, Los Angeles or Miami. In the modern world, they can affect us even though we live hundreds of miles away. Really small towns, though, depend on less influential cities for life essentials. Not every little burg has a Wal-Mart, restaurants, job opportunities or a shopping mall. Life in a really small town can be pretty much just about living. Jesus lived in Nazareth but his family likely depended on Sepphoris.
–How did you picture Jesus’s youth?
–How do you picture ancient metropolitan cities?
–How did you picture life in Nazareth or Galilee?