No one has heard of Sepphoris, I know, but wow – we all should have.
Sepphoris is a town so close to where Jesus grew up in Nazareth that lots of men and boys from Nazareth would rise each morning, take their tools, and walk over the hills and through the valleys – two hours – to find work on the city of Sepphoris. It is almost unimaginable that Jesus and Joseph were not among them; of course they were. Our bibles call Jesus a “carpenter” as if he worked with wood exclusively, but the Greek word is really a word for “building-tradesman” who could work with stone, wood, tin, plaster, – all phases of a building project – or even simply an unskilled building worker – the term is that broad. In any case, when Jesus was growing up in Nazareth it was a tiny place – 400 residents max – and probably less than that. There would be almost no employment there; it is almost certain that people skilled in the building trades would go to the nearby city of Sepphoris for work. So, we went to the ruins of the city of Sepphoris – from which the village of Nazareth is clearly visible – and walked on streets that Jesus himself may have walked on, or even built.
It was Herod “the Great”‘s son Herod Antipas who was at work in Jesus’ day re-building Sepphoris to make it his capital. He was re-building it because it had been destroyed previously. This is key: the Romans destroyed Sepphoris and enslaved the Jewish survivors because at the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, a man named Judas led a revolt against Rome. Rome ruthlessly crushed that revolt and Sepphoris, where Judas was from, was destroyed – the quintessentially disloyal city. So when Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas assumed the throne, he wanted to make sure that Rome knew that he was loyal – the opposite of Judas. So he re-built the home of traitorous Judas as a distinctly Roman city; any pagan Roman would have felt at home there, with its theater, temples, and all things culturally Roman.
So, every day, Jesus probably walked over the hills to work in Sepphoris and walked home each night to Nazareth having helped to build the kingdom of Herod, the Roman-pleasing sycophant. And the remarkable thing is that when Jesus started preaching the kingdom of God, his references were all rural, in spite of having spent his working life in a Roman, urban setting. He spoke of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, of the sower who sowed his seed and of the shepherd with his sheep. He seems to have intentionally avoided (rejected?) urban images and metaphors. His kingdom was not Herod’s, or Rome’s, or the Zealot revolutionaries, but rather the trans-national, multi-ethnic Kingdom of God, the creator of “the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.”
When Jesus was born Nazareth had no more than 400 people living in it. Now, modern Nazareth is home to over 70,000 people, mostly Christian Palestinians. They are Arabs by heritage, but Christians by faith. Think how hard their lives are between the giants of the Jewish state and the Palestinian-Muslim community!
Pray for peace.