Though you might never have heard of the place, the ancient Israelite town of Sepphoris has been the focus of intense speculation lately. The reason: Some say the town changes how we view Jesus of Nazareth.
In Jesus' day, Sepphoris was the thriving administrative center for the Galilee region, located only four miles northwest of humble Nazareth where Jesus grew up. Though the New Testament never mentions the town, it's highly likely that Jesus would have visited at least occasionally.
Building on that proximity, some scholars, including Richard Batey of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., and John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, see Sepphoris as a citadel of pagan Greek culture that would have influenced Jesus.
The liberal Crossan camp goes beyond that, interpreting Jesus not as the Jewish prophet and Messiah of the four Gospels but more like the Cynic teachers who wandered Greek towns, preaching egalitarian values and defending outcasts.
In other words, they say, the Gospels, whose people, places and setting are heavily Jewish, largely got it wrong. Therein lies the importance of whether Sepphoris was a Jewish town with Greek elements, or a Greek town where some Jews lived.
That Christian scholars' dispute has now been entered by a prominent Jewish expert, Eric Meyers of Duke University, the veteran director of archaeological excavations at the site of Sepphoris.
The revisionists seriously distort what the city was like in Jesus' day, according to Meyers and colleague Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University, writing in the current Biblical Archaeology Review. Judging from the archaeological evidence, they say, Sepphoris was ''largely Jewish,'' though with some Greek characteristics.
The Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in the late first century, made no reference to any gentiles living in Sepphoris, nor to typical Greek institutions. ''Indeed, nothing in his accounts suggests Sepphoris in the first century was anything other than a Jewish city.'' Later rabbinical traditions agree.
Chancey and Meyers say scholars mistakenly base revisionist theories on the situation in later centuries when Sepphoris became heavily Greek and Roman.
The heart of the Chancey-Meyers argument is archaeological:
--There are hardly any pig bones among the thousands at the site. Though in earlier times gentiles in the Holy Land shunned swine, pork-eating was clearly fashionable in Greek circles in the first century.
--There are 114 fragments of stone vessels, which were used by Jews to hold water for ritual handwashing because they were not subject to impurity like pottery, metal or glass containers.
--The locally minted coins also indicate the town was primarily Jewish because they do not contain any images of the Roman emperor or pagan deities of the sort found in pagan towns on the Mediterranean coast or the Decapolis (10 cities) to the east of Galilee.
--There is no archaeological evidence of any typically Greek gymnasium, chariot racing course, amphitheater, roofed theater, decorated fountain, shrine or statuary from Jesus' day.
--A major Hebrew inscription, Hebrew letters on mosaic fragments, and depictions of Jewish menorahs on lamp fragments all suggest Jewish habitation.
--There are a dozen stepped water pools in residential neighborhoods, which the authors are convinced were ritual baths (mikvaot), a necessity for observant Jewish women.
The pools are the most controversial point. Hanan Eshel, a leading specialist at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, contends that many of the pools may have been used for normal bathing. Chancey and Meyers vigorously disagree, and say that even Eshel's interpretation allows for some of the pools to have been mikvaot.
Even if Sepphoris was as Jewish as Nazareth or Capernaum, new awareness of its importance may shift our image of Jesus somewhat. This urbane center close by Nazareth had paved streets, a public water system and major municipal buildings. And that, say Chancey and Meyers, ''undermines the notion that Jesus was unfamiliar with sophisticated urban culture.''
On the Net: Biblical Archaeology Review: www.bib-arch.org.
Richard N. Ostling is co-author of ''Mormon America,'' published by HarperSanFrancisco.
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