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"Sepphoris: An Urban Portrait of Jesus."

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

In May of 1992, the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) published Richard A. Batey's article called Sepphoris: An Urban Portrait of Jesus. I present you my review of his article.

Continuing archaeological excavations are yielding proof of a sophisticated urban culture that places Jesus in a radically different environment from our traditional assumptions about his life and ministry. The site of Sepphoris is a mere three miles or an hour walk away from Jesus Christ's home town of Nazareth. The view of Jesus as a rustic in an isolated village, of four hundred people, in the hills of Galilee must be integrated with this newly discovered city of 30, 000 citizens.

Sepphoris was a city made up of Jews, Arabs, Greeks and Romans. There can be no doubt that it was linked with other Greco­-Roman centers on the trade routes of the Greek speaking east. When Herod the Great's son, Herod Antipas, returned from Rome in 3 B.C., he selected the ruins of Sepphoris as his new capital.

The city had been destroyed by a joint Roman-Arab army that crushed a rebellion. The city was burned to the ground and the citizens sold. The new King launched a re-building project that lasted throughout the lifetime of Jesus Christ, who was born about 6 B. C.. Political policy, military strategy, economic regulation and cultural affairs were administered from this seat of power. It served as the capital city of Galilee and Perea.

The city plan was laid out on the Roman grid system and adjusted to the shape of the land. It had all the elements of a provincial capital with a main east-west street leading to the forum, Antipas 's royal residence with it' s imposing tower, a 4,000 seat theater, bath, archives, gymnasium, basilica, waterworks and other buildings. The new capital was named Autocratoris , the Greek translation of the Latin imperator, a title given to Augustus meaning "commander-in-chief."

Over the last few decades, science has been building it' s record on Sepphoris. Aerial cameras revealed walls and aqueducts; ground penetrating radar scanned a maze of tunnels, cisterns, grain silos, wine cellars and storage chambers carved into solid rock below the debris of centuries. Studies showed that the city had an impressive water supply system, the source of clay for pottery and the population diet. The main street, bordered by shops and public buildings, ran west to intersect the major north-south thoroughfare. The fragmentary remains of mosaics, wide plaster ceiling molding, frescoed walls, several varieties of imported marble, as well as crafted white building stones are all witness to the wealth of this city.

The construction of Sepphoris re-defines the carpenter's occupation in central Galilee. Many skilled labourers would have been employed in the capital city and because of proximity there had to be artisans from Nazareth. According to Canadian born theologian Shirley Jackson Case (1872-1947), Professor of the New Testament at the University of Chicago, based on his readings of Josephus, such contacts during the formative years of Christ may account for attitudes and opinions that show themselves during his public ministry.

No visit by Jesus to Sepphoris is recorded in the Gospels. However, after Jesus became widely recognized as an influential religious leader, Antipas sought to kill him. (Luke 13:31) During His Ministry, Jesus traveled throughout all of Galilee and into Phoenicia, the regions of Caesarea Philippi and the Greek cities of Decapolis, as well as journey's through Samaria to Jerusalem in Judea. Jesus must have at least have had casual contact with this Sepphoris.

Jesus appears to have been acquainted with the Policies of kings. The probable reason for this was that one of the main benefactors of Jesus was Joanna, wife of Chuza the Finance Minister of Antipas. (Luke 8:3) For example, Jesus tells the parable about a King to demonstrate the nature of forgiveness. (Matthew 18:23- 35) In another episode, (Luke 14:31-32), Jesus asked the question about a King contemplating a war against another King.

The references to Kings in the parables and sayings attributed to Jesus Christ in the Gospels portray Him as someone with a wide cultural outlook and a person with a world view. Certainly Jesus was greater than a resident of a small Galilean village. He employs the figure of the King as an unquestioned authority to point towards God's sovereignty over creation and to challenge his followers with the seriousness of life in the dawning Kingdom of God.

I feel that this article puts a more human face on Jesus. Archaeology brings us into the streets and the theaters that Christ more than likely came into contact with. One can not help but feel closer to the first century New Testament world of Jesus Christ. His ministry was cosmopolitan and cultured and his understanding of urban life was more relevant than previously imagined. His teachings reflect an awareness of city life shared with his multi-cultural audience and he addresses human issues that are interestingly contemporary.


Source: Richard A. Batey's Biblical Archaeology Review Article: Sepphoris: An Urban Portrait of Jesus. Vol. 18 No. 3 (May / June 1992), pp.52-62.

This Post was originally presented as a paper for the Undergraduate Religious Studies Course, Introduction to Old Testament Literature - The Rev. Dr. R. Rhys Williams - Professor, College of Cape Breton and published on February 1st, 1993. {Revised: July 25th, 2023}

© Dr. Charles Warner 2023

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