Did Jesus help build Sepphoris?

A 1931 photo shows the hill at Sepphoris/Saffurriya crowded with Palestinian houses, which all were destroyed after 1948. Extensive ruins of the biblical-era city are in the archaeological dig beyond the trees at the top of the hill.

Just four miles from Nazareth where Jesus grew up, I pause among ruins of a Muslim cemetery next to a hill where historians say he may have found employment as a youth. On this hill stood the ancient city of Sepphoris, which eventually became the modern Palestinian town of Saffurriya. Communities on this hill were destroyed multiple times, notably by Rome when Jesus was an infant and again by twentieth-century Israel.

Sepphoris suffered ruin shortly after the death of Herod the Great, while Jesus and parents still were in Egypt. By conventional standards of political success, King Herod had elevated the Jewish people to greatness. But Herod was brutal, and resentment burst into revolt as soon as it became clear that his family would carry on the dynasty. In Galilee Jewish rebels overran Herod’s armory at Sepphoris and seized weapons. Rome deployed legions to end this revolt in its client state, and ultimately crucified two thousand rebels throughout the Jewish kingdom. Sepphoris was burned and its inhabitants made slaves.

The Bible never mentions this city so close to Nazareth. But we know that Sepphoris was rebuilt while Jesus was young, when he would have been learning a trade. The Gospels refer to Jesus as a tekton (“builder,” not “carpenter”) and the son of a tekton. The closest sustained construction work probably was at Sepphoris.

The modern drama and tragedy of Sepphoris begin with Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, an event Palestinians remember as the Nakba (“catastrophe”). Arab nations joined forces to destroy the new nation, but the Israeli military prevailed and ethnic cleansing followed as the country expanded. Israel destroyed more than 400 Palestinian villages, including Sepphoris/Saffurriya (Zippori in Hebrew).

Nearby Nazareth, under the watchful eye of Christians around the world, became a haven for Palestinians. From the edge of Nazareth, refugees from Saffuriya still can look across the valley to what used to be their home. Palestinian houses at Sepphoris/Saffurriya were razed and archaeologists uncovered spectacular remains of the ancient city of Jesus’ youth.

All this history roils my spirit as I hold the 1931 photo of a thriving Palestinian town, and survey Sepphoris hill today. I love the vast archaeological discoveries found there; I grieve the displacement of its Palestinian inhabitants. I admire the nobility and moral strength of Jewish faith, and am grateful Israel exists as nation reborn. I want Israel (and my own country) to live up to the highest of biblical justice standards.

I share like precious faith with Christians in Israel (most of whom are Palestinian) and respect the spiritual vitality of Islam. I protest the recent statement by an Israeli leader that he wants to annex more land in the West Bank. Please, no. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5).

Again I remember injustices, including ethnic cleansing, that my forebears perpetrated upon native peoples in my home state of Indiana in the United States. Perhaps neither my people nor Israel can undo damage caused by our respective forebears, but we can resolve to keep new atrocities from happening.

© 2019  J. Nelson Kraybill ****************************************************************

Join Audrey Voth Petkau and me for a Journey of Hope tour to Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019:https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2019-jordan-palestine-israel/ In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and survey Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the site at the Jordan River where God parted the waters, and Machaerus Fortress where John the Baptist died. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth.

We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect with others on themes of mission and reconciliation, including justice issues of Israel and Palestine, as we travel and worship together.

A second Journey of Hope tour on June 10-20, 2020 can be paired with a stop in Germany for the Oberammergau Passion Play. See //www.tourmagination.com/tour/2020-jordan-palestine-israel/

In trouble for speaking the truth

Nazareth Village synagogue JNKcr

At Nazareth Village museum, pilgrims approach a replica of the first-century synagogue. Across the city at top center is a long dark hill from which, by tradition, locals wanted to hurl Jesus.

Don’t expect to be popular if you advocate Sermon on the Mount values at a time when even prominent Christian leaders schmooze politicians who trumpet greed, nationalism, racism, and adultery.

Alone in the Judean desert after his baptism, Jesus endured a test that showed he was not trying to improve his ratings (Luke 4). Jesus refused crowd-pleasing strategies such as turning stone to bread, would not worship the devil even if that would give him rule over kingdoms, and dismissed publicity stunts such as leaping off tall buildings. Instead, Jesus resolved to honor God alone. He headed to Galilee to teach, heal, forgive, cross boundaries, and proclaim justice of the kingdom of God.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . . release to the captives . . . sight to the blind . . . and freedom for the oppressed.” With those words Jesus read to his home-town folk at Nazareth synagogue when someone handed him a scroll of the book of Isaiah. Then he took the congregation through spiritual whiplash with a short sermon.

Friends and family at first swelled with pride when the young rabbi, already well-received in other Galilee synagogues, graced the home pulpit. Local-boy-made-good announced that Isaiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled in their presence. “How well the man speaks!” they said. People of Nazareth knew that Jesus had performed healing in other villages, and now expected a good demonstration at home.

But Jesus was no showman, and his sermon flipped to confront racism and elitism. Remember Hebrew prophets Elijah and Elisha? he demanded. Elijah would not help widows within Israel, where people had a sense of entitlement, but helped a widow across the border at pagan Sidon! Elisha would not heal lepers in Israel, but instead restored a foreign military officer!

In one bold move, Jesus showed that his Spirit-breathed movement would involve caring for those in poverty, freeing prisoners, fighting oppression, and showing compassion even for foreigners. He would give sight to the blind, and now people of Nazareth abruptly had eyes opened to see their own prejudice and elitism. They drove Jesus out of town with intent to kill.

Today at Nazareth Village museum there is a replica of that first-century synagogue, a few blocks from the probable ancient location. Pilgrims emerging from the replica can look across the city to a steep hill from which, by tradition, Jesus nearly got hurled. What price would we be willing to pay to speak and act like Jesus regarding poverty, inequality for captives in our prison system, rejection of immigrants, racism, and the sense of entitlement that plagues comfortable churches and societies?

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0410 (4)

Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in the Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. Contact TourMagination immediately if you wish to join. See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/

For a conventional Holy Land tour in 2019 that includes biblical sites in Palestine, Israel, and Jordan, and is less physically demanding, see https://www.tourmagination.com/destination/the-middle-east/