Sepphoris PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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The Jewish revolt against Rome, as seen from Sepphoris

The mark of Sepphoris from miles around is the citadel atop its hill. It's a fair bet that the fortress/palace of Herod Antipas stood here, but the lower part of the present structure was built by the Crusaders (using Roman sarcophagi at the corners!). In the 18th century, it was repaired during the rule of a Bedouin chief named Daher al-Omar, who wrested control of Galilee from the Ottoman Empire. It later became the girls' school of Arab Saffuriya (preserving the ancient name), which lasted until 1948. Today the citadel houses a small, informative museum, but it pays to go one floor higher to the roof for a look around.

To the west is the hulk of upper Mt. Carmel. To the south and east is modern Nazareth (the ancient village lies just beyond and below the line of the ridge). Due east are the villages from whose springs came the aqueducts that supplied Sepphoris in the Roman period. Five miles to the north is Khirbet Kana ("the ruin of Cana"), perhaps the village of the wedding feast (John 2:1-11).


In the farther distance are the mountains of Upper Galilee, reaching 4000 feet above sea level. On days of good visibility one can make out a piece of Mt. Hermon. Our special reason for standing here, however, is to bring alive an event from the Jewish revolt against Rome.

Elsewhere we cover the causes of this revolt, which began in 66 AD. The Romans, for a long time, failed to recognize the seriousness of the problem. Ever since the decrees of Julius Caesar , they had allowed the Jews a kind of favored-nation status, and so, in their view, they were carrying on a relatively benevolent, enlightened occupation. Why then should the Jews revolt? The Romans did not even keep a legion in the land. They sent mere equestrians as governors. That is, they completely overlooked a vital factor that would press the Jews to revolt: the covenant faith. (Explanation.)

When at last the Romans realized that a full-fledged revolt was underway, they sent legions under their best general, Vespasian, who came fresh from defeating the Germans. He was joined by his son Titus. These landed in Ptolemais (Acco). The Jewish gentry of Sepphoris, wanting no part in a revolt whose disastrous outcome they foresaw, sent representatives to Ptolemais and quickly made peace. The Galilean peasants, however, had a long tradition of revolt against Empire. They had the mountains as a refuge. They had a report of the first rebel victories in Judaea. They had their belief that this was the time of the messianic birth pangs, and so they could interpret those early victories as the beginning of redemption. The future historian Josephus was sent up from Jerusalem to lead some of them. 

In the Jewish War, Josephus describes Vespasian's entry from Ptolemais into Galilee. Standing on the roof of the citadel and looking to the side of Tell Hannaton, we can picture the event.

The story has a sequel. After they had reduced the other Galilean strongholds, the Romans concentrated on Josephus' last redoubt, Yotpata, whose hill is also visible from here. Despite Josephus' clever ruses (such as pouring olive oil on the Roman siege ramps), the enemy broke in. Josephus and other aristocrats took refuge in a cave beneath the city. The others wanted to kill themselves rather than fall alive into Roman hands. Josephus argued against such a move, but to no avail: they would kill one another in order, as determined by lot. Josephus managed to pick a good lot for himself, surviving and surrendering. Brought by the Romans before Vespasian. but why not go to the source? The prophecy that Josephus mentions is a variant of the messianic prophecy, which had contributed to the birth of Christianity, had fueled this revolt. and would fuel yet another, that of Bar Kokhba, in 132 AD.