Sepphoris PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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In 1st Jewish revolt
Jewish and Gentile
Lower city

Sepphoris as a mixed city, Jewish and Gentile

Because Sepphoris did not join the revolt against Rome in 66, it survived unharmed, as did Tiberias (founded by Herod Antipas between 17 and 21 AD), which had quickly surrendered.

Jerusalem was of course another story. The Romans had destroyed both the Temple and the city in 70. It was questionable whether Judaism could survive without the Temple.

Under Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, however, an academy was established at Yavneh, south of Jaffa, for the preservation and elaboration of Jewish law. But what has that to do with Sepphoris? We shall follow a course of events that will lead this academy northward, and eventually to Sepphoris, where in 200 AD its most important work will be accomplished.

Jews were dispersed throughout the known world, east and west, but they'd had a common focus in the Temple. It had been the authoritative source for the teachings and practice of Judaism. By sacrifices made there, one had been able to maintain one's relation with God in the manner He had ordained. This Temple was gone. Out of the ashes, however, Ben Zakkai and his disciples created a new form of Judaism. Since they could no longer perform the sacrifices, they recited in daily prayer how they used to perform them, and this, they let it be known, would suffice. They also elaborated the laws written in the Torah, creating, as they put it, "a fence around the law": by obeying the "new" laws (which they claimed were not new at all, but were given orally by God to Moses on Sinai), people would not come close to violating the written ones. It is written, for example, that one should not cook a young goat in its mother's milk (Exodus 23:19 and elsewhere), but the rabbis fenced this in by forbidding all mixing of meat and milk. The dietary laws became so elaborate that pious Jews could hardly accept an invitation to a Gentile's home for dinner. (Mutual dinner invitations, then as now, were an essential step in the development of friendship.) The effect of these and other laws was to keep Jews together, isolated from the Gentiles, despite their dispersion in various countries.

In 132 AD, the Jews of Judea again revolted against Rome. The rebels considered their leader, nicknamed Bar Kokhba ("son of a star") to be the messiah. It took the Roman emperor Hadrian three years to quell the uprising, and at great cost to Roman life and treasure. As one of his punitive measures, he banned basic Jewish practices, such as circumcision, in Judaea. Pious Jews had to leave that area. Among them were the members of the rabbinical academy of Yavneh, which had constituted itself as the Sanhedrin.


Here Galilee became relevant. Apparently, it had refused to follow Bar Kokhba, and therefore it escaped punishment. The Sanhedrin moved north, trying various Galilean towns. Most were still in ruins from the debacle of the first revolt. Sepphoris (renamed Diocaesarea in honor of Zeus and the emperor) stood unharmed, however, because of its peace treaty with Vespasian. Here the Sanhedrin settled around 200 AD. Here too the oral law, which had been developing through the years, was at last committed to writing in tractates known collectively as the Mishnah. (The deaths of so many teachers during the Bar Kokhba revolt may have motivated the writing down of the laws.) This book became the core, in turn, of the Talmud. On the basis of the laws contained in these works, which determined the practices of daily life, the Jews were able to retain their national identity for more than a thousand years without land. (See Word and Earth.)
Sepphoris is important, then, as the site of this crucial historical event: the creation of the book that maintained the Jewish people through the centuries. The leader who ordered the writing was Judah ha-Nasi (Judah the Patriarch), a man of great influence, it would seem, not only over his fellow Jews but also with the Romans. Under him Sepphoris became a predominantly Jewish city. Jews resumed control of its council and issued coins. At Judah's death, he was eulogized in each of the city's 18 synagogues. Of these no trace has been found, except for scant inscriptions on mosaics that were re-used in the Crusader church of Saints Anne and Joachim, just west of the hill. Apart from  coins and a few engravings of the seven-branched candelabrum from the long-defunct Temple in Jerusalem, the main signs of Jewish presence are the ritual baths, hewn into bedrock, throughout the city. The Jerusalem Talmud (written in Tiberias, actually) mentions rabbinical sermons that were delivered in the academies of Tzippori (Sepphoris). 

Below the acropolis and a bit to the north, archaeologists found a mosaic floor very similar, in its motifs, to those of the ancient synagogues at Beit Alpha and Hammath Tiberias. The artist depicted events from the biblical accounts of Abraham, a zodiac, scenes from the Temple ritual, and the Holy Ark girded by seven-branched candelabra. It is dated to the 6th century AD.