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

mona-lisa-fitch-small.jpgIt is unusual to find an ancient city in the heart of Galilee. The area was often full of villages, such as Nazareth and Cana, but cities were usually located on its periphery: in the time of the First Testament, for example, Tyre, Acco, Dor, Yokneam, Megiddo, Ibleam, Beth Shean, Chinneroth, Hazor and Dan. Each of these had its special advantage as a vital nexus of routes by land or sea, and the combination of these cities left no need, no "room," for the rise of yet another in the Galilean heartland. This heartland consists of parallel mountains and valleys. The main trunk road between Asia and Africa ran through the valleys, but because these were bounded by the walls of the mountain ranges, no vital nexus could form in them. (See map below.)

The full name, "Galilee (circle) of the peoples" (Isaiah 8:23/9:1) may refer to the outer "circle" of cities, which sometimes exerted power themselves but more often represented this or that empire. From their positions on the edge of the circle, the cities sought to control the heart of Galilee. Yet that could be difficult: when taxes rose, the farmers could take refuge in the mountains, especially those of Upper Galilee (reaching 4000 feet). From here they sometimes attempted rebellion. In the First Testament period, the heartland did contain one exception, a fairly large city called Hannaton, which dominated the Beit Netofa Valley. In the Second Testament period, Sepphoris arose to become the exception, ruling the valley from a hill southeast of Hannaton. 

Map of Galilee

Despite scant finds of a settlement at Sepphoris from the 8th century BC, there is no tell , for the nearest spring is more than a mile away. The first real development took place around 100 BC, after the Hasmoneans had conquered Galilee. They probably chose this hill because of its "bird's eye view" of the Beit Netofa Valley, through which the international trunk road ran. (See map below.) The Greek name Sepphoris transliterates the Hebrew Tzippori, derived perhaps from tzippor, meaning "bird."

During Herod's fight for power between 40 and 37 BC, he conquered the Hasmonean stronghold (in a blizzard, writes Josephus ). He used it, no doubt, as a base for taxation, which he carried out so assiduously that the nearby peasants rose in revolt when he died in 4 BC. Defeated, they were sold by the Romans into slavery. (Archaeology shows no trace of battle in the city itself.) Herod's realm was then divided among his three surviving sons. Among them was Herod Antipas, who became Tetrarch of Galilee (and of Perea across the Jordan). Lacking any of the large peripheral cities, he decided to build up Sepphoris as his capital. 

That explains why we find this exceptional phenomenon, a city in the Galilean heartland, during the Second Testament period. Sepphoris was still confined to the hill; for water it relied on cisterns. But it must have been an expensive undertaking, built with the taxes of Galilee's peasants and fishermen. Among the workmen we may picture Joseph and his teenage son, who could have commuted from their village, four miles south. Here Jesus may have met a young worker from Cana, probably to be identified with a ruin that is today called Khirbet Kana, five miles to the north.