detail of mosaic of cult of Dionysos from 3rd c. CE Roman villa at Sepphoris
dubbed the "Venus" or "Mona Lisa" of Galilee by excavators

Sepphoris

Hebrew: Zippori ("bird")

The largest city in Galilee was located just south of the road from PtolemaÔs to Tiberias, about half-way between the Mediterranean & the sea of Galilee, perched like a bird on a steep ridge that rises 300 feet above the valley floor. It was fortified in the 7th c. BCE, during the Assyrian occupation of Israel & served subsequent Babylonian, Persian & Hellenistic empires as an administrative center for the region. In 104 BCE it was taken by Hasmonean forces led by either Aristobulus I or Alexander Jannai. But a generation later Gabinius, the Roman governor of Syria gave Sepphoris its own council [Sanhedrin], making it independent of Jerusalem.

When the Roman Senate made Herod "king of the Judeans" with authority over Galilee (39 BCE), Sepphoris refused to submit to him until subdued in a bloody siege [Josephus, War 1.304]. When Herod died (4 BCE), Judah ben Hezekiah, son of the leader of the first revolt, plundered the Herodian palace in Sepphoris & armed the populace. This led Varus, the new Roman governor of Syria, to burn the city & sell its inhabitants into slavery.

Herod's son Antipas reconstructed Sepphoris as a model Roman city, renaming it Autocratoris in honor of the emperor Augustus. For 23 years this was his capitol until he built Tiberias (19 CE). Current excavations have not yet determined how much of the city's eventual 150 acres were developed by Antipas. But this massive Herodian urban building project, that included a theater that could seat 15,000 must have had a major impact on the economy & social life of southern Galilee during the first 2 decades of the 1st c CE, including residents of surrounding villages such as Nazareth, just 3.5 miles to the southeast.

The extent of the Romanization of Sepphoris was dramatized by the fact that the city refused to join the great Jewish revolt against Rome (66 CE). Only after 150 CE did it gain religious importance to Jews, when Judah ha Nasi moved the rabbinic Academy there. The Mishna was published at Sepphoris & it remained a center of rabbinic teaching clear down to 363 CE when it suffered a major earthquake.

For further recent information about archaeological & historical evidence, see:

  • Rousseau, John J. & Rami Arav. Jesus & His World. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) pp. 248-251.

  • Horsley, Richard A. Archaeology, History & Society in Galilee. (Valley Forge PA: Trinity Press International, 1996) pp. 43-65.

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