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Mar 01, 2016 | Canon John L. Peterson

Ancient Sites Shed New Light On Jesus’ Life

“The Ornament of Galilee,” as the historian Josephus called the Galilean Roman city of Sepphoris, today offers new meaning some 20 centuries after its construction. Sepphoris, located four miles from Nazareth, was the capital and largest city in first century Galilee, but it is never mentioned in the New Testament. Despite this, Sepphoris has now become one of the most important ancient ruins in exploring the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It has indeed become an “Ornament” as questions are raised about “the missing years” in Jesus’ life.


In the Gospels, there are two references (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3) to Jesus being “the carpenter’s son” and in Luke 4:22, a reference is made to Joseph’s son. The Greek word for carpenter is tekton. This word tekton, translated as carpenter, gives the sense of one who hammers nails into wood, and leads to the assumption that Jesus came from an economically poor family. 


Photo: Carol E. Barnwell

However, in the first century, the word tekton referred to a “master craftsman” or “master artisan.”  It would have been “tektons” who oversaw major building projects at the Roman capital of Sepphoris. For example, the great amphitheater of Sepphoris that seated some 4,000 people would have been built by tektons; the great water system of Sepphoris would have been built by tektons. Hence, I would argue that Joseph, a tekton, would have been a part of, at least, the middle class if not the upper middle class of the time. 


Why is Sepphoris so important in our understanding of Jesus? Prior to the excavations at Sepphoris by an American and Israeli team, little was known about the socio-economics of the city, but with excavations in the 1980s – 1990s, we know more about the social and political impact of Sepphoris in the Galilee in the early part of the first century. Two things came out of the excavations: Sepphoris was a wealthy and urban city and, because of the proximity of Nazareth to Sepphois, Jesus “did not grow up place-bound, in a rustic, unsophisticated environment” (SBL Forum Archive, Archaeology and the Historical Jesus: Recent Developments, 2004).


Because of these excavations we have a far better understanding today of the social, commercial, political and religious life in the Galilee—the context in which Jesus of Nazareth lived. Earlier generations simply did not know what we know today, and, hence, words like tekton are now seen and understood in radically different ways. A tekton would not have been a poor man; indeed, we can look at a first century home in Nazareth (over which the Church of the Nutrition was built by the Byzantines) to remember Joseph’s home. Lying beneath that church is an excavated first century rolling stone tomb, which means this was not the home of a poor man. By knowing the economic context in which Jesus lived (and Joseph most likely worked as a tekton in Sepphoris) gives a radically new perspective to the biblical narrative today.


The Upper Room

But we are not isolated to the Galilee when defining Sepphoris’ importance. At Sepphoris, archaeologists uncovered a third century triclinium, or the formal dining room of a Roman house. The triclinium was first used in Pompeii seven centuries before Jesus’ birth. Its use has a long history amongst the upper classes in both Greek and Roman domestic life. Many scholars have associated the triclinium with the Last Supper in Jerusalem. The Upper Room is described in both Mark 14:14-15 and Luke 22:12 as a “large upper room.” Being a large room it is understood to have belonged to a wealthy person who let Jesus use the room for his “Last Supper.”  


It would not have been possible for a poor carpenter’s son to have had such access. This suggests that because of Joseph’s status as a tekton, Jesus would have had the opportunity to use this large room in the Upper City of Jerusalem. 


Two references in the Gospels indicate the “Upper Room” of the New Testement was a triclinium. In John 13:23, the disciple whom Jesus loved was reclining on Jesus’ breast. People in triclinia reclined. They did not sit on chairs. And in Matthew 26:23: “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” This means that Judas was also, like the beloved disciple, reclining next to Jesus at the Last Supper. An interesting question this raises is that the two honored guests at the Last Supper were “reclining” next to Jesus, actually one on each side of him. 


Three or four decades ago in the United States, there was a huge debate about “archaeology proving the Bible true.” What Sepphoris offers us today is the social and economic context to better understand the secrets that the Bible holds for us to understand who this Jesus was. 


Peterson is Canon for Global Justice and Reconciliation at the Washington National Cathedral.