Learning a Trade


"Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son..." (Mark 6:3).

The gospels tell us little about Jesus' childhood, only that he "grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him" (Luke 2:40). The only event during his youth we are told about (besides his birth) was at age 12 when he accompanied Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem for the Passover (more later). The gospel of Mark adds that he was a carpenter by trade.

At this time it was common for the eldest son to follow the profession of his father, and Jesus is called a "carpenter's son" (Matthew 13:55) and a "carpenter" (Mark 6:3). The original Greek word translated here as "carpenter" is "tekton," and it can not only mean someone engaged in construction work in wood, but also stone. Such work, in a small village like Nazareth, probably provided Joseph with an adequate income to support his family. But Joseph's choice to settle in Nazareth may have been for reasons other than fear over the treachery of Herod Archelaus (see Matthew 2:22). Not only was it his hometown, but it afforded him with the opportunity to find construction work in the city of Sepphoris (Hebrew Zippori or Tsippori), just 4 miles north-northwest about an hour-and-a-half walk.

Despite the importance of the city as the capital of Galilee, it is not mentioned in the Bible.

Sepphoris the "city on a hill"

Sepphoris (Hebrew Zippori or Tzippori) is strikingly situated on a 920-foot-high hill in the Lower Galilee, midway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee. According to the Babylonian Talmud, it was named Zippori "because it is perched on the top of a mountain like a bird (Hebrew tzipor)." Despite this tradition, the source of the city's name is uncertain.

Archaeological finds indicate that Sepphoris had a population of 40,000 at the time of Jesus, a little over half the size of modern Nazareth. From ancient literary sources we know that it was a sophisticated Jewish city with ten synagogues, paved and colonnaded streets, a city wall, a mint (Sepphoris minted its own coins), an extensive aqueduct system, an elaborate reservoir, a cemetery, two market places, multistory buildings and other major public structures.

Aerial view of the Zippori tell (above left); toward the hill of Sepphoris from Nazareth (above right).

Flavius Josephus described the city as "the strongest city of Galilee" (Wars of the Jews, book 2, chapter 18:11). The town rose to prominence because of its location overlooking two major ancient highways one from the port city of Ptolemais (modern Akko) heading east along the Beit Netofah Valley, just north of Sepphoris, to Tiberias; the other south to Shechem (modern Nablus), Jerusalem and Hebron. The former was an important route for grain shipments, and was surely used by Jesus in his journeys about Galilee.

Following the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, and while Mary, Joseph and Jesus were still in Egypt, Sepphoris' largely Jewish inhabitants revolted against Roman rule. According to Josephus Flavius, the Roman legate of Syria, Quintilius Varus, "took Sepphoris, and made its inhabitants slaves, and burnt the city" (Antiquities of the Jews, book 17, 286), putting an end to the rebellion.

Herod Antipas, who inherited Galilee under his father's will, undertook a massive building campaign to transform the ruined city into a major center of government, commerce, finance and culture, and restore it to its former status as district capital. He proclaimed the city's new name, Autocratis, or the "Ornament of Galilee." This fact, plus its proximity to Nazareth leads to some intriguing possibilities about what Jesus experienced during his youth.

Because the rebuilding of the Sepphoris created a demand for workers and craftsman from the surrounding area, Joseph could easily have traveled the short distance to the city to find work as a construction laborer.* Probably Jesus accompanied him as an apprentice to learn and practice his trade. (Did all or some of his younger brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas go with him?).

* The Greek word tekton, usually translated as carpenter in the New Testament, can also refer to a builder, construction laborer, craftsman, or even stone mason.
Since the early 1980's, large areas of the city have been under continuous excavation, illuminating its written history. And two of our traveling companions, Phyllis and Carrie, played their own small role in uncovering that history. A couple years prior to our tour, they had signed on to work as a "dig" volunteer at Sepphoris/Zippori. Fellow traveler, Phyllis (and our travel agent), added Zippori to our itinerary to check the progress of the ongoing excavations and show us her great discovery there.

While walking along a restored street from the Roman period (above left and right) at Sepphoris (note sidewalk for pedestrians to the right of the columns). As we walked here, we noted the ruts from wheeled vehicles in the paving stones. Phyllis led us off a short distance to the mosaic floor of a one-time house, now protected by a temporary shelter. "Ah...I know," she said, "There's my drain right there. See that black square. I uncovered THAT black mosaic square. Then right in that corner I found a column base belonging to an earlier building." Suddenly, she shrieked, "That's MY column base! IT'S RIGHT THERE!!!" We all pushed tightly toward her as she pointed toward her personal discovery a section of mosaic pavement and the base of a column she had unearthed with her trusty spade.

Over 40 mosaics dated from the 3rd to 5th centuries AD have been uncovered in Zippori, in both public and private buildings.

(Above left) Crusader-era fortress (left) with modern building (right) over the remains of a large Roman villa featuring a mosaic carpet portraying secnes from the mythology of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. (Above right) Dionysus mosaic made up of a million and a half tiles in 23 different colors.

Detail of the Dionysus mosaic (above left): portrait of a young woman dubbed the "Mona Lisa of the Galilee." Left, section of the so-called "Nile Mosaic" in another excavated mansion, dated to the 5th century AD, depicting the festival held when the level of the Nile River in Egypt reached its highest point.

What impact did exposure to the culture of Sepphoris have on Jesus' life and teachings? Some scholars argue that they had little effect. After all, they argue, his closest companions were fishermen and his recorded parables all reflect his rural upbringing. However, the proximity of Sepphoris to Nazareth undermines the notion that Jesus was unfamiliar with sophisticated urban life.

(Right) Nazareth from Sepphoris/Zippori

But, nothing has been found at Sepphoris to indicate that as a youth he was ever exposed to the pagan Greek culture (termed, "Hellenism") there. After more than 15 years of extensive excavations, no remains of a temple have been discovered, no cult objects, no inscriptions referring to the worship of pagan deities. The typical architectural features of a Greek city are also missing. There was no gymnasium, no hippodrome (chariot-racing track), no amphitheater, no odium (small, sometimes roofed, theater for public performances and lectures), no nymphaeum (elaborately decorated fountain), no shrines and no statues. While Sepphoris' economic, social and political influence in Galilee is clear, there is no reason to characterize the city as a center of Greek culture in the 1st century AD. Although the city's builder, Herod Antipas, was educated in Rome, as a Jew (at least a nominal one) he understood the traditional nature of his subjects' religious sensibilities, and seemed to have an instinct for walking a fine line between ruthless control and tolerant respect. In building his cities, Antipas selectively adopted Roman architectural features, but he used no statues and images, and his coins did not have his profile, unlike those of his brother Herod Philip, who ruled the mostly pagan population north and east of Galilee.

However, it would have been virtually impossible for Jesus not to have been exposed to Hellenism; it was a pervasive part of everyday life in the Palestine of his day, even in Galilee. There is intriguing evidence in the Bible that Jesus had knowledge of the pagan Greek culture. For instance, in the Gospels, Jesus uses the word "hypocrite" or "hypocrites" 17 times and he is the only one to do so. In the original Greek, a hypocrite [from hypocrites (hoop-ok-ree-tace')] means an actor, stage player and/or pretender. In Greek drama, actors contorted and exaggerated facial expressions so that the entire audience, even those in the back row of seats in a theater, could see them, and they performed for recognition and applause. With this in mind, read Matthew 6:

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full" (Matthew 6:16).

By simply substituting the word "actors" for "hypocrites" you can see that Jesus was making a pointed reference to those people who made a public show of their fasting in accordance with the law so that everyone would take notice of them. By calling them hypocrites, he was telling them they were mere actors or pretenders, putting on a show to catch the attention of others and be praised for their supposed piety.

Although there was a 4,000 seat theater for drama performances in Sepphoris (right, with Crusader-era citadel perhaps a watchtower above), archaeologists tell us it dates somewhat later than Jesus' time, after the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 AD), or, more likely, early in the 2nd century AD. But, as the above passage shows, Jesus had knowledge of the theater.

We don't know if he ever attended theater productions during his travels. He certainly had the opportunity, especially when, as the Gospels tell us, he journeyed into the region of the Decapolis, a confederation of ten Hellenistic cities, nine of which were located east of the Jordan River. Mark tells us that he went into this pagan region and Matthew relates that large numbers of people from there were numbered among his followers. All of the Decapolis cities had large theaters where the people could come regularly to watch Greek dramas and tragedies, like the story of the princess Medea, who slaughtered her children after being scorned by Jason, or Oedipus, the man who tore out his eyes after learning he had slept with his mother. Greek playwrights examined some of the deepest, darkest aspects of human nature and often shared some profound insights. However, Greek dramas could be pornographic and offensive, and performances expressed a superficial and idolatrous lifestyle totally contrary to the Jewish way of life. But the above passage from Matthew, with its "hypocrites" reference, is yet another indication that Jesus didn't live in a vacuum. He knew everyday life and communicated with people in terms they understood ... and did so in their spoken language, whether Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic.

One more thought: Perhaps the hilltop city of Sepphoris inspired Jesus' analogy recorded in Matthew 5:

"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).

Sepphoris remained the capital of Galilee until about 18 AD, when Herod Antipas founded his new city of Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and shifted his capital there. Today, the Sepphoris site has been excavated and restored as a national park. Just as we did, visitors can walk its marble-paved, colonnaded streets and marvel at the many exquisite mosaics in its homes and public buildings, and imagine the young Jesus doing the same.

The Virgin Mary born and raised in Sepphoris?

An early apocryphal writing (probably written about 150 AD), the Protoevangelium of James, which recounts, amongst other things, the birth, childhood, and adolescence of Mary, gives the names of her parents as Anne and Joachim. An early church tradition suggests that Anne and Joachim lived in Sepphoris, and that Mary was born and raised in the city. According to this same tradition, Mary's father died about the time the town began to expand and Mary's widowed mother moved away and settled in the quieter environment of Nazareth to raise her young daughter. (Another early apocryphal writing, the "Gospel of the Birth of Mary," found in the works of St. Jerome, states in chapter 1, verse 1, that "Mary...was born in the city of Nazareth, and educated in Jerusalem").

Parts of a 12th century AD Crusader church were incorporated into the west side of the Convent of the Sisters of Santa Anna at Zippori National Park; supposedly the church was built on the home of Anne and Joachim.

Jesus' Life Home n Pre-ministry-years: age twelve