How Jewish Was Jesus?

Mischaracterization of Galilee as “Gentile” in culture resulted in a Messiah disconnected from his Jewish identity.

By David Lazarus | | Topics: archaeology, Jesus
A mosaic on the floor of the ancient synagogue in ancient Zippori - also known by its Greek name Sepphoris. Matanya Tausig/Flash90

Everyone knows that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a quiet town in Galilee. But what kind of a town was Nazareth? Was it dominated by the Greco-Roman culture of the time? Was Jesus influenced by the so-called “Galilee of the Gentiles” culture in the region where he grew up?

Many scholars argue that Jesus’ reforms were greatly influenced by the Greco-Roman philosophers and culture of his hometown, and not by rabbinic or classical Hebrew and Jewish traditions. Even the term “Jesus of Nazareth” has come to reflect a Gentile Jesus removed from Jewish roots, an image used to overlook the Jewish heritage of the Messiah.


It’s about where he grew up

Nazareth has yielded scant archaeological remains to help us discover details of the early years of Jesus’ life. But the city of Zippori (Sepphoris in Latin), the most important city in the area at that time and situated just four miles from Nazareth, has produced a wealth of discoveries that can help us better understand the world in which Jesus grew up, and the influence this had on his early life.

Scholars have portrayed ancient Zippori as essentially non-Jewish – as in the words of one scholar, a “burgeoning Greco-Roman metropolis” with a population of “Jews, Arabs, Greeks, and Romans.” Or an “important Roman cultural and administrative center” with “all the features of a Hellenistic city.” (Richard A. Batey, Jesus and the Forgotten City, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991, p. 14)

Now, after more than 15 years of excavating at Zippori, Biblical Archeological Review (BAR) archeologists have concluded that the idea that Jesus grew up in a Greco-Roman culture seriously mischaracterizes what his city and the surrounding area was like in the 1st century BCE. Clear archaeological evidence indicates that the city of Zippori was very much Jewish, not Gentile, as was the Galilee in general.


Examining the evidence

BAR archeologists found evidence of Zippori’s deep Jewish culture in an ostracon from the second century BCE, when the Jews successfully rebelled against Antiochus IV, a victory that is still recalled at the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. The victory of Judah Maccabee and his brothers eventually led to the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled the first independent Jewish state since Judah fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The inscription on the piece of pottery found at the site is a Hebrew transliteration of a Greek word meaning “manager” or “overseer.” This points to a well-developed Jewish community at Zippori at least as early as the Hasmonean period (141–37 BCE). 

A bird’s eye view of the Zippori excavations.

Archeologists discovered several Jewish ritual baths (mikva’ot) at the site also from the early Hasmonean period. Another Hebrew ostracon dated to this same period (late second century BCE) indicates that Jews did indeed live at Zippori in the early Hasmonean period.

First-century CE Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the governor of Cyprus attempted to conquer Zippori and take it from the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BCE), thereby confirming that in the years just before Jesus’ birth, the region was under Jewish Hasmonean rule.

Shortly after the Roman general Pompey conquered the area in 63 BCE, the Romans divided Israel into five districts and established Jewish councils to administer local affairs. Zippori was selected as the only Galilean town to be assigned a Jewish council.

In his reports on Zippori and the surrounding region, Josephus nowhere refers to any Gentile inhabitants of the city. Nor does he refer to any pagan temples or other Hellenistic institutions. Nothing in his accounts suggests that Zippori in the first century CE was anything but a Jewish city. Later rabbinic traditions corroborate this, preserving the participation of priests from Zippori in the Temple worship in Jerusalem.


No pork for the Messiah

After examining the thousands of animal bones recovered from the site, archeologists concluded that pork was not part of the Zippori diet. This is significant, because evidence from the later Byzantine period shows that more than 30 percent of the local Christian diet was the non-kosher pig.

Some 114 fragments of stone vessels were recovered in the Zippori dig. In Judaism, stone vessels are not subject to ritual impurity. When pottery vessels became ritually unclean they were destroyed. But stone vessels did not become ritually impure. Large stone vessels were used to store pure water for ritual hand washing. The Gospel of John 2:6 refers to “six stone jars that were standing for the Jewish rites of purification.” Bathhouse benches were made of stone for the same reason. The presence of more than a hundred stone vessel fragments in the residential area of Zippori is another strong indication that the inhabitants were Jewish.

In addition, numerous mosaic fragments with Hebrew and Aramaic letters have been recovered from the western summit of Zippori. The two types of coins minted by Zippori during the Great Revolt also suggest the city was primarily Jewish. Neither contains any image of the Roman emperor or pagan deities, although these images were common on coins of this period issued in cities along the Mediterranean Coast as well as in cities of the Decapolis (a group of ten cities mostly east of Galilee). On one of the Zippori coins is a double cornucopia with a staff in the middle, common symbols on first-century Jewish coins.


Jesus kept the law

Finally, there is no evidence of a pagan presence in the area from the first century CE. After more than 15 years of extensive excavations, no remains of a temple have been discovered, no cultic objects, no inscriptions referring to the worship of pagan deities. There are no typical architectural features of a Hellenistic city- no gymnasium, no hippodrome, no amphitheater.

All the evidence points to fact that Jesus lived amongst a Jewish populace that maintained Jewish laws and traditions of the Bible and the Mishnah. He grew up in a family in a town and region that managed to retain their strong Jewish ethos despite the surrounding Greek and pagan influences. His teachings were not influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy or culture as some have surmised, but rather stem from the great Jewish and prophetic traditions that refuse to compromise and call for the reforms necessary to bring God’s people back to the God of Israel and His revelation in the Hebrew Bible.


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One response to “How Jewish Was Jesus?”

  1. Disciple 1978 says:

    Am pleased that error has been debunked. There’s a lot of evidence that a Gentile Jesus emerged when Gentiles started coming to faith. Gentiles not only rejected the Jewishness of Jesus but also the salvation of the Jews. Pre- Nicean church fathers like Ignatius in 117 AD, Justin Martyr in 165 AD, Irenaus 202 AD, Clement 215 AD, Cyprian 258 AD and especially Origen in 254 AD promoted Christian antisemitism. This antisemitism was consolidated in the Edict of Milan 313 AD and the Council of Nicea 325 AD by the Roman Empire. John Chrysostom 407, Ambrose 397 and Augustine 430 AD went on to make it an integral part of Christian theology that is still taught today. Scripture refutes this lie, especially the New Testament, but Jews have been reluctant to check this out for themselves because of Christian attitudes to them.

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