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Sepphoris

Israel

 

Sepphoris

Sepphoris with Nazareth on hill in distance (Steve Peterson)

Sepphoris, a ruined city 6.5 kilometres northwest of Nazareth, was the capital of Galilee during the time of Jesus. Though it is not mentioned in the New Testament, it is of interest to Christian pilgrims for two main reasons:

•  The rebuilding of the city by Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, may have attracted the building tradesman Joseph and his wife Mary to settle in Nazareth when they returned with Jesus from Egypt.

This major building site, 50 minutes’ walk from Nazareth, would have offered Joseph many years of employment. It may also be where Jesus gained insights into the building trade — such as the need to build with foundations on rock rather than on sand (Luke 6:48-49).

•  According to tradition, the original home of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne (or Anna), was at Sepphoris. During the 12th century the Crusaders built a huge Church of St Anna, possibly on the site of their home.

Sepphoris rose to prominence during the century before Christ because it overlooked two major highways. A mainly Jewish city, it was given its Hebrew name, Zippori, because it sits on a hilltop like a bird (zippor).

According to the historian Josephus, Herod Antipas made it “the ornament of Galilee”, a term also implying the military connotation of an impregnable city.

Sepphoris

Pilgrims on Decumanus street at Sepphoris (Seetheholyland.net)

After the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, Sepphoris became a centre of Jewish learning and seat of the Sanhedrin supreme court. The Mishnah, the first authoritative collection of Jewish oral law, was compiled here.

A Christian community was present by the 4th century. By the 6th century it was sufficiently large to have its own bishop.

It was from Sepphoris that the Crusaders rode out in 1187 for their defeat by the Muslim sultan Saladin at the Horns of Hattin, overlooking the Sea of Galilee — a defeat that brought about the end of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

 

Many changes of name

Sepphoris has worn many names during its history.

It was Zippori (or Tzippori) when Herod the Great captured it during a snowstorm in 37 BC. After Herod’s death in 4 BC the Roman army put down a rebellion of Jewish rebels by destroying the city and selling many of its people into slavery.

When Herod’s son Herod Antipas rebuilt the city, he renamed it Autocratoris.

Because the inhabitants chose not to join the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in AD 66-73, the city was spared the destruction suffered by other Jewish centres, including Jerusalem. Evidence of the city’s pacifist stance comes from coins inscribed “City of Peace” minted there during the revolt.

Before the Second Jewish Revolt in 132-135, the Romans changed the name to Diocaesarea. A massive earthquake in 363 devastated the city and it was only partly rebuilt.

The Muslim conquest in the 7th century saw another name change, to Saffuriya. Except for a period as La Sephorie under the Crusaders, this name remained for what became an Arab village until the population of about 4000 fled attacks by Israeli forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

 

Three apses of church still stand

Excavations at Sepphoris have uncovered streets, houses, public buildings, bathhouses, a market, two churches, a synagogue, a Roman theatre, aqueducts, a huge elongated water reservoir (260 metres long) and more than 40 mosaic floors.

Sepphoris

Crusader fortress overlooking Sepphoris (© Ori~ / Wikimedia)

A Crusader fortress, built on the remains of an earlier structure, dominates the upper part of the site and provides a panoramic view from its roof. It now houses a museum.

To the west of the summit, on the northwestern perimeter of Sepphoris National Park, are the remains of the Crusader Church of St Anna. Inside a walled enclosure, the three apses are still standing, now incorporated into the western wall of a modern Monastery of the Sisters of St Anne (where the key to the enclosure is available).

Northeast of the fortress is the Roman theatre, its tiers of 4500 seats carved into the northern slope of the hill.

Sepphoris

Remains of Church of St Anna at Sepphoris (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

Biblical scholars have conjured with the possibility that Jesus might have known this theatre and even taken from it the word “hypocrite” — Greek for one who is play-acting — which he frequently used (in Matthew 6, for example). But archaeologists are uncertain whether the theatre was in use when Jesus lived in Nazareth.

On the northern edge of the park are remains of a 6th-century synagogue with a mosaic floor depicting biblical scenes, Temple rituals and a zodiac wheel.

 

Mosaic portrait dubbed “Mona Lisa”

Just south of the Roman theatre stood a palatial mansion built in the 3rd century AD. Known as the Dionysus House, it was destroyed by the earthquake in 363, but the remarkable mosaic carpet in its stately dining room survived well-preserved under the debris.

The 15 centre panels depict scenes from the life of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, bordered by medallions of acanthus leaves with hunting scenes.

Sepphoris

“Mona Lisa of the Galilee” in Roman mansion at Sepphoris (Seetheholyland.net)

Each scene is labelled with a Greek word — a panel displaying a completely inebriated Hercules is labelled MEQH, meaning drunkenness.

But the most remarkable feature of the mosaic floor is an elegant portrait of an unknown woman at the centre of one end. The engaging tilt of her head and enigmatic expression have earned her the nickname “Mona Lisa of the Galilee”.

The unknown artist of this portrait used tiny stones, in a wide range of natural colours, and with an exquisite attention to detail and shading.

 

Elegant mosaics illustrate life on River Nile

An impressive network of well-planned streets has been exposed in the lower city. Two major intersecting streets, the north-south Cardo and the east-west Decumanus, had covered footpaths and shops on both sides.

East of the Cardo, a large building called the Nile House had some 20 rooms decorated with multi-coloured mosaic floors. The most elegant depict scenes associated with the River Nile in Egypt.

Sepphoris

Nilometer and river scenes in Sepphoris mosaic (Seetheholyland.net)

In the most impressive mosaic, the river flows through the picture and wildlife such as fish and birds are seen along its banks. On the left a reclining female figure with a basket of harvest fruits personifies Egypt; on the right a male figure represents the Nile.

In the centre a man standing on a woman’s back records 17 cubits (about 8 metres) on a nilometer — a pillar with a scale to measure the height of the Nile during its seasonal flood.

The lower portion shows hunting scenes: A fierce lion pouncing on the back of a bull, a panther leaping on a gazelle, and a boar being attacked by a bear.

Other mosaics in the building include a depiction of Amazon warriors hunting from horseback.

 

Administered by: Israel National Parks Authority

Tel.: 04-656-8272

Open: 8am-5pm (4pm Oct-Mar) with last entry one hour earlier; closes at 3pm on Fridays and eves of Jewish holidays.

 

 

References

Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Chancey, Mark, and Meyers, Eric M.: “Spotlight on Sepphoris: How Jewish was Sepphoris in Jesus’ Time?”, Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2000
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Charlesworth, James H.: Jesus and Archaeology (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Kochav, Sarah: Israel: A Journey Through the Art and History of the Holy Land (Steimatzky, 2008)
Losch, Richard R.: The Uttermost Part of the Earth: A guide to places in the Bible (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Shahin, Mariam, and Azar, George: Palestine: A guide (Chastleton Travel, 2005)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)
Weiss, Ze’ev. “The Sepphoris Synagogue Mosaic”, Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2000
Weiss, Ze’ev, and Tsuk, Tsvika: Zippori National Park (Israel Nature and Parks Authority leaflet)

External links

Sepphoris (BibleWalks)
Sepphoris (BiblePlaces)
Sepphoris (The Bible and Interpretation)
The USF Excavations at Sepphoris (CenturyOne Foundation)
Zippori — “The Ornament of All Galilee” (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Tomb of Mary

Jerusalem

Tomb of Mary

Steps down to the Tomb of Mary (Seetheholyland.net)

The New Testament says nothing about the death and burial of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but a strong Christian tradition places her tomb in a dimly-lit church at the foot of the Mount of Olives.

The large crypt containing the empty tomb in the Church of the Assumption is all that remains of an early 5th-century church, making it possibly the oldest near-complete religious building in Jerusalem.

The location of the Tomb of Mary is across the Kidron Valley from St Stephen’s Gate in the Old City walls of Jerusalem, just before Gethsemane.

The Church of the Assumption stands partly below the level of the main Jerusalem-Jericho road. It is reached by a stairway leading down to an open courtyard.

Entry is through the façade of a 12th-century Crusader basilica that has been preserved intact. To the right, a passageway leads to the Grotto of Gethsemane.

 

Tomb resembles Holy Sepulchre

Tomb of Mary

Petitions and prayers in the Tomb of Mary (Seetheholyland.net)

A wide Crusader stairway of nearly 50 steps leads to the crypt. Partway down, on the right, is a niche dedicated to the Virgin Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim. This small chapel was originally the burial place of Queen Melisande, daughter and wife of Crusader kings of Jerusalem, who died in 1161.

Almost opposite is a niche dedicated to Mary’s husband, St Joseph. Here three women connected to Crusader kings were buried.

The crypt, much of it cut into solid rock, is dark and gloomy. The smell of incense fills the air, the ceiling is blackened by centuries of candle smoke, and gold and silver lamps hang in profusion.

To the right, a small edicule houses a stone bench on which Mary’s body is believed to have lain. The edicule is richly decorated with Eastern Orthodox icons, candlesticks and flowers, but the interior is bare.

Narrow openings on two sides allow access, and three holes in the wall of the tomb enable pilgrims to touch the bench.

Because the emperor Constantine’s engineers cut away the surrounding rock to isolate the Tomb of Mary in the middle of the crypt, its appearance strongly resembles her Son’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Floods in 1972 enabled excavations by the archaeologist Bellarmino Bagatti, who concluded that the place where Mary had been buried was clearly located in a cemetery used during the first century.

 

Several denominations share site

The church belonged to the Catholic Franciscans from 1363 until 1757. When they were expelled it passed into the hands of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Greek Orthodox Church now shares possession with the Armenian Orthodox. The Syriac Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox and the Ethiopian Orthodox have minor rights.

Muslims also worship here. In the wall to the right of the Tomb of Mary is a mihrab niche giving the direction of Mecca. It was installed after Saladin’s conquest in the 12th century.

The place is holy to Muslims because they believe Muhammad saw a light over the tomb of his “sister Mary” during his Night Journey to Jerusalem.

 

Early writers describe death and burial

Tomb of Mary

Icon of Mary’s death at the Tomb of Mary (Seetheholyland.net)

The New Testament may be silent on the end of Mary’s life, but several early apocryphal sources, such as Transitus Mariae, describe her death and burial in Jerusalem.

These works are of uncertain authenticity and not accepted as part of the Christian canon of Scripture.

But, according to biblical scholar Lino Cignelli, “All of them are traceable back to a single primitive document, a Judaeo-Christian prototype, clearly written within the mother church of Jerusalem some time during the second century, and, in all probability, composed for liturgical use right at the Tomb of Our Lady.

“From the earliest times, tradition has assigned the authorship of the prototype to one Lucius Carinus, said to have been a disciple and fellow labourer with St John the Evangelist.”

By the reckoning of Transitus Mariae, Mary would have been aged no more than 50 at the time of her death.

 

Ephesus claim not supported

A competing claim is made that the Virgin Mary died and was buried in the city of Ephesus, in present-day Turkey. This claim rests in part on the Gospel account that Christ on his cross entrusted the care of Mary to St John (who later went to Ephesus).

But the earliest traditions all locate the end of Mary’s life in Jerusalem, as the Catholic Encyclopedia recounts:

“The apocryphal works of the second to the fourth century are all favourable to the Jerusalem tradition. According to the Acts of St John by Prochurus, written (160-70) by Lencius, the Evangelist went to Ephesus accompanied by Prochurus alone and at a very advanced age, i.e. after Mary’s death.

“The two letters B. Inatii missa S. Joanni, written about 370, show that the Blessed Virgin passed the remainder of her days at Jerusalem. That of Dionysius the Areopagite to the Bishop Titus (363), the Joannis liber de Dormitione Mariae (third to fourth century), and the treatise De transitu B.M. Virginis (fourth century) place her tomb at Gethsemane . . . .

“There was never any tradition connecting Mary’s death and burial with the city of Ephesus.”

 

Assumption mentioned in early sources

The name of the Church of the Assumption reflects the Christian belief that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven. This belief is mentioned in early apocryphal sources, as well as in authenticated sermons by Eastern saints such as St Andrew of Crete and St John of Damascus.

The Assumption of Mary has been a subject of Christian art for centuries (and its feast day was made a public holiday in England by King Alfred the Great in the 9th century). It was defined as a doctrine of the Catholic Church by Pope Pius XII in 1950.

The Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God on August 15, the same day that the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Assumption of Mary.

 

Related site:

Church of the Dormition

Administered by: Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre

Tel.: 972-2-6284613

Open: 5am(6am Oct-Mar)-12 noon, 2.30–5pm

 

References

Bar-Am, Aviva: Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Ahva Press, 1998)
Cignelli, Lino: “Our Lady’s Tomb in the Apocrypha”, Holy Land, spring 2005.
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Mary’s Tomb (BibleWalks)
Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Pools of Bethesda

Jerusalem

Pools of Bethesda

Bethesda pool, showing support structure that suspended the Byzantine basilica over the pools (Seetheholyland.net)

Archaeology has enabled a pool at Bethesda in Jerusalem to be identified as the scene of one of Jesus’ miracles. This was the healing of the paralysed man who had waited for 38 years for someone to help him into the pool “when the water is stirred” — an event believed to have curative powers.

The Gospel account says Jesus told the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk”, and immediately he was made well (John 5:2-18).

The location of the Pools of Bethesda — actually a series of reservoirs and medicinal pools — is in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, north of the Temple Mount and about 50 metres inside St Stephen’s or Lions’ Gate. At that time, the gate was called the Sheep Gate, because this was where sheep were brought to the Temple for sacrifice.

According to an ancient tradition, Bethesda is also where Jesus’ maternal grandparents, Anne and Joachim, lived — and where his mother Mary was born. The Church of St Anne, built around 1140, stands nearby.

The compound containing the pools and the church is owned by the French government and administered by the White Fathers. It also contains a museum and a Greek-Catholic (Melkite) seminary.

 

Evidence of pagan healing sanctuary

Pools of Bethesda

Close-up of Pools of Bethesda in the Model of Ancient Jerusalem at the Israeli Museum (© Deror Avi)

In his Gospel account, John describes the pool as having five porticoes, in which lay many invalids — blind, lame and paralysed.

Because no such pool had been discovered, the historicity of the site was long called into question. Some claimed that John had invented the detail of the five porticoes to represent the five books of Moses, which Jesus had come to fulfil.

In the 1900s, however, archaeologists at Bethesda unearthed two large water reservoirs separated by a broad rock dike. They were rectangular in shape, with four colonnaded porticos around the sides and one across the central dike.

The purpose of the reservoirs was to collect rainwater, principally for Temple use.

Associated pools and baths at Bethesda (which means house of mercy) were apparently believed to have healing powers. Evidence of a pagan healing sanctuary has been found east of the pools, including marble representations of healed organs, such as feet and ears.

 

Early church was built over pool

Pools of Bethesda

Remains of a pagan temple, Byzantine basilica and Crusader chapel Bethesda (Seetheholyland.net)

The Byzantine empress Eudocia had an enormous basilica constructed over the Pools of Bethesda in the 5th century. The church was called “Mary where she was born”.

Its central aisle covered the central rock wall, the side aisles extended above the two basins and the front part covered the site of the ancient healing sanctuary.

The basilica was destroyed by the Persians in 614 and its masonry ended up in the pool.

The Crusaders built a small chapel, the Church of the Paralytic, over part of the ruined basilica. The façade, main entrance and apse of the Crusader chapel can be seen standing high over the pools, giving a clear example of the practice of building one church over another.

Related site:

Church of St Anne

In Scripture:

Jesus heals a sick man: John 5:2-18

 

Administered by: White Fathers

Tel.: 972-2-6283285

Open: 8am-noon, 2-6pm (5pm Oct-Mar)

 

 

References

Bouwen, Frans: “St Anne’s Church and the Pool of Bethesda”, Cornerstone, spring 2000.
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Kilgallen, John J.: A New Testament Guide to the Holy Land (Loyola Press, 1998)
Mackowski, Richard M.: Jerusalem: City of Jesus (William B. Eerdmans, 1980)
Pixner, Bargil: With Jesus in Jerusalem – his First and Last Days in Judea (Corazin Publishing, 1996)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)
Starkey, Denis: “The White Fathers in Jerusalem”, White Fathers — White Sisters, April-May 1999.

 

External links

Pool of Bethesda (First Century Jerusalem)
Bethesda (BibleWalks)
Bethesda Pool panorama (Jesus in Jerusalem)
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