Did Jesus attend the theater?


C. Thomas McCollough calls the city of Sepphoris the "jewel of the Galilee." The city served as a "center for the Roman administration of the lower Galilee, as a city critical to the development of rabbinic Judaism, as a thriving Byzantine urban complex and, in time, an important contributor to the Christianization of Palestine," he says.

Within the context of this important city, a theater has been excavated, a topic on which McCollough has given lectures and written articles for academic journals such as Biblical Archaeology Review. The theater itself has generated controversy.

"It is not unique to find a theater in Roman Palestine," notes McCollough, a professor of religion at Centre College. "We know of 12 already.

"The reason this theater became such a point of interest was an article by Richard Batey published in 1984. He had seen a report written by Leroy Waterman in 1931."


Waterman, of the University of Michigan, had exposed part of the theater in Sepphoris, a city that is 5 miles north of Nazareth. Based on Waterman's deductions as well as studies by Shirley Jackson Case - she wrote an article titled "Jesus and Sepphoris" - Batey concluded that Herod Antipas, son of Herod, constructed the theater in the early part of the first century C.E. He also determined that Jesus spent time in Sepphoris, in part based on Case's argument that the proximity of Nazareth and Joseph's profession as a "tecton" - which translates to "carpenter" but is better understood as "handyman," McCollough explains - made it likely they traveled to the nearby city under construction.

Jesus' words

Batey also builds his case on Jesus' usage of particular words. For instance, Jesus uses the Greek term hupokritas, or hypocrite, to criticize Jewish leaders, particularly the Pharisees. The word, McCollough says, is "virtually unknown in the Greek texts associated with first-century Palestine." But it shows up regularly in the Gospels of the Bible. Hupokritas, he adds, "is most commonly understood to refer to an actor on the stage. ... In one particularly striking passage, Matthew 6:16, Jesus attacks (the Jewish leaders) when they fast for making up their faces so as to appear to be distressed and 'be seen by men.'" The consistent and unique use of hupokritas convinced Batey that Jesus had a first-hand knowledge of the dramatic actor.

"You get a conceptual sense of reality from the words Jesus used," McCollough notes. "There is theater imagery is all over the place.

"Jesus had an understanding of Greek tragedy. ... Maybe he (saw) himself as a Greek tragic hero."

The idea of a theater influence on Jesus led to the question of where the theater might be. Given Case's work as well as the proximity of Sepphoris to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, it appeared logical that the Sepphoris edifice was the likely theater.

McCollough's excavation team, made up of participants from Centre and the University of South Florida, went in to the field in 1985, he says, "in part to test the conclusions that Waterman reached." Additionally, the Joint Sepphoris Project excavation team from Hebrew and Duke universities conducted an excavation at the same time.

Both teams originally agreed with Waterman

Both teams originally agreed with Waterman, that the theater was constructed in the first century C.E. But the JSP changed its mind, McCollough says. It became progressively more offended by the idea that "the excavation of Sepphoris had been turned into a 'Jesus dig.'" The JSP decided the theater could have been constructed in one of three periods: When Herod Antipas made Sepphoris his capital; when Sepphoris became a regional capital under Felix, around 52 C.E.; or as late as the second century.

The JSP team also was offended by Batey's contacting of National Geographic and explaining the work as "excavating Jesus' theater and Jesus' city," McCollough notes.

"They wouldn't allow National Geographic at their excavation," he adds. "National Geographic also sent an artist who drew in a way that was offensive - a Nordic-looking Jesus, and the Jews were downcast-looking."

So, McCollough says, there were a lot of questions whirling around this theater, including whether Jesus attended it or not. Then, in the late 1990s, an area was exposed that the JSP said was second-century in its composition.

"Our evidence always said it was a first-century theater," McCollough notes. "I was assigned the duty to publish our excavation (findings)."

His research looked at how Herod Antipas and the whole Roman world came to Galilee, he says.

"There were 600 or 700 people in Nazareth. Then, one morning they woke up and there was a huge Roman city going up 5 miles from them, with a population of 20,000 to 30,000.

"Sepphoris had all of the elements of a huge Roman city. What would the villagers of Nazareth and Capernaum do with huge urban centers in their midst? Scholarship divides interestingly on that question."

Division of opinion

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