Just four miles from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, I pause among ruins of a Muslim cemetery next to a hill where historians say Jesus may have found employment as a youth.
On this hill stood the ancient city of Sepphoris, which eventually became the modern Palestinian town of Saffurriya. Communities on this hill were destroyed multiple times, notably by Rome when Jesus was an infant and again by 20th-century Israel.
Sepphoris suffered ruin shortly after the death of Herod the Great, while Jesus and parents still were in Egypt. By conventional standards of political success, King Herod had elevated the Jewish people to greatness. But Herod was brutal, and resentment burst into revolt as soon as it became clear that his family would carry on the dynasty.
In Galilee, Jewish rebels overran Herod’s armory at Sepphoris and seized weapons. Rome deployed legions to end this revolt in its client state and ultimately crucified 2,000 rebels throughout the Jewish kingdom. Sepphoris was burned and its inhabitants made slaves.
The Bible never mentions this city so close to Nazareth. But we know Sepphoris was rebuilt while Jesus was young, when he would have been learning a trade. The Gospels refer to Jesus as a tekton (“builder,” not “carpenter”) and the son of a tekton. The closest sustained construction work probably was at Sepphoris.
The modern drama and tragedy of Sepphoris begin with Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, an event Palestinians remember as the Nakba (“catastrophe”). Arab nations joined forces to destroy the new nation, but the Israeli military prevailed, and ethnic cleansing followed as the country expanded. Israel destroyed more than 400 Palestinian villages, including Sepphoris/Saffurriya (Zippori in Hebrew).
Nearby Nazareth, under the watchful eye of Christians around the world, became a haven for Palestinians. From the edge of Nazareth, refugees from Saffuriya still can look across the valley to what used to be their home. Palestinian houses at Sepphoris/Saffurriya were razed, and archaeologists uncovered spectacular remains of the ancient city of Jesus’ youth.
All this history roils my spirit as I hold the 1931 photo of a thriving Palestinian town and survey Sepphoris hill today. I love the vast archaeological discoveries found there; I grieve the displacement of its Palestinian inhabitants. I admire the nobility and moral strength of the Jewish faith and am grateful Israel exists as a nation reborn. I want Israel (and my own country) to live up to the highest of biblical justice standards.
I share a precious faith with Christians in Israel (most of whom are Palestinian) and respect the spiritual vitality of Islam. I protest the recent statement by an Israeli leader that he wants to annex more land in the West Bank. Please, no. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5).
Again I remember injustices, including ethnic cleansing, that my forebears perpetrated upon native peoples in my home state of Indiana in the United States. Perhaps neither my people nor Israel can undo damage caused by our respective forebears, but we can resolve to keep new atrocities from happening.
J. Nelson Kraybill is president of Mennonite World Conference and president emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. See more writing and information about his upcoming tours to Israel-Palestine at peace-pilgrim.com.