New historical research is contradicting the traditional view that Jesus conducted a largely rural ministry, preaching to simple audiences in parables that centered on agriculture, a report says.
Evidence is emerging in Israel that suggests Jesus was familiar with city life, used urban images in his preaching and probably taught in two languages, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said.The same evidence also shows that ancient Galilee, the region in which Jesus taught, was a long way from the backwater that scholars once thought it was.
Instead, it was a cosmopolitan region dominated by two major cities and influenced by classical Greek culture.
This new picture of Jesus and his region is emerging from six years of archaelogical excavations at Sepphoris, the Roman capital of Galilee during the first century A.D. The ruins of Sepphoris lie barely 4 miles north of Nazareth, the village in which Jesus grew up, according to the Gospels.
"We certainly can say that the area was urban, cosmopolitan, an area in which people spoke Greek and Aramaic," said Eric Meyers, a professor at Duke University and co-director of one of the two excavations at the site.
Sepphoris was adjacent to a major trade route - "the I-40 of ancient Palestine," in Meyer's words - that linked the region with ports on the Mediterranean Sea.
The larger city probably dominated Nazareth economically and culturally, providing the village with a marketplace and law courts.
Despite its apparent importance to ancient Galilee, Sepphoris is not mentioned in the New Testament.
But some of Jesus's teachings show his knowledge of life there and in Tiberias, a city of equal size on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, said James F. Strange, director of the other excavation at Sepphoris.
As an example, he cited Jesus' parable of the unjust judge in the Gospel of Luke.
"His audience knows that judges are in the cities," said Strange, dean of arts and letters at the University of South Florida at Tampa.
In another example, he said a parable in Matthew's Gospel, of the master who entrusted his money to two servants, deals with urban life, as it refers to banks and earned interest.
Strange said Jesus was pitching part of his message at an urban audience, and the Gospels should be read with this in mind.
He said Jesus probably passed through Sepphoris on his many travels through the region. But he may have been acquainted with the city for years.
As a carpenter, Jesus would have "been in a lot of demand" in Sepphoris, which was a growing city in his time, Strange said.
The Sepphoris excavations have attracted the attention of the National Geographic Society, which is planning an article on the site next winter.
A key discovery there was the vast number of inscriptions in Greek throughout the ancient city, indicating that language was in common use.
The everyday language of Jews in Galilee was Aramaic. For decades, scholars have assumed Jesus spoke only this language. That has raised the possibiltiy that Jesus' teachings were revised or altered somewhat when the Gospels were first written, in Greek, decades after crucifixion.
Both Meyers and Strange said they now believe Jesus also knew Greek and probably taught in it.
"I think he spoke Greek," said Strange. "I think that's very clear."
It is a view that is gaining ground among scholars generally.
"It's becoming increasingly widely accepted and it confirms what recent New Testament scholarship has long suspected," said Carl Holladay, associate dean at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
John's Gospel provides a clue to how common Greek was in Jesus's time. At the crucifixion, Roman soldiers tacked the slogan "King of the Jews" atop the cross in three languages - Hebrew, Latin and Greek.