Eric Meyers Makes Case for Strong Jewish Presence in Galilee

Archaeologist Eric M. Meyers gives a lecture on his findings about Jesus in biblical times at the Hall of Philosophy July 11, 2019. Meyers mentions that Jesus was rejected from his home town of Nazareth and encouraged the audience to ask why. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the first century, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai asked, “Oh Galilee, oh Galilee, why do you hate the Torah?”

But Galilee didn’t hate the Torah, even though as recently as 20 years ago, scholars believed the region to be a place of religious ignorance. Eric Meyers, archaeologist and Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor Emeritus of Judaic Studies at Duke University, spent his interfaith lecture explaining why this wasn’t the case.

In studies of Galilee, a common impression of Jesus’ life was that he came from a “backwater” area. Due to findings from 15 to 20 years ago, however, this impression of Galilee and Jesus’ early life has changed for the better.

Meyers presented his talk, “Jesus in Galilee, A Jewish Perspective,” on Thursday as part of Week Three’s interfaith theme, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times.”

Meyers said that before any true research had been done, Galilee had a bad reputation and many scholars had written about Galilee inaccurately. John Dominic Crossan, for example, had written about Jesus 20 years ago, and described him as a Mediterranean peasant who spoke Greek, Meyers said. Another scholar, the late Sean Freyne, a popular Irish theologian, had written a book about Galilee solely based on texts he read — never based on expeditions to Galilee.

Despite the inaccuracies published in the past, the truth of Galilee’s history, as well as Jesus’, is now known and Meyers said his goal was to explain the depth of Jesus’ involvement in Jewish life in Galilee.

Starting with Nazareth, Jesus’ home village, Meyers referred to Mark 6 in the Bible, where Jesus is rejected by the people of Nazareth when he preached in the synagogue there.

“ ‘Where did this man get these things that he’s saying? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?’ ” Meyers said, quoting the Bible. “ ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon?’ And they took offense at him and Jesus said to them, ‘a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his relatives and his own household.’ ”

Why is Jesus rejected in Nazareth? Meyers said the royal family in nearby Sephorris was negatively influencing the village.

“Who’s living in Sephorris at this time is Herod Antipas,” Meyers said. “The royal family is not known for its modesty. … Jesus was not happy, in my opinion, that the residents of Nazareth, in the time of his ministry, were so enthusiastic about what was going on down the street, as it were: castles being built, the royal family partying and drinking, all sorts of things to excess.”

Jesus, Meyers said, was focused on the humble and poor in the villages of Galilee, where his words were heard and taken to heart. These two very different approaches clashed, and that is why, according to Meyers, Sepphoris isn’t mentioned in the New Testament — Jesus didn’t feel welcome there at all.

Meyers said the life of a Jewish person was quite simple. Meyers first discussed ritual purity, which involved preparing food in a pure way.

“We know from Josephus, the historian of the first era, even (using) olive oil … had to be done by Jews who were ritually fit and ritually pure,” Meyers said.

To be “ritually pure,” Jews had to bathe in mikvah after intercourse, nocturnal emission, getting close to a human body at a funeral and, for women, a menstrual cycle. A woman who did not go to a mikvah after her period was seen as “unacceptable” for intimacy with her spouse, or for cooking food.

Over 1,000 mikvahs have been discovered, which indicate that there were “Torah-observant people” in Galilee at the time, according to Meyers.

In addition to mikvahs, the Bible states that there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each capable of holding 20 to 30 gallons.

Archaeologist Eric M. Meyers gives a lecture on his findings about Jesus in biblical times at the Hall of Philosophy July 11, 2019. Meyers describes the Sea of Galilee and it’s relation to Jesus. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“These stone vessels are associated with the purity practices of Jewish people in the first century,” Meyers said. “They’re called chalk stone vessels and are impermeable to impurity. So I also associate them with table fellowship or the Jewish practice of washing your hands ritually before partaking in a meal.”

Most Jewish people also ritually wash their hands at Passover — the idea is to eat food in a pure fashion.

Meyers then addressed what he called “one of the most important elements running through all of the land of Israel in the first century”: quietism. In the year 67 C.E., Sepphoris was at war with the support of Josephus, who then gave up his generalship of the northern forces in 68 C.E. and chose to make a deal for peace.

“Somehow the wicked Roman emperor thought it was so good, he allowed the Jews to mint their coins and name the city, ‘City of Peace,’ ” Meyers said. “How beautiful is that? This quietest extreme in first century Judaism and the followers of Jesus’ movement … did not want to fight the greatest power on Earth: Rome.”

The last part of Jewish daily life that Meyers discussed was the synagogue. Meyers has been fighting a belief of some scholars that the synagogue “was not a purpose-built physical structure until after Constantine the Great in the fourth century of the common era.”

In fact, these scholars believed it was unlikely that a synagogue could be found before the fourth century that was erected in response to imperial Christianity, because Constantine was the one to make Christianity the official religion.

“But, the mission was codified at Sepphoris in 200 (C.E.),” Meyers said. “The Jerusalem Talmud, the Talmud of the land of Israel, is finished in 400.”

A liturgy and an enormous amount of Jewish literature was written, too. All of this, Meyers said, occurred between 100 and 400 C.E. There was even an inscription found in the Jerusalem theotokos detailing roles of the synagogue: “to read scripture and study its commandments and to provide a place of lodging and hospitality for those who visited it.”

The idea that there were no synagogues, no places for public gatherings, Meyers said, “is a very dangerous hypothesis.”

In all, there were half a dozen synagogues in the Galilee, including Magdala, Capernaum and Cane of Galilee. Not only were there synagogues, but it is clear that people were reading and studying the Torah. The Bible was also emerging as a major authoritative text. These findings prove Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai wrong in having believed that the people of Galilee hated the Torah, according to Meyers.

Additionally, church ruins prove Christians were there as well. The earliest remains come from the third century, like the Grotto of Annunciation in Nazareth and the churches that are part of the Domus Ecclesiae in Capernaum on the Northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Meyers said that, despite the truth in these findings, there are some discoveries people should approach with caution, such as the James Ossuary controversy over the lost tomb of Jesus.

National Geographic, on the other hand, has done phenomenal work restoring the tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Meyers said.

“So let me conclude my points to all of these commonalities, commonalities of everyday life,” Meyers said. “In Matthew 21:37-39, it says ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul.’ That is the basis of Jewish and Christian faith. The second half says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ … That’s the only thing that matters, that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.”

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AnaBella Lassiter

The author AnaBella Lassiter

AnaBella Lassiter is a rising senior at Penn State Behrend in Erie, where she’s studying English with a focus in professional writing and history. She also serve as the Arts & Entertainment editor of her school’s paper, the Behrend Beacon. She is eager to report on the afternoon lectures for The Chautauquan Daily. When she’s not writing, she is walking her dachshund or rereading Wuthering Heights for the 30th time.