Jesus apparently did not think well of the theater, for he was fond of using the term “hypocrite,” originally denoting an actor, as an analogy to chastise those whose religion is a pretense. He uses some form of “hypocrite” 17 times; by contrast, it never appears in Paul’s letters. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus warns, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them…you must not be like the hypocrites…“ (Matthew 6:1, 5). Jesus’ use of this analogy suggests some firsthand familiarity with the theater. And what better place to gain that familiarity than at the theater in Sepphoris, a mere three miles from Jesus’ home in Nazareth?

The theater at Sepphoris was probably a part of the decades-long rebuilding program that Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (4 B.C.-39 A.D.), launched in 3 B.C. The previous city on the site had been destroyed by the Romans as they put down rebellions following Herod the Great’s death in 4 B.C. Building on the foundations of the old city, Antipas turned Sepphoris into his capital. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, Antipas made Sepphoris the largest and most beautiful city in the region. At some point during the reconstruction, Antipas probably installed the theater. Construction of the theater at that time would be consistent with the wave of first-century theater building that gripped the Roman world as the provinces tried to imitate the urban sophistication of Rome.

Appropriate for a capital, the theater at Sepphoris was a large one, with a stage 156 feet wide and 27 feet from front to back, and with seating for 4,000, the same capacity as the theater in the great port city Caesarea. Archaeologists have found the front and back walls of the stage, but not the floor; hence the floor was probably made of wood that decayed long ago. This raises the interesting possibility that Jesus and his father, being carpenters, may even have helped build the stage.

In the photo above, archaeologist James F. Strange, director of the University of South Florida excavation at Sepphoris, stands on an unexcavated portion of the theater’s stage area as he lectures to some dig volunteers. The step carved out of the bedrock, originally supported smoothly polished limestone seats. Behind the top row of seats, excavators found remains of a colonnade that once supported a roof to shelter the audience.

The theater has been dated to the early first century by the pottery found beneath its walls and in the underground cisterns beneath its seats. This pottery consists of storage vessels, bowls and juglets that probably held water and/or wine for workmen building the theater. Characterized by its red color, thin walls and general style, such pottery is typical of early first-century Roman pottery. However, Eric Meyers, co-director of the Duke University/Hebrew University team, which is also digging at Sepphoris, believes that pottery he has seen in a second-century context at another site is identical; if correct, the pottery beneath Sepphoris’ theater would no longer necessarily indicate a first-century date for the theater’s construction. Thermoluminescence dating, a technique that tells when an object was last subjected to fire, cannot be used to date the pottery because there is some doubt about its reliability and, in any case, the range of dates it gives is too large to resolve the dispute.

With one exception, no coins have been found in the theater that date before the time of its last use, about 450 A.D., when the theater was deliberately filled in with earth. The absence of earlier coins is probably because any dropped coins were picked up by other theater patrons. The exception is two first-century coins found under the northwest corner of the theater’s back wall. Unfortunately these cannot be used to support the first-century date of the theater because they were found in an unsealed context, and so may have been introduced at any time.