Studium Theologicum Salesianum
Salesian Pontifical University : Faculty of Theology - Jerusalem Campus

Jewish Childhood in the Roman World of Jesus


6 April 2016, STS – Jerusalem
By: Paolo Negrini, SDB

History does not know any man who has not lived belonging to a particular culture, even Jesus of Nazareth: therefore the study of the cultural environment of the historical Jesus helps us to better understand his humanity, the raw material of his Incarnation. To this fascinating journey, with passion and expertise, Professor Hagith Sivan from the University of Kansas Lawrence, United States, has launched herself. She has worked for decades along two main paths, the world of Late Antiquity and ancient Judaism; and this afternoon, Wednesday 6th of April 2016, has brilliantly carried the STS students along the paths of this history that still has so much to tell and reveal. The Conference was focused on a fascinating topic, on which Professor Sivan is currently hard at work on a large scale project, a topic that has not yet received the attention it deserves: Jewish childhood in antiquity.

At the beginning of the 2nd century AD, in the desert region south of the Dead Sea, in what the imperial power of Rome had recently reorganized under the name of the province of Arabia Felix, lived a Jewish child named Jesus, whose story might help us shed light on the childhood of another more famous Jesus, who had lived not far from there, a century before. Dr. Sivan introduced the story of this little boy and his mother Babatha. Following the traces that other explorers before her had left, in a cave on the Dead Sea near Ein-Gedi, was the discovery of a leather pouch containing legal personal documents of this woman. This find allowed researchers to reconstruct her tangled marital and familiar affairs, where mother and son were forced to flee, just as the Holy Family into Egypt, when in 132 C.E., the effective repression of the Roman legions transformed the Jewish revolt of Bar Kokhba into a Pax Romana.

They both died there, in the dark, probably of hunger and thirst, mother and child, probably suffering that same violence with which Herod exterminated the firstborn with the hope of getting rid of that uneasy child King. The story of Babatha and her son, though without annunciation or miraculous births, seems at least in one aspect to be like the story of that Jesus who came to make God’s love the beatitude of the poor and the meek of Jhwh: this like that, are stories of suffering, stories experienced by flesh-and-blood men, women and children, who suffered from hunger and cold, forced to flee for their lives, stories in which the will of God did not always shine bright as sunlight that beats on the waters of the Dead Sea or the Sea of Galilee. Through documents of Babatha’s story and of her son Jesus, we know his childhood; but we are historically almost unaware of the childhood of Jesus of Nazareth, under the attentive care of Mary and Joseph.

Almost like in a mirror, we know how the human life of Jesus ends, but we don’t know how it ends for the other Jesus: yet even the latter, before the end, would have endured thirst, he must have been wearing rags, and finally closed his eyes throwing out his last breath. Similarly we can imagine Babatha who, like Mary at the foot of the cross of her Son, would have embraced her child and would have followed him in the darkness of death, dark like that cave on the Dead Sea, hoping that a glimmer of light could have beaten from the Eastern foothills of the mountains of Judah, as a gift from God that makes all things new.

So, all those who, this afternoon had the courage and patience to follow Professor Sivan on the dark and sunny trails of this old history, came out of this cave with more help to build and nurture a less abstract faith, and know better the One in whom men believe.


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