Synagogue remains found in Gamla help scholars understand how Jesus ministered as a Jewish rabbi.
As they returned from captivity around 150 BC, a small group of Jews founded Gamla. Located near the Sea of Galilee, the city stood on the southern side of a steep mountain. Homes were built on top of one another—the roof of one house becoming the front yard of the house above. A sheer cliff marked the uninhabited northern side of the mountain.
The people of Gamla loved God and they built a synagogue as early as 100 BC, one of the oldest discovered in Israel. The synagogue functioned as a community center, serving as courtroom, school, and common gathering place.
The synagogue later developed into a religious center, providing a place to pray, study Torah, and cultivate one's relationship with God. Most likely, the Gamla synagogue was standing during Jesus' time, and the Messiah may have stood there as he "went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues" (Matt. 4:23).
Gamla was a hotbed of political rebellion during Jesus' time. The city was the birthplace of the Zealot movement, a group of fiercely independent Jews who sought to overthrow Rome.
The Zealots of Gamla sought political freedom from Rome, often using violence as a method to complete their goal.
Wanting to serve God alone, the Zealots sought political freedom for the Jews. They believed it was a moral responsibility to overthrow Rome, and used violence and terrorism as methods to reach their goal.
The Zealots looked forward to the coming Messiah as one who would bring military power and freedom from the Romans. Their war cry was "Hosanna" and their physical symbol was a palm branch.
As Jesus entered Jerusalem during his final days, he was greeted by these symbols of the Zealot movement. With their hearts set on earthly freedom, the Zealots expected Jesus to overthrow Rome. They completely missed Jesus' message of spiritual freedom.
Jesus wept as he saw the Zealots' palm branches, knowing that their quest for political freedom would come to a gruesome end. Jesus spoke to the crowd, saying, "If you only had known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes" (Luke 19:42).
When the Jewish Revolts began around AD 66, Rome sent her army to crush the Zealot movement. At Gamla, the arrival of the Roman army created mass panic. More than five thousand people lost their lives as they jumped or fell off Gamla's northern cliff.
Jesus lived and taught as a Jewish rabbi, presenting his message amidst a cauldron of competing ideas.
Jesus' message differed greatly from that of the Zealots. He offered freedom—but not in earthly or political ways. Instead, he offered spiritual freedom and lived a humble lifestyle with little earthly power.
Jesus conducted his ministry as a Jewish rabbi in the region of Galilee, an area of conflicting worldviews. In one city secular Jews cooperated with Rome while in another, Zealots encouraged revolt. Religious Jews worshiped God while pagans watched pornographic plays just miles away.
Jesus presented his own message amidst this cauldron of competing ideas.
Because he spoke with God's authority, many people recognized Jesus as a rabbi with s'mikeh—one of the few exceptional rabbis with authority to teach their own interpretation of the Text. As Matthew 7 records, "the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority."
Jesus had a passion for the Text. As a s'mikeh rabbi, he had probably memorized the entire Hebrew Testament. And as a master storyteller, he often wove biblical concepts together in a new way.
Even in non-Jewish regions, Jesus was recognized as a rabbi. He learned about the desires and experiences of pagan culture so that he could teach about salvation with words and pictures they would understand.
The Rabbi in the Synagogue
Jesus used the synagogue traditions to share his message with religious Jews and reveal that he was the Messiah.
Although the people of Gamla misunderstood Jesus' message, their synagogue helps us understand how he ministered as a Jewish rabbi. Synagogue ruins have given biblical archaeologists a glimpse into the religious life of first-century Jews.
Most religious services included blessings given to God, a recitation of the Shema, and readings from the Text followed by a personal testimony from one of the readers. Readers were assigned portions of the Torah and prophets according to a predetermined schedule.
Jesus used the synagogue traditions to share his message with religious Jews and reveal that he was the Messiah. Jesus once read and presented a message in the synagogue of Nazareth. In God's divine plan, he had been assigned to read the exact passage he needed to explain his ministry.
Jesus read from Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news." His listeners were probably shocked by the short sermon he gave next: "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:17—21).
As a Jewish rabbi, Jesus wore the Jewish prayer shawl, called the tallit.
As a Jewish rabbi, Jesus probably wore tassels on the corners of his garment. The Jewish practice of wearing these tassels developed from God's command in Numbers 15 "You are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, so you will remember all the commands of the LORD" (v. 38-39).
Later in Jewish history, the tassels were incorporated into the Jewish prayer shawl, called the tallit, which is worn by many Jews today. On each corner of the prayer shawl are long tassels, or tzitzit, knotted five times to remind Jews of the five books of Moses. The four spaces between these knots represent the letters of God's name, YHWH. And the knots along the prayer shawl edges use exactly 613 knotted strings, representing the 613 laws of the Torah.
Malachi prophesied that the Messiah would come with healing in his "wings." But the Hebrew word for "wings" could also be used to identify the tassels that Jewish men wore on the corners of their robe. Based on this prophecy, the Jews expected the Messiah to have healing in his tassels.
During his ministry, one woman demonstrated her faith in Jesus by seeking healing in his tassels. Matthew 9 tells us that a sick woman, whose disease had probably left her untouched for twelve years, thought to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed" (v. 21).
When she touched the Messiah's tassels, the woman was healed. And Jesus commended her for her faith.
The Rabbi's Way
Jesus came with a message of spiritual freedom for everyone, including the sick, undesirable, and "sinners" of his day.
Like many of his miracles, the healing of the sick woman demonstrated Jesus' unique message. Unlike many religious leaders of his day, he did not limit his teaching to socially-acceptable Jews.
The perversion of God's laws had led to an entire class of "sinners"-people who were hired to perform jobs such as burials, which made them ceremonially unclean. Instead of accepting them as part of the religious community, the religious leaders paid them to perform "unclean" duties, and then branded them as "sinners."
Jesus came onto this scene with a message of freedom for everyone, including the sick, undesirable, and sinners. He challenged his audiences to bring mercy and compassion to everyone. And he lived out his message by showing God's love to "the sinners" and undesirables of his day.
Many people grew dissatisfied with Jesus' message. He did not bring the political freedom the Zealots eagerly anticipated. And he did not always follow the social standards of his day.
But others believed. They found healing in the Messiah, not only from physical pains and diseases, but from the inner hurts they were bearing as well. And they experience the greatest freedom of all—a freedom from the power of sin.
Following our Rabbi
Jesus' disciples should avoid the mistake of seeking only earthly power, as the Zealots did. Instead, we must bring God's spiritual freedom to a broken world.
Today, some Christians still misunderstand Jesus' message of freedom. Like the Zealots of Gamla, they seek a gospel that brings political or social power, and they try to bring Jesus' message by force rather than service.
This method will not work. The Zealots' mistaken quest for earthly freedom ultimately led to their destruction. Later Christian movements that used violence to spread the gospel-the Crusades, the Inquisition, and others-also failed.
By contrast, Jesus lived as a humble Jewish rabbi, traveling and teaching about spiritual freedom. He didn't use violence to spread his message. He opened hearts by showing compassion to those around him.
Jesus' disciples today must also demonstrate God's love to our broken world. As we do so, we should use the tools of our culture, including politics. But we must not make the Zealots' mistake by confusing the tools with the goal: Rather than seeking political power for itself, we should use it as an instrument for God.
And as we bring God's love to those around us, we must remember the "sinners" and "undesirables" in our own culture. Terrorists, AIDS patients, pornographers, and corrupt leaders—none of them are beyond God's ability to save.
When people look at your life, do they see a model of Jesus' love-even for sinners and the socially unacceptable?