2,000-year Old Stoneware Factory in Israel Shows Galilee Jews Were as Zealous as Judeans

Turns out Galilee Jews were as devout as their Judean counterparts ■ Chalk cave could be source of stone jars whose water Jesus turned into wine at nearby Kafr Kana

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Two-thousand-year-old chalkstone cores, dating to the Roman period, uncovered at an excavation site in the Israeli village of Reina, near the northern city of Nazareth,  on August 10, 2017.
Two-thousand-year-old chalkstone cores, dating to the Roman period, uncovered at an excavation site in the Israeli village of Reina, near the northern city of Nazareth, on August 10, 2017.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The Jews of ancient Galilee were as observant as their co-religionists in Jerusalemites and Judea, a team of Israeli archaeologists has concluded after discovering a second workshop for stone tableware in northern Israel.

What the archaeologists found was a man-made cave that served as both chalk quarry and workshop for making vessels from the soft stone. Its surfaces were covered with chisel marks, showing where the chalk had been hewn out. Inside were thousands of stone cores and other waste from making bowls, drinking mugs and other vessels, as well as tableware in various stages of production.

The cave is in the town of Reineh, which is situated between Nazareth and Kafr Kana, though to be the site of the wedding where Jesus turned water into wine, according to Christian tradition. The water had been held in the very kind of stone vessels used by the Roman-era Jews: “And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece.” John 2:6, King James Version.

“It is possible that large stone containers of the type mentioned in the Wedding at Cana story may have been produced locally in Galilee,” says Yardenna Alexandre, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority who specializes in Roman-era Galilee.

People around the ancient world generally used pottery to eat on and to store food. The only ones to adopt stone en masse were the ancient Jews in the late Second Temple Era.

Stone is heavy, chalkstone is absorbent and it’s no walk in the park to clean. This adoption of this considerable inconvenience was apparently based on evolving thought about purity, originating with a curious omission in the Bible’s Book of Leviticus, explains Yonatan Adler of Ariel University, director of the excavations for the IAA.

Two-thousand-year-old chalkstone cores, dating to the Roman period, uncovered at an excavation site in the Israeli village of Reina, near the northern city of Nazareth, on August 10, 2017.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

“In ancient times, there was no such thing as being religious or nonreligious. It didn’t exist. People read the bible and believed it and led their lives accordingly,” says Adler. “According to this way of thinking, if it says in the bible that pottery can become impure when in contact with a dead rodent or dead lizard, that’s how they led their lives,” Adler tells Haaretz.

Nashed Abel Halim, an Arab-Israeli archaeological digger, holds an old ceramic jar uncovered at an excavation site dating to the Roman period in the village of Reina, near Nazareth, August 10, 2017.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Leviticus 11:32-33 specifies that while a cloth, wooden or leather vessel that has become contaminated through contact with the dead body of an unclean — that is, unkosher — animal can be purified through immersion, and an earthenware, or pottery vessel must be broken, the verses make no mention of stone vessels, Adler points out.

Israeli archaeologist Yonatan Adler, director of excavations at the site, inspects chalk mugs and cores from the site.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

We cannot know today whether the ancients thought stone vessels could become contaminated, and as a result would have to be either smashed or purified. But it seems that by the late Second Temple era, the very beginning of the Christian era, the omission of stone from that Leviticus list led the rabbis at the time to assume that stone simply could not become impure. An unclean animal could dance the fandango on it, and the vessel would stay kosher.

In short, impurity was a metaphysical thing, not a physical one. So the absorbent properties of chalk versus glazed pottery were irrelevant to purity.

And thus Jews began to make their tableware and storage vessels out of stone in the second half of the first century B.C.E., the time of King Herod, explains Adler, adding, “We have found stone vessels throughout the country, specifically in Jewish sites.”

Given that other peoples around the world did not ascribe the imperviousness of chalkstone to impurity, workshops for stone tableware are believed to be unique to Israel.

The cave with the chalk workshop was found during works ahead of building a city sports center in Reineh. It is the fourth such workshop found here, the first two being near Jerusalem (one at Hizma and one at Jebal Mukabber) and the third just a kilometer from the Reineh site.

The archaeologists were surprised to find the two stone workshops, within a kilometer of one another, in the Galilee precisely because of the long-running question about the practice of Judaism in Judea versus in the Galilee, where it became influenced by Jesus, Adler says.

“Some scholars would claim Galilee Jews were different from Judean Jews with respect to Judaism, that the Judeans were more religiously observant particularly in respect to the purity laws. Some scholars would claim the Galilee Jews were more lax,” Adler says. Others figure they were about the same. “The fact that we have such large-scale production of stone vessels in Galilee for the local market really shows the strength of purity observance in Galilee at the time,” he concludes.

No, Adler says in answer to a question: It does not seem that the Galilee Jews were a bunch of skeptics who exported their stone handiwork: Stone vessels of the type they made have not been found elsewhere.

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