BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Jesus in the Negev

Scenes from the life of Jesus found at Shivta

The North Church (left) and its baptistery (right) at Shivta in Israel’s Negev Desert. Photo by Dror Maayan, courtesy of Emma Maayan-Fanar

The North Church (left) and its baptistery (right) at Shivta in Israel’s Negev Desert. Photo by Dror Maayan, courtesy of Emma Maayan-Fanar.

At Shivta, a large early Christian site in southern Israel, scenes painted on the ruined walls of two monumental church buildings have been recently identified as depictions of Jesus. Writing for the Summer 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Emma Maayan-Fanar and Yotam Tepper argue that the apse of the baptistery adjacent to the site’s North Church once featured a depiction of Jesus’s baptism, and that Shivta’s South Church still preserves traces of the Transfiguration. Both scenes likely date to the sixth century.

Located in the central Negev, Shivta is now surrounded by a harsh desert environment that precludes any significant human activity. But in the early Christian period, this village flourished and was home to a large Christian community. Between the fifth and seventh centuries, the people of Shivta managed to not only survive but also develop a thriving settlement. Thanks to lucrative trade and ingenious water management, which depended on the collection and storage of seasonal runoff and rainwater from the surrounding hills, ancient Shivta grew into a large and wealthy rural settlement.

Jesus’s Baptism in the baptistery beside the North Church at Shivta, with the heads of John the Baptist and Jesus traced. Photo by Dror Maayan; drawing by Emma Maayan-Fanar

Jesus’s Baptism in the baptistery beside the North Church at Shivta, with the heads of John the Baptist and Jesus traced. Photo by Dror Maayan; drawing by Emma Maayan-Fanar.

The sprawling ruins of Shivta include the remains of dwellings, stables, wine presses, and three monumental churches, which were once richly decorated with crosses, rosettes, and scenes from the life of Jesus, reflecting the wealth and religious identity of the inhabitants. The apse of the baptistery along the North Church, shown in the photos above, contains vestiges of ancient painting, which Maayan-Fanar and Tepper argue represent the baptism of Jesus, as described in the Gospels (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; and Luke 3:21–23). Their tentative reconstruction of the poorly preserved painting includes the heads of John the Baptist and Jesus, traced in the photo above.

Jesus’s Baptism in the Arian Baptistery in Ravenna, Italy. Photo: Zairon, via Wikimedia Commons; CC-BY-SA-4.0

Jesus’s Baptism in the Arian Baptistery in Ravenna, Italy. Photo: Zairon, via Wikimedia Commons; CC-BY-SA-4.0.

A frequent motif of early Christian art, the Baptism usually features more than just Jesus and John the Baptist. Other examples depict also the hand of God and a dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit, as well as a personification of the Jordan River and angels, some of which are seen in the mosaic from Ravenna above. “Despite its poor preservation, the Shivta painting clearly follows established early Christian iconographic conventions,” observe Maayan-Fanar and Tepper. “John the Baptist is shown proportionally larger than Jesus, who is depicted much smaller and younger. Jesus is also shown waist deep—and presumably naked—in the waters of the Jordan River, which was once painted a brilliant Egyptian blue. Unfortunately, most of the scene’s other essential elements—namely, the hand of God and a dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit—are no longer visible, though the scene’s basic iconography means they were once surely there.”


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The authors also point out the fortunate preservation of the painting within its original architectural context, which adds to our appreciation of the scene: “When viewed in the context of the church’s architecture, this painting helps us imagine how baptism was experienced by early Christians at Shivta. A new convert would descend into the baptismal font in the apse of the church’s side chapel, where a priest stood waiting to receive him. Jesus’s baptism scene was positioned in the vault directly above the baptismal font, creating a visual and symbolic connection between the two events.”

The Transfiguration scene in the South Church at Shivta, partially reconstructed to show the figures of Jesus, Peter, John, and Moses or Elijah, as well as rays of light emanating from Jesus. Drawing: Emma Maayan-Fanar

The Transfiguration scene in the South Church at Shivta, partially reconstructed to show the figures of Jesus, Peter, John, and Moses or Elijah, as well as rays of light emanating from Jesus. Drawing: Emma Maayan-Fanar.

In the southern apse vault of the South Church at Shivta, Maayan-Fanar and Tepper focused on faded traces of a scene first discovered in 1914. They agree that the scene’s original discoverers, Sir Leonard Wooley and T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia), correctly identified the painting as showing the Transfiguration, which was when Jesus ascended a mountain and, in the presence of Moses and Elijah, revealed his divine nature to Peter, Jacob, and John (Matthew 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–13; and Luke 9:28–36). As the reconstruction above demonstrates, not much has survived of the painting.

According to Maayan-Fanar and Tepper, however, “we see outlines of the figure of a haloed Jesus, depicted inside a mandorla (an almond-shaped halo of light around his body). Only outlines of the scene’s other figures have survived. On the left, a bowing figure with an outstretched hand is identified as John the Apostle by an accompanying Greek inscription. Directly behind him is a kneeling figure, Peter, whose beard—painted with beautiful brushstrokes of overlapping bright colors—is one of the best-preserved elements in the whole painting. Behind Peter stands a poorly preserved prophet, either Moses or Elijah.” Using Visible Induced Luminescence analysis, researchers have also identified rays of light that emanate from Jesus in the scene.


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Paradoxically, very few artistic representations of the Transfiguration have survived from the Byzantine period. Yet scholars can compare this Shivta example with a sixth-century mosaic preserved in the apse of the main church of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai. This parallel allows Maayan-Fanar and Tepper to speculate that the right side of the scene at Shivta likely once showed the apostle Jacob and the other of the two Old Testament prophets.

To further explore the two paintings from Shivta and the detective work behind their identification, read Emma Maayan-Fanar and Yotam Tepper’s article Finding Jesus: Byzantine Paintings at Shivta,” published in the Summer 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Subscribers: Read the full article Finding Jesus: Byzantine Paintings at Shivta by Emma Maayan-Fanar and Yotam Tepper in the Summer 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Related reading in Bible History Daily

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible

Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?

Israel Opens Site Associated with Jesus’ Baptism

The House of Peter: The Home of Jesus in Capernaum?

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

What Jesus Learned from the Essenes: The Blessing of Poverty the Bane of Divorce by Magen Broshi

How Jesus Saw Himself by N. T. Wright

Jesus as Pop Icon: The unknown religious art of Andy Warhol by Jane Daggett Dillenberger

Jesus’ Triumphal March to Crucifixion: The sacred way as Roman procession by Thomas Schmidt

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