How to take your Sunday school back to the year 29

Every couple of years, we run a five-week Sunday school program called “Judean Village,” in which we travel back to the year 29 to be in a predominantly Jewish village in the Roman-controlled territory of Judea.

The Judean Village program has us travel back in time during Sunday school. We gather in the village square, where the artisans and shopkeepers of the village (i.e., the Sunday school teachers) exchange gossip and rumors — gossip about what the hated tax collector has been up to this week, what the Roman overlords are doing, etc. — and rumors about the wandering rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth who is rumored to actually sit down to share meals with tax collectors (horrors!), who is rumored to be healing people and even raising them from the dead, and who may or may not be planning a revolution that will drive the Romans out of Judea and reestablish Jewish rule. The artisans and shopkeepers are all wearing long tunics with rope belts and head cloths (available from www.christiancostumes.com). We supplemented the costumes we purchased with ones made by volunteers in the program.

The village song leader comes by, and teaches the villagers a song:

Shalom haverim, shalom haverim,
Shalom, shalom,
Lehitraot, Lehitraot,
Sahlom, shalom.

Good bye my friends, have peace my friends,
Have pecae, have peace,
Till we meet again, till we meet again,
Have peace, have peace.

The song leader says that some of the children don’t seem quite sure how to pronounce the Hebrew words. The artisans and shopkeepers say they don’t understand the strange language in the second half of the song. So the song leader has everyone repeat the words phrase by phrase, until everyone knows it. Then everyone sings the song together, first in unison a couple of times, then as a round.

Everyone thanks the village songleader. Then it’s time for the children to choose which artisan or shopkeeper they would like to apprentice to that week. One by one, each artisan and shopkeeper — the athlete trainer, the baker, the brick maker, the candymaker, the carpenter, the musical instrument maker, the potter, the scribe, the weaver, etc. — briefly describes what he or she will be making. Then one of the village elders asks which children would like to go where this week — and don’t forget, there will be four more weeks when they can choose to apprentice to another artisan or shopkeeper!

The children go off with the various artisans and shopkeepers, and complete a project that takes about thirty minutes. Depending on the complexity of the project, the artisan or shopkeeper may have time to explain the importance of what they’re doing. The artisan or shopkeeper will also talk about how they are barely able to survive because the Romans tax them so heavily — and they dare not show open resistance, because who knows what the Roman soldiers may do.

While they are working, the tax collector comes around, often accompanied by a Roman soldier. The tax collector, though despised by the villagers, is obviously better off and wears somewhat better clothes. The Roman soldier walks behind the tax collector, wearing appropriate armor and clothing (though we have learned that it is best for the Roman soldier NOT to carry a sword, just a shield). Each artisan and shopkeeper will complain about how poor they are, how they can’t make any money — and maybe, grudgingly, they will give a few denarii (pennies) to the tax collector — and the tax collector will say that is not enough, and that s/he will be back for more next week. (Sometimes the tax collector and the Roman soldier go into the Main Hall, take over for the ushers and pass the baskets for the offering!)

The Roman soldier will also spend some time with the athlete trainer, looking for likely candidates for the Roman army. The soldier might point out to the potential recruits that if they join the Roman army, they will only have to sign on for a twenty year hitch. They’ll be fed and clothed for all those twenty years, which is more than can be promised if they stay in their poor little village — and at the end of those twenty years, they can sign on for another twenty year term, or the Emperor will give them land of their own in one of the remote colonies. While the Roman soldier isn’t around, the athlete trainer might discourage his/her apprentices from joining the Roman army, since to do so would be to betray their village — and s/he will remind the apprentices that if they join the Roman army, they won’t be able to practice their Jewish religion.

Each week for five weeks, the children serve as apprentices in the Judean village. They can choose to go to a different artisan or shopkeeper each week. (We have found it best if there is a slightly different choice of shopkeepers each week — this gives each Sunday school teacher a week off, and provides some variety and excitement for the children.) Everyone sings the song together each week, and by the fifth week, the whole village sounds really good singing together. In our village, Lena, our song leader, brought in violinists and a violist who play a klezmer-y introduction to “Shalom Chaverim,” and who accompany the singing (especially helpful when we’re singing it as a round). Lena found two adult violinists, two middle school violinists, and an adult violist. Since violins and violas are anachronistic, the artisans and shopkeepers ask, “What are those strange-looking but nice sounding instruments?”

As the weeks go on, the rumors about Jesus of Nazareth keep coming up. Over the five weeks, one shopkeeper, usually the most prosperous one, will decide Jesus is a fake — in our village, Alan the scribe is the most prosperous artisan, perhaps the only person in the village who knows how to write, and Alan serves as our resident skeptic, deriding rumors that Jesus can heal people, pointing out that no one could stand up to the might of the Roman emperor. At the other extreme, in our village, Karl the tax collector gradually gets more and more convinced that Jesus is the real deal — after all, Jesus sits down and shares meals with tax collectors, which no one in the village will do! — and in the last week, Karl the tax collector says he is going to give up collecting taxes and go follow Jesus around the countryside. Then there are one or two shopkeepers who are fans of Jesus but who aren’t going to leave town to follow Jesus. In our village, Dan the carpenter — coincidentally, one of his competitors is Joseph and Sons Carpenters, out of Nazareth, an old firm that’s struggling because Joseph’s son Jesus left the business to become a wandering rabbi — Dan the carpenter supports Jesus, and likes Jesus’ teachings about how all people are equally worthy, and wants to believe that Jesus can improve Judea’s lot, but worries that the Roman Empire will deal harshly with Jesus in the end. During these improvised conversations, we bring in references to passages from the gospels, e.g., we talk about Matthew 5.38-48, where Jesus says that when a Roman soldier asks you to cary something for one mile, you should carry it for an extra mile — and we argue about what Jesus might mean by these sayings.

The Judean Village program is modification and simplification of the old “Marketplace 29 A.D.: A Bibletimes Experience” vacation Bible school curriculum by Betty Goetz and Ruthe Bomberger [Stevensville, MI: B. J. Goetz Publishing Co., 1989]. (This curriculum, developed in the 1970s, went out of print not long after Betty Goetz sold the title to Group Publishing, who printed a 2004 edition but dropped the title quickly. You might be able to find a copy somewhere in your church, a nearby church, or even a library — try to find editions published by Goetz Publishing Co., and dated 1989 or later.)

To adapt the old “Marketplace 29 A.D.” curriculum, I changed it from a five-day, day-long summer camp program to a five session weekly hour-long program. I used the principles behind the workshop rotation method, adapting the various projects in the “Marketplace 29 A.D.” curriculum to fit into a 30 minute time slot. I dropped the lengthy skits used in “Marketplace 29 A.D.” in favor of shorter improvised dialogue between the shopkeepers. I scrapped the preschool unit in “Marketplace 29 A.D.” — that proved to be too much work for the small number of preschoolers we had. I changed the theology from the generic mainline Protestant theology of “Marketplace 29 A.D.” to something similar to the religious naturalism of Sophia Fahs’s book “Jesus the Carpenter’s Son.”

I have run the Judean Village project in three different Unitarian Universalist congregations — First Parish in Lexington, Mass.; the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Ill.; and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. — and it has been a big success each time. It makes a great late spring project, and generates enough interest that you don’t see the usual spring drop in attendance.

Over the years, I and others have thought it would be great fun to develop similar programs for other interesting religious figures. How about “Bodh Gaya 600 B.C.E.,” where you hear about former Prince Siddhartha’s alleged enlightenment? How about “Medina 615 C.E.,” where you hear rumors about a prophet from Mecca? How about “Concord 1845 A.D.,” where kids hear about Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and other Transcendentalists? (As a former licensed tourist guide in Concord, Mass., I have enough knowledge that I might actually be able to develop a pretty good program for “Concord 1845 A.D.”) In the mean time, “Judean Village” has proved to be an interesting and fun program that is definitely worth repeating every couple of years.

4 thoughts on “How to take your Sunday school back to the year 29”

  1. I am hoping to do this curriculum with our 3rd-6th graders this fall but can’t get my hands on a curriculum since it is out of print. do you have any leads?

  2. Your best bet is to contact religious educators in your area and see if anyone has a copy you can borrow. (You’re more likely to find a copy at a nearby mainline Protestant church than at a UU church, by the way.)

    I have begun to put a derivative curriculum called “Judean Village” online:
    http://kj6zwr.org/judean-village/
    Unfortunately, it’s still incomplete at this time, but it may give you some ideas.

  3. I am interested in Marketplace 29 A.D., Advent Program….it is a dramatic production… I have a copy, by Betty Goetz…..but wondered if there is a fee for the rights to do this….

  4. Janice, I’ve never used the Advent program myself. But I would assume that unless the program specifically states otherwise, legally you’d have to pay a fee to perform it. Finding out who owns the copyright, and who would accept the fee, could be a challenge (to say the least).

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