A curriculum for mixed-age elementary grades by Dan Harper, v. 1.3
Copyright (c) 2015 Dan Harper.
Other village characters:
Haughty Roman woman
Shepherd (or herder of other animals)
The Judean Village program has us travel back in time during Sunday school, to the year 29 C.E., in a small village in the land of Judea.
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.
A day in the life of the village
At the beginning of Sunday school, all the children gather in the village square. The artisans and shopkeepers are all wearing the kind of clothing ordinary people would have worn in the year 29 in the ancient middle east –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 Elders (two or three of the shopkeepers) get all the children to settle down. One Elder tells them that they are now living in the year 29, in the land of Judea. Children in the year 29 do not go to school, they become apprentices to shopkeepers and craftspeople. Today, the children will have a chance to try out being an apprentice to one of the shopkeepers. But they must remember that the evil Roman Empire rules over the land of Judea, and they deal harshly with anyone who disagrees with the Roman government — so the children should watch what they say, and be especially careful around those who work for the Roman Empire, like the Roman soldiers and the tax collectors, or those who are citizens of the Roman Empire and therefore loyal to Rome.
Just then, the village’s Song Leader comes by, and teaches the villagers a song:
Shalom haverim, shalom haverim,
Goodbye my friends, have peace my friends,
Have peace, 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 Song Leader.
Now 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 Brickmaker, the Candymaker, the Musical Instrument Maker, the Potter, the Scribe, the Weaver, etc. — briefly describes what he or she will be making or doing. Then the Village Elder asks which children would like to go where this week — and don’t forget, there will be five 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, guarding the Tax Collector and enforcing the Roman Emperor’s will. 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.
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.
Perhaps a haughty Roman woman will come visit the village, looking for things to buy. But everything she sees is not up to her standards (except maybe the Baker’s wares), or it is too expensive. She is somewhat disdainful of the villagers — but she is also fascinated by tales of the this strange rabbi Jesus.
A six week program
Each week for six weeks, the children serve as apprentices in the Judean village. They can choose to go to a different artisan or shopkeeper each week. In our village, not all the shops are open every week — sometimes the shopkeepers take a day off (or perhaps they are travelling to get materials for their shop!). Everyone sings the song together each week, and by the fifth week, the whole village sounds really good singing together.
As the weeks go on, the rumors about a rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth keep coming up. Did this Jesus really heal the sick? Does he really know the Torah as well as people say? (When the Roman Soldier isn’t around, shopkeepers might ask: Is Jesus starting a rebellion against the Romans?) Over the six weeks, one shopkeeper, usually the most prosperous one, emerges as the one who believes Jesus is a fake. Perhaps Alan the Scribe, the most prosperous artisan, the only person in the village who knew how to write, is the village’s resident skeptic — he will be the one deriding rumors that Jesus can heal people, he will be the one saying that it doesn’t matter how well you know the Torah (and, when it’s safe to do so, he is the one pointing out that no one can stand up to the might of the Roman emperor).
Then there may be one or two shopkeepers who are fans of Jesus but who aren’t going to leave town to follow him. For example, Daniel the Musical Instrument Maker generally supports Jesus, and likes Jesus’ teachings about how all people are equally worthy, and wants to believe that Jesus can improve Judea’s lot. He worries that the Roman Empire will deal harshly with Jesus and his followers, and hopes for the best. Above all, he’s not ready to give up his comfortable life as a respected artisan to follow even the most persuasive rabbi.
At the other end of the spectrum, 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.
These conversations about Jesus begin during the time when the villagers are all gathered together at the beginning of each session. Some of the conversations are scripted exchanges between two or more shopkeepers (or other adult leaders). These scripted or unscripted conversations may refer to the stories of Jesus in the Christian Synoptic Gospels, e.g., the shopkeepers might 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. The shopkeepers argue about what Jesus might mean by these sayings.
Where the program comes from
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 — the best editions are the ones 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 six Sunday morning sessions; each session is designed to run for 45-60 minutes. I used the principles behind the workshop rotation method, and so we had to change the lengthy projects from the old “Marketplace 29 A.D.” program to shorter projects that can be completed in 30-45 minutes. I dropped the lengthy skits used in “Marketplace 29 A.D.” in favor of shorter dialogues. Our fabulous teachers at the UU Church of Palo Alto have modified existing projects, and added their own projects — these are projects that work with real, live kids!
Finally, 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. In addition, I have paid attention to new scholarship in the area of early Christian studies, which shows that while Jesus was alive and in the century after his death, the followers of Jesus held a wide diversity of opinions and ideas about who Jesus was. This program tries to give children a strong sense of that diversity of views — that not everyone thought the same about Jesus.
Here’s a sample schedule from our program:
9:30-9:45 — Shopkeepers attend first part of service in costume to help build excitement about the program
9:45-9:55 — Song plus introductory story or skit.
9:55-10:00 — Village Leader assigns children to be apprentices at various shops (5-8 children per shop per week).
10:00-10:30 or 10:45 — Shopkeepers have apprentices (children) working in their shops.
Costumes and props
Adult leaders should all wear costumes. This helps the children get in the spirit of the Judean village.
If your congregation has someone to make costumes for you, great — if not, you can buy what you need from ChristianCostumes.com. Most shopkeepers can wear a simple long tunic made of unbleached natural-looking fabric, with a rope belt at the waist — available online from Christian Costumes. Top it off with a simple head cloth — also available online from Christian Costumes.
The Athlete Trainer does not wear the long tunic, but instead a shorter tunic — also available online from Christian Costumes.
Shopkeepers and the Athlete Trainer will need a denarius or two that they can give to the Tax Collector. We gave everyone some pennies, and found some little cloth bags for the Shopkeepers to keep their denarii in.
In our village, the Tax Collector makes enough money that he can wear a more elaborate head cloth, and a long robe over the simple tunic — this costume is available online at Christian Costumes.
The Roman Soldier needs armor and a shield (but we have found it is best for the Soldier NOT to carry a sword). You can buy a Roman Soldier Costume online from Christian Costumes — however, we found that the basic costume needs modification, and is not very durable, so be prepared to spend some time working on it.
We originally tried to have simple costumes for the children (simple head cloths), but in the short amount of time for this program, it proved too time-consuming to get children dressed up.
Here’s some information to help adults get into their roles. Adult leaders will want to read everyone’s role, so they know how to interact in the village.
A. Shopkeepers and Athlete Trainer: You will have a craft or skill to teach to the children that will take about 30 minutes to complete. Ideally, you will be able to talk a little about how important your craft or skill is in village life.
Interacting with the Tax Collector: When the tax collector comes around and asks for money, deny that you have anything. If he comes back accompanied by the Roman Soldier, you can give him a denarius or two (denarius = penny) and say that’s all you have now, you’ll have to pay him more next week. You can talk with your apprentices about the importance of your shop in village life. You can also talk with them about that morning’s story or skit, and as time goes on you may wish to speculate on the rumors about the rabble-rousing rabbi named Jesus (“Hey, he’s really standing up to the evil Roman Empire!”). You might want to ask the Tax Collector about the time when Jesus stayed at his house.
B. Tax Collector: You get to roam the village trying to collect taxes. While doing so, you are also checking to see if shopkeepers need any back up; if they do, you can get Hong to come help out. Remember, if you don’t collect the amount of taxes the Romans demand, you have to make up the difference out of your own pocket. Another interesting factoid about you is that the last time that rabble-rousing rabbi Jesus came to the village, he stayed in your house. Feel free to spread rumors about your important friend (“What a nice guy, a real mensch. They say he can turn water into wine, though he didn’t do it at my house.” “Did you ever see him heal anyone?” “Nah, but boy does he know his Torah backwards and forwards, ask him anything, he’s got a quote from the Torah.”).
C. Roman Soldier: On the Sundays the Athlete Trainer is present, you can spend time with him, trying to recruit the best apprentice athletes for the Roman Legions. When not recruiting, you can accompany the Tax Collector — especially if he tells you that he’s having a hard time collecting taxes. Also, as a good Roman Soldier, you can keep an eye out for any apprentices that might be getting out of hand, and help them settle down.
D. Song leader: Lead the song “Shalom Haverim” during the village meeting at the beginning.
Above: The tax collector and the Roman soldier