What was Nazareth like when Jesus lived there? The evidence is sparse but intriguing.
Surprising as it may seem, very little archaeological work has been done in Nazareth itself. However, a site within the Sisters of Nazareth Convent, across the street from the Church of the Annunciation, may contain some of the best evidence of the small town that existed here in Jesus’ time. Although known since the 1880s, this had never previously been properly published or even studied by professional archaeologists—until the Nazareth Archaeological Project began work here in 2006.1
The story begins with the chance discovery of an ancient cistern in the 1880s,shortly after the convent was built. Excavations were then undertaken by the nuns, their workmen and even children from their school. They exposed a complex sequence of unusually well preserved archaeological features, including Crusader-period walls and vaults, a Byzantine cave-church, Roman-period tombs and other rock-cut and built structures. The nuns made a small museum of the pottery, coins, glass and other portable artifacts that they recovered. Then construction of the new convent buildings revealed the walls of a large Byzantine church with a triple apse, polychrome mosaic floors and white marble fittings, rebuilt in the Crusader period.
Did all this ancient construction, including churches and burials, indicate that the site was considered holy, or at least of some importance, at various periods after Jesus’ time? Was this perhaps founded on a belief that the site was somehow related to Jesus’ home?
In 1936, the Jesuit Father Henri Senès, who had been an architect before entering the Church, recorded the previously exposed structures in great detail and undertook some further, though limited, excavations. Unfortunately Senès never published his work (apart from a brief guide pamphlet). But he did leave a substantial archive of notes and drawings, little known outside the convent, to which the nuns have graciously given us access.
In 2006, we began to reexamine the site. It soon became clear that there was a lengthy chronological sequence of well-preserved structures and features. This included the successive Crusader and Byzantinechurches, two Early Roman-period tombs, a phase of small-scale quarrying and, of particular note, a rectilinear structure with partly rock-cut and partly stone-built walls.
The rectilinear structure was cut through by the forecourt of a tomb dated to the first century; therefore the rectilinear structure must have been built earlier than this time. That this structure also dated to the Roman period was confirmed by the Kefar Hananya-type pottery (standard domestic pottery of Roman-period Galilee; see photo p. 62), the date of which is otherwise known.2 Probable fragments of limestone vessels indicate that the inhabitants were very likely Jewish. Limestone vessels are not subject to impurity under Jewish law and were therefore very popular in Jewish communities at this time.
What sort of building was this rectilinear structure? It had been constructed by cutting back a limestone hillside as it sloped toward the wadi (valley) below, leaving carefully smoothed freestanding rock walls, to which stone-built walls were added. The structure included a series of rooms. One, with its doorway, survived to its full height. Another had a stairway rising adjacent to one of its walls. A rock overhang had been carefully retained in one room, its upper surface worked to support part of a roof or upper story—which otherwise must have been built of another material, probably timber. Just inside the surviving doorway, earlier excavations had revealed part of its original chalk floor. Associated finds, including cooking pottery and a spindle whorl, suggested domestic occupation.
Taken together, the walls conformed to the plan of a so-called courtyard house, one of the typical architectural forms of Early Roman-period settlements in the Galilee.
The excellent preservation of this rectilinear structure or house can be explained by its later history. Great efforts had been made to encompass the remains of this building within the vaulted cellars of both the Byzantine and Crusader churches, so that it was thereafter protected.
Initially puzzling was the use of the site for Jewish burial. Although domestic occupation was of course prohibited by Jewish law on burial sites, burial on a disused domestic site was another matter. The burials were also separated from domestic occupation by a phase of quarrying. It is clear the house was already disused before the site was used for tombs. The immediate area was mostly destroyed before the tombs were constructed. Consequently, the apparent conflict between domestic occupation and burial is an illusory one. The house must date from the first century A.D. or earlier. No stratified pottery earlier or later than the Early Roman period was discovered in layers associated with the house.3
In 2009, another first-century courtyard house was discovered nearby—in a salvage (or rescue) 4 This reveals a structure similar to the Sisters of Nazareth house. The principal difference between the two structures is that the Marian Center structure has fewer rock-cut components as it was built on relatively flat ground farther away from the side of the hill.excavation directed by Yardenna Alexandre of the Israel Antiquities Authority prior to the construction of the International Marian Center next to the Church of the Annunciation.
Consequently, we now have two first-century courtyard houses from central Nazareth. These, together with the other earlier discoveries at the Church of the Annunciation, provide evidence for an Early Roman Jewish settlement that was larger, and perhaps slightly wealthier, than is often envisaged. Such evidence would be consistent with what archaeologists of the Roman provinces elsewhere conventionally term a “small town”: a large village, perhaps perceived by contemporaries as a small urban center, serving as a focus for smaller agricultural communities nearby.
Nazareth was served by at least three, and possibly as many as seven, springs or wells. St. Mary’s Well is perhaps the best known of these. Another is the so-called Apostles’ Fountain near the modern Mensa Church. We found another spring in the course of our fieldwork at the Sisters of Nazareth Convent; it remains accessible through its Crusader-period wellhead. Another water source is implied by an unpublished plan of about 1900 in the convent archive, where a water channel is shown leading from the so-called Synagogue Church, north of the convent. According to Gottfried Schumacher, in the 19th century local people knew of another spring located to the south.5 The Palestine Exploration Fund’s famous Survey of Western Palestine in the 1870s recorded a well within the Franciscan precinct of the Church of the Annunciation. Finally, in his 1923 Das Land Der Bibel, Paul Range says he saw another spring west of the Old City of Nazareth.
The hinterland of Nazareth is oriented to the north. To the south a high rocky ridge cuts off easy movement by foot or animal-drawn cart. To the north, however, a relatively gentle walk leads to the Nahal Zippori, the broad valley between Nazareth and the Roman town of Sepphoris (Zippori in Hebrew). This valley is well watered by the stream that flows along its center and by numerous springs and a few rivulets on its slopes. The part of Nahal Zippori closest to Nazareth was probably the agricultural hinterland of the settlement.
Between 2004 and 2010, the Nazareth Archaeological Project surveyed a wide transect across Nahal Zippori. We identified a series of previously unknown Early Roman-period sites, probably farms and small villages, which (with just two exceptions) had no pre-Roman material. At a few sites we also found evidence of quarrying.
It may be possible to say something of the cultural identity of those living in the Nahal Zippori at this time. All the sites on the south side of the valley, nearer to Nazareth, featured Kefar Hananya-type pottery. Some also had the type of limestone vessels associated elsewhere with Jewish settlements. However, all of those on the north side of the valley, nearer Sepphoris, had a much wider range of artifacts, including red-slipped imported Eastern Terra Sigillata pottery and imported amphora. Communities closer to Sepphoris apparently embraced the cultural world of the Roman provinces; those closer to Nazareth chose a strictly Jewish material culture, perhaps denoting a more conservative attitude to religious belief and concepts of purity and rejecting “Roman” culture as a whole.a
Nowhere else in the Roman Empire is there such a seemingly clear-cut boundary between people accepting and those rejecting Roman culture, even along the imperial Roman frontiers. This suggests that the Nazareth area was unusual for the strength of its anti-Roman sentiment and/or the strength of its Jewish identity. It also suggests that there was no close connection between Nazareth and Sepphoris inthe Early Roman period. Perhaps these places occupied focal roles in separate “settlement systems” on either side of the valley.
Some recent scholarship has argued that the Roman culture of Sepphoris, closer than 5 miles from Nazareth, would have played an important part in Jesus’ youth. Sepphoris, with its shop-lined streets, mosaic-floored townhouses and monumental public buildings, might initially appear to support this contention. But the Sepphoris seen by visitors today is largely a later construction. Very little of what is known of Sepphoris may be assigned with certainty to the early first century.
The first-century evidence that we do have from Sepphoris suggests an urban center with an administrative function, domestic occupation and public buildings. It may have been relatively cosmopolitan, in the sense that it was open to Roman provincial culture, but it remained a Jewish community.
By contrast, Nazareth was a local center without the trappings of Roman culture, perhaps analogous to nearby Capernaum or Chorazin in its facilities and scale, rather than to Sepphoris (which, incidentally, is not mentioned in the New Testament). The description in the Gospels of the Nazareth synagogue (Mark 6:1–6; Matthew 13:54–58; Luke 4:16–30) is exactly the sort of building we would expect in an Early Roman provincial “small town.” Such a small town was also exactly the sort of place where one might expect to find a rural craftsman—a tekton (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55)—like Joseph.
This evidence suggests that Jesus’ boyhood was spent in a conservative Jewish community that had little contact with Hellenistic or Roman culture. (It is extremely unlikely to be the sort of place where, as some have argued, one would have encountered “cynic” philosophy.)
None of this, of course, has any explicit connection with Jesus. There is one possible connection, however. A seventh-century pilgrim account known as De Locus Sanctis, written by Adomnán of Iona, describes two large churches in the center of Nazareth. One is identifiable as the Church of the Annunciation, located just across the modern street from the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. The other stood nearby and was built over vaults that also contained a spring and the remains of two tombs, tumuli in Adomnán’s “Insular Latin.” Between these two tombs, Adomnán tells us, was the house in which Jesus was raised. From this is derived the more recent name for the church that Adomnán describes: the Church of the Nutrition, that is, “the church of the upbringing of Christ,” the location of which has been lost.6
At the Sisters of Nazareth Convent there was evidence of a large Byzantine church with a spring and two tombs in its crypt. The first-century house described at the beginning of this article, probably a courtyard house, stands between the two tombs. Both the tombs and the house were decorated with mosaics in the Byzantine period, suggesting that they were of special importance, and possibly venerated. Only here have we evidence for all the characteristics that De Locus Sanctis ascribes to the Church of the Nutrition, including the house.
Was this the house where Jesus grew up? It is impossible to say on archaeological grounds. On the other hand, there is no good archaeological reason why such an identification should be discounted. What we can say is that this building was probably where the Byzantine church builders believed Jesus had spent his childhood in Nazareth.