Jesus was raised in Nazareth. But beyond that what do we really know about this town? Little archaeological work had been done in Nazareth until the Nazareth Archaeological Project began in 2006. What does the work that has been done tell us about Nazareth and about Jesus?
Much of the archaeological work done has been done at a site within the Sisters of Nazareth Convent across the street from the Church of the Annunciation. Much of this work was originally done by the nuns themselves beginning in the 1880s. What had been found at this site were Crusader-era walls and vaults, a Byzantine cave-church, as well as Roman era tombs and other rock cut out structures. Items such as Roman vases, perfume bottles, spinning whorls, and glass beads were found (often by children at the Convent School).
In 2006, the site and Nazareth was re-examined. It was quickly found at the site that there was a clear chronological sequence of well-preserved structures, such as Crusader and Byzantine churches, two Roman era tombs, a quarry, and a rectangular structure which had both rock cut walls and stone walls. The rectangular structure pre-dated a 1st century tomb which was cut through it. Inside this structure were found potsherds of the Kefar Hananya type pottery which was current throughout the Roman era in Galilee. There were also fragments of limestone pots which were most likely owned by Jewish people inhabiting the structure.
The structure appears to be a typical courtyard style house of the first century Roman era, complete with a series of rooms, one of which completely remains, a stairway, and a chalk floor. The great preservation of the house is due to the fact that it is encompassed by the Byzantine and the Crusader eras churches.
In 2009, a similar courtyard home was discovered during an excavation prior to the construction of the International Marian Center next to the Church of the Annunciation.
These two finds and the other finds at the site within the Sisters of Nazareth Convent seemingly confirm that Nazareth was wealthier and larger than previously thought. This interpretation gains greater weight from the number of fountains, wells and springs in the area (at least three but maybe as many as seven). Further evidence comes from the fact that Roman era only little villages and farms seem to lie just outside of Nazareth to the south in the valley of Nahal Zippori. These villages have abundance of Kefar Hananya type pottery and limestone pottery shards which suggests Jewish inhabitation, whereas Sepphoris to the north seems to be more of a Roman town and has an abundance of imported Eastern Terra Sigillata pottery and imported amphora. Eastern Terra Sigillata pottery is very shiny and smooth. It is very elegantly worked and appealed to the upper classes. Kefar Hananya type pottery is a warm brown in color and has thin walls. It was very hard-fired and thus clinks when bumped. It is most usually associated with Jewish settlements. Researchers have remarked upon the seeming clear line of demarcation between these two towns as if the Jewish culture in Nazareth were rejecting the Romans culture.
There is a hint here however of what Jesus’ life may have been. If Jesus walked in Sepphoris, then he might have seen a very different world from his home town. Sepphoris would have had shops, mosaic covered floors, and large public buildings like any Roman town. Sepphoris was a Roman administrative center, but was still a Jewish settlement. Nazareth, on the other hands, would seem to be a conservative Jewish settlement which shunned the trappings of the nearby Roman society.
Much work remains to be done in Nazareth. While some have suggested that the first Roman-courtyard-style home is the home of Jesus, due to its apparent location meeting the criteria of a seventh century pilgrim’s account, who visited Nazareth, we still do not really know for certain that this was the home of Jesus.
An aerial view of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.