First-century Nazareth — where the Gospels say Jesus was raised — was no insignificant hamlet but a flourishing agricultural and quarrying community that lay on an extraordinary cultural fault line.
That’s according to a new book summarising the findings of 18 years of fieldwork and research by Professor Ken Dark. The archaeologist has previously identified a ruined 1st-century house in the Israeli city as probably the site believed by late Roman times to have been Jesus’ childhood home.
In spite of Nazareth’s importance in Christianity, Dark, of King’s College London, said it had been neglected by archaeologists for decades before he started his work there in 2004. The settlement, in the Galilee region — today in northern Israel — is only mentioned briefly in the New Testament even though it is where Jesus was said to have grown up and spent his early adulthood.
Memorably, Luke 4 describes Jesus being driven out of Nazareth after claiming in the synagogue to be the Messiah. Jesus says: “No prophet is accepted in his own country.”
According to Dark, his findings can help to paint a picture of the life Jesus would have experienced in the “missing years” between his childhood and the start of his ministry, aged about 30. Dark said: “Archaeology provides the first evidence we have outside of the Gospels on that period of Jesus’ life. The majority of Jesus’ life was spent in this context of Nazareth that we now know a huge amount about from archaeology and we knew almost nothing about before.”
For a start, his work reveals that 1st-century Nazareth lay in a valley that was densely settled but marked by a remarkable division between two communities. Two years of fieldwalking surveys by Dark and his team — recording pottery and other artefacts found while walking over ploughed fields — show that the valley was studded with previously undiscovered Roman-period farms and small villages. There were at least 23 such sites in a single 3-mile by 1.8-mile strip.
Dark said the reason for this concentration of settlement was that the area was especially fertile for the region, with good, well-watered soils.
The glaring divide seen in the archaeology was between residents of Nazareth and its surroundings and those of the Hellenised city of Sepphoris only four miles away. Dark’s fieldwalking indicates that the settlements around Nazareth only used pots and other household items known to have been made by Jews. On the Sepphoris side of the valley, the settlements used a much wider range, including imports from non-Jewish communities.
Dark said the obvious explanation was that residents of Nazareth and its surroundings observed Jewish purity laws more strictly than those around Sepphoris. In other words, they consciously separated themselves from their more cosmopolitan neighbours. As such, Dark said it was unlikely, given this evidence, that the young Jesus would have been exposed to Roman polytheistic religion or Greek philosophy, as some scholars have suggested.
Ancient divisions between Hellenised and more traditional Jews and between pro- and anti-Roman factions are well-known. However, according to Dark, the separation visible in the archaeology around Nazareth is exceptional. In his book, Archaeology of Jesus’ Nazareth, he writes: “The survey provides evidence for something unique in the archaeology of the whole Roman Empire: a distinct border between adjacent communities accepting Roman provincial culture and those rejecting it, and an explanation for why that border existed.”
In fact, he adds, the situation around Nazareth “may form the most clear-cut example of local people resisting Roman imperial culture anywhere in the Roman Empire.”
As for the size and status of Nazareth, Dark said the archaeology suggested it was neither a hamlet nor a small town as some previous depictions have suggested but a village that was a focal point for the surrounding farms and hamlets. It probably had a market and shared crop-processing facilities — for example to press olives and make wine. It is very likely there was also a synagogue, although this may have been an open-air assembly, rather than a building.
There is also evidence for quarrying nearby, probably supplying the village and its hinterland — although the stoneworkers may have also worked part-time in farming. Significantly, Joseph and Jesus are both described in the New Testament using the Greek word tekton, which could mean a stoneworker involved in building rather than a carpenter.
Of relevance here, Dark’s fieldwork has established that the remains of a house underneath the Sisters of Nazareth convent that was traditionally said to be the childhood home of Jesus dates from the early 1st century and was probably built by a skilled stoneworker.
According to Dark, the building was partly constructed by cutting into a limestone hillside to form a level platform and modifying a natural cave. The freestanding rock-cut walls were high enough to support a roof above adult head height and solid enough to support an upper story. There was also a rock-cut staircase that may have led to an upper storey or onto a flat roof.
Dark said: “Going from the archaeological evidence we can say that whoever constructed the Sisters of Nazareth building knew a lot about the properties of the local rock and seems to have been experienced in rock-cutting and in stone-working beyond simply carving blocks out of stone. One could argue that it may have been built by somebody described as a tekton, and was conceivably the sort of place such a person would have lived. But of course, we don’t know for sure.”
The exact form of the building remains uncertain. If some poorly preserved stretches of rock-cut wall are part of the structure, the plan is consistent with a typical first-century “courtyard house” of several rooms around a courtyard, with storage spaces and a stairway to a flat roof. Alternatively, if these stretches of rock-cut wall are left off the plan, it could resemble the more modest quarry workers’ huts found elsewhere in the valley.
Either way, this humble house appears to have been considered special later in the Roman period. Dark’s work reveals that a church was built adjacent to it in the 4th century and a larger church built over both sites in the 5th century. He cites a written source indicating that the site was believed to be that of Jesus’ childhood home by the 380s. It was also identified as the site of Jesus’ childhood home by the French Jesuit archaeologist Henri Senès in the 1930s but this was dismissed by archaeologists until Dark’s reevaluation.
Although he emphasises that there is no way to identify the dwelling’s occupants, he said it would fit the biblical accounts of Jesus’ family circumstances. It even had sufficient room for nine or ten people to eat and sleep. The Gospels mention Mary and Joseph’s sons James, Joses, Judas and Simon, and unnamed daughters. So, if Jesus didn’t grow up in the house, he may have grown up in one like it.
As for the objects found in the house, they included sherds from cooking pots, fragments of limestone vessels and a spindle whorl used for hand-spinning yarn. Dark writes: “They indicate neither greater wealth nor poverty than most Galilean dwellings of the same date. So the finds suggest a normal Jewish family life for this time and place.”
A wadi, or seasonal river, ran through immediately to the east of the house — which may have been on the outskirts of Nazareth. This would have been a remarkable feature in the landscape and Dark said one of its steep banks could, theoretically, have constituted the “hill” which the angry residents sought to throw Jesus down “headlong”, according to Luke.
Given the house’s associations and relatively good state of preservation, Dark said it was “astonishing” that it had not been in the public consciousness earlier.
Although Galilee is often described as an isolated backwater, Dark notes that the inhabitants of first-century Nazareth may have had recent origins close to the centres of Judaism in Judaea. This might provide further context for Jesus’ connections to Jerusalem and Bethlehem as stated in the Gospels.
He explained: “Origins further south have been have been argued by some Israeli archaeologists for populations in this part of Galilee. They have argued that the material culture that suddenly appears in Galilee in the late Hellenistic period — immediately before the Roman period — is so characteristic of the area around Jerusalem that it’s highly likely that a part of the population, at least, migrated to Galilee from there.
“Of course, in archaeology there’s always the prospect that technologies or ideas have moved without huge numbers of people. But some people must have been involved. So there are connections but we don’t know how strong. It’s all consistent with the picture you get in the Gospels of Mary and Joseph having links further south.”
All in all, he said the archaeological findings were consistent with the Gospel accounts and also provided precious new insights into the period and culture. “The extent to which written sources for the history of Roman-period Nazareth correlate with the archaeological evidence is striking. These sources are telling us complementary — rather than contradictory — things about the same first-century community.”
The top image shows a young man and woman in period costume at the open-air museum of Nazareth Village in Nazareth, Israel. Photo: Alamy