Archaeology of Jesus’ Nazareth


Let’s do some biblical archaeology. Nazareth is not well known. Bethlehem, where the Bible tells us that Jesus was born, has a magnificent basilica; Jerusalem has the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; but Nazareth, which was his hometown, where he was brought up, is less celebrated. There is the Church of the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to a son, but otherwise few surviving testaments to Nazareth’s biblical past are known. However, in his new book, The Archaeology of Jesus’ Nazareth, Ken Dark thinks he may possibly have discovered the actual cave-house where Jesus was brought up.

Ken Dark, who is Professor of Archaeology at Reading, has spent much of his career studying Constantinople. However, for his next venture, he wanted to explore the impact of Byzantine pilgrimage on a small town in the eastern empire. He applied to the Israel Antiquities Authority, who gave him a list of possible sites, which included Nazareth. This aroused his interest, so he determined to investigate to see if there was any trace of Byzantine 5th-century pilgrimage. What he found proved rather more interesting.

But how do you set about exploring a new site? The answer is by field walking in the vicinity. Today, Nazareth is a city, and there is also another ancient settlement at Sepphoris to the north, but the area between them was ideal for field walking. The results were interesting: towards Sepphoris there was a lot of Roman-style pottery, but towards Nazareth, Roman-style pottery dies out: it would seem that the communities closer to Nazareth observed Jewish purity laws and were deliberately not using impure Roman-style pottery. In other words, Jesus was brought up in a settlement that was conspicuously Jewish, rejecting any Roman influence, even pottery.

But what of Nazareth itself? The town is dominated by the huge cathedral-size Church of the Annunciation, which began as a Byzantine church of the 5th or 6th century, built over the remains of an early Roman period settlement of pit dwellings, one of which is claimed to be the site of the Annunciation. The Byzantine church was replaced by a Crusader church in the 12th century, and the present buildings were erected from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Outside this, however, there were few old buildings in modern Nazareth. Ken Dark examined the whole town until finally there was only one possibility left: what was said to be a Jewish-style burial in the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth. He arranged a visit with little expectation of finding anything of interest, but to his surprise he encountered some very considerable remains that had been extensively explored, but had never been reported to the archaeological world. The Mother Superior was very welcoming and very happy to show their site to a professional archaeologist, and liked the idea of a proper archaeological investigation.

The Sisters of Nazareth convent was a 19th-century courtyard building, which was purchased by the Sisters in 1881. When digging the garden, they started finding pieces of carved stone and consequently began excavating. Over the next 20 years, they carried out extensive archaeological investigations: an interesting example of an all-female excavation. They gradually revealed a substantial set of interconnecting semi-subterranean structures. There were two interjoined main rooms (or caves), and a couple of graves, as well as two cisterns. The sisters kept notebooks of their discoveries, and arranged some of their finds in a small museum. But what did it all mean, and how was it to be dated?

Having got permission from the order’s headquarters in Paris and from the Israeli antiquities department, Ken set to work to sort it all out. He soon realised that there were the remains of a fairly substantial Byzantine pilgrimage church built in the 5th or 6th century, possibly over an earlier 4th-century church. Was this the Church of the Nutrition – nutrition used with the meaning of being where Christ was brought up and nourished? The church remained until the 8th century, when it was abandoned and the remains were flooded and filled with silt. However, when the Crusaders came along in 1099, the old church was dug out and new paving was laid down and the building was once again restored. However, when the Crusaders were driven out in 1187, the church was abandoned and its very site was lost.

But is there anything of the 1st century? At the time of Jesus, there was almost certainly a part-subterranean dwelling there – in places the description reminds me of our Anglo-Saxon term grubenhaus, semi-subterranean dwellings for storage and craftwork.

But is there anything to connect this 1st-century village of pit dwellings with the substantial Byzantine church that was built over the top? The historical record is complex, though one of the best records is that of the Abbot Adomnan, writing in far-off Iona an account of the sacred places, De Locis Sanctis, saying that there were two churches in Nazareth, one the Church of the Annunciation, the other on the site where Joseph and Mary brought up Jesus. Professor Dark refrains from reaching a conclusion, but since there was a substantial Byzantine church on the site, how was its location chosen? Did those who built it choose the only site where there was an indication of previous occupation? Or did they inherit a tradition that this was indeed the site where Jesus grew up? We cannot be certain, but if we are prepared to be biblical archaeologists and use a little imagination, could we not say that Ken may indeed have discovered the site in Nazareth where Jesus grew up?

Archaeology of Jesus’ Nazareth
Ken Dark
Oxford University Press, £25
ISBN 978-0192865397