Nazareth: The Cradle of Christianity

12 May 2015
Nazareth: The Cradle of Christianity

Situated on the  western slopes of the lower Galilee mountain range, Nazareth was a small village from the Canaanite down to the Roman periods. Although the view from the southern edge of the village is excellent and would have enabled its citizens to monitor the important roads in the Jezreel valley, the site was not developed in antiquity as a strategic military site.

The Old Testament does not mention Nazareth, nor does Josephus, the 1st century AD Jewish historian even though he mentions 45 other sites in Galilee. But events that took place in Nazareth during the days of Josephus changed the history of the village. 

According to the New Testament, Nazareth was the home of Joseph and Mary (Luke 1:26-27) and where Mary was told by the angel that she would be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:28-38). Jesus should have been born in Nazareth, but while Mary was advanced in her pregnancy, she and Joseph were obliged to travel to Bethlehem for the Roman enrolment and taxation (Luke 2:1-4). After the family returned to Nazareth, Jesus lived here as a child and
young man (Luke 2:40, 51; Matt 2:23). At his home and at the local synagogue he received his religious training (Luke 2:51-52) and after his baptism and retreat to the wilderness where he was tempted, he returned to Nazareth. The violent reaction of its citizens when he returned to preach led him to move to Capernaum (Matt 4:13). 

There is no record Jesus returned to Nazareth, but the name of Nazareth was attached to him, for when he was crucified the Romans fixed a sign to his cross inscribed, “Jesus of Nazareth.” In Hebrew a Christian is called a “Notsri”, but it is debatable whether the word comes from the place (Nazareth), or from the verb “to guard” or “to preserve” (N.Ts.R). 

In the early 4th century Nazareth is still mentioned in the geographical list of Eusebius as “a small village of Jews”. According to a marble inscription from the same time the priestly Pazaz family lived in Nazareth. 

But with the growth of Christianity and its recognition as the official religion of the Roman Empire from the 4th cent AD onwards, Nazareth developed  as a Christian centre. Christian pilgrims who visited Nazareth
have left evidence of this development. The Spanish nun Egeria (c. 385 AD) mentions visiting a “big and very splendid cave where Mary lived”. She wrote that there was an altar erected in the cave and a church built over the nearby local synagogue. In c. 570, a pilgrim from Italy refers to the local synagogue and that the house of Mary was transformed into a basilica. 

Nazareth was probably destroyed with the Parthian invasion in 614 AD. The Muslims who conquered the land shortly after (636-640 AD) left Nazareth in ruins. 

But the city enjoyed a revival under the Crusaders. In the 12th century AD they built a magnificent church over the house of Mary called, “The Church of the Annunciation” and the Archbishop of Galilee had his headquarters in the city. But shortly after the completion of the grand church, or perhaps even before, a series of battles took place between the Crusaders and the Muslims. The city changed hands a few times, until the Muslims deliberately destroyed it in 1263 AD. 

The Church of the Annunciation was reused only in the 17th century when the Druze ruler, Phakher a-din, allowed some Franciscan monks to live in the ruins of the church. Later the monks were given permission to rebuild the church, but only within a period of six months. The result was a modest building known also to the various contemporary pilgrims who described it. 

In 1955 a decision was made to build a new church, still the largest in Israel. In 1964, during construction, Pope Paul VI visited the site and criticized the plan to coat the interior with marble. As a result the interior undecorated parts of the church are a unique (and strange) texture of bare cement, dotted with holes originally intended to hold the marble plates. Along with the construction of the new
church, the Franciscans also conducted excavations in the area. They found the remains of the Crusader period basilica, and the remains of a 4th century church. Below them, at rock level, domestic agricultural installations attest to the agrarian nature of the village in which Jesus grew up. Remains from Israelite and Canaanite periods were found too.

The focal point of the church is the cave below the main aisle. The place has been identified as a cellar and kitchen of the original house of Mary. It is here, according to Christian tradition, that the angel appeared to Mary and announced that she would be the mother of Jesus, hence the name “the Church of the Annunciation.”  In the past, pilgrims entered the cave but the rock in which the cave was hewn is crumbly and so now the cave is closed. 

The dome above the cave is large and impressive, shaped like a lily, the symbol of Mary. The apse of the church is adorned with a large mosaic (one of the biggest in the world) depicting Jesus, Peter and Mary. 

Within the compound of the “Church of the Annunciation” is another site, though not as well known. The church is dedicated to Joseph, foster-father of Jesus. By one tradition this was the site of Joseph’s house, a problematic suggestion because it is too far from the “cave of annunciation” that was supposedly part of Joseph and Mary’s house. Another tradition places the carpentry shop of Joseph here.

Excavations at the beginning of the 20th century uncovered a storage area from the 1st century, over which was built a chapel in the Byzantine period (4th-7th century) and again in the Crusader period (12th century). 

Many scholars consider the ancient synagogue of Nazareth an important place where the seeds of Christianity were planted. It was here that through his studies Jesus gained a knowledge in the Scriptures and shaped his own beliefs. After his baptism he preached in the synagogue of Nazareth, but the antagonism of the locals led him to move to Capernaum (Matt 4:13). 

The synagogue has been identified in the heart of the market of Nazareth. Its architectural layout does not bear any Roman period characteristics, but it is said that during renovations at the site, stones bearing Hebrew letters were revealed. I have never seen these stones or a publication of them

Excavations in the area revealed tombs from the Second Temple period. It seems difficult to assume that the ancient synagogue of Nazareth was in a cemetery. The inscribed stones may have been funerary stones. If a Roman period synagogue was here, only excavations can prove it but so far no such project has been carried out. 

Today the site is held by the Greek Catholic church, a unique order of the Greek Orthodox church that joined the Catholic Church in 1740. Their church is known as “The Synagogue Church”, a term that sounds like an oxymoron at first. 

At the northern end of the market is a piazza built around the site popularly known as “Mary’s Well”. The “well” is really a water trough placed here during the Turkish period and which was filled with water from a nearby spring. It became so important to Nazareth’s image that the well is the symbol of the Nazareth municipality. Unfortunately, renovations in the 1950’s raised the level of the trough, and as a result it is now dry.

Water however still pours from a spring north of the site, inside St Gabriel’s Church. According to the Greek Orthodox Church, this is the true site of the announcement of the angel to Mary, and not at the “Church of the Annunciation.” According to the Greek Orthodox church, the angel visited her as she drew water from the local spring. 

A steep hill on the southern edge of Nazareth overlooks the Jezreel valley. This is identified as the hill over which the people of Nazareth tried to throw Jesus in order to kill him. Miraculously he escaped. In the Crusader Period a church nearby was dedicated to “the fright of Mary”.  Local tradition claims that Jesus’ mother was standing nearby when Jesus was  about to be pushed from the cliff, and panicked at the thought of his death. 

From the top of the hill there is a splendid view of the landscape over the hills of Galilee, almost unchanged from ancient times. The effect of the natural landscape on Jesus is well described by Prof Klausner in his work on Jesus’ life: 
The natural splendour that envelops Nazareth had a subconscious influence on Jesus. When Jesus spoke about 'the lilies in the field', he was referring to the anemones that blanket the hillside around Nazareth in the winter. He also spoke of sowers and planters, figs, mustard seeds, wheat, and ears of corn—all images taken from his immediate surroundings.”

I would add a personal theory. From the top of the hill you can clearly see Megiddo, the site of the final battle at “the end of days” according to the book of Revelation (16:16). Although not recorded in the Gospels, in his youth Jesus must have often seen Megiddo and I believe Jesus could have spoken about the city and its violent history. Maybe his statements were passed on orally by his followers so that the reference to the battle of Megiddo eventually found its way into the book of Revelation.


Daniel Herman