Nazareth - the home of Jesus

Nazareth is one of the most important Christian locations in Israel, being the hometown of Jesus’ parents and the place where he lived until he was 30 years old. It remained a Jewish town until the 6th century. Today, it is the largest Arab city in Israel. Two-thirds of its population are Muslim and one-third Christian. Its religious sites are best viewed with an organized tour. Nevertheless, although not the most user-friendly tourist place in Israel, it can be visited satisfactorily on one’s own.

A central location from which to start a visit is the City Square. There is no central parking area in the city but rather a multitude of small fee-paying parking lots. There is also street parking on Pango. Try and park as close to City Square as possible. This is only a few minutes’ walk from the Church of the Annunciation and Church of St. Joseph, and very close to the souk. There is a government tourist information office very close to the square and they can provide you with a map and directions. To drive to the City Square, enter “Tourist Information, Nazareth” into Waze and click on “Tourist Information, Ministry of Tourism, נצרת.“

Archeology in Nazareth

 

Tourism in Nazareth is all about its splendid churches. All of them are relatively modern, although often built on the site of previous Byzantine and Crusader churches. These in turn may have been built on the presumed location of buildings associated with the life and mission of Jesus.

 

At the time of Jesus, Nazareth was a totally Jewish town and it functioned as a regional center. It remained Jewish until the 6th century. The town itself was located on where the three religious institutions - the Church of the Annunciation, the Mary of Nazareth International Center and the Church of St. Joseph - are currently located, all three being in close proximity to each another. It is not surprising, therefore, that excavations in this area have revealed findings from the 1st century Roman period during which Jesus lived. Excavations at the Mary of Nazareth International Center, in particular, have been very revealing, as they may have discovered the actual home of Jesus (Biblical Archaeology Review 41:2, 2015). At the very least, this is a home from this period.

 

One might imagine that Jesus came from a simple peasant’s home and his father, Joseph, was a lowly carpenter. This may not have been quite the case. From the ruins it is apparent that this family lived in a respectable Roman-period rectilinear courtyard home with multiple rooms. Joseph is described in the New Testament as a tekton. In ancient Greek this means an artisan or craftsman, and Joseph could have been a carpenter, woodcutter, or even a building contractor. Jesus probably worked with his father until age 30 when he left Nazareth to become a preacher. He moved to Capernaum and he preached there and in other important towns around the Sea of Galilee. A subsequent visit to his childhood home did not go well and he was driven from town.

 

When the Sisters of Nazareth Convent was built in 1880 across the street from the Church of the Annunciation, the nuns and their workers found a cistern, Crusader walls and vaults, some Roman period tombs, and another building partially built into the hillside. They even made a small museum from the pottery, coins and other specimens they found. With the construction of new convent buildings, the walls and mosaics of a large Byzantine period church were discovered. But what were all these impressive religious buildings doing at this site?

 

A subsequent Nazareth Archeological Project begun in 2006 revealed that these Byzantine and Crusader churches were protecting a residence from the Roman period, part of which was built into the hillside. This building still had a completely intact entrance, several rooms and even a stairway. They are displayed inside the Center.

 

A possible clue to the nature of this building comes from a 7th century pilgrim who wrote that the churches were built over vaults that contained a spring and the remains of two tombs. Between them was the house in which Jesus was raised. The tombs are from a later period. Now it is the case that some of the locations linked during the Byzantine period to the Bible were mistaken (see, for example, The interesting ruins of Magdala), but it is not out of the question that this was indeed Jesus’ home.

 

There are also archeological findings in the grounds of the Church of the Annunciation. When the Franciscan church was demolished to build the present church, they also found silos, cisterns, caves and a dwelling from the ancient Jewish town of Nazareth. In the grotto of the church itself is a cave which was part of a building and which by tradition is considered to have been the childhood home of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

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Archeological ruins in the grounds of the Church of the Annunciation.

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The grotto at the Church of the Annunciation

All pilgrims visit the Church of the Annunciation. This two-story basilica was completed in 1969 and is the largest Christian church in the Middle East. By tradition it was built on the childhood home of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

 

This site has probably been a place of worship since the 1st and 2nd century CE, and early sources already refer to this location as “the house of the Virgin Mary.” A Byzantine church was commissioned by Emperor Constantine I and his mother, the Empress Helena, would have been responsible for this project. She also founded the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem at about this time.

 

On the lower level is a sunken octagonal-shaped grotto containing the cave where tradition holds that the archangel Gabriel told the young Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of the son of God, and Mary accepted this. This is the Annunciation. The cave originally was probably part of a house built of masonry. Inside the cave is an altar with the Latin inscription: “Here the word was made flesh.” The cave is flanked by remnants of earlier churches.

 

The upper level contains the parish church for Nazareth’s Catholic community. The impressive cupola is directly over the lower grotto and is in the shape of an inverted lily that opens its petals to the shrine below the cupula. This image signifies Mary’s purity.

 

There is no admission charge.  There is a gift shop and WC by the entrance to the complex. The grotto is usually open from 5.45 am am to 9.00 pm and the upper basilica from 8.00 am to 6.00 pm. Entrance to the church is from the west. On its façade are reliefs of Mary, Gabriel and the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Entry to the second floor is from a spiral staircase from the lower floor, or using outside stairs, with the entrance to the church being at the northern side of a large elevated square. There is an elevator to the second floor, but this is outside the main church and needs to be requested.

 

According to the tradition of the Greek Orthodox, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary by Mary’s well, and the Greek Orthodox Church is by the spring.

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The upper level of the Church of the Annunciation functions as the parish church for the Nazareth Catholic community.

The Church of St Joseph can be reached by a walkway from the raised square within the grounds of the Church of the Annunciation and is a very short distance. There is a WC on the way.

 

This is a much smaller church that the Church of the Annunciation and was built in 1911 over the remains of a Crusader church. A tradition holds that this was site of Joseph’s workshop. At the entrance is a portrayal of Jesus between Mary and Joseph. In a gospel, Joseph is considered to be of the lineage of King David. You can descend to the basement of the church and there are archeological findings here consisting of silos and a cistern from the Roman period. Mosaics suggest that the basin here may have been used as a baptistery by the first Judeo-Christians of Nazareth. The church is open from 7.00 am to 6.00 pm.

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Ruins in the basement of the Church of St. Joseph were probably part of a dwelling.

Mary of Nazareth International Center. This center is across the road from the Church of the Annunciation. It has received support from Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. Formerly run by a French Catholic group with an ecumenical ministry, it is now run by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. A visit here can add meaning to the significance of Mary and the churches you have visited. There is shown a 55-minute, wide-screen, multi-media presentation, offered in 10 languages, about Mary’s place in the Bible. It is presented in four parts, each viewed in a different room. First is from creation to Mary’s childhood, then from the Annunciation to the birth of Jesus, Jesus’ 30 years in Nazareth and his public life, and finally from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. There are also exhibits on Mary as a Jewish woman, Mary in the Qu’ran, Mary as a source of Christian unity, and Mary in the tradition of the Eastern Christian churches. One can pray in the Chapel of the Unity, tour a terraced Biblical garden, view their archeological site, and experience the city of Nazareth from the roof terrace. There is also a cafeteria and gift shop. Groups are requested to make reservations in advance. The Center is open from Monday through Saturday from 9.30 am to 12.00 pm and 2.30 pm to 5.00

The Souq (market)

The souq is in the picturesque Old City and is a short walk from the City Square and the Church of the Annunciation. The winding streets of the Old City up the hillside are quite picturesque. The souq is open from the early morning but closes in the afternoon.

 

Nazareth Village

A short travelling distance from the City Square, in an open area in the middle of Nazareth, a Jewish agricultural community has been created from the time of Jesus, i.e., the 1st century CE.  It is extremely well done, with an English-speaking guide, a number of people in costume at various stages of the walk, some of whom have a speaking part (in English). The tour lasts 75 minutes and is suitable for adults and families with older children. The guide attempts to link agricultural metaphors from the sayings of Jesus to the agriculture of that time. Other than the wine press area, which is original, all the stages are reconstructed, although the material used is that which would have been used at the time of Jesus. The stages include an olive orchard, a wine press, olive press, potter’s workshop, carpenter’s workshop, weaver’s workshop, and a synagogue. The tour is not wheelchair or stroller friendly, as footpaths are used for authenticity.

 

The tours are in English, although tours can be accommodated in other languages for groups. Group bookings should be made at least one week in advance. There are tours for individuals (i.e. not a preexisting group) at 10.45 am and 1.45 pm each day. These should also be booked in advance, although drop-ins may be accommodated. Their phone number is 724-645 6042 and e-mail: booking@nazarethvillage.com. The site is open from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday to Friday, with the last tour being at 3.30 pm. The admission prices is 50 ns, 40 nis for seniors and students, and 30 nis for children 5 to 12 years. Directions: Enter “Nazareth Village” into Waze and click on “Nazareth Village, 5079 Street, Nazareth, Israel.” This is their website. One can also walk from the City Square. It is 1.5 km and should take about 25 minutes.

 

From the Nazareth Village it is a short car drive to the Salesian Church of the Adolescent Jesus. This church was built in 1918 and is thought to be where Jesus spent his youth. It functions as a vocational school. It may well be closed, but the location offers an impressive view over Nazareth.

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The weaver at the Nazareth Village.

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The cloth was dyed with natural materials.

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The carpenter at the Nazareth Village.