| The Hidden
Years: Growing Up in Nazareth
Village of Nazareth in Galilee, 4 BC
Modern Nazareth is described as a city in the hills and approaching it by bus from the fertile Jezreel Valley to the south (below left) this seems an understatement. The engine pulls as we switch back up the side of a mountain. Date palms give way to cedars, firs and scattered olive groves. Entering the city, we find ourselves in the Middle Eastern version of rush-hour (below right) with no traffic signals in sight. Actually it is bit of a blessing because it allows us time to survey our surroundings.
The village of a few hundred residents at the time of Jesus is now a chaotic and bustling city of some 60,000, with department stores, churches, gas stations and factories. With its steep winding streets, Nazareth resembles a Middle Eastern version of San Francisco (below left) complete with houses on stilts slotted into the sloping hillsides. Unlike San Francisco it is an architectural blank and lacks character (below right).
The majority of residents live in the lower city and are Arab citizens of Israel, about 35-40% of whom are Christians and the rest Muslims. The adjacent city of Nazaret Illit (Upper Nazareth) has a population of 49,000 Jews of Ethiopian, Russian and other descent. It has its own administration and was built, some say, to restrict the growth of the older Arab-dominated lower city.
As our bus crawls along the main road we take particular note of the numerous houses that seem only partially completed. Bare concrete joists and beams rise above any number of the city's one and two-story homes, ready to accept walls and ceilings. But building activity seems at a standstill. We are told that Middle Easterners do not take-out loans to finance additions to accommodate extended families. Rather than incur debt, it is customary to save enough money to pay cash for materials. When funds run out, construction is halted until a later time.
In this part of the world, family life and the make-up of families have changed little from ancient times. Now, as then, the extended family, not the biological family, is most important. Sometimes up to three generations live in a household, known as bet 'ab, literally "house of the father." Besides the father and his wife, the bet 'ab might include sons and their wives, unmarried sons and daughters, aunts, uncles, widows, orphans and gerim, non-kin who were nevertheless included.
In the footsteps of Jesus
Exploring Nazareth looking for the village of Jesus' time
Nazareth is situated in a sheltered basin in the hills of Lower Galilee, some 1,250 feet above sea level. The modern city is unique; its sights and sounds are part Muslim, with prayer calls and male heads covered by keffiyahs (headdresses); part Israeli, with yamelukes or kippot (skull caps) and Egged tour buses; part Japanese and European, with Isuzu trucks and Mercedes taxis; and part American with KFC restaurants and boys in Lakers jerseys.
The skyline is dominated by the Church of the Annunciation said to be built over the cave where earliest Christian tradition says the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). More important for our purposes is the fact that the modern church and its four predecessors were built over the remains of early Nazareth.
Excavations conducted in 1955, prior to construction of the present Church of the Annunciation (built 1969), and again in 1997, tell us much about Nazareth at the time of Jesus (above right). They revealed cisterns, silos, an oil press, olive-crusher and granary cave. Also uncovered were two agricultural terraces, a wine press and vat for collecting run-off juices from pressing grapes, the bases of five watchtowers in the fields, a stone quarry and stone irrigation channels. There were no paved streets, no bathhouse, no palace and no fortifications.
Visitors can view these remains below the northern courtyard of the church (above right) also in the crypt of the adjacent Church of St. Joseph. They show that Nazareth was then a small agricultural village of between 200 and 400 living in 35 homes spread over about ten acres; it would have been 2,000 feet long from east to west and around 650 feet wide at its greatest north-south width. It was secluded and quiet; no major roads passed through it. The village's growth was hindered by its poor water supply. A single spring surfaced at the end of the village. Undoubtedly this spring attracted the earliest settlers, but it was not large enough to sustain further growth. The residents had to augment it by cutting bottle-shaped cisterns in the soft limestone of the hillsides to collect rainwater. This guaranteed that Nazareth would remain small and insignificant, at least until modern irrigation techniques arrived.
Late 2009, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced that for the first time archaeologists have found a building in Nazareth from the time of Jesus. The residential dwelling was revealed in excavations adjacent to the Church of the Annunciation (two views, below) and dates to the Early Roman Period (40 BC AD 70).
According to excavation director, Yardenna Alexander, the discovery reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth and thereby sheds light on the way of life at the time of Jesus. The modest building is typical of the dwellings in Nazareth in that period.
(Above left) St. Gabriel Church in the northern part of modern Nazareth, built over the city's only fresh-water spring, now in a vaulted chamber within the church; just beyond the church is a place where tourists can collect water from the spring as a souvenir (below).
Despite its small size, Nazareth was a great place for an imaginative child with a sense of history to grow up. The hills above the village command one of the grandest views in all Palestine (left), stretching thirty miles in three directions; it is the map of Old Testament history. From the heights of the southern rim of hills that surround Nazareth the young Jesus could look out toward the Jezreel Valley (Hebrew Yizrael, meaning "God will sow;" also called the Plain of Esdraelon, the Greek translation of Jezreel). The Jezreel Valley was the scene of several significant biblical battles of Barak's victory over the Canaanites below the slopes of Mount Tabor (dome-shaped summit in the distance) and Gideon's defeat of the Midianites, of young King Josiah's defeat (in 609 BC, and the struggles for freedom in the days of the Hasmoneans. Further south is Mount Gilboa, where the Philistines defeated King Saul, and Jezreel, site of Naboth's vineyard, Ahab's palace and the place of Jehu's revenge upon Jezebel. Twenty miles to the west is the Mediterranean Sea and Mount Carmel, the scene of Elijah's contest with the "four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah" (1 Kings 18:19). About 3 miles to the northeast was Gath Hepher, birthplace of the prophet Jonah (9th century BC). You can easily imagine Jesus sitting atop one of the hills above his home, reflecting on past history and contemplating his future role.
The ancient caravan route from the Mediterranean coast eastward to Capernaum and beyond to Damascus and Mesopotamia, called "Via Maris" by the Romans, passed only 6 miles to the south, and another nearby route was used by the Roman legions as they marched to and from the Decapolis, the group of ten Hellenistic cities southeast of the Sea of Galilee. But because Nazareth clung to the inside of a natural bowl in the rolling hills high above the Jezreel Valley, it wasn't readily accessible. Only winding footpaths on an upward incline from the Jezreel Valley brought travelers to the small village. To Jews, it was a hole in the wall, the definitive "hick town." There are no references to it in the Old Testament; fifteen Lower Galilee sites in the vicinity are named in Joshua 19:10-16 as part of the allotment to the tribe of Zebulun, but not Nazareth itself. Nor is it mentioned in by any of the Jewish rabbis whose pronouncements are found in the Mishnah or whose discussions are in the Talmud, even though sixty-three other Galilean towns are named. Even the 1st century AD historian and Galilee general, Josephus Flavius, never refers to Nazareth among the forty-five towns in his writings. No doubt this explains the disappointment expressed by the soon-to-be disciple Nathanael, from nearby Cana, when he asked John, "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" (John 1:46).
(Right) artist's rendition of Nazareth at the time of Jesus. Compare this to the photo of the modern city at the top of this page. Note the farming terraces on the hillside above the village; also the watchtower, far right, where the Nazarines would have kept watch to prevent thieves from stealing their grapes.
A visit to Nazareth Village - A recreation of Jesus' childhood home in modern Nazareth
The best place to get a true feel for what life was like in 1st century AD Nazareth is to visit Nazareth Village, located by the YMCA in central Nazareth. Nazareth Village is an attempt to re-enact the story of Jesus' childhood, ministry and teaching in its original setting some 500 yards from where Jesus grew up! The culmination of 15 years of research, Nazareth Village was built on the site of an actual 2,000-year-old farm presumably located on the outskirts of the ancient village of Jesus' time.
It all began late in 1996, when an ancient wine press was discovered among rock terraces on a hilltop overlooking modern Nazareth. An archaeological survey was conducted on this 20-acre patch of land and excavation began in April 1997. Initial finds included a wine press, agricultural terraces, stone irrigation channels, the bases of five watchtowers and pottery shards dating the site to the 1st century AD.
Nazareth Village re-creates the physical and social setting of Jesus' childhood and early ministry, and from which he drew material for many of his parables. For example, a guide will read the parables in Matthew 13 about men sowing seeds, and explain them by pointing out the stones, soil, paths and terraces around him. Additionally, local residents, dressed in costume, work the land as it was worked in the 1st century AD and engage in crafts and daily household tasks, all with authentically-fashioned tools (photos below). Throw into this mix the fact that some of the children and adults recreating the ancient roles are local Muslims and you find yourself crossing a very interesting, perhaps unique, religious-cultural intersection.
Re-creation of a 1st century AD dwelling.
Interior of a home.
Man plowing the rocky soil
Interior of a synagogue. Note: The stone benches along the walls recall the synagogue's original function as a place of assembly, where the Torah was read and explained on Sabbaths and holidays. The fixed liturgy of today was a later development.
"[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read" (Luke 4:16).
Young girl separating grain from the chaff
1st century Nazareth was a peasant village. Its residents worked the land so they could pay their taxes and survive on what was left. Their meager diet consisted of bread, olives (fresh or pickled in salt water), olive oil and wine. Bean or lentil stew with a few in-season vegetables was sometimes ladled into flat loaves of bread (pita). Remember the story in Genesis of Esau exchanged his birthright for a bowl of red lentil soup? Fruits, nuts, cheese and yogurt were welcome additions. In New Testament times hens were kept for their eggs which were poached in olive oil. Occasionally there was salted fish; meat was rare, reserved only for special occasions. Evidence suggests the people of Nazareth made their living growing grapes, olives and grains wheat, barley and millet on terraces cut into the south-facing limestone slopes above the village. At harvest time Joseph and Jesus joined other villagers to gather olives, stomp grapes to extract the juice or huddle in watchtowers at night to guard their produce against thieves. Such scenes from Jesus' boyhood life found their way into his teaching, and his parables included many references to vineyards, sowing seeds and harvesting grain. Jesus sought to convey the wisdom of God and the principles of his kingdom through the natural and social world of his audience. For example:
"Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey" (Matthew 21:33).
The ancient terraces now sustain olives, almonds, figs, carob, grapes, wheat and barley, all of which grew in Galilee 2,000 years ago. Such terraced hillsides were developed over centuries to collect every drop of water and utilize every piece of available land. Sudden rains can wash the rock barriers away; if not maintained they quickly became unusable.
The buildings at Nazareth Village are re-creations, not reconstructions, using ancient local building techniques and building materials (stone, earth, plaster, wooden beams). Data from the ruins of 1st century Jewish villages in Galilee and the Golan Heights, such as Yodfat and Gamla, contributed to the housing replicas, from the layout and size of rooms, to the thickness of walls, the width of thresholds and the style of household furnishings.
Nazareth's modest houses were built upon a narrow knoll with steep slopes which, like Swiss cheese, were pocked with caves. Some houses were built over caves which served as the main dwellings or storage areas. Homes, like those in other Galilee villages were simply constructed with unhewn fieldstone, which were stacked atop each other, held together by small stones packed into the small spaces between, and smeared with clay, mud or dung mixed with straw for insulation. Individual houses consisted of a number of rooms of one or two floors around an open courtyard. High in the walls were small windows for letting in light rather than seeing out. The floor was packed dirt mixed with clay and ash to make it hard as concrete; the flat roof was made of a hardened mixture of mud, straw and lime laid over the wooden ceiling beams. For safety, a low wall, about 1 1/2 feet high, was built around the edge. After rainstorms the roof had to be rolled with a heavy stone to repair the surface and prevent leaks. Such rooftops proved useful for doing chores, drying flax and clothes, also as sleeping and eating areas during the hot, rainless summers. If the house had accommodated all nine or more members of his family Mary, Joseph, his four brothers, and at least two sisters it would probably have required a second story which rested on the ceiling beams and was reached by an inside ladder or outside stairway.
Ordinary houses were divided into two rooms. Animals were brought inside near the door in winter for their added warmth. A family lived on a raised platform, farthest from the door. The space underneath may have been used for storing jars and tools; cooking utensils, bedding and clothes were kept on the platform. During winter, the house was filled with smoke from the fire smoldering in a hole in the earthen floor. There was no real fireplace with a chimney, only a "taboon," or bread baking oven. When it rained hard and continuously, the roof and walls leaked. There were no bathing facilities. The poor possessed very little furniture. Beds were thin, wool-filled mattresses. The table was often a simple straw mat laid out on the raised part of the floor. Utensils included stone or clay storage bins (for animal fodder as well as food stores), earthenware pots (for carrying and storing water) and jars (for storing flour and olive oil), baskets, grinding stones and, most important, lamps which, in New Testament times, were made in molds, completely covered over, with a small hole for oil an a spout for wicks. This was safer and more efficient than the simple pottery dishes used in Old Testament times. The wicks were usually strips of flax or rag; types of oil included olive-oil, oil from seeds, vegetables and animal fat.
Further insights into Jesus' home life in Nazareth
An early (2nd century AD) non-Biblical source, the Protoevangelium ("first gospel") of James (see bottom of this page for more information) gives the names of his grandparents on his mother Mary's side as Anne and Joachim. It also states that Joachim was "very rich." Another extra-Biblical writing, "The Gospel of the Birth of Mary," states that Mary was "born in the city of Nazareth, and educated in the Temple of the Lord," and that "the family of her mother was of Bethlehem." However, tradition states that Mary was born in Sepphoris (Hebrew Zippori or Tsippori), four miles northwest of Nazareth (more later). The Gospel of Luke (1:36) calls Mary a relative of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. It has even been suggested that when Jesus and Mary were invited to a wedding at Cana (John 2:1-2) it was a family occasion.
As to those aforementioned siblings: Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 mention four brothers and their names James, Joseph, Simon and Judas; these Gospels also mention his sisters but give no information about them. However, one of the books in the New Testament Apocrypha, History of Joseph the Carpenter (chapter 2), gives the sister's names as Assia and Lydia.
From at least the mid-2nd century AD, the Church increasingly emphasized the concept of Mary's perpetual virginity, prompting considerable debate about the relationship of Jesus to his "brothers" and "sisters." It continues today, and it has been proposed that they were either stepbrothers and stepsisters (children of a former marriage of Joseph), or else Jesus' cousins. However, the term "brother" (Greek adelphos) and "sister" (Greek adelphe) as used in the New Testament can signify nothing less than a natural sibling, so neither opinion can be seen as valid.
Gospel tradition is clear that during his lifetime Jesus was at odds with his family. They are said to have attempted to apprehend him as a lunatic ("He is out of his mind." Mark 3:21); John's Gospel states that his brothers "did not believe in him" (John 7:5); and Jesus himself commented that a prophet had no honor "among his relatives and in his own house" (Mark 6:4).. However, his family's attitude seems to have changed, especially after his resurrection, when he appeared to his brother James (1 Corinthians 15:7), who went on to become the head of the church in Jerusalem. In Acts (1:14), Mary and her surviving sons emerge as members of the Jerusalem church alongside the twelve apostles.
Joseph and Mary, as practicing Jews, would have made every effort to follow the precepts of their religion. They circumcised their sons, celebrated Passover, Pentecost and other festivals, did no work on the Sabbath and valued the tradition of Moses and the Prophets. On the doorpost of their modest home was a mezuzah, a small wooden box with a roll of parchment inside, on which was written the fundamental Jewish prayer, called the Shema after its first word: "Shema, Israel, Adonai elohenu, Adonai ehad" ("Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one"). Every morning at dawn, with the sun slanting over the hills above, and every evening before going to bed, they would recite these words with their fellow devout villagers. The young Jesus also wore the clothing prescribed by the Law. After the age of three his coat bore the sisit, or fringe, ordained in Deuteronomy 22:12: "Make tassels on the four corners of the cloak you wear." At the age of 13 he became a bar mitzvah ("son of commandment") and when he went to the synagogue, he began to wear the tallith, or prayer shawl, and for the first time he conducted the Sabbath service. Now empowered to "officiate," he could step up to the tebah, turn toward the Ark in the wall facing south toward Jerusalem, pronounce benedictions, sing responsive verses from the Psalms with the congregation, carry the sacred scroll of the Law in solemn procession and read the weekly parashah, the prescribed passage from the Torah or Pentateuch. If we knew the exact date of Jesus' birth, and thus of his bar mitzvah, we could read the same passage appointed for that week.
Nothing is known directly about the young Jesus' formal education. By this period there had been a concerted effort to educate all Jewish children by appointing teachers in every district, and thus to school them in their own traditions and minimize foreign influences upon them. The Pharisees in particular had established schools in local synagogues, where children learned to read and write Hebrew, the language of the scriptures, and received instruction in the Jewish law, under the guidance of a rabbi. Joseph would also have had a hand in Jesus' early training. Jesus probably attended such a school: he could certainly read and expound a Scripture passage during a synagogue* service:
"When the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law" (Mark 1:21-22).
*Synagogue, from the Greek sunagoge (pronounced "soon-ag-o-gay"), meaning "a bringing together." At the time of Jesus, the term synagogue referred primarily to a "gathering" or "an assembly." Whether or not there was a building constructed specifically for village gatherings and worship in Nazareth at the time of Jesus is not know. No 1st century synagogue-as-building has been excavated in Nazareth. This doesn't mean there wasn't one; it may have been a home converted for use as a synagogue.
The fact that his learning later drew comment from the scribes, the official theologians, and that his followers could address him as rabbi (from Greek rhabbi, "my great one, my honorable sir") says volumes about his literacy. Besides Hebrew, Jesus also spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew, that had become the language of trade and daily use throughout the region. And he had to have known Greek, the language of commerce throughout the Roman world.
Jesus had an accent?
However, as a true Galilean it is likely Jesus spoke with an accent. From independent sources, it is known that the snobbish southerners of Jerusalem were greatly amused by the sloppy way the hick Galileans pronounced Aramaic. The Talmud describes the ridiculing of a Galilean in a Jerusalem market-place for attempting to purchase what he called amar. "Do you want something to ride on (hamar, a donkey)? Or clothing (amar, wool)? Or a sacrificial animal (immar, lamb)?" The Galileans, it seems, dropped the alephs at the beginning of words when speaking. In Matthew's Gospel Peter attempts to remain inconspicuous while warming himself in the courtyard outside the mansion of the high priest Caiaphas, but others gathered there state, "Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away" (Matthew 26:73). Bet you never thought of Jesus and most of the disciples speaking with heavy accents!
For further information on Nazareth Village, write to: Nazareth Village, P.O. Box 2066, Nazareth 16100, Israel or telephone: 972-6-645-6042 - Fax: 972-6-655-9295 - E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org - website: www.nazarethvillage.com, especially its photo gallery.
The young Jesus also learned a trade. At this time it was common for the eldest son to follow the profession of his father, and Jesus is called both a "carpenter's son" (Matthew 13:55) and a "carpenter" (Mark 6:3). The original Greek word translated here as "carpenter" is "tekton," and it can not only mean someone engaged in construction work in wood, but also stone. Such work, in a small village like Nazareth, probably provided Joseph with an adequate income to support his family. But Joseph's choice to settle in Nazareth may have been for reasons other than fear over the treachery of Herod Archelaus (see Matthew 2:22). Not only was it his hometown, but it afforded him with the opportunity to find construction work in nearby Sepphoris (Hebrew Zippori or Tsippori), just 4 miles to the northwest about an hour-and-a-half walk.
"He went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: 'He shall be called a Nazarene'" (Matthew 2:23).
The phrase "he shall be called a Nazarene" is not found in the Old Testament. The word "nazarene" (of uncertain derivation) means "guarded one" [from Greek nazoraios (nad-zo-rah'-yos)]." For Jews it was also a synonym for "separated one," and it probably refers to several Old Testament predictions that the Messiah would be despised [i.e., "But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people." (Psalm 22:6); "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows" (Isaiah 53:3)].
Some hold that when Matthew described Jesus as a "Nazarene" he was referring to the Hebrew word netser "branch" as used in Isaiah 11:1: "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit." The inspiration for this imagery is the olive tree which, when it no longer bears fruit, was cut down. But from the stump, new branches sprouted to again become a productive tree. With this in mind, the meaning of Nazareth becomes "shoot town" or "branch town."
We know from the writings of Epiphanius, Eusebius, Jerome and others that up until the 4th century AD the followers of Jesus were known as the Nazarene sect. In fact, in Acts 24:5, Paul is referred to as "a ringleader of the Nazarene sect." Even the Talmud (Hebrew for "teaching" or "study"), the vast collection of Jewish law and lore, refers to Jesus and his followers as the "despised shoot."
There is yet another explanation. When Matthew (2:23) states that Jesus being called a Nazarene was in fulfillment of what was said through "the prophets," he was likely referring to one of three sections of the Jewish Bible which includes not only the prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.), but the historical books (1 and 2 Kings and Judges, etc.). In some versions of the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible), Samson is described as naziraios, a "nazirite" (Hebrew nazir), a person dedicated to God by special vows. At first glance, Samson seems an unlikely model for Jesus, but he is one of the great heroes of Israel and, like Jesus, he suffered betrayal and agony only to triumph in death over Israel's enemies. Furthermore, Acts 18:18 tells us that before Paul sailed to Ephesus from the port of Cenchrea, near Corinth, he shaved his head "because of a vow he had taken." This was probably a temporary Nazirite vow to express thanks for deliverance from grave dangers, and shaving the head marked the end of the vow.
The Protoevangelium of James or Gospel of James, also sometimes known as the Infancy Gospel of James, is said to have been authored by James, the brother of Jesus and first bishop of the Jerusalem church. It relates the birth, childhood, adolescence, token marriage, pregnancy and delivery of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Its original title appears to have been "History of James Concerning the Birth of Mary." Frequent allusions were made to it by such earlier church fathers as Epiphanius, Chrysostom, Cyril, Euthymius and others until Ambrose, and the Greek Orthodox fathers afterwards, who believed it to be authentic. Several controversies arise from the book, mainly related to the age of Joseph at the birth of Jesus and his being a widower with children prior to his marriage to Mary:
"And the high-priest said, Joseph, thou art the person chosen to take the Virgin of the Lord, to keep her for him. But Joseph refused, saying, I am an old man, and have children, but she is young, and I fear lest I should appear ridiculous in Israel" (Protoevangelium 8:12-13).
It is said to have been originally written in Hebrew. After the manuscript was brought from the Holy Land by a man named Postellus it was translated into Latin, then printed in Switzerland in 1552. In the eastern churches it was read publicly as part of the Biblical cannon, while some Protestant and Catholic churches considered it of questionable authorship or authenticity. Although pronounced as heretical early on, it has had a wide influence on other writings, notably the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, and it was a source of the cult of Saint Anne and the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple; also it inspired many artistic masterpieces by Italian painters like Giotto, Raphael and Titian.
To read the entire book for yourself, check out: "The Lost Books of the Bible" published by Gramercy Books, New York, Avernel; Library catalog number: 229.9 Bible N T Apocry.
Relatives of Jesus?
Julius Africanus (around 200), cited by Eusebius (Church History 1.7.14), speaks of Nazareth as a village "of Judea," and in the same passage tells of relatives of Jesus, who came from Nazareth and nearby Cochaba and kept the records of their descent with great care.
Also, an alleged martyr named Conon, who died in Pamphylia under Decius (249-251), declared at his trial: "I belong to the city of Nazareth in Galilee, and am a relative of Christ whom I serve, as my forefathers have done" (Clemens Kopp, Die heiligen Stδtten der Evangelien [The Holy Places of the Gospels], Friedrich Pustet, Regensburg, 1959: page 90).
Source: Wikipedia article on Nazareth
Jesus' Life Home n Further insights into Jesus' "hidden" childhood years