What was Nazareth like? We might think it was a quiet little town far from anywhere else in Jesus’ time; the gospels indicate his early years were spent in such a place. Recent historical studies tell a different story. The town was not as isolated as once believed. Just four miles away was the thriving Greco-Roman city of Sepphoris, recently uncovered by archeologists, and nearby were roads to Tiberias, Jerusalem, the sea coast and the rest of the world.
Galilee’s economy was booming then, thanks to the rich soil of the Esdraelon plains, the fishing villages along the Sea of Galilee, the stability of Roman rule and Herod Antipas, a skillful administrator and builder who was firmly in charge then. His new regional capital, Tiberias–a model of Greco-Roman city planning– dominated the shores of the Sea of Galilee. A new port, Caesaria Maritima linked Galilee to the rest of the Roman world.
Could Nazareth, 15 miles east of the Sea of Galilee and 20 miles west of the Mediterranean Sea, situated in a thriving province, be shut off from this world?
How did Jesus get there?
Some historians say Joseph and Mary were not from Nazareth in Galilee, but from Judea. Matthew’s gospel, in contrast to Luke’s, indicates that Joseph was a Judean associated with Bethlehem, David’s city. Mary’s family may have been associated with the temple in Jerusalem. The Church of St. Ann there claims to mark Mary’s birthplace in that city.
Another tradition, however, says Mary was born in Sepphoris, near Nazareth. After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the gospels indicate his family moved north to the small town of Nazareth to escape the clutches of Herod the Great, who ordered the slaughter of infants. When Herod died, he was succeeded by his son Archelaeus, who was just as unstable as his father. Herod Antipas, another of Herod’s sons yet slightly less dangerous than Archelaeus, inherited power in Galilee after his father’s death in 6 BC and ruled till about 36 AD, in the lifetime of Jesus. He began building the city of Sepphoris in 3 BC. Workers from nearby Nazareth would likely have been recruited to build that city.
Jesus and his followers rejected
Whatever its history, Nazareth will always be a mystery. Instead of supporting Jesus, the Nazareans turned their backs to him, the gospels say. They drove him out of their synagogue when he announced his mission and said he was mad. (Mt 13,54-58) After his resurrection, there is no evidence Jesus appeared there; his followers in Nazareth were few. “No prophet is without honor except in his native place,” Jesus said. (Mt 13,54)
A Christian Minority through the Centuries
Followers of Jesus in the town where he was raised continued to be few, it seems. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, around the year 90, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, scribes and temple officials as well as the pharisees from that city had moved to the Galilean cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris, near Nazareth, and began a powerful new movement in Judaism.
Did they drive the followers of Jesus out of the Galilean synagogues just as his contemporaries drove him out of Nazareth? Matthew’s gospel offers numerous warnings that the disciples would be handed over to the courts and scourged in the synagogues. (cf. Mt 10, 17)
“Slender evidence suggests that a Jewish Christian community survived in Nazareth during the C2 and C3 AD, “ writes Jerome Murphy-O”Connor. (The Holy Land, 423) The nun Egeria, one of the few early Christian visitors to Nazareth, found a cave considered part of Mary’s house in the 4th century, but she did not stay long in the town. In 570 AD a pilgrim from Piacenza found Nazareth a hostile place: “there is no love lost in the town between Christians and Jews.” Two Christian churches were built at that time, but after the Muslim conquest of Palestine in the 7th century the number of Christians in Nazareth declined further and their churches were destroyed.
When the Crusaders conquered the town in the 11th century, they rebuilt the Byzantine shrines and added their own buildings; some remains are visible today. But after the defeat of the Christians in the 12th century, Nazareth once more became a Muslim stronghold and Christians a minority.
Through the ages, the Christian presence in Galilee remained small, dependent mostly on Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the crusades, it was considered dangerous for Christians to enter Nazareth. In 1620 the Franciscans bought a site in the town where the house of Mary was said to be and they continued to nourish a Christian presence in the town. Through their efforts the large Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the early Byzantine and Crusader churches and archeological remains from the ancient town, was dedicated in 1968. The Greek Orthodox church also continued its ministry in this revered spot.
Nazareth itself remained poor and undeveloped from the time of Jesus until recently, when it became the provincial capital of Galilee and its population soared. From less than 1,000 inhabitants in Jesus’ time, the number has grown today to 70,000, mostly Muslim.
The large basilica of the Annunciation, with its extensive collection of art from all over the world honoring this mystery, is a gathering place for Catholic pilgrims. Here faith attempts to interpret this mysterious town “where our feeble senses fail.”
19th Century Nazareth
An English vicar left this quaint description as he approached Nazareth towards the end of the 19th century. Unlike its neighbor, Cana, the town then was experiencing a modest revival:
“Our horses began to climb the steep ascent of 1,000 feet that brings one to the plateau in a fold of which, three miles back among its own hills, lies Nazareth.
“At last, all at once, a small valley opened below, set round with hills, and a pleasant little town appeared to the west. Its straggling houses of white soft limestone, and mostly new, rose row over row up the steep slope. A fine large building,with slender cypresses around it, stood nearest to us; a minaret looked down from the rear.
“Fig trees, single and in clumps, were growing here and there in the valley, which was covered with crops of grain, lentils and beans. Above the town, the hills were steep and high, with thick pasture, sheets of rock, fig trees now and then in an enclosed spot. Such was Nazareth , the home of our Lord. (p 513)
“The town is only a quarter of a mile long, so that it is a small place, at best; the population made up of about 2,000 Mohammedans, 1,000 Roman Catholics, 2,500 Greek Catholics and 100 Protestants – not quite 6000 in all; but its growth to this size is only recent, for thirty years ago Nazareth was a poor village.” (p 516)
The Catholic shrines of Nazareth were not among the English vicar’s favorite places to visit, but he does recognize one of the town’s enduring holy places:
“The water of Nazareth is mainly derived from rain-cisterns, for there is only one spring, and in autumn the supply is precarious. A momentous interest, however, gathers around this single fountain, for it has been in use for immemorial ages, and, no doubt, often saw the Virgin and her Divine Child among those who frequented it morning and evening, as the mothers of the town, many with children at their side, do now.” (p.515)
“The Virgin’s Spring bursts out of the ground inside the Greek Church of the Annunciation, which is modern, though a church stood on the same site at least as early as 700 AD.They say that it was on this spot that the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin; and if there is nothing to prove the legend there is nothing to contradict it. Indeed, the association of the visit with the outflow of living water from the rock has a certain congruity that is pleasing. “ (p.516)
The Word Made Flesh
Nazareth, where Jesus lived most of his time on earth, offers few traces of the town he knew. Those were hidden years when the Son of God “humbled himself” by living inconspicuously, immersed in the steady, ordinary rhythms of a small 1st century Jewish town. Jesus “became flesh” in Nazareth, “one like us in all things but sin.”
Instead of Nazareth of the past, then, we may find him just as well in Nazareth of the present–or in any town or city or anyplace today, for that matter.
Jesus did not come only for the world then, he comes also for the world now, to dwell among us. Nazareth may help us understand the mystery of his Incarnation in our town and place.