Archaeologists have excavated a house in Nazareth, Jesus’ home town, that dates back to the first century. Local Christians have long believed it was Jesus’ childhood home, but scientists say that’s impossible to know for sure. What the house reveals about life during Jesus’ childhood, however, is fascinating.
University of Reading archaeologist Ken Dark and his colleagues spent several years excavating this house, which is currently located beneath a convent — itself built on top of a Byzantine church that is roughly 1500 years old. The Byzantines controlled Nazareth and its environs until the 7th century, and they put their church on top of the house because they believed it was where Jesus had spent his infancy. So there is already a long history of people in the area thinking of the spot as Jesus’ childhood home.
The house itself, pictured above, was built into the limestone face of a hillside, its stone walls and courtyard jutting out into what would have probably been a lively street. It had several rooms with chalk floors, and archaeologists have also found the remains of a stairway. Inside the home, they found limestone dishware along with other household items. In a paper out this week in Biblical Archaeology Review, Dark points out that the limestone vessels suggest the home belonged to a Jewish family because Jews at the time believed limestone could not become impure. Thus it would have been an ideal material for holding food.
Dark compared what he’s discovered about first century Nazareth with another local settlement, Sepphoris. What he’s found undermines the traditional idea of Nazareth as a tiny village at the time Jesus was born. Instead, it appears to have been a lively town, bustling with activity. What set it apart from Sepphoris is its lack of Roman iconography. While Sepphoris is full of Roman writing and art, Nazareth seems to have rejected Roman culture. In his paper, Dark suggests this might mean that Nazareth was a largely Jewish town, holding out against Roman influences that dominated the area at the time. Romans of the first and second centuries were extremely anti-Semitic, often banning Jewish religious expression, so it’s no surprise that Jewish towns might not look kindly on Roman culture.
Though very little remains of first century Nazareth, this home has remained relatively well preserved. LiveScience explains that this is probably because both the Byzantines and Crusaders believed it was a holy place:
The fact that the house was protected explains its "excellent preservation," Dark wrote. "Great efforts had been made to encompass the remains of this building within the vaulted cellars of both the Byzantine and Crusader churches, so that it was thereafter protected," he said.
"Both the tombs and the house were decorated with mosaics in the Byzantine period, suggesting that they were of special importance, and possibly venerated," he wrote.
We will never know if this is the home where a Jewish rebel named Jesus grew up, before challenging the Roman government and founding one of the most popular religions in the west. But we can be certain that the home dates to the time when Jesus is said to have been born. It offers us a window on the past, and a glimpse of what Jewish villages were like under the Roman Empire.
Read the full scientific paper via the Biblical Archaeology Review.