Nazareth may be best known for its famous ancient resident, Jesus, but as British-Israeli archaeologist Yardenna Alexandre points out on this week’s Times of Israel podcast, the small town with huge name recognition existed long before and well after his life.
alexandre discusses what archeology tells us about the jews who lived in and around nazareth two millennia ago, and how by carving the smooth limestone stone beneath the town’s houses, residents evaded taxes and may also have saved the skin during the great revolt against the Romans in AD 66
according to excavated evidence, the small out-of-the-way village was inhabited from the Iron Age (10th-8th century BC) onwards. it was only in the 1850s that Europeans turned the city from a camel into a holy place, and the village became the sprawling modern Israeli-Arab city we find today.
alexandre published a new nazareth excavation report in the current issue of the israel antiquities authority magazine ‘atiqot’ describing the history of early settlement and the findings of his and other researchers’ excavations. what is arguably of most interest in the report is what was discovered in the foundations of the village.
among his excavations, in 2009, alexandre discovered the first example of a residential building from the time of jesus. It was found near the current Church of the Annunciation, which was built in 1969 on top of three earlier churches, including a fourth-century AD structure. In his report, Alexandre describes the structure as “a simple house made up of small rooms and an inner courtyard that was inhabited in the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods.” in earlier excavations at the site, some storage pits and cisterns from the early Roman period were also found.
Catholic tradition believes that the churches were built on the site of a cave that was thought to be the family home of Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to New Testament tradition, the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary (then an unmarried young woman) that she would become pregnant through the Holy Spirit and give birth to God’s Son. (The eventual birth took place in a small town in Bethlehem, where Mary’s husband, Joseph, had family.)
in a times of israel podcast interview this week, alexandre says that jewish settlers arrived in the galilee during a northward expansion of unlanded hasmonean soldiers and others from the late hellenistic period to the early roman period (late 2nd century BC mid 2nd century AD). Among these residents who arrived during the Jewish Manifest Destiny movement was presumably the family of Mother Mary of Jesus.
rescue knowledge before development
alexandre has been excavating sites in the lower galilee on behalf of the iaa for the past three decades. Born in London, she immigrated to Israel in 1980 and earned a master’s degree in archeology from Tel Aviv University before moving north.
As an archaeologist not affiliated with a research center, Alexandre leads salvage excavations for the IAA to uncover artifacts and information from before land development. In a populated city like Nazareth, the possibility of excavation is rare and arises when, for example, an institution wants to expand or a local company reinvents itself from a car garage to a luxury hotel.
“I go where they send me and create the story from the material that appears. it’s quite exciting in a way because you never know what you’re going to land with,” said alexandre.
Today’s prosperous and bustling Nazareth is not on the scale of the small village where Jesus grew up, she says.
“the nazareth we know today is really the result of development from the second half of the 19th century onwards. for it was only around the 1850s that europeans began to develop their interest in nazareth as a holy city, a holy city for christianity. all the major European powers began to take an interest and built churches and other institutions,” he said.
However, if we were to go back in time and visit Nazareth in the time of Jesus, we would see a very small town populated by just a few families. Surrounding Nazareth were larger and more important cities such as Tzippori (Sephoris) which was only about 5 kilometers west of Nazareth as well as the town of Kana near present-day Kfar Kana which was 3-4 kilometers north. of nazareth. nazareth.
alexandre said the scant excavations at nazareth have not uncovered ritual baths or synagogues, but it was clearly a jewish settlement due to the types of pottery found, as well as limestone vessels, used only by jews. populations of the time because they were not susceptible to ritual impurity.
“Jewish families would make sure to have several of the stone vessels in their closets,” he said. along with the nod to jewish law, or halacha, alexandre and other excavators in the area have uncovered numerous herodian-style lamps of the type found in jerusalem.
“Petrographic analysis of the fragments has allowed us to conclude that the Galilee lamps were actually made in Jerusalem,” he said, and were brought to the small town as a souvenir of pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the temple . ride.
There are geographical and environmental explanations for why Nazareth is so small, he said. nazareth was in a small basin surrounded by hills and was not very accessible. it had a water supply from what is now called the pozo de maría, and there is evidence of limited agriculture on terraces, as well as grazing fields. but since the town was not located on a highway, “people did not pass through nazareth unless they specifically wanted to go there. and that was really the reason why it remained a small site until the 19th century.”
nazareth are the wells
While few remains of structures from the time of Jesus have been uncovered, the most intriguing discoveries dating to the early Roman period is the proliferation of subterranean room systems beneath ancient Nazareth that were carved out of limestone bedrock soft.
People living in Nazareth dug wells for storage and other practical uses, he said, such as wine production, including grape-stomping and oil-pressing. These storage pits have been found in other parts of the lower Galilee and Alexandre believes that the Jews eventually also used them to hide their wares (aka tax evasion) and even themselves during the great revolt of AD 66.
“what we do find in nazareth is a development of this kind of concept: they not only dug individual pits for storage, but they dug under the pits, up to a second level, below and a third level, and often there were underground passageways leading from one to the other. so really in times of danger or times when people wanted to hide things, they could do it,” he said.
at one site, alexandre discovered a system of bell-shaped rooms that would have been connected. “the triple layer well that I found, each well was about 1.7 meters [5.5 feet] and 1.5 meters [5 feet], so we would be going about 5 meters [16.5 feet] underground” he said.
in times of danger or times when people wanted to hide things, they could do so
Based on ceramics from various excavations, the wells under Nazareth were in use from the Bronze or Iron Age until the Byzantine era.
Alexandre believes they were enlarged and used as caches, “because we found finds that specifically date the use of these wells to the early Roman period, and more specifically to the time of the great revolt.”
Among the artifacts is a coin of Emperor Claudius that was discovered on the floor of a corridor leading to a three-story well complex. according to the report, “the coin was minted in ‘akko-ptolemais in 50-51 CE. the coin supports the operation of the complex in the second half of the 1st century AD, possibly in the context of preparations for the first Judeo-Roman war in AD 66-67.”
In addition to artifacts supporting the use of the underground system for hiding, there is recorded documentation of the leading Jewish commander in the Galilee, Joseph, who became the best-known Jewish historian of the day. Alexandre believes that the wells were used to house women, children, and other non-combatant Jews.
“Not everyone went to war, people had to protect themselves and people who weren’t fighting had to hide,” he said.
at the time of jesus, residents of nazareth likely only had individual storage units under their homes, alexandre believes. it was only in the great riot, she said, that they would have dug deeper for hiding places for themselves.
“What we did observe is that the first, highest shafts were well carved, and the bottom two were created much more hastily and carelessly. the second and third layers were added in times of danger,” he said.
These wells were found in other places, such as in nearby Kana, where Jesus and Mary attended a wedding that is recorded in the Christian New Testament. Alexandre also discovered ritual baths beneath private homes in this apparently more prosperous town that was also populated by Hasmonean Jews.
referring to the small stature of nazareth, alexandre quotes from the book of john, in which nathanael of cana asks felipe, one of the 12 apostles, “can anything good come out of nazareth?”
“It was just a small village, and the idea of a leader [like Jesus] coming out of Nazareth was amazing, worth pointing out,” Alexandre said.
times of israel podcasts are available for download on itunes, soundcloud, tunein, pocket casts, stitcher, playerfm or wherever you get your podcasts.