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3. Nazareth: The Cradle of Christianity

Nestling on the western slopes of the lower Galilee mountain range, Nazareth was a small village from the Canaanite down to the Roman periods. Although the view from the southern edge of the village is excellent and would have enabled its citizens to monitor the important roads in the Jezreel valley, Nazareth did not develop in antiquity as a strategic military site. The Old Testament does not even mention Nazareth, nor does Josephus, the 1st century CE Jewish historian, even though he does mention 45 other sites in Galilee. But events that took place in Nazareth during the days of Josephus changed the history of the Nazareth, and effect it to this day.

According to the New Testament, Nazareth was the home of Joseph and Mary (Luke 1:26-27) and Nazareth is where Mary was told by an angel that she would be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:28-38). Jesus should have been born in Nazareth, but while Mary was advanced in her pregnancy, she and Joseph were obliged to travel toBethlehem (Luke 2:1-4). After the family returned to Nazareth, Jesus lived here as a child and young man (Luke 2:40, 51; Matt 2:23). At his home and at the local synagogue he received his religious training (Luke 2:51-52) and after his baptism and temporary retreat to the wilderness, he returned to Nazareth.

A general view of the center of Nazareth

A general view of the center of Nazareth

The violent reaction of its citizens when Jesus preached in the synagogue of Nazareth led him to move to Capernaum (Matt 4:13).

He never again returned to Nazareth, but the name of Nazareth was attached to him, for when he was crucified the Romans fixed a sign to his cross inscribed, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

In Hebrew a Christian is called a “Notsri”, but it is debatable whether the word comes from the place (Nazareth), or from the Hebrew verb “to guard” or “to preserve” (N.Ts.R). In the early 4th century CE Nazareth is still mentioned in the geographical list of Eusebius as “a small village of Jews”, but with the growth of Christianity and its recognition as the official religion of the Roman Empire (from the 4th century CE onwards), Nazareth developed as a Christian center.

Nazareth was probably destroyed with the Persian invasion in 614 CE. The Muslims who conquered the land shortly after (636-640 CE) left Nazareth in ruins.

The city enjoyed a revival under the Crusaders. In the 12th century Nazareth became the headquarters of the Archbishop of the Galilee, and the construction of a grand church over the home of Joseph and Mary, “the church of the Annunciation”, began. That church was apparently never completed, and in 1263 the Muslims conqueredNazareth, expelling the Crusaders from the city.

The Church of the Annunciation was reused only in the 17th century when the Druze ruler, Phakher a-din II, allowed Franciscan monks to live in the ruins of the Crusaders church. Later the monks were given permission to rebuild the church, but only within a period of six months (the time it takes a Muslim to make pilgrimage to Mecca). The result was a modest building in a Baroque style.

In 1954 that church was removed for a new grand church which would be the largest church in the Mediterranean.  Along the construction, the Franciscans conducted excavations in the area of the sanctified house. They found the remains of the Crusader period basilica, and the remains of a 4th century church. Below them, at rock level, domestic agricultural installations attested to the agrarian nature of the village in which Jesus grew up. Remains from Israelite and Canaanite periods were also found.

The focal point of the church is the cave below the main aisle. The place has been identified as a cellar and kitchen of the original house of Mary. It is here, according to Christian tradition that the angel appeared to Mary and announced that she would be the mother of Jesus. On the floor a Latin inscription reads “Here the word became flesh”.

The cave in the middle of the "Church of the annunciation" believed to be the place where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary on her pregnancy.

The cave in the middle of the "Church of the annunciation" believed to be the place where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary on her pregnancy.

The dome above the cave is large and impressive. It is shaped like a lily, the symbol of Mary.

The dome over the "Church of Annunciation" in Nazareth, completed in 1969.

The dome over the "Church of Annunciation" in Nazareth, completed in 1969.

The apse of the church is adorned with a large mosaic wall, considered to be one of the biggest mosaic walls in the world.

Fifty meters north of the church of the Annunciation is another church, dedicated to Joseph, foster-father of Jesus. By one tradition the carpentry shop of Joseph was here. Excavations at the site in the beginning of the 20th century uncovered a storage area from the 1st century, over which a chapel was built in the Byzantine period (4th-7th century) and again in the Crusader period (12th century).

 

The Synagogue Church

Many scholars consider the ancient synagogue of Nazareth an important place where the seeds of Christianity were planted. It was here that through his studies Jesus gained knowledge in the Scriptures and shaped his own beliefs. After his baptism he preached in the synagogue of Nazareth, but the antagonism of the locals led him to move to Capernaum (Matt 4:13). The synagogue has been identified in the heart of the modern market of Nazareth. Its architectural layout does not bear any Roman period characteristics, but it is said that during renovations at the site, stones bearing Hebrew letters were revealed. Next to the entrance there is also a pillar seems to be from the early Roman period.

Today the synagogue is held by the Greek Catholic church. Their church is known as “The Synagogue Church”, a term that sounds like an oxymoron at first.

The main hall in the "Syngogue church" in Nazareth.

The main hall in the "Syngogue church" in Nazareth.

 

Marry’s Well

At the northern end of Nazareth’s market is a plaza built around the site popularly known as “Mary’s Well”. The “well” is really a water trough placed here during the Turkish period. It was filled with water from a nearby spring, and by local tradition Mary used to fetch water from here.

Close to the water spring the Greek Orthodox built a church dedicated to the angel Gabriel. According to the Greek Orthodox tradition the angel also appeared to Mary here, while she was fetching water.

The water source at "St. Gabriel church"

The water source at "St. Gabriel church". Greek Orthodox tradition maintains that the angel Gabriel appeared here too to Mary, while she was fetching water.

Mount of Precipice

A steep hill on the southern edge of Nazareth overlooks the Jezreel valley. This hill is identified as the hill over which the people of Nazareth tried to throw Jesus to his death, but miraculously he escaped (Luke 4:31).

At the other end of the Jezreel valley one can see clearly Biblical Megiddo, a major city in Canaanite and Israelite times. Megiddo is also identified as “Armageddon”, a major future battle site, “at the end of days” (Revelation 16:16).  Could it be that because Megiddo was visible from the area of Nazareth Jesus promoted the ideaMegiddo will also be a site of an apocalyptic battle field?. I believe it is a possibility.

A view of Mount of precipice, and the Jezreel valley behind it.

A view of Mount of precipice, and the Jezreel valley behind it.