It’s a warm afternoon in Nazareth in 2006, and British archeologist Ken Dark is working in the depths of a crypt. A thought then strikes him as he rummages through the remains of what appears to be a dwelling. And if he’s correct, it will revolutionize biblical archeology and answer a question that has been asked for 2,000 years.
Dark is searching the crypt of the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth, which lies close to the Basilica of the Annunciation in the Israeli city. It’s a curious site; clearly once there was a building of some sort here, which has left walls of stone. There are also entry ways, pieces of pottery and containers.
The convent was founded way back in 1881 after a bunch of nuns from France decided to form an establishment in Nazareth. But the team found some interesting things when they decided to build the religious house. It turned out that there were remains of Nazareth’s storied past on the site.
According to the Madain Project website, the site houses a cistern, some tombs, and, intriguingly, a church from the Byzantine era. But Dark is most interested in a courtyard and what surrounds it. This courtyard has been given a firm dating to the first century A.D. But that’s not all that’s hidden beneath the convent.
So, what else is around the courtyard? Well, it appears that there’s a house there, too. It even has windows and doors which are still in one piece. The ensemble of a house and courtyard seems to have been at least in part hacked from the rock around it. And the same rock has been used to build some of the walls of the home.
Above the first-century home lies what’s left of the Church of Nutrition, which dates to the Byzantine Empire. The structure is big enough to suggest that Nazareth might have been more important in those times than had previously been believed. But why was a church built in this spot? Well, some say it was constructed over Jesus’ childhood home!
Interestingly, locals actually call the spot the “house of Joseph.” But this prompts some questions: how could experts know where Jesus lived? What could survive from that time that would give us a pointer in the right direction? Well, Dark’s discoveries may well hold the answer to these questions.
If the biblical stories are true, there may be traces of the things that the Holy Book talks about. Indeed, Nazareth houses a well known as “Mary’s Well.” This is supposed to be the place that Mary – Jesus’ mom – learned from the angel Gabriel that she would bear the son of God.
And in the city of Bethlehem – nowadays in the West Bank – you can find the Church of the Nativity. This structure is actually built over the spot where Jesus was supposed to have been born. Amazingly, the first version of the Church of the Nativity rose in 339 A.D., according to UNESCO.
Of course, Jesus did not stay long in Bethlehem. It’s believed that his parents subsequently scrammed to Egypt when Herod’s agents came looking to execute the newborns. They’d later settle in Mary and Joseph’s home town of Nazareth – a small settlement in the Galilee area in Israel’s north. There, Jesus grew up in obscurity before beginning his ministry.
And Dark’s discoveries have given some reason to believe that Nazareth wasn’t quite the backwater that it’s often painted as. It may surprise you to learn that there hasn’t actually been much archeology done in the city. But gradually it’s being revealed that Nazareth may have been something of a center for surrounding farming hamlets. In fact, it may have been a bustling town.
One thing that points to Nazareth’s possible prominence is that it housed several sources of water. The aforementioned St. Mary’s Well is, of course, one of them. But there’s also the Apostles’ Fountain and a spring underneath the Sisters of Nazareth Convent, which was exploited by the Crusaders. And several more springs and wells are noted in historical literature.
But what were the people like who lived there? Well, when compared to Sepphoris – an important Roman town a few miles away – a different place is seen. The pottery in this latter settlement is culturally Roman, but that found in Nazareth is native. According to the Bas Library, there’s every reason to believe that Nazareth might have actually been a center of Jewishness – foregoing Roman offerings.
Nowadays, however, Nazareth has grown to be a majority Muslim city. According to the New World Encyclopedia, its home to around 80,000 people – most of whom are Arab Israelis. Of them, only about 40 percent are Christian. The demographics shifted when refugees flooded in during the war which followed after Israel’s formation in 1948. The area’s Jews largely live in the city of Nazareth Illit, which is nearby.
St. Jerome told us that Nazareth was only a village in his time. But soon after, he said that people began to share stories about Jesus’ mother Mary. Lured by these tales, pilgrims started to make Nazareth a favored destination. They founded the Church of the Annunciation on top of one of the village’s springs.
That church actually still stands – albeit not in the same form. A modern basilica was constructed and finished in 1969. It’s home to a pair of churches, and one of them is the establishment that serves the parish of Nazareth’s local Catholics. The basilica – with its striking decorations – is the Middle East’s biggest Christian church. And its cupola stands out as a landmark in the city.
You’ll also find something very interesting if you visit the Church of the Annunciation and go down into the depths of its bottom level. There is a grotto that holds a cave that legend has it was once the home of Mary. Yet despite the inherent interest of this grotto, it was actually a site across the road that appealed to Dark.
It’s here that you’ll find the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. And it was the French nuns we mentioned earlier who would make a fascinating discovery here. They found a cistern, which dated many years. This find would begin the archeological journey of the site – something the nuns themselves were eager to embark upon.
So, the nuns got to work on excavating their convent. And the women weren’t alone: they got their workmen on to the job and didn’t even let the children who attended their school off the hook! They found an amazing set of finds from varying times in the past. According to the Bas Library, they discovered vaults and walls from Crusader times, a church from the Byzantine era, Roman tombs and other structures both cut into the rock and built.
Wanting to share their finds, the nuns created a little museum to hold some of the recovered objects. On display were glass, coins, and pottery among other things. As the group continued to build, they discovered a big church from the Byzantine era – with floors that featured mosaics and fittings in marble. Apparently, it had been restored during Crusader times.
It may have struck the nuns – and certainly it did occur to Dark – that these buildings seemed to indicate religious significance of the site. Were these people building and rebuilding churches, and using the space for burials, because they thought it was holy? Did the people think the site had some relation to Jesus?
One man who was apparently intrigued by the possibilities was the Jesuit Father Henri Senès. This individual had previously been an architect and in 1936 he made detailed drawings of the buildings that were exposed. He also excavated further, though he didn’t publish his findings. Luckily, he passed them on to the convent, which allowed Dark to look at them.
So Dark followed in the priest’s footsteps in 2006. He was fascinated by the strata that had been uncovered, which showed how the site had evolved in time. Crusader church surmounted Byzantine church, and that topped Roman-era tombs. And down beneath them lay a structure of rectangular shape – cut partly from both rock and stone.
One of the tombs had run through this structure, and Dark knew the vault was from the first century. So, this building must have been from an earlier time. Some of the pottery revealed that it was nevertheless from Roman times. But other pieces suggested something more than the building’s age.
There were vessels made from limestone – alongside a piece of equipment for sewing. This implies that there had been a Jewish family living in the home. That’s because the Jews believed that limestone was safe from becoming impure, so it was a popular material for jugs. And Dark has a theory about the family: he believes that he has been digging in the home of young Jesus.
The structure had been made by slicing into a hillside of limestone that led down to a river valley further down. The walls that were left by cutting into the rock were smoothed carefully – suggesting a craftsman’s work. Walls made out of stone also stood on top of the rock walls.
But what about the rooms inside the structure? Well, one of them was still just as big as it had been back when it was built, and it even still had a door. In another, a stairway rose up next to the wall. One room had an overhanging piece of rock, which supported whatever had once laid above it – either an upstairs area or the roof.
The structure looked like what is known as a courtyard house. This is a typical format for homes in the Galilee area in early Roman times. But it had not been occupied for much of the Roman period – becoming abandoned some time in the first hundred years A.D. Apparently, it had become part of a quarry and then a burial site.
The discovery of tombs was intriguing, because Jewish law forbids living on burial grounds. Though burials were perfectly okay in what used to be domestic areas. So it’s clear that whoever lived in the home quit it during the first century. And Dark couldn’t find any pottery dated earlier than early Roman times either. As a result, the home appeared to have only been occupied briefly.
Certainly, tradition connected the burials with Jesus’ family. Dark told Live Science magazine in 2015, “The tomb cutting through the house is today commonly called ‘the Tomb of St. Joseph,’ and it was certainly venerated in the Crusader period. So perhaps they thought it was the Tomb of St. Joseph. However, [that is] unlikely…”
The Crusaders nevertheless went to a lot of trouble not to disturb the courtyard house when they built their church – as had the Byzantines. The courtyard was encompassed by the vaults that formed the cellars of the churches of both eras. Consequently, the structure is still in remarkably good shape.
Dark laid out some compelling logic on why the home may have belonged to a skilled craftsman and a strict Jew. It had long been believed that Sepphoris – and the Roman culture that it represented – may have been important in Jesus’ life. After all, Sepphoris was full of Roman artifacts, with busy streets, huge public buildings and villas. Yet this was not necessarily the Sepphoris of Jesus’ time.
In contrast, Nazareth had a much more Jewish flavor. And the New Testament doesn’t actually mention Sepphoris at all – strange for a town so close to Jesus’ home, right? It does mention the synagogue in Nazareth though, which would seem to fit a small town. And here you might find a skilled craftsman, the tekton of the Bible, which Joseph was supposed to be.
So Dark imagines that Jesus had a childhood in a community that had a strong Jewish focus – perhaps somewhat conservative. It doesn’t seem particularly likely that the young Son of God had much to do with the Roman or Hellenistic culture that had some foothold in Israel at the time. Instead, Dark describes a bustling center that remained firmly outside the Roman sphere of influence.
But why should this discovery be the home of Jesus? Well, Dark unearthed a link to answer that very question. One pilgrim to Nazareth – Adomnán of Iona – wrote an account of his visit to the Holy Land called De Locus Sanctis in the seventh century. He said there were two big churches in Nazareth’s center. And one we can tell is the Church of the Annunciation.
Adomnán wrote that the other church was built on top of vaults that housed a spring and couple of tombs. In between the two burial places, he said, you could find Jesus’ childhood home. The church that Adomnán was talking about is now known as the Church of the Nutrition, but we don’t actually know where it is.
But of course we do have a candidate that fits the description. Beneath the Sisters of Nazareth Convent is the big church from the Byzantine era. And it does contain two tombs and a spring. What is more, in between the two graves is the likely courtyard house that Dark examined.
On top of the location, the house and the tombs were covered with mosaics. This suggests that the Byzantines considered them all of importance. They may even have venerated them! Dark is firmly convinced that this is the only place that you can find evidence that fits what De Locus Sanctis suggests for the holy home.
And when the Crusaders turned up in the 12th century, they repaired the church, which wasn’t in great shape. Dark suggested to Live Science that this too was evidence that they thought that it was an important site. Indeed, both they and the Byzantines thought it was the place where Jesus was raised.
So is it Jesus’ childhood home? Dark gave his conclusion in an article he wrote for the Biblical Archaeological Review in 2015. He wrote, “It is impossible to say on archeological grounds. On the other hand, there is no good archeological reason why such an identification should be discounted. What we can say is that this building was probably where the Byzantine church builders believed Jesus had spent his childhood in Nazareth.”