So much of Jesus Christ’s life before his public ministry is shrouded in mystery. Aside from things like the Infancy Narratives and the account of the finding in the Temple, we don’t know all that much.
Now, however, we may know the place where he lived with Mary and Joseph.
And if, ultimately, the answer to the headline in the journal Biblical Archaeology Review, “Has Jesus’ Nazareth House Been Found,” is no, at least we have learned a little more of the environment in which the Christ Child grew up.
For the first time, a first-century home buried underneath a convent in Nazareth has been studied by professional archaeologists, and while they cannot affirm with 100% certainty that this was the home of the Holy Family, what they found sheds light on first-century Jewish life in Galilee.
“As with most of these things, there is no smoking gun, say, an inscription in Aramaic saying ‘Jesus slept here,’” scripture scholar Ben Witherington told Aleteia in an email. “What we do have is one or two small houses from the right period which tells us what homes in Jesus’ day would have looked like. The fact that one of them is under a church may be significant, so — is it possible they have found a home that belonged to Jesus’ family? Yes, I suppose. Is there any high degree of certainty about it? No. Not yet at least.”
The site was actually first excavated in the 1880s, but not professionally. The Sisters of Nazareth built a convent, discovered an ancient cistern and did a little digging, assisted by workmen and school children.
The convent is still in operation, across the street from Nazareth’s imposing Basilica of the Annunciation.
“They exposed a complex sequence of unusually well preserved archaeological features, including Crusader-period walls and vaults, a Byzantine cave-church, Roman-period tombs and other rock-cut and built structures,” archaeologist Ken Dark wrote in Biblical Archaeology Review.
Aside from some artifacts the sisters put on display in their museum, little attention was paid to the site, except for some studies made in 1936 by a French Jesuit, Henri Senès. His notes were known only to the sisters until 2006, when they shared them with Dark and his Nazareth Archaeological Project. Some tantalizing evidence began to emerge as Dark’s team reexamined the entire site.
For example, they found “probable fragments of limestone vessels” on the site. According to Jewish law, limestone vessels are not subject to impurity, the inhabitants of the first-century home likely were Jews.
Pottery also provides evidence of a wider cultural divide in the area of Nazareth amid which Jesus grew up. Archaeological sites to the north featured a wide range of artifacts, including imported pottery, indicating the metropolitan world of the Roman empire, while sites closer to Nazareth featured artifacts including the aforementioned limestone vessels that indicated Jewish culture. This suggests “a more conservative attitude to religious belief and concepts of purity and reject[ed] ‘Roman’ culture as a whole,” Dark, a professor at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, writes.
“Was this the house where Jesus grew up? It is impossible to say on archaeological grounds,” Dark concludes. “On the other hand, there is no good archaeological reason why such an identification should be discounted.”