The Nazareth House
For the last 2,000 years, the Christian faith has dominated the life and culture of the West. The Bible is one of the most read books in human history, and the figures within its pages are among the most familiar and most beloved in world literature. Of all the characters in this book of books, none is more famous than Jesus Christ. Millions have prayed in His name and patterned their lives after His impeccable ethical example. His indelible impression on the world left it forever changed for the better.
In what has turned into a yearly pattern, wild speculation and imaginative revisions often come out of the woodwork during the holiday season. Christmas and Easter are the two times of the year when the world’s thoughts are most centered on Jesus, but it is also the time when
periodicals, books, and television documentaries surface to cast doubt on the Bible and the stories it contains. In recent history, Simcha Jacobovici’s documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus (2007) and Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted (2009) both appeared around Easter.
Christmas documentaries often present new spins on the biblical narratives of Christ’s birth, life, and death. Attacks on Christianity by the secular culture usually do quite well in the ratings.
Peter Jennings The Search for Jesus, which featured the left-wing pseudo-scholarship of the Jesus Seminar, drew an estimated viewing audience of over 16 million, with ABC getting over 1 million hits on its website. The Lost Tomb of Jesus drew just over 4 million viewers.
Once again Jesus is in the headlines. This is not surprising, although this particular case takes a surprising turn from the standard critical approach. On 21 December 2009, archaeologists announced that they had uncovered a house in Nazareth, dating to the New Testament period. Tombs in the vicinity of Nazareth dating to the time of Jesus are well known, but this is the first discovery of a house. The dwelling seems to have been the home of a simple Jewish family, based on evidence uncovered at the site. The lack of imported goods suggests this was a family of modest means, not unlike the family of Jesus. The size of the house is quite small by modern standards, roughly 900 square feet, consisting of two rooms and a courtyard. Archaeologists uncovered a water system and a hideout, used by Jews to avoid the Romans. The size of the house may be larger, but further excavation will be needed to determine if that is the case. The modern city lies directly on top of the ancient site, making further work difficult if not impossible.
Excavations carried out by Bellarmino Bagatti in 1955 revealed that the Nazareth of Jesus’ day was an agricultural settlement with winepresses, olive presses, caves for grain storage, and cisterns for water and wine (McRay 157). Pottery found in Nazareth dates from various periods between c. 900 BC to c. AD 600. The Nazareth of Jesus’ day was a small town even by ancient standards, probably consisting of around fifty residences on close to four acres of land. Pottery collected at the recent excavation site yields a date of occupation from 100 BC to AD 100, during which Jesus would have spent time in the town.
Located in the hills of Lower Galilee, Nazareth was so small as to be inconsequential. Archaeological investigation reveals that it was a tiny, peasant village located in an agrarian culture. Its unimportance is perhaps indicated by Nathanael, who asks “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:45-46). John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed note, “It is never mentioned by any of the Jewish rabbis whose pronouncements are in the Mishnah or whose discussions are in the Talmud, even though they cite sixty-three other Galilean towns. Josephus, the Jewish historian and general over Galilee during the first Jewish revolt in 66-67 C.E., refers to forty-five named sites here, but never to Nazareth . . . It was absolutely insignificant” (52).
Scholars are quick to note that the home was not the home of Jesus. This in itself is not surprising, since architecture can be difficult to date and often yields few specific clues about its builders, much less its inhabitants. Nevertheless, Yardena Alexandre, excavations director at the Israel Antiquities Authority, notes, “This may well have been a place that Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar with,” adding, “A young Jesus may have played around the house with his cousins and friends. It's a logical suggestion” (qtd. in Bazar). Archaeologist Jodi
Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says, “Like all of us, Jesus was a product of his world. That's important for people who want to better understand Jesus’ teachings” (qtd. in Bazar).
Although the find is not connected directly to Jesus, it brings up two important discussion points. Comparing the biblical record with what we know from the first century through historical and archaeological excavations reveals a rather tight fit between the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ life and the times about which they wrote. The story of Jesus life is firmly planted in real history and corroborated with extrabiblical facts. The story does not betray any markings of invention or myth (Oswalt 548). Rather, it hangs together quite nicely, demonstrating consistent contact with the world of the first century.
It is important that none of the experts is calling the story of Jesus a myth, or arguing that the house has no connection to the New Testament because the Gospels were invented. Critics loudly proclaim that Jesus was a mythical invention of the early church, yet this talk is absent from the current discussion by experts who likely have little or no faith in Christ. Those excavating the house in Nazareth seem to have no trouble speculating that Jesus knew of the house and played in the area during his childhood. Nearly all historians, whether religious or secular, accept the reality of Jesus’ life. Even John Dominic Crossan, a member of the highly controversial and much-maligned Jesus Seminar, says, “Jesus’ death by execution under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (Crossan 5).
The discovery has drawn the attention of the militant atheist community. While the discovery only proves that Nazareth was inhabited during the lifetime of Jesus, the forums of RichardDawkins.net and Sam Harris’ The Reason Project (www.reasonproject.org) show that those fiercely opposed to Christianity have come out to denounce the find. It is peculiar that the discovery of a simple house from a village mentioned in the New Testament could spark such a response. It would seem the discovery highlights the irrationality of those who claim to possess a monopoly on logic and reason.
Bazar, Emily. “Israel: First Jesus-era house found in Nazareth.” USA Today. N.p. 21 Dec. 2009. Web. 14 Feb. 2010.
Crossan, John Dominic. Who Killed Jesus? New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Crossan, John Dominic and Jonathan Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
McRay, John. Archaeology and the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1991.
Oswalt, John N. “Myth.” Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible. 1996. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.
Dewayne Bryant is completing doctoral studies at Amridge University. He has participated in an archeological dig at Tell El-Borg in Egypt.