Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That was the question Nathanael asked Philip when his brother told him that he had found “Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
Despite Jesus’ close identification with his hometown, relatively little was known about the community that shaped his life.
That’s all beginning to change—and in a way that supports the reliability of the Gospel narratives.
As a recent issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review told readers, “very little archaeological work has been done in Nazareth itself.” The exception was work done in the 19th century by nuns and their students at a site inside the convent across the street from the Church of the Annunciation.
To make a long story short, what they found was much older than anyone expected—in fact, it dated back to Roman times. Amazingly, the findings were largely ignored until 2006, when professional archaeologists took up their trowels.
They found two examples of what are called “courtyard houses,” which are regarded as a typical kind of dwelling found in early Roman Galilee; that is, during the time of Jesus.
This has led scholars to suspect that Nazareth wasn’t quite the backwater Nathanael and everyone else since thought it was. It was likely “larger” and “slightly wealthier” than previously believed.
What’s more, it seems Nazareth was even more Jewish than previously believed. To understand how this is possible, you have to realize that a few hours walk from Nazareth was the city of Sepphoris, the administrative center of Roman Galilee. Sepphoris was rich, cosmopolitan and religiously pluralistic.
Many people, most famously some members of the “Jesus Seminar,” have speculated on the impact of Sepphoris on Jesus. They go so far as to suggest that the Greco-Roman culture of Sepphoris shaped his thinking.
But the archaeology tells a very different story. The people of Nazareth, based on what they left behind by way of pottery and other material goods, “chose a strictly Jewish material culture.” As the Review put it, “nowhere in the Roman Empire is there such a seemingly clear-cut boundary between people accepting and those rejecting Roman culture.”
It’s highly unlikely—actually, ridiculous is more like it—that Jesus would avoid pagan pottery yet embrace pagan thinking.
No, the more we learn about Nazareth, the more we realize it was “exactly the sort of place we might expect to find a rural craftsman like Joseph,” as he is described in the Gospels.
It may be more than that. In a classic example of what journalists call “burying the lede,” the author tantalizingly holds out the possibility of finding the home Jesus grew up in. Excavations have found the remains of a large Byzantine church, which seventh-century sources claim was built over the remains of Jesus’ childhood home. While, as the author tells us, it’s impossible to verify this on archaeological grounds alone, he adds “there is no good archaeological reason why such an identification should be discounted.”
What’s being discovered in Nazareth paints a portrait of life in Jesus’ time and home very familiar to readers of the Gospels. It’s a reminder that our best source of knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth is not the Jesus Seminar, or even worse, spurious writings like “The Gospel of Judas” or the “Jesus’ Wife” papyrus fragment, but Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
They not only tell us what we need to know about Jesus, but also where to dig.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: August 19, 2015