Has the Childhood Home of Jesus Been Found?
Excavations underneath a convent have elicited some eye-popping claims from some experts.
The Holy Land is littered with pilgrimage sites associated with biblical events and characters. Cities associated with David, places linked to the life of Jesus, and, of course, the city of Jerusalem itself attract millions of visitors each year. People want to walk in the footsteps of their heroes. But despite traditions and churches that claim to identify the places where Jesus was born, crucified, and resurrected there are still gaps in the religious tourist map. For example, while we know Jesus is from Nazareth do we know where he grew up? A new book claims to have identified the lost boyhood home of Jesus underneath a convent.
According to the New Testament, Jesus’s parents were both from the town of Nazareth. Shortly before his birth, however, a census decree required that Mary and Joseph return to Bethlehem, Joseph’s familial hometown, and the rest, as they say, is history. While some scholars doubt the historical accuracy of the Bethlehem story, there is widespread agreement that there was a man called Jesus who grew up in Nazareth. After beginning his missionary work Jesus only once returned to his hometown and received a cold reception there. At one point the people there attempt to stone him.
During the lifetime of Jesus, Nazareth was a small town about four miles from the rather more cosmopolitan city of Sepphoris. Some have estimated that only around four to five hundred people lived in Nazareth during Jesus’ day, although today, Nazareth is much more urbanized. For pilgrims the somewhat imposing Basilica of the Annunciation is a must see destination as it marks the site where—Roman Catholic tradition says—the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and gave her the news that she was expecting a child. Orthodox Christians follow an early Christian tradition that describes the Annunciation taking place by a well and have a separate church elsewhere in the city. The Basilica is the oldest religious site there: a shrine was founded under the aegis of Helena, the mother of the roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Neither of these religious buildings, however, tells us where Jesus grew up.
A mere 100 meters from the Basilica, however, is another religious center, the Sisters of Nazareth convent. The nuns moved there in the late 19th century, and in the course of constructing the convent, they uncovered a sequence of underground structures that take the visitor back through time. These layers include the remains of a Crusader era church, a Byzantine cave-church, some Roman era tombs, and a first century house. Though the nuns did some preliminary excavations themselves, archaeological exploration only began in earnest in 2004, when a five-year study of the largely neglected site began. In his recently released book, The Sisters of Nazareth Convent: A Roman-period, Byzantine, and Crusader Site in Central Nazareth , Ken Dark a professor of archeology and history at the University of Reading and former director of the excavations under the convent, argues that the first century house may well have been Jesus’s childhood home.
The house itself is quite unremarkable. As Dark has put it, “It’s not pitifully poor, but there’s no sign of any great wealth either. It’s very ordinary.” There’s obviously no inscription, house name, or graffiti that identifies the former occupants but Dark has two reasons for suspecting that Jesus once lived here. The first is the skill and quality of the house’s construction. Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, is described as a tekton or craftsman. While we usually identify Joseph as a carpenter the term has a broader meaning that can connote stone or even metal workers. Whoever had built the house in the first century was an experienced craftsman. The quality of stonework and the techniques used to build the house are consistent with the caliber of workmanship one would expect from someone who did this work for a living. It’s consistent with what we might expect, but this is far from convincing evidence.
The second reason for identifying this as a site of significance is its location. A Byzantine church was built above the house between the fifth and seventh centuries. That the house was protected during these periods of subsequent construction suggests that later generations thought there was something special about it. Dark argues that the Byzantine church was almost certainly the Church of Nutrition, an ancient pilgrimage site built over the house of Mary and Joseph. A description of the church from a seventh century pilgrimage diary further supports his claim. When you put the pieces together, it seems likely that this is the place that fifth century Christians thought Jesus grew up.
But were they right? Dark is appropriately measured in his claims. Speaking to CBS, Dark said, “On the one hand, we can put forward a totally plausible case that this was Jesus’ childhood home. But on the other hand, actually proving that is beyond the scope of the evidence. It’s debatable whether it would ever be possible to prove that.”
What we seem to have, therefore, is the house that late antique Christians believed that Jesus grew up in. Whether or not we think they are correct is another matter entirely.