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“What good thing can come out of Nazareth?” (updated)

Last century’s excavations of Nazareth by the Franciscans led to a rather remarkable reconstructed picture of the domiciles and government of this New Testament town. After having uncovered a little more than an acre of rocky surface with little or no evidence for walls, Bagatti and his team probed the numerous holes in the surface to find scores of intact storage caves, cisterns, silos and installations. With nothing more to build upon, the domiciles of this Galilean village appeared to be caves in a rocky hill, which could have housed only a few hundred inhabitants.

Recent excavations and surveys within the immediate surroundings of ancient Nazareth, have uncovered realia left behind by the inhabitants of the original town. These remnants can help us to better understand and define its physical structure and social character.

In an area just 500 meters away from the remains of the ancient town and present Basilica, the staff of the University of the Holy Land surveyed and excavated a farm and stone quarries associated with the town’s construction and the livelihood of its inhabitants.

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The quarries, dating to the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods, bear witness to the stone-built buildings which were constructed in the nearby town. The dimensions of the stones match those found in other Galilean towns and cities. The stony slopes were quarried, yielding squared stones to build homes in the town and leveled depressions on the ground to hold the terraces.

Quarried rock slope and renewed terraces:

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Quarried stones, prepared for removal, still in situ:

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The sophisticated complex of irrigated and non-irrigated terrace farms with tailor-made terraces, watchtowers, wine presses and olive presses, bears witness to a successful agrarian economy. Here are the remains of the central tower and terrace walls of area B:

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Remains from the first centuries BC and AD were found including pottery, watch towers, agricultural terraces and a wine press. Advanced methods of viticulture and agriculture was practiced at the farm as has been revealed by excavations of the early terrace systems. An ancient terraced road was also found cutting though the farm connecting ancient Nazareth with nearby Sepphoris and Jaffia. Coins from this period were also unearthed in other excavations in the vicinity of the town’s spring. Little doubt can now persist that the Nazareth of the Second Temple Period, Jesus and his fellow townspeople, was a bustling Galilean town.

If so, why has the evidence for first century Nazareth been brought into question? First of all, first century pottery and lamps were in fact found by Bagatti during the excavation of the infrastructure of the town, its cisterns, silos and storage caves (with lids still fitted to the openings on the horizontal rock surfaces). In fact, a sizable wall belonging to a public building, dated by him to the first century, was discovered under the Byzantine Church. All of this was published in the original report.

The problem comes when one paints the picture, as has been done, of a town of two hundred and fifty inhabitants who lived in the caves of a rocky hill (bringing into question the feasablity of the synagogue of the Gospel story). Why is the evidences for walled houses and buildings virtually lacking from the earlier excavations if recent excavations have revealed first century quarries which provided cut stones for building the town? The answer lies in the construction of the Byzantine Church. The ruins of Roman period Nazareth were the most available source of stone for building the Byzantine Church. After the stones were robbed out from the ruins, all that was left behind was one of the best preserved set of basement systems found in the Galilee. For the evidence in Nazareth itself see this powerpoint.

The official final publication of these excavations has just appeared recently in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society vol. 25 (2007) pp. 19-79: S. Pfann, R. Voss, Y. Rapuano, “Surveys and Excavations at the Nazareth Village Farm (1997–2002): Final Report”. The summary of the ceramic finds from this rather lengthy article has been provided by Antonio Lombatti here.

For more about the Nazareth Village Project follow the links in the UHL web site beginning here.

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