New Archaeological Dig Sheds Light on Jesus’ Boyood in Nazareth

Associated Press, December 24, 1997

By Karin Laub

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An overview of the grounds below the Scottish Hospital

46naz12.jpgNAZARETH, Israel—In the time of Jesus, his fellow villagers in Nazareth made their living by growing grapes, olives and grain on terraces cut into the limestone hills.

At harvest time, all 300 villagers—Jesus likely included—would stomp grapes to extract juice, and huddle in watchtowers at night to guard their produce against thieves.

These images emerge from excavations of the only pristine farmland left in the center of Nazareth, now a cramped city of 60,000. The finds may fill in some blanks about Jesus’ boyhood and perhaps lead to better understanding of the older man, says Stephen Pfann, an American Bible scholar and archaeologist.

"As a child he walked about these hills and saw the animals and plants and people working in the fields. He used these images in building his parables later on," said Pfann, who heads Jerusalem’s Center for the Study of Early Christianity.

Even though Jesus spent much of his life in Nazareth, from about age 3 until his late 20s, little is known about what he did there, said the Rev. Jerome Murphy O’Connor, a scholar at Jerusalem’s Ecole Biblique.

It is believed that Jesus followed the trade of his father, Joseph, a carpenter. Joseph may have chosen to settle in Nazareth because it was within walking distance of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee which at the time was being completely rebuilt following its destruction by the Romans, Murphy O’Connor said.

By comparison, Nazareth was tiny, with two or three clans living in 35 homes spread over 2.5 hectares, Pfann said. The homes later were razed by invaders: What remains are several basement caves, cisterns and silos excavated in the late 1950s during reconstruction of the Church of the Annunciation.

While walking along the terraced slopes of the Nazareth Hospital grounds earlier this year, Pfann stumbled across an ancient man-made basin used for making wine—a bed-sized level area cut into the limestone for squashing grapes—and a vat below for collecting the runoff juice.

A dig began in April, with support from the hospital and local volunteers. Since then, Pfann and archeologist Ross Joseph Voss have laid bare two agricultural terraces, the bases of five watchtowers in the fields, and stone irrigation channels from a now-dry spring to lower-lying terraces.

Read about the dig

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A small quarry uncovered by the team had a double purpose, Pfann said. Stonecutters would carve plateaus to make wider terraces, and use the blocks they retrieved for building in the village.

The stone plateaus then would be filled with several layers of soil brought up from the valley by donkeys.

Even if Jesus and his father were busy with construction work much of the time, they likely would have joined the villagers at harvest time, Pfann and Murphy O’Connor said.

"At the time the crop came in, everyone put everything aside, whether he was a carpenter or did something else," Pfann said. "Jesus, along with his family, would have been involved in this."

Along with the others, Jesus might have crushed grapes with his bare feet and spent the nights in one of the towers—a small room on a tall stone base—with the villagers, telling stories, singing and playing the flute to pass the time.