Today (March 25), the feast of the Annunciation, is the day the Church celebrates the moment when the Word was made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Today the hearts and minds of Christians all over the world are turning to Nazareth, the little town where Mary heard from the Angel Gabriel that she was to be the mother of the Messiah. It was also the place where Jesus grew up, watched over by Joseph and Mary.
What were their lives there like? We may know more now than ever before. An archaeological excavation has recently revealed what may have been the house where the Holy Family lived, the house where Jesus grew up. The finds are detailed in the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
A little background. For centuries we have possessed the surviving bits of the house where Mary lived as a girl with her parents and where she was visited by the angel Gabriel, underneath the Church of the Annunciation. The original home has been covered by a church since the mid-fourth century, a church that has subsequently rebuilt through the centuries.
In 1955, before the present basilica was begun, Franciscan archaeologist Bellarmino Bagatti made a thorough investigation and was able to discover the whole history of building, including the earliest layer of construction belonging to the first century.
Today, in the lower church or Grotto, visitors can clearly see a portion of the original stone house where Mary lived, which was built into a cave in the hillside. This was a common type of building at the time. In fact, Bagatti’s excavations uncovered other caves nearby. Many have thought that the later home of Joseph and Mary was part of this complex; it has been identified with the Church of St. Joseph, which is on this site.
But excavations across the street at the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth, about a hundred yards away, have discovered another house covered by a church and venerated since ancient times. Prof. Ken Dark of Reading University in England, believes this is the home of the Holy Family, also known as the Church of the Nutrition, which is mentioned by pilgrims of the early centuries.
The very first excavations at the convent date back to 1884. At that time, the sisters were repairing a cistern in their cellar when they uncovered some ancient stonework, which turned out to be an underground room with a vault. The sisters and the pupils at their school, with some workmen, dug further, and revealed other stone structures, including two rock-cut tombs. Over the following century, several writers and archaeologists examined the site. Fr. Bagatti, who investigated it in 1937, thought the whole complex consisted of tombs.That was the opinion of most experts. It seemed impossible that a Jewish house could have been built near a tomb because Jewish purity laws would have forbidden it.
Prof. Dark and his team finally began excavation in 2006. They uncovered evidence of a Crusader-era church, as well as an earlier Byzantine one, all built over the first-century rectilinear stone structure. Dark became convinced that this structure was venerated as the home of the Holy Family. He also discovered that the tombs were cut into the walls of the house and must have been built after it was abandoned; this would not conflict with Jewish purity laws. In fact Dark found that the rock tombs on each side of the structure precisely match a detail mentioned in the pilgrim account of Arculf, a French bishop who visited the Church of the Nutrition in the seventh century. This led Dark to believe it is the same church.
But the most important part is the stone structure. Dark describes it in detail:
What sort of building was this rectilinear structure? It had been constructed by cutting back a limestone hillside as it sloped toward the wadi (valley) below, leaving carefully smoothed freestanding rock walls, to which stone-built walls were added. The structure included a series of rooms. One, with its doorway, survived to its full height. Another had a stairway rising adjacent to one of its walls. A rock overhang had been carefully retained in one room, its upper surface worked to support part of a roof or upper story—which otherwise must have been built of another material, probably timber. Just inside the surviving doorway, earlier excavations had revealed part of its original chalk floor. Associated finds, including cooking pottery and a spindle whorl, suggested domestic occupation.
Taken together, the walls conformed to the plan of a so-called courtyard house, one of the typical architectural forms of Early Roman-period settlements in the Galilee. (“Has Jesus’ Nazareth House Been Found? Biblical Archaeological Review, March-April 2015, p. 58)
Dark also discovered the remains of some stone jars, used in Jewish ritual purifications, which means the inhabitants were Jewish. Objects recovered by previous investigators likely belonging to the rectilinear stone structure include a green glass vase, a glass bead and the spindle whorl mentioned above. Could these things have been used by Mary?
This is all I have time for now. I’ll add more tomorrow.
Part II (March 26)
Another recent find in excavations near the Church of the Annunciation gives us more information about the houses of the period: archaeologists discovered the complete foundation of a similar house in the courtyard style. Like the Holy Family’s house, it had its own water tank or cistern — in fact it had two. The upper half-story with its balcony likely provided a guest room as well as a place for the family to sit and enjoy the cool evening breeze. Sometimes in hot weather they would sleep there in the open air.
Most of the above comes from the Biblical Archaeological Review article. You have to be subscribed to get it. But here are two earlier articles by Dark for scholarly journals.
Part III-April 6
I hope everyone had a happy Easter! This last part is perhaps the most interesting. I made this plan based on Prof. Dark’s drawing of the remains of the house under the Church of the Nutrition. He filled in the missing walls based on the typical plan of a model house, and identified what the rooms might have been used for.