A Village In Nazareth

(Published originally in the Jerusalem Post)

Recently, on a hot afternoon, I stood on a rocky slope divided into terraced fields, feeling drunk with tiredness and just wanting to curl up in some shade. Above me, on a patch of terraced field, a man in a tunic and draped head-covering guided and jerked a wooden plow that was pulled by a donkey, along a patch of terraced field.

How excruciatingly slow his progress seemed. I wondered how he could continue his task in this intense heat, when all I wanted to do was to find some shade to curl up. But the man, hired by a “living” museum called Nazareth Village(located within Nazareth itself) to demonstrate farming methods in the first century, was obligated to keep working.

But neither, of course, did his counterpart, two thousand years ago, have the luxury of stopping the steady, back-aching work. For life then was a hard, endless, dirty grind of labor and more labor in small Jewish villages spread throughout the Galilee and the rest of Israel, made more difficult by the iron umbrella of Roman occupation which cast its shadow over the entire country.

Nazareth Village is located near the heart of modern Nazareth. Guiding is available in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Reservations are required.

Nazareth, venerated by the Christian world as the place where the impending birth of Jesus was announced to his mother, Mary, and where Jesus grew up, no longer comes close to resembling the tiny village once tucked away in a saddle between two ridges. Nazareth is a city of about 80,000 residents. While there is a Muslim majority, it is the largest Christian center in Israel, and numerous churches and Christian institutions can be seen on its hillsides. Two churches, one Greek Orthodox and one Catholic, both claim to mark the spot where the annunciation to Mary took place: one event, two different identified sites.

Nazareth Village is an attempt to reconstruct life as it would have been lived in the tiny first-century hamlet of Nazareth. The culmination of decades of archaeological, architectural and textual research, it claims to be located on the last patch of field in central modern Nazareth( by the YMCA) that can be dated to a 2,000-year old farm. That farm would have presumably been located on the outskirts of the village itself.

The site, which is a non-profit institution, is unabashedly Christian, in that it tries to re-create the physical and social milieu in which Jesus developed, and from which he drew material for many of his parables and examples. For example, a museum guide will read from the several parables in Matthew 13 about men sowing seeds, and explain them by pointing out the nature of the stones, soil, paths and terraces around him. And inside the main building, before visitors wander through the reconstructed farm, they will pass through a series of chambers with state-of-the-art museum exhibits which trace the life of Jesus from Nazareth, to the Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem.

However, according to Michael Hostetler, the project’s executive director, the museum’s planners are acutely aware not only of the modern Israeli society in which they operate, but that the world Jesus lived in was completely a Jewish one, and that the more accurately and fully that world is portrayed, the greater the service given to visitors of both faiths. There is, in fact, an effort to draw Jewish groups, both from Israel and abroad, with guiding and interpretation tailored for them. Jewish groups and individuals who have visited, says Hostetler, left feeling excited and impressed. So, too, were the various scholars–Israelis and others–who either contributed their expertise to the research or later reviewed the results.

Still visible on this patch of land are Roman-era terraces and watchtowers, and a wine press, rock quarry and an irrigation system carved into the bedrock. The ancient terraces now sustain olives, almonds, figs, carob, grapes, wheat and barley, all of which grew in the Galilee two thousand years ago.

Though the adjacent buildings are re-creations(not reconstructions on original foundations), ancient local building techniques and building materials(stone, earth, plaster, wooden beams, thatching) were used. Data from the ruins of first-century Jewish villages in the Galilee and Golan Heights, such as Gamla and Yodfat, contributed to replicas of first-century housing.

Local residents, dressed in costume, work the land as it was worked in the first century, and engage in crafts and daily household tasks, all with tools authentically fashioned. The effort to create the atmosphere of a first-century village enriches both the New Testament texts as well as Jewish texts, law and custom(such as, for example, the juxtaposition of synagogue and mikveh). Throw into this mix the fact that many of the children and adults re-creating the ancient roles are local Muslims, and you find yourself crossing a unique religious-cultural intersection.

I found it moving to stand in the small, dimly-lit recreated synagogue, which was based upon the ruins of the first-century synagogue on Masada. Such modest buildings served as the center of Jewish life–a combination of school, courthouse, charity house, council chamber, prayer center, podium for Torah readings–for villages scattered around the countryside. Though they existed contemporary with the Temple in Jerusalem, they became one of the keys to the survival and transformation of Judaism after the Temple’s destruction.

Yet the Christians standing beside me undoubtedly pondered over Jesus reading from the book of Isaiah in Nazareth’s synagogue(Luke 4: 16-28). It struck me that the meticulous effort we stood amidst, to replicate these ancient walls, might in some small way help dismantle some modern ones.

Nazareth Village is located near the heart of modern Nazareth. Guiding is available in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Reservations are required.

By: Allan Rabinowitz