Archaeologists working in Nazareth — Jesus' hometown — in modern-day Israel have identified a house dating to the first century that was regarded as the place where Jesus was brought up by Mary and Joseph.
The house is partly made of mortar-and-stone walls, and was cut into a rocky hillside. It was first uncovered in the 1880s, by nuns at the Sisters of Nazareth convent, but it wasn't until 2006 that archaeologists led by Ken Dark, a professor at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, dated the house to the first century, and identified it as the place where people, who lived centuries after Jesus' time, believed Jesus was brought up.
Whether Jesus actually lived in the house in real life is unknown, but Dark says that it is possible. [See Images of the 'Jesus' House and Nazareth Artifacts]
"Was this the house where Jesus grew up? It is impossible to say on archaeological grounds," Dark wrote in an article published in the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review. "On the other hand, there is no good archaeological reason why such an identification should be discounted."
Jesus is believed to have grown up in Nazareth. Archaeologists found that, centuries after Jesus' time, the Byzantine Empire (which controlled Nazareth up until the seventh century) decorated the house with mosaics and constructed a church known as the "Church of the Nutrition" over the house, protecting it.
Crusaders who ventured into the Holy Land in the 12th century fixed up the church after it fell into disrepair. This evidence suggests that both the Byzantines and Crusaders believed that this was the home where Jesus was brought up, Dark said.
The story of the Jesus house
Until recently few archaeological remains that date to the first century were known from Nazareth and those mostly consisted of tombs. However in the last few years, archaeologists have identified two first-century houses in this town. (The other house was discovered in 2009 and is not thought to be where Jesus grew up.) [The Holy Land: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds]
The nuns' excavations of Jesus' possible home in the 1880s were followed up in 1936, when Jesuit priest Henri Senès, who was an architect before becoming a priest, visited the site, according to Dark. Senès recorded in great detail the structures the nuns had exposed. His work was mostly unpublished and so it was largely unknown to anyone but the nuns and the people who visited their convent.
In 2006, the nuns granted the Nazareth Archaeological Project full access to the site, including Senès drawings and notes, which they had carefully stored. Dark and the project's other archaeologists surveyed the site, and by combining their findings, a new analysis of Senès' findings, notes from the nuns' earlier excavations and other information, they reconstructed the development of the site from the first century to the present.
From simple dwelling to sacred site
The artifacts found in the first-century house include broken cooking pots, a spindle whorl (used in spinning thread) and limestone vessels, suggesting possibly a family lived there, the archaeologists said. The limestone vessels suggest a Jewish family lived in the house, because Jewish beliefs held that limestone could not become impure. If a Jewish family lived here it would support the idea that this could have been Jesus' house.
The first-century house "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," Dark wrote in a Biblical Archaeology Review article.
"The structure included a series of rooms," he wrote. "One, with its doorway, survived to its full height. Another had a stairway rising adjacent to one of its walls. Just inside the surviving doorway, earlier excavations had revealed part of its original chalk floor."
Dark and his colleagues found that the house was abandoned at some point during the first century. After that, the area was used for quarrying and then later in the first century it was reused as a burial ground. Two tombs (now empty) were constructed beside the abandoned house, with the forecourt of one of the tombs cutting through the house, the researchers said.
Centuries after Jesus' time, the Church of the Nutrition was built around this house and the two adjacent tombs, but the church fell into disuse in the eighth century. It was rebuilt in the 12th century, when Crusaders were in control of the area, only to be burnt down in the 13th century, Dark said.
The fact that the house was protected explains its "excellent preservation," Dark wrote. "Great efforts had been made to encompass the remains of this building within the vaulted cellars of both the Byzantine and Crusader churches, so that it was thereafter protected," he said.
"Both the tombs and the house were decorated with mosaics in the Byzantine period, suggesting that they were of special importance, and possibly venerated," he wrote.
In addition to the archaeological evidence, a text written in A.D. 670 by abbot Adomnàn of the Scottish island monastery at Iona, said to be based on a pilgrimage to Nazareth made by the Frankish bishop Arculf, mentions a church "where once there was the house in which the Lord was nourished in his infancy" (according to a translation of Adomnàn’s writing by James Rose Macpherson).
The tomb that cuts through the house was also venerated as being that of Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary. [Proof of Jesus Christ? 7 Pieces of Evidence Debated]
"The tomb cutting through the house is today commonly called 'the Tomb of St. Joseph,' and it was certainly venerated in the Crusader period, so perhaps they thought it was the tomb of St. Joseph," Dark told Live Science. "However, it is unlikely to be the actual tomb of St. Joseph, given that it dates to after the disuse of the house and localized quarrying in the first century."
What was Nazareth like?
Archaeologists also discovered a number of sites nearby that hold clues as to what Nazareth was like in Jesus' time.
Rulers in Rome began to take control of Israel during the first century B.C. But Dark and his team found evidence that, despite Rome's increasing influence, the people living in and near Nazareth rejected Roman culture.
The archaeologists surveyed a valley near Nazareth called Nahal Zippori, finding that people who lived on the northern side of the valley, close to the Roman town of Sepphoris, were more willing to embrace Roman culture than those to the south, nearer to Nazareth, who appear to have rejected it.
"This suggests that the Nazareth area was unusual for the strength of its anti-Roman sentiment and/or the strength of its Jewish identity," Dark said.
Dark and his team have published journal articles on their work in the Palestine Exploration Quarterly and The Antiquaries Journal. More publications on the team's archaeological work at Nazareth are forthcoming. It may be some time before scholars not affiliated with the project fully analyze the findings, and weigh in on the team's conclusions.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.