David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

Modern Nazareth

Photo: BiblePlaces.com

Nazareth - where Jesus grew up?

Someone wrote recently to this web site:

I find it funny that you claim archaeological evidence supports the bible. It's actually a well known fact that archaeology is the Achilles heel of religion....
To say that there is no proof that something does not exist as a way to support the supposed truth of the bible is misleading. The burden of proof is on you, the believers. You say Jesus and God exist. Show us.
How about the embarrassing fact that the town now called Nazareth, contains no artifacts to suggest habitation in the area until at least midway through the second century? But wasn't Jesus born and raised there? You'd think we would have found some of their wares lying around. Not only that, but the caves in the area had previously been used as a necropolis, or city of the dead. Jewish law prohibits followers to live adjacent to a necropolis.

There are three accusations in this message:

  1. According to the Bible, Jesus grew up in Nazareth. There is no evidence that the town now called Nazareth was inhabited before the middle of the second century - that is, more than a hundred years after Jesus was supposed to live there.
  2. There are caves in the area that had been used to bury the dead. Jewish law prohibits followers from living next to such a graveyard.
  3. We are saying that the lack of evidence against the Bible's message is the same as evidence for the Bible's message.

Let's look at these points one by one:

Was Nazareth inhabited?

Recently, a Christian Arab shopkeeper in Nazareth discovered what appear to be the remains of a large Roman bath complex dating from the time of Jesus. If this discovery is confirmed, it will turn many of our current ideas about Nazareth on their heads. It may be that Nazareth in the time of Christ was a major Roman garrison town, rather than a sleepy village.

Read more about this discovery here.

See this article for more details.

However, it remains that Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, nor by Josephus, nor Philo, nor in early rabbinic writings. Apart from these latest discoveries, it seems to have been a small and obscure Jewish village, rather than an important center.

But even before this latest discovery, archaeologists had already discovered in recent decades a number of farms at Nazareth, with pottery dating from the second century BC through to the 4th century AD. You can read the details of their discoveries at

http://www.uhl.ac/NazarethVillage/nazareth.html

Under 'Nazareth', the 'Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels' says:

Since Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, in the Apocrypha or in rabbinic literature, some during the last century disputed its existence in New Testament times. In addition to an inscription mentioning it as a settlement for priests in the third to fourth century, excavations of recent years have removed every doubt...Remains dating from New Testament times consist especially of cisterns and silos hewn from rock, along with tombs...

Conclusion:

The conventional understanding is that Nazareth was a fairly small community, of no great historical importance, which is why it is not mentioned outside the New Testament. But there is plenty of archaeological evidence that Nazareth existed before, during and after the time of Christ. And the latest discoveries may completely overturn the idea that it was small and insignificant. Either way, the idea that it did not exist, and therefore that Jesus could not have existed, is out of date, and not supported by contemporary evidence.

Were there tombs?

Yes, there certainly were. (If the area was, supposedly, uninhabited, who were the people who were buried there?) But we are told that 'Jewish law prohibits followers to live adjacent to a necropolis.'

An article in the Jewish Encyclopedia describes the attitude to tombs in Judaism. This article says that:  

Single burial was customary in ancient times, as is still the case among many peoples and in many lands. The most natural method was to bury one's dead near the house on one's own land, as is clear from 1 Samuel 25:1 and 1 Kings 2:3, while the latter passage, which refers to Joab, shows that this custom was not restricted to the burial of kings and prophets, as Winer ("B. R." i. 444) has supposed. The custom of interring Jewish kings in their castles, close to the Temple wall, is severely condemned by the prophet (Ezekiel 43:7-9), this criticism showing that graves were considered unclean, and were therefore not to be made near human habitations (Numbers 19:16). Graves were, accordingly, outside the cities (Luke 7:12; John 11:30), or, according to rabbinical precepts, fifty ells from the town (B. B. ii. 9).

This article can be found here, in full.

However, this article does not support the suggestion that because there were tombs at Nazareth, there could not have been people there:

  • The article itself says that 'The most natural method was to bury one's dead near the house on one's own land.'
  • It is at least possible that the reference in Ezekiel is not talking about burying bodies at all, but about idols. Contemporary English translations reflect this uncertainty.
  • The encyclopedia article talks about a distance of fifty ells. Apparently an ell was a distance of two feet, so fifty ells would have been around a hundred feet, or thirty metres. This is hardly a large enough distance to establish the point that if there were tombs there could not have been people living in the same neighbourhood.

Conclusion

It is a fact that there are tombs in the area. This does not mean that the area was uninhabited. In fact, there must have been people living in the area to provide the bodies to go in the tombs.

We are arguing that the lack of evidence against the Bible's message is positive evidence for the Bible's message.

This is a misunderstanding of what we are saying. A careful reading of what we say on this site about the archaeological evidence indicates that

  1. In many cases, there is no specific archaeological evidence one way or the other. (This does not have anything to do with the truth or otherwise of the Bible's message per se. It is just the nature of archaeological evidence to be partial and incomplete.)
  2. There are many other cases where the archaeological evidence does confirm the truth of the Bible.
  3. There are no known cases where archaeological evidence disproves what the Bible says.

The writer said:

It's actually a well known fact that archaeology is the Achilles heel of religion....

I will admit to a little prejudice here. I detest 'well known facts'. So often, they turn out to be neither facts, nor well known. Often when someone says something is 'a well known fact...' or 'everybody knows that...' it turns out to be a case of 'I believe that...' Far from archaeology being the Achilles heel of the Bible's message, it confirms it over and over again.This site lists a range of examples, and we are adding more on a regular basis.

Conclusion

The archaeological evidence supports the truth of the Bible. If someone wants to argue that it does not, they need to bring forward some specific and well-documented examples where the archaeological evidence disproves what the Bible says. The idea that Nazareth is one such example is out of date and not supported by the evidence.

Back to 'Real people: real places'

The Nazareth Village

For more about life in Nazareth during the time of Jesus, visit the Nazareth Village web site