The Jezreel Plain is bounded on the north by a ridge. This has a dent in its top. In the bottom of the dent sat the tiny un-walled village where Jesus grew up.
Today Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel, numbering 70,000 Muslims and Christians. The conical dome of the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation stands out among many smaller buildings, a constant landmark. Just north of it stands the Church of St. Joseph. The Franciscan property containing these churches probably covers most of the ancient village. Just to the west (where Casa Nova is today) was the cemetery. To the east was a valley (now Pope Paul VI street) and then a large field. About 500 yards outside the town, at the base of the northern slope, there are three springs whose water is channeled today into the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel.
The Nazareth of Jesus' youth had but a few hundred people. Archaeological excavations have revealed little but rock-cut installations, such as tombs from the Middle Bronze Age (2100-1550 BC), silos from the Iron Age (1200-586 BC) and, from later periods, parts of olive and wine presses, cisterns, and holes for storage jars. Amid the zealous search for sacred connections, some of these have achieved cultic status (probably unwarranted). (Horsley, p. 109) The most dramatic find is the earliest known inscription containing the words "Hail, Mary," from the early 5th century, roughly inscribed by someone in Greek at the base of a column. The most splendid discovery dates from the Crusaders: a series of well-preserved capitals, buried for safekeeping in a cavern after the victory of Saladin in 1187, depicts scenes from the lives of the Apostles. These finds and others may be viewed in the museum of the Roman Catholic Church.
Beside the Nazareth of Jesus' youth was a much bigger town, Yapha, atop the ridge to the south (Yafia today). Josephus Flavius fortified it with a double wall during the first Jewish revolt against Rome (66-70AD), and it was the scene of a major battle. Above its Greek Orthodox church are scant remains of an ancient synagogue, including elements reminiscent of synagogues from the third and fourth centuries AD.
Four miles to the northwest of ancient Nazareth lay the first capital of Galilee under Herod Antipas: Sepphoris (called Tzippori in Hebrew). Between Yapha and Sepphoris, two important towns, Nazareth itself was so insignificant that it fails to get a mention either in the First Testament (though it existed then) or in Josephus. The latter names more than sixty localities in Galilee, but not it. In view of the town's unimportance, we can understand Nathanael's amazement: "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46) Pilate was joking, perhaps, when he let it be inscribed on the cross: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."
The insignificance of the place is evidence (in addition to the word of the Gospels) that Jesus really did grow up here. No one, inventing a town for his Messiah, would have placed him in Podunk!
Later, Nazareth must have been more substantial. In the 2nd century AD, many Galilean cities still lay in waste as a result of the first revolt against Rome (66-70 AD). Another revolt in 132-135 (led by Bar Kokhba) occurred, it would seem, in Judea only. The Emperor Hadrian punished the Judeans by prohibiting circumcision, thus forcing the pious to leave. Among them were the 24 priestly families whose ancestors had officiated in the Temple. Each of these resettled in a town in Galilee. According to an inscription found in a 5th-century synagogue at Caesarea Maritima, one of the priestly families (that of Happizzes, mentioned in 1 Chronicles 24:15) made its home in Nazareth.
The situation of the village, nestled in its mountain valley, might tempt us to think it was tucked away from the world. Not so. Jesus had only to climb the southern rim of the ridge to see the Jezreel Plain spreading below. Having read the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) in school, he had before him the whole theatre of the battle with the Canaanites (as well as the future Armageddon). It was from this ridge that his townsfolk, according to Luke 4:29, would later attempt to throw him.
Crossing to the town's northern rim, Jesus would have seen the acropolis of Sepphoris (see map above). This city must have carried bitter associations for the villagers. In Jesus' infancy, after the death of Herod the Great, it had risen in revolt, and the Romans had taken rough revenge, selling the inhabitants as slaves. The scars would still have been fresh. The Galileans also groaned, no doubt, under the burden of taxes and rents that they had to pay to maintain the aristocrats of such a luxurious city, especially Herod's son, the tetrarch of Galilee, Antipas.
Relatives of Jesus, who believed in him as the Christ, continued to live in Nazareth in the centuries before the first church was built here. During the persecution by Decius (249-51), a man named Conon was arrested. He told the court: "I am from the city of Nazareth in Galilee. I am of the family of Christ, to whom I offer a cult [which has existed] from the time of my ancestors."
Thus, in Nazareth, there seems to have been a continuous presence of believers. They may have preserved the memory of the house where Mary lived. In that case, they could have shown the spot to the founder of the Byzantine church of the Annunciation, the remains of which one sees inside today's Roman Catholic Church . This founder may have been the Deacon Conon of Jerusalem, who lived in the early 5th century: his name is inscribed in a mosaic on its northwest side.
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), (c) Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. (www.Lockman.org)