Nazareth Was A Jewish Town for Hundreds of Years
Christ’s city was Jewish until the 4th century A.D according to the historian Epiphanes. But, in fact, It lasted until the 7th century.
Nazareth nowadays is an Arabic city situated in the Lower Galilee, with a population of 70,000. Two thirds are Muslim and only a third are Christian: 14,000 Greek Orthodox, 9,000 Greek Catholic, and 1,000 Maronite Christians from Lebanon. Other Christians belong to the Coptic, Anglican, Baptist, and Armenian Churches. The process by which Nazareth has been transformed from a Christian city to a Muslim one began during the British Mandate period and accelerated since the establishment of the State of Israel.
Various theories exist as to the origin of Nazareth’s name. According to one theory, the name was derived from the word “Natzar” meaning “preserve” or “guard”. According to another theory it comes from the word “Netzer”, meaning “branch” or “scion”. Nazareth is thought to be the city of Christ’s parents, and Christians prefer the derivation from “Netzer”, which they believe indicate that Christ was a scion of the House of David, and thus the Messiah.
Joshua’s Time and the First Temple Periods (13th century - end of 8th century B.C)
Nazareth is not mentioned in either the Old Testament or the Talmud, but archaeological excavations show that it existed during the time of Joshua. This means that the village of Nazareth was established at some time during the Bronze Age (1550B.C – 1200B.C), and continued to exist at list until the the Kingdom of Israel was conquered and eliminated by the Assyrians in 720 B.C. Excavations yielded ostraca and scarabs from the mid 15th century B.C and ostraca from the Iron Age. Nazareth is probably not mentioned in the Old Testament and in the Talmud because it was a small village and due to its proximity to the larger Jewish town of Yafi’a.
The Second Temple Period (538 B.C - 70 A.D)
Nazareth was a small village throughout the Second Temple period. It is first mentioned in the New Testament, as Joseph and Mary’s town of residence. It is also mentioned in a Piut (a liturgical poem) from the Byzantine period and in an inscription found in Caesarea, as a village where priests from the Pitzatz family settled following the destruction of the Temple, along with other refugees from Jerusalem.
There was a synagogue in the old village which operated at least until the 5th century A.D. Scholars are divided as to its exact location. Excavations in Nazareth uncovered stone quarries with storage caves, as well as granaries, curved cells for wine storage, oil presses and water holes. The buildings uncovered in the village were built during the 1st century A.D.
Scholars are divided also about the size of Nazareth during the Second Temple period. Some are in the opinion that Christ’s Nazareth was a small village, with a population estimated at 400 – 800 inhabitants, and that it was so small because the local spring could not supply the water needed by a large town and its isolated location was unattractive. Others believe that Nazareth was already a large town, as evidenced by the remains of a Helenistic bath house.
The Roman & Byzantine Periods (70 A.D - 641 A.D)
The historian Epiphanes, living in the 4th century A.D, wrote that up till the time of Constantinus II (4th century A.D) Nazareth was only inhabited by Jews. A Jewish community continued to live in Nazareth during the 5th century until the end of the 6th century A.D. Excavations of the Byzantine layer uncovered a Jewish tombstone with the inscription “So’am Bar Menachem rest [his] soul”.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire during the reign of the Emperor Constantinus in the 4th century A.D, Christians began to show interest in Nazareth. The convert Joseph “Komas” (“Friend of the Emperor”) was instructed to build churches throughout the Galilee, Nazareth included.
Epiphanes wrote about it: “there in Nazareth and in Tzipori, no one could ever build a church because no pagans lived there, nor Samaritans nor Christians”. In other words, the majority of the Galilee population during Constantinus’ time was Jewish who objected to foreigners entering their cities or building churches in them. However, according to Menachem Zaharoni’s “Israel Guide”, the Lower Galilee volume, there was a Jewish-Christian community in Nazareth. Excavations held in 1955-1960 uncovered the remains of a 3rd century A.D synagogue underneath the Church of the Annunciation mosaic floor. The findings show that this synagogue was a place of gathering for Jewish-Christians, as evidenced from a 4th century inscription mentioning “Jesu son of God” and another inscription noting that this was Mary’s holy place.
The most famous of the churches built in Nazareth during the 5th century is the Church of the Annunciation. Antoninus Placatinus wrote in 570 A.D that the church was built on the site of a synagogue. It seems that this same Christian traveler, according to Zeev Vilnai’s “Ariel Encyclopedia”, enthused about Jewish Nazareth’s beautiful women.
The architect Gideon Harlap says that the granite columns in the synagogue court are similar to those found in Caesarea and on the Temple Mount, dated to the time of Herod.
When the Persians conquered the Galilee in 614, they were aided by an army of 20,000 Jewish volunteers who had had enough of the persecution and pogroms of the Byzantine rulers. There is a theory that the Jews of Nazareth helped the Persians destroy the Church of the Annunciation and St Joseph’s Church, which was built on the traditional site of Joseph’s carpentry. When the Byzantines re-conquered the Galilee in 630 they took revenge on the Jews for their support of the Persians. Apparently this was the end of the Jewish community in Nazareth. Many Jews were massacred and others fled from the massacre stayed in hiding or left for neighbouring countries.
The Arabic Period (641- 1099)
On the eve of the Arabic conquest, only Christians lived in Nazareth. According to evidence from 670 A.D, it was the Muslims who destroyed the Church of the Annunciation and St Joseph’s Church, both of which had great wealth. Following the Arab conquest (630-640 A.D) Christians left Nazareth, either willingly or by force. The Arabs changed its name to Se’ir, after the mountain Jebbel Se’ir west of the city.
The Crusader Period (1099 - 1260)
When Nazareth was conquered by the Crusaders in 1100, Christians returned to settle in it, and it became a Christian city and the seat of a bishop. The Christian population was comprised of foreigners who settled in Israel earlier and converted to Christianity, and of Byzantine and European pilgrims, monks and priests. The Crusaders rebuilt the Church of the Annunciation and restored St Joseph’s Church. A Crusader source from the year 1280 attests that the Jewish synagogue became the “Synagogue Church”.
In 1187, after their defeat in the Battle of Hattin, the Christians hid in the Church of the Annunciation for fear of the Muslims, but were all massacred. Later on the city returned to Crusader hands.
The Mameluke Period(1260-1516)
The Mamelukes (Muslims but not Arabs from Egypt) conquered Nazareth in 1263, demolished all the churches and cruelly murdered all the Christian inhabitants. Under the Mamelukes Nazareth became a small Muslim village.
The Ottoman Period (1516 - 1918)
At the beginning of the period, Franciscan monks settled in the ruins of the Church of the Annunciation, but were expelled by the Turks. At that time Nazareth was still a small Muslim village. A Franciscan pilgrim who visited Nazareth in 1533 wrote that near the site of the Church of the Annunciation there was a church which was formerly a synagogue.
The Druze Emir Fachar A-Din allowed the Franciscans to purchase the ruins of the Church of the Annunciation in 1620, and then Maronite Christians from Lebanon and Greek Orthodox Christians from the Jordan East Bank began to settle in Nazareth. Under Dahar El Omar ,a Bedouin sheik, who ruled the Galilee the number of Christians in Nazareth increased, the Franciscans completed the reconstruction of the Church of the Annunciation, and public buildings were built in the town.
Nazareth turned into a religious Christian centre in the 19th century and has since become a place of pilgrimage for Christians from all over the world. Many churches and monasteries have been built in the city. An English traveler visited in 1848 and wrote that there are no Jews in the city and that most of its inhabitants are Christian Arabs and a few European monks. In 1855 the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem invited French nuns to Nazareth, and they established a monastery and a school.
In 1877, the Synagogue Church was built within the market in the older part of Nazareth. This was a Greek Orthodox church that, according to one version, was constructed on the ruins of the ancient church that was built where the ancient synagogue once stood. The synagogue site was desecrated during the 17th century when an animal pen was built in it, and later on the building was turned into a weaving factory. The place was restored only in 1740, however scholars doubt it really was a synagogue due to its proximity to the ancient Jewish cemetery.
A pilgrims’ hotel was established by monks but it was damaged by an earth quake and then by a flood. The Russians built the Moscovia in the 19th century to aid residents in welfare and education.
The oldest mosque in Nazareth was built in 1814, although the Muslim quarter was built as early as 1729 in the Old City. Nazareth’s marketplace was built in the mid 19th century in the Old City and is one of the oldest market places in Israel. The remains of a Hamam (a Turkish bathhouse) were discovered in 1993.
As pilgrims turned Nazareth into a religious, cultural, and commercial centre, the population’s quality of life rose, as evidenced by the 19th century trend for painted ceilings. In 1890 the population numbered 7900. St Joseph’s Church was rebuilt in 1914. Just before World War I Nazareth’s population numbered between 9000 and 15000 residents.
The British Mandate Period(1918- 1948)
Nazareth was taken by the British in September 1918. In 1922 there were 23 Jews in the city who were employed by the Mandate Government. In 1926 most of the city’s population was Christian. A third of the population was Muslim, and a few Jews lived there as well. In 1930 the British made Nazareth the regional capital of the Galilee, accelerating its growth. The 79 Jews living in Nazareth in 1932 fled the city as soon as hostilities began on the eve of the War of Independence in 1947/48. At that time Nazareth already had a population of 17000.
The State of Israel
During the War of Independence, Kaukji established his army headquarters in Nazareth, and from there attacked the Jewish settlements. Refugees from neighbouring Arab villages fled to Nazareth and its population increased to 22000. Nazareth was conquered by the 7th Brigade during the “Dekkel” operation on 16 July 1948, and Kaukji’s army fled. Most of the refugees in Nazareth were Muslims who arrived before the Israeli conquest, and their settling in the city caused its Christians to gradually lose their majority.
In 1978 there were 40,000 inhabitants in Nazareth, 52% of whom were Christian. But by 1980 the Muslims became the majority in the city. This demographic change has caused tension between the Christians and Muslims in Nazareth. A disagreement about the future of the Shihab E-Din precinct broke out in 1990, when the Christians objected to the Muslim plan to build a mosque on the site (Shihab E-Din was killed in a battle against the Crusaders and was buried in Nazareth). The Vatican stepped in on the side of the Christians, and the city was on the verge of a religious war. At the end, Arik Sharon, then Israel’s Prime Minister, intervened and a square was built instead.
A Muslim mayor was elected in the 1998 city council elections, and Muslims have held majority in the council since then. Nazareth is nowadays a centre for Arabic political activity.
Life in Ancient Nazareth
Ancient Nazareth stretched mostly from St Joseph’s Church in the north, to the Church of the Annunciation in the south. A model of the 1st century A.D village of Nazareth was built in the new city, showing how people lived 2000 years ago, i.e., when Nazareth was Jewish. The village contains a reconstructed synagogue, a 2000 year old wine press, vineyards and olive groves. The workers in the village wear period costumes and the exhibits include presentations on wine making, olive harvesting, oil making, sheep shearing and wool spinning and weaving. There is also a pen and a presentation on sheep herding, milking, and dairy production. An archaeological tour can be taken in the village as well.