Nazareth (Lower Galilee)

Most people, particularly Christians, associate the town of Nazareth with the life of Jesus but today it is known as the "Arab Capital of Israel". Of the population of approximately 80,000 people, 70% are Muslim and 30% are Christian. However, another 40,000 (Jews) live along Old Nazareth in the upper section which was declared a separate city or sector in 1974.

Photo: Driving into Nazareth. It seemed a little odd to see stores that we have in the US in an area like this, especially Zara and H & M but we also have McDonalds everywhere so we shouldn't be surprised.

In Roman times, Nazareth was a small village in the hills of lower Galilee which was inhabited by shepherds, artisans, and farmers. Jesus grew up in Nazareth and for 30 years he worked as a carpenter. The Shuk (market or bazaar) is a maze-like network of alleys uniquely comprised of Middle-Eastern merchants. It is located just outside the main entrance to the Basilica (Church of Annunciation) where we were headed.

Photo: Pomegranates are plentiful and one can't pass up freshly squeezed juice. It takes 4 to 5 pomegranates to make an 8 ounce glass of juice and the cost is 7 shekels.

Photo: Wood carvings are everywhere but don't count on them being inexpensive because they are not! An inexpensive nativity set runs more than $100 and we have seen some as much as $4,000.00. However, buyers can bargain with the merchants as they don't want you to walk away without a sale. Therefore, they are very persistent and if you are't serious about buying, don't even try to bargain.

Photo: Lunch time.
As we approached the church, we saw this sign.

Photo: Church of the Annunciation. This church commemorates one of the most famous scenes in the Bible when the angel Gabriel descended from Heaven to inform Mary, a virgin, that she would give birth to the Son of God.

The Basilica of the Annunciation is said to rest on the site where Mary received her message and therefore has an immense significance to Christians.

Four earlier Churches were built in the same location and when that church was demolished to prepare for the most modern basilica, archaeological excavations revealed the remains of the ancient village of Nazareth with its silos, cisterns and other cave dwellings.

Photo: When you enter the doorway and look upward, you see a stunning mosaic ceiling!

The two story Basilica is massive and known as Church of the Annunciation. It is modern in architectural style and became the largest Christian church in the Middle East when it was completed in 1969. It contains two churches, the upper one which is the church for Nazareth’s Catholic community.

Photo: The lower Church is centered around the grotto which, according to the tradition, was the home of Mary and the site of the Annunciation. The remnants of churches from the Crusader and Byzantine eras are seen around the grotto.

Photo: A nun praying at the site is facing the sunken grotto that contains the traditional cave (home) that was supposedly the site of Mary's childhood home.

The cave is flanked by remnants of earlier churches on the site. Inside the cave stands an altar with the Latin inscription “Here the word was made flesh”. In front of the cave is another simple altar with tiers of seats around it on three sides.

The original church was constructed during the Byzantine era (4th-5th century) over the grotto.

The church was later destroyed but another church was built on the site during the Crusader period in the 12th Century A.D. As well as preserving the remains of previous churches on the lower level, the most recent architect allowed for the risk of an earthquake by constructing the building in three separate sections of reinforced concrete.

Around the walls of the upper church are colorful representations of the Virgin Mary in a variety of materials, contributed by many countries which are mostly mosaic.

Photo: The Upper Church serves as the local Roman Catholic parish church. Natural light illuminates the church from the very unusual cupola which soars 170' upward.

The cupola represents an inverted lily opening its petals to the shrine below. The symbolism combines the lily, as an image of Mary’s purity, with one of meanings of the name, Nazareth (which means flower).

Photo: Upper Church of Ascension.

We left the Basicila and headed to the Synagogue Church. The Church is located in the middle of Nazareth old market in the Churches district, adjacent to the (Greek Catholic) Church of the Annunciation.

At the entrance of the Synagogue Church was the flag of Vatican City which indicates it is run by the Greek Catholic church.
Luke 4 15-16: "And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all. And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up for to read".

Photo: Synagogue Church. This is the site of the 1st century synagogue where Jesus' family would have attended and where Jesus announced his Messiahship (Luke 4:16-30).
Photo: We were surprised to find a small (one room) church with a vaulted ceiling, built over the site of the first century synagogue. According to tradition, the Jewish synagogue from the Roman period was located in this site where Jesus visited as a boy. We had the opportunity to sing a few hymns and to spend a few minutes contemplating what may have happened here.

Photo: The cross and a picture illustrating Jesus preaching in the Synagogue.

The synagogue church's entrance, as seen from the interior. The Crusaders level is about 3 feet lower than the modern church and there are seven steps that lead down to its floor. In the entrance, there are two very ancient pillars embedded on the sides of the stairs that lead down into the room.

This is a better photo. You can see one of the pillars that stands on one side of the stairs.

Photo: Very close to the Church of Annunciation is St. Joseph Church which marks the traditional home of Joseph's family.
Photo: Statue of Joseph.
Photo: Courtyard of the church.

The Church of St Joseph (Franciscan Roman Catholic) was built in 1914 on the remains of a Crusader church and over a cave system dating back to the 1st century. Below the sanctuary are smaller caves, most likely used in Jesus’ day for the storage of grain, wine and oil.

There is no evidence that the cave over which the church is built was Joseph’s workshop as the sign explains. Even if this was the site of the family’s home, historians say that the cave is unlikely to have been a carpentry and stone workshop. It is also obvious that the artist has never been to Israel, as the workshop would have also been a cave and not a wooden structure. The same is true of the stable where Mary and Joseph took refuge and where Mary delivered Jesus. That "stable" as Westerners envision it, was not made of wood but a cave used by shepherds at night. Jesus came into this world is the lowliest of circumstances ad He was laid in a manger or feeding trough for animals.

Photo: This is a beautiful painting of Jesus in Joseph's workshop.

The sanctuary of the church was lovely and I am always in awe of the beauty of the architecture, the stained glass windows and art work in these ancient churches.

The church is also referred to as the Church of the Nutrition because Jesus was “nurtured” here growing up and learning his father’s trade. Joseph may have worked with stone and wood in his workshop and in scripture his profession is referred to as tekton, a Greek word meaning artisan or builder.

Steps leading down to the caves. During the Roman era, the caves beneath the church were used for water and food storage. Look closely at the diagram of the church and the caves beneath it.

During the construction of the church (built in 1914), grottos and primitive habitats were found which included the ritual bath or baptismal font. Note the ladder-like design in the mosaic floor which may symbolically indicate the spiritual ascent of those coming up from the water. Christian visitors are moved spiritually when they realize that early Christians were baptized here before any church stood in Nazareth. Nazareth was a Jewish town during Jesus' life time and these Jewish roots can be seen in the remains of an ancient ritual bath (mikvah). In Judaism, a ritual bath was used for the purpose of ritual immersion. Several biblical regulations say specifically that full immersion in water was required to regain ritual purity and a person was required to be ritually pure in order to enter the Temple.

A few more steps lead to a narrow passage which opens onto an underground room with a ceiling less than three feet. From this small chamber openings lead off into grottos believed to have been water cisterns and storage rooms for wine, oil and grain carved out of the soft limestone by 1st-2nd century dwellers.

When we walked outside the church we saw these statues. Whenever I see a statue of Joseph, I have observed a man who appears to be much older and according to Catholicism, Joseph was previously married to a woman by the name of Melcha who bore him six children. After she died, he became betrothed to Mary. In Biblical times, Jewish marriage customs regarding a couple’s engagement were far different than those we are familiar with today, especially in the West. Marriages were commonly arranged by the parents of the bride and groom and often without even consulting the couple to be married. A contract was prepared in which the groom’s parents paid a bride price. Such a contract was immediately deemed binding, with the couple considered married even though the actual ceremony and consummation of the marriage would not occur for as long as a year afterwards. From what I understand, the time between was a sort of testing of fidelity with the couple having little, if any, contact with each other. We have learned that the custom is the same today within the strict Orthodox Jewish communities. In a previous post regarding Sukkot, I mentioned my conversation with a 19 year old Jewish woman who explained that her marriage was arranged. She was engaged at 16, married at 17 and was currently 19 and pregnant with her 2nd baby. This was the custom she grew up with as it must have been with Mary and Joseph.

It was during this betrothal period that the angel Gabriel visited Mary and told her of her impending pregnancy but Mary was inquisitive of the angel because at age 12 or 14 she was a virgin and would know no man for several months and maybe as long as a year or more (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:34). A Catholic priest explained that the mother of Mary also had an immaculate conception (of Mary) and that Mary was chosen by God before this life to be the mother of the Son of God. Religious views and traditional stories vary but I find it all very interesting food for thought.

This modest, unassuming church stands symbolically in the shadow of the Church of the Annunciation just as Joseph lived in the shadow of Jesus and Mary.