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Could human manure hold the secret to Jesus’s youth in Nazareth?

01 May 2020

Archaeological dig suggests that Roman Nazareth lived by strict Jewish laws

Almog/Wikimedia Commons

Nazareth, showing the Church of the Annunciation, underneath which are the hiding places used by Jewish militants during their uprisings against the Romans

Nazareth, showing the Church of the Annunciation, underneath which are the hiding places used by Jewish militants during their uprisings against the R...

NEW archaeological evidence from Naz­areth suggests that the town in which Jesus grew up was very con­servative religiously, and probably very anti-Roman.

An archaeological investigation, directed by a British archaeologist, Dr Ken Dark, of the University of Reading, and funded by the Palestine Exploration Fund, indicates that Nazareth was substantially bigger than previously thought, with up to 1000 inhabitants.

Dr Dark compared the archaeo­logical evidence from Nazareth with that of Sepphoris, four miles away.

His investigation reveals that the inhabitants of Nazareth seem to have used only ceramic and other arte­facts regarded as ritually pure, while in neighbouring Sepphoris such reli­gious rules appear to have been less strictly applied.

Archaeological surveys of agricul­tural land between the two towns also reveal that the people of Naz­ar­eth adhered strictly to what appears to have been a religiously generated prohibition of the use of human ex­cre­ment to manure fields. Their neighbours from Sepphoris seem to have observed no such ban.

Archaeologists know that the in­­­hab­­­itants of Sepphoris lived lives that were highly influenced by Greek and Roman culture. In contrast, the new evidence suggests that the resi­d­ents of Nazareth lived strictly by Jewish ritual laws, including some that were not mainstream.

Dnalor 01/Wikimedia CommonsThe Arch of Titus, in Rome, that depicts Romans carrying off the treasures of the Jewish Temple after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD

“Our new investigation has trans­formed archaeological knowledge of Roman Nazareth,” Dr Dark said. “For the first time ever, we are now gaining a reasonable under­standing of the sort of place Nazar­eth was in Roman times.

“By exam­ining in detail all the archaeo­logical evidence, gained from recent landscape survey work and from a detailed re-analysis of previous excavations, we are now beginning to learn about the cultural and eco­nomic environment in which Jesus grew up.”

The use of human manure was a key find. About halfway between the two towns, there is a sudden change in agricultural practice: no human manure is found on the Nazareth side, and plenty of it on the Sep­phoris side.

Different Jewish groups had different attitudes towards human excrement. Mainstream Judaism be­­lieved that excrement was unpleas­ant rather than ritually impure. Its only stricture was that people should make sure that human excrement should be at least four cubits (about two metres) away when prayers were being recited.

The ultra-religious Essene sect was one of the groups that did regard human excrement as ritually impure, and that it should be buried so as not to offend God’s “divine rays of light”.

The investigation suggests more mainstream religious observ­ance in Nazareth. Archaeo­logical digs in and around the town have yielded thousands of fragments of stoneware and pottery — but, in contrast to the pottery of Sepphoris, it is almost all of one type: a rough ware, made in a Jewish village, Kefar Hananya, 23 miles to the north of Nazareth.

Ritually observant Jews believed that stone vessels could not become ritually and spiritually impure in the way that ceramic and wooden vessels could. They may also have been reluctant to use manufactured goods that might have become ritually impure during manufacture — hav­ing been placed, for example, near non-kosher food or a corpse, or having been handled by a menstru­at­­­ing woman.

Dr Dark’s investigation shed light on Jesus’s home town and the influences that might have helped shape his religious outlook. The Gospels suggest that his views were not accepted in Nazareth. It is con­ceivable, then, that the ultra-strict character of the town pushed Jesus towards a less strict and more liberal observance of his faith.

The results of Dr Dark’s investiga­tion have been published by Rout­ledge in Roman-Period and Byzan­tine Nazareth and its Hinterland.

David Keys is the archaeology corres­pondent of The Independent.

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