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.