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Archaeology of Jesus’ Nazareth by Ken Dark

21 April 2023

Henry Wansbrough on nuns and archaeology

IN 1881, the Sisters of Nazareth innocently bought a property in central Nazareth. A local tradition rumoured that there had once been a great church and the tomb of “the Just Man” there. The repair of an underground water-tank set the sisters off accidently on a heroic tale of decades of underground digging through layers of silt, mud, and masonry, in almost total darkness, under the leadership of their enterprising Mother Superior, who took careful notes at every stage of the discovery.

Unsurprisingly, in 1937, their efforts and findings were summarily dismissed by the well-known Franciscan quasi-official archaeologist, Bellarmino Bagatti. The only object of any interest seemed to be a standard late first-century rock-cut tomb. End of story — until the interest of the Jesuit Henri Senès, trained as a surveyor with some experience of archaeology, was aroused. He made meticulous drawings in the 1950s. In fact, he showed me round the ruins in 1964, months before his death.

Then, almost by chance, in 2004, Ken Dark, a professional archaeologist, stumbles into the story and brings it all to life, weaving a persuasive archaeologist’s web, which is yet made clearly intelligible to the untrained reader.

The fascination of the book is the reconstruction of the history of the site, entirely by meticulous attention to detail of the finds, without the help of literary sources. Only at the end does the reader discover the perfect fit of archaeological and literary records: a first-century-AD house, a Byzantine cave-church, a grand cathedral-type church 28 by 35 metres in size, presumably the Cathedral of Nazareth, destroyed by fire in 1187. It all coincides perfectly with the rare records of the earliest traveller, Egeria (in the 380s), the monk Adomnan of Iona in the seventh century, and the account of Abbot Daniel in 1106.

Almost equally interesting is the reconstruction of first-century social life and well-being in this loyally Jewish little town, comfortably self-supporting, with warm links to Jerusalem (and a craftsman named Joseph), and firmly divorced from the Hellenistic-Roman city of Sepphoris on the other side of the valley.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a former member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


Archaeology of Jesus’ Nazareth
Ken Dark
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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