2: Where Jesus and Mary stood
When the author Mark Twain made his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1869, he found Nazareth “wonderfully interesting because the town has an air about it of being precisely as Jesus left it.” The lithography of the Scottish artist David Roberts of 30 years earlier bears out Twain’s impression of quaintness: a hill, a few houses, and not much else (apart from the mosque which would have been foreign to Jesus). But after Jesus’ time and before Twain’s, Nazareth had experienced growth and became a provincial town of some size, until it was destroyed by the Saracens.
Still, in Jesus’ time, Nazareth was a village of scant significance, other than as a source of labour for the projects in the neighbouring Roman metropolis of Sepphoris. Many historians believe that Joseph and Jesus did much of their carpentry (some suggest stonemasonry) work there. Nazareth was so negligible, it merited no mention, even when the context might have demanded it. Neither Joshua in the Old Testament, nor the Talmud, nor the 1st century historian Josephus Flavius bothered to list the town. This explains Nathaniel’s cynical reaction in John’s Gospel (1:46), the equivalent of a South African asking: “Can anything good come from Pofadder?”
Some historians suggest that Pontius Pilate’s designation of Jesus being a Nazarene was deliberately mocking, ridiculing the notion that “the King of Jews” should be a bit of a yokel. Indeed, many believe that the word “Nazarene” to describe Christians was at least initially a calculated jibe.
Today, Nazareth is a vibrant Arab town, neighboured by the Jewish Nazareth Illat (Upper Nazareth), which was founded in the 1950s. It is part of Israel, and the Nazarenes are Israeli citizens. While on paper Nazareth’s Arab people enjoy the same rights as Jewish Israelis, the realities suggest otherwise.
Before we would get a rest, there was the small matter of Sunday Mass. It was somehow appropriately that our first Mass in the Holy Land should have been celebrated in the basilica of the Annunciation, which marks the first concrete move towards God becoming man, courtesy of Gabriel’s visitation to a teenage girl in the grotto behind the main altar. And what odds it was Mother’s Day!
The magnificent basilica is a new edifice, completed in 1969. Its predecessor stood there from 1730 until its destruction in 1955. Before that, several churches and convents marked the reputed cave in which Mary lived and received that fateful visitation. One predecessor church was described by the Piacenza Pilgrim of 570AD as also housing Our Lady’s clothes, which “are a cause of frequent miracles”.
The traveller of Piacenza was evidently taken by Nazareth, whose “Jewesses’are better looking than any other Jewesses in the whole country.” He also claimed to have seen “the book in which the Lord wrote his ABC”, and the bench in the synagogue on which Jesus had sat. “Christians can lift the bench and move it about, but the Jews are completely unable to move it, and cannot drag it outside,” he wrote. Clearly our friend from Piacenza was a raconteur of the highest order.
From the basilica of the Annunciation we took a walk, via the church that marks St Joseph’s workshop, to the site of Nazareth’s only well, where Mary and her little boy Jesus would often go to draw water; a useful exercise in understanding the lie of the land in Jesus’ time.
In Nazareth, one may treat the identification of holy sites with a measure of confidence. Since the beginning of Christianity, Nazareth has had an unbroken Christian presence. Surely in Jesus’ hometown, of all places, it would have been impossible to assign the location of holy sites randomly or erroneously. Still, the one place we can locate the historical Jesus beyond doubt is at the well, simply because there was nowhere else to draw water from.
Most Christian sites in the Holy Land are maintained by the Franciscans. On such custodian comes from South Africa, Fr Tom Tshabalala, whom we sadly had no chance of meeting while in Nazareth.
Throughout the centuries, Christians faced appalling hardships to keep alive the holy sites we today visit with no regard for their sacrifice. So let us remember with gratitude those whom the pilgrim Henry Maundrell wrote about after his visit to Mary’s grotto in 1697: “At this place are, as it were, immured, seven or eight Latin [Franciscan] Fathers, who live a life truly mortified, being perpetually in fear of the Arabs, who are absolute lords of this country.”