Archaeological research in 2006-10 indicated that an underground complex beneath the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth in 6166 Street may be the location of the long-lost Church of the Nutrition.
According to a seventh-century pilgrim, this Byzantine-era church was believed to have been built over the house of Mary and Joseph, where the young Jesus was nurtured. Rebuilt by the Crusaders, it was finally destroyed by fire, probably in the 13th century.
“Was this the house where Jesus grew up? It is impossible to say on archaeological grounds,” lead archaeologist Dr Ken Dark has written. “On the other hand, there is no good archaeological reason why such an identification should be discounted.”
Dr Dark also said the scale of the church and its surrounding structures indicate that Nazareth was a much larger and more important 6th-century pilgrimage centre than previously realised.
Complex discovered by chance
The Sisters of Nazareth convent was established by a group of French nuns who arrived in 1881. Archaeological evidence was discovered by chance while they were building their house.
They uncovered a complex sequence of well-preserved underground spaces, including Crusader-era walls and vaults, a Byzantine cave-church, Roman-period tombs and other rock-cut and built structures.
The sisters, who operate a school for deaf and blind children, established a small museum for the pottery, coins, glass and other artefacts they found.
When new convent buildings were constructed around 1900 the walls of a large and richly-decorated Byzantine church, rebuilt in the Crusader period, were revealed. Bigger than the Byzantine Church of the Annunciation, it had a triple apse, colourful wall and floor mosaics and white marble fittings.
These discoveries remained almost unknown until 2006 when the Nazareth Archaeological Project began a five-year study, directed by Dr Dark, an archaeologist from the University of Reading in England.
House was well preserved
Dr Dark concluded that the large church, standing at ground level, was the Church of the Nutrition, and that its crypt contained what the Byzantines believed was the house where Jesus was brought up.
Because it was protected, the house was in an excellent state of preservation, he said. “Great efforts had been made to encompass the remains of this building within the vaulted cellars of both the Byzantine and Crusader churches, so that it was thereafter protected.”
The house stood between two tombs, hewn from rock after the house was no longer used (which would not conflict with Jewish purity laws). Their mosaic decorations indicated they may have been of special importance. The presence of the tombs matched the seventh-century pilgrim’s eyewitness description of the Church of the Nutrition.
(Confusingly, the nearby modern Church of St Joseph has also been called the Church of the Nutrition in the belief that it is on the site of Joseph’s home, where Jesus was raised.)
One of the tombs, whose forecourt cuts through a wall of the house, has a rolling stone at its entrance. It has become known as “the Tomb of the Just One” in the belief that it may have been venerated as the tomb of St Joseph — though in Dr Dark’s opinion it is unlikely to be where he was buried, given that it dates to after the house was disused.
Administered by: Sisters of Nazareth
Open: By appointment only.
Dark, Ken: “The Byzantine Church of the Nutrition in Nazareth Rediscovered”, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 144, 3, 2012.
Dark, Ken: “Early Roman-Period Nazareth and the Sisters of Nazareth Convent”, The Antiquaries Journal, 92, 2012.
Dark, Ken: “Has Jesus’ Nazareth House Been Found?”, Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2015.
Sisters of Nazareth Convent (BibleWalks)
Exploring Jesus’ Possible Home with Dr. Ken Dark (The LIP TV interview with Dr Ken Dark on YouTube)