The house of Nutrition, Nazareth
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
One of the highlights of our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land was the time spent in Nazareth and the visit to the excavations under the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth. While Nazareth is well known for the imposing Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the grotto of the Annunciation to Mary, and entrusted to the care of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, less known are the fascinating excavations under the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth just across the street from the Annunciation Basilica. The relatively unknown site of the Sisters of Nazareth has revealed a house dating to the first century and now thought to be the place where Jesus was brought up by Mary and Joseph. The house is partly made of mortar-and-stone walls, and was cut into a rocky hillside. These excavations are slowly coming to be recognized as the “House and Church of the Nutrition” (where the Holy Family settled and lived) and the nearby tomb of the Just One of Nazareth, St. Joseph.
The first excavations at the convent date back to 1884. At that time, the sisters were repairing a cistern in their cellar when they uncovered some ancient stonework, which turned out to be an underground room with a vault. The Sisters and the young girls at their school, with some workmen, dug further, and unearthed other stone structures, including two rock-cut tombs. In 1936, when Jesuit priest Henri Senès, who was an architect before becoming a priest, visited the site, he recorded in great detail the structures the Sisters had uncovered in their basement. His work remained unpublished and so it was unknown to anyone but the Sisters and the people who visited their convent. The famous Italian Franciscan archeologist, Fr. Bellarmino Bagatti (1905-1990), who investigated the site in 1937, thought the whole complex consisted of tombs. That was the opinion of most experts at that time. It seemed impossible that a Jewish house could have been built near a tomb because Jewish purity laws would have forbidden it.
In 2006, the Sisters granted the Nazareth Archaeological Project full access to the site, including Fr. Senès drawings and notes, which they had carefully stored. Archaeologists led by Ken Dark, a professor at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, and other archaeologists surveyed the site, and by combining their findings, a new analysis of Fr. Senès' findings, notes from the Sisters’ earlier excavations and other information, reconstructed the development of the site from the first century to the present. They dated the house to the first century, and identified it as the place where people, who lived centuries after Jesus' time, believed Jesus was raised by Mary and Joseph. "Was this the house where Jesus grew up? It is impossible to say on archaeological grounds," Professor Dark wrote in an article published in the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review. "On the other hand, there is no good archaeological reason why such an identification should be discounted."
Professor Dark and his team have uncovered evidence of a Crusader-era church, as well as an earlier Byzantine one, all built over the first-century stone structure. They discovered that centuries after Jesus lived, the Church of the Nutrition was built around this house and the two adjacent tombs, but the church fell into disuse in the eighth century. It was rebuilt in the 12th century, when Crusaders controlled the area, only to be burnt down in the 13th century. Both the tombs and the house were decorated with mosaics in the Byzantine period, suggesting that they were of special importance, and possibly venerated by pilgrims.
Professor Dark became convinced that this structure was venerated as the home of the Holy Family. He also discovered that the tombs were cut into the walls of the house and must have been built after it was abandoned; this would not conflict with Jewish purity laws. In fact Dark found that the rock tombs on each side of the structure precisely match a detail mentioned in the pilgrim account of Arculf, a French bishop who visited the Church of the Nutrition in the year 670 and mentioned in his pilgrimage account a church "where once there was the house in which the Lord was nourished in his infancy." This led Dark to believe it is the same church described in Arculf’s account.
The Tomb of Joseph, Nazareth[/caption