"Excavating Jesus" — Chapter Excerpt

Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts:
Revised and Updated

by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed

Chapter One

Layers upon Layers upon Layers

Modern Nazareth is a thriving tourist and pilgrimage city. Known as the hometown of Jesus, tourists flock there to see where Jesus grew up and to eat the best falafel in Israel. Sightseers haggle with vendors hawking trinkets and crafts in the market, and pilgrims stream into the church that commemorates the spot where the archangel Gabriel revealed to Mary Jesus' divine conception. Inside the modern church complex, in Franciscan custody, contemporary mosaics from around the globe portray Mary and the infant Jesus in the native dress and with the facial features of the country that commissioned them. Those representations surround the austere and imposing Basilica of the Annunciation, built in the 1960s atop an ancient grotto, presumably where Gabriel spoke to Mary. Inside the Basilica, stone walls and stained glass protect orderly chant, quiet meditation, and fragrant incense from the scenes outside, scenes not always serene or irenic.

Nazareth is a loud and noisy city, chaotic and bustling, a mix of Palestinian Christians and Muslims in a large lower city, and Jews of Russian, Ethiopic, and other origins in the upper city, called Nazeret Ilit. Earlier a remarkable model of peaceful coexistence, after the broken peace process Nazareth was marred by violence and arson. A year earlier the construction of a new mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation spurred tensions between Christians and Muslims, conflicts exacerbated by accusations of Israeli mismanagement and daily protests. Israel's Ministry of justice just completed a large glass, metal, and concrete structure to administer judgments and render verdicts. Built in modern architectural style on top of a knoll, it overlooks the lower city's rooftop clutter of antennae and satellite dishes, drying laundry and water tanks.

Jackhammers pound and drills hum at construction sites everywhere, although the new megahotels anticipating a surge in visitors following the year 2000's papal pilgrimage stand mostly vacant today. John Paul II's visit did stimulate municipal action to allocate funds for the expansion and repavement of the main street that winds through downtown Nazareth so that, where cars once double-parked and choked traffic in exhaust and bottlenecks, cars and vans now triple-park and do the same.

Modern Nazareth is a unique city, a place that must be seen, smelled, and experienced. Its sounds and sights are part Middle Eastern, with Arabic calls to prayer and male heads wrapped in kefilas; part Israeli, with Egged tourist buses, cell phones, and skullcaps; part European and Japanese, with Mercedes taxis and Isuzu pickup trucks, brown Franciscan habits and Fuji film; and part American, with Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants and boys in Lakers jerseys.

Twenty-first-century Nazareth contrasts starkly with first-century Nazareth. Twenty centuries of history separate the former from the latter, and layers upon layers of occupational debris are stacked atop the ancient site. Twenty centuries of architectural construction, renovation, and demolition have obliterated much of the first-century Jewish hamlet. To get a glimpse of Jesus' Nazareth, you have to cut through many layers superimposed on it. But as you get closer, pay careful attention to the complex layering. The closer you get to the first century, the more difficult it is to distinguish earlier from later, but the more crucial becomes that separation, test evidence from the later second, third, or fourth centuries be mistaken for that from the earlier first-century village. An archaeological sketch of first-century Nazareth begins with those later layers not only because that is how the archaeologist's spade and trowel expose them, but also so that they can be clearly delineated from the earlier layers. Later deposits need to be peeled off cautiously, their debris must be sifted carefully for first-century artifacts uprooted from their context, and the later structures' impact on those underneath must be assessed. To expose first-century Nazareth, continuities and discontinuities between earlier and later layers must be discerned in a complex multilayered excavation. We begin therefore, with Nazareth's broader Galilean context and an overview of the historical periods that shaped its archaeological characteristics.

Byzantine Period (mid-fourth to seventh century C.E.). The stratigraphic layers from this period in Galilee were profoundly affected by the emperor Constantine the Great's conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. In subsequent centuries, this fueled a steady influx of pilgrims, imperial finances, and architects, who transformed the Jewish homeland into the Christian Holy Land with churches, shrines, and monasteries. Galilee's Jewish population responded with more elaborate -- but mostly internal -- artistry in synagogues. But the period is characterized by a gradual decline in the material culture's quality: houses are less well constructed and local pottery is coarser and less well fired.

Middle and Late Roman Periods (second to mid-fourth century C.E.). The layers of these periods are characterized by Galilee's incorporation into the Roman province of Palestina. After the two Jewish wars with Rome in 66-74 and 132-35, numerous refugees from Judea and Jerusalem migrated to Galilee, and Rome permanently stationed a legion nearby to prevent further unrest. Two forces were at work in these layers: first, there was considerable population growth and the synagogue developed as the replacement of the Temple in Jewish religion. And second, Roman policy accelerated urbanization to facilitate control and taxation; as a result, public architecture at larger sites was redeveloped, and international trade increased.

Early Roman Period (mid-first century B.C.E. to first century C.E.). Herod the Great's Roman-sponsored kingdom building (37-4 B.C.E.) dominates this layer across the Jewish homeland, sometimes called the "Herodian Period." His son Herod Antipas urbanized Galilee (4 B.C.E.-39 C.E.) and introduced Greco-Roman urban architecture there with the building of Sepphoris and Tiberias. But there and elsewhere Jewish self-expression in domestic life is common and widespread. Towns and villages share a simple architecture, but well-fired pottery was being produced at several kilns. Some evidence of trade...

The foregoing is excerpted from "Excavating Jesus" by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L Reed. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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