Recently, on a hot afternoon, I stood on a rocky slope watching a man in a tunic and draped head covering guide and jerk a wooden plow, pulled by a donkey, along a patch of terraced field.
How excruciatingly slow his progress seemed, and I wondered how he could continue his task in this intense heat, when I just wanted to find some shade to curl up in. But the man, hired by a 'living' museum called Nazareth Village (located within Nazareth itself) to demonstrate farming methods in the first century, was of course obligated to keep working.
Neither, of course, did his counterpart, 2,000 years ago, have the luxury of stopping the steady, backbreaking labor required to plow a stony field. Life was a hard, endless, dusty grind of labor and more labor in small Jewish villages spread throughout Galilee and the rest of Israel, made more difficult by the iron umbrella of Roman occupation which cast its shadow over the entire country.
Nazareth, venerated by the Christian world as the place where the impending birth of Jesus was announced to his mother, Mary, and where Jesus grew up, no longer comes close to resembling the tiny village once tucked away in a saddle between two ridges.
Modern Nazareth is a city of about 70,000 residents. While there is a Muslim majority, it is the largest Christian center in Israel, and numerous churches and Christian institutions line its hillsides. Two churches, one Greek Orthodox and one Catholic, both claim to mark the spot where the annunciation of Jesus's birth to Mary took place.
NAZARETH Village is an attempt to reconstruct life as it would have been lived in the tiny first-century hamlet of Nazareth.
Running for a couple of years now, the culmination of 15 years of archaeological, architectural and textual research, it claims to be located on the last patch of field in central modern Nazareth (by the YMCA) that can be dated to a 2,000-year-old farm. That farm would have presumably been located on the outskirts of the village itself.
The site, which is a nonprofit institution, is unabashedly Christian in that it tries to re-create the physical and social milieu in which Jesus developed, and from which he drew material for many of his parables and examples.
For example, a museum guide will read from the several parables in Matthew 13 about men sowing seeds, and explain them by pointing out the nature of the stones, soil, paths and terraces around him.
And inside the main building, before visitors wander through the reconstructed farm, they will pass through a series of chambers with state-of-the-art museum exhibits which trace the life of Jesus from Nazareth, to the Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem.
However, according to Michael Hostetler, the project's executive director, the museum's planners are acutely aware not only of the modern Israeli society in which they operate but that the world Jesus lived in was a Jewish one, and that the more accurately and fully that world is portrayed, the greater the service given to visitors of all faiths.
There is, in fact, an effort to draw Jewish groups, both from Israel and abroad, with guiding and interpretation tailored to them.
JEWISH groups and individuals who have visited, says Hostetler, left feeling excited and impressed. So, too, were the various scholars - Israelis and others - who contributed their expertise to the research or later reviewed the results.
Those results are indeed impressive in their unimpressiveness; after all, there is nothing immediately dazzling about a first-century farm and re-created Jewish hamlet clinging to a scrubby hillside.
But still visible on this patch of land are Roman-era terraces and watchtowers, and a wine press, rock quarry and an irrigation system carved into the bedrock. The ancient terraces now sustain olives, almonds, figs, carob, grapes, wheat and barley, all of which grew in Galilee 2,000 years ago.
Though the adjacent buildings are re-creations, not reconstructions on original foundations, ancient local building techniques and building materials (stone, earth, plaster, wooden beams, thatching) were used.
Data from the ruins of first-century Jewish villages in Galilee and the Golan Heights, such as Yodfat and Gamla, contributed to replicas of first-century housing, from the layout and room size to the thickness of walls and the width of thresholds.
Local residents, dressed in costume, work the land as it was worked in the first century and engage in crafts and daily household tasks, all with tools authentically fashioned. The effort to create the atmosphere of a first-century village enriches the New Testament texts as well as Jewish texts, law and custom (such as, for example, the juxtaposition of synagogue and mikve).
Throw into this mix the fact that some of the children and adults recreating the ancient roles are local Moslems and you find yourself crossing a very interesting, perhaps unique religious-cultural intersection.
I found it moving to stand in the small, dimly lit, full-scale re-created synagogue, whose materials and design are based upon the remains of first-century synagogues throughout the country. Such modest buildings served as the center of Jewish life - a combination of school, courthouse, charity house, council chamber, prayer center, podium for Torah readings - for villages scattered around the countryside.
Though they existed contemporary with the Temple in Jerusalem, they became one of the keys to the survival and transformation of Judaism after the Temple's destruction.
Yet the Christians standing beside me undoubtedly pondered over Jesus reading from the book of Isaiah in Nazareth's synagogue (Luke 4: 16-28). It struck me then that the meticulous effort we stood amidst, to replicate these ancient walls, might in some small way help dismantle some modern ones.
Nazareth Village is located near the heart of modern Nazareth.
Guided tours are available in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Contact the office to arrange for guiding in other languages, and for reservations. Food is also available, but call for the cafeteria's exact hours. Opening hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 8:30 to 3 on Saturday: closed on Sundays. There is an entrance fee. For details call (04) 645-6042.
How to get there
To reach Nazareth by car from Tel Aviv and Afula take Route 60 north from Afula. From Haifa, follow Route 75 east, and from Tiberias follow Route 77 west and then Route 754 south. For exact directions within Nazareth, it is best to call Nazareth Village. Egged bus service is available from Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tiberias and Afula. For details call (03) 694-8888.
To reach Nazareth by car from Tel Aviv and Afula take Route 60 north from Afula. From Haifa, follow Route 75 east, and from Tiberias follow Route 77 west and then Route 754 south. For exact directions within Nazareth, it is best to call Nazareth Village.
Egged bus service is available from Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tiberias and Afula. For details call (03) 694-8888.
Allan Rabinowitz is a licensed tour guide. He can be reached at email@example.com
This article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post on May 17, 2001.