Brief History of Nazareth

The view of Nazareth from Mount of Precipice
The view of Nazareth from Mount of Precipice


















 The land surrounding Nazareth was inhabited by primitive people during ancient times. Not far from the city, on the slopes of Mount of Precipice, a camp was found which was settled by prehistoric man (homo sapiens) who lived there around 90,000 years ago. This is the oldest settlement in the Land of Israel.


Canaanite shaft tombs were also found which dated from 3500-1200 BC. 

In the 13th century BC, the area was occupied by the tribe of Zebulun, one of 12 tribes of Israel and silos found in Nazareth date from that period. There is not enough archaeological evidence to establish whether there was a city built here or if  the settlement had a name. 


When the Kingdom of Israel was split, the area of Nazareth became part of the Northern Kingdom. The Assyrians invaded the Kingdom of Israel in 732 BC and most of the inhabitants were brought into captivity.


In the middle of the 6th century BC, the Persians ruled over the Land of Israel and King Cyrus the Great allowed the captives to return to their homeland. Later in the 4th century BC,  the Land of  the Galilee was occupied by the armies of Alexander the Great. 


In this period, most of Galilee was inhabited by different Gentile tribes of Itureans who are ancestors of modern Arabs. During the second half of the 2nd century BC after wars with the Seleucid Greek kingdom,  the Jews obtained their freedom and established a national commonwealth. King Aristobulo (103-104 BC) and later King Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) joined the Galilee area to their kingdom and the inhabitants were converted to Judaism. 


In 63 BC, Hasmonean Judea was captured by General Pompey. The Romans placed Herod, a vassal king, on the throne of Judea.  The region of the Galilee was an important political and economic region during that period.  

Nazareth in the Gospel

Matthias Gruenewald 'The Annunciation of Jesus' birth
Matthias Gruenewald 'The Annunciation of Jesus' birth

The first historical documentation of the town of Nazareth is in the New Testament where it is mentioned 17 times.  Archaeological evidence of the existence of the town in the first century was not found until recently. 


In 2009,  a courtyard house from the first century was discovered during excavation directed by the Israel Antiquities Authority, prior to the construction of the International Marian Center next to the Basilica of the Annunciation.


First century structures were found during excavations carried out by the British archaeologist, Ken Dark, at the the Sisters of Nazareth Convent


Nazareth is mentioned in all four Gospels and the Book of Acts. The Gospel of Luke (1:26-27) says:


"And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary."


According to Luke, both Mary and Joseph were originally from Nazareth.

"And when they ( the Holy Family)had performed all things according to the Law of Moses, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth" (Luke 1:39).


Archaeologist Shimon Gibson says in his book "The final Days of Jesus",

"Nazareth must have been quite small, perhaps with only a couple of hundred people living there. The bottom line is that everyone living in the village would have known each other. In addition, Jesus' family was not poor as some have thought it to have been. As an artisan (carpenter/stone mason), Joseph had professional skills that would have put him and his family within the top echelon of village society..."


Jesus had brothers and sisters who also lived in Nazareth:

"And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?" (Matthew 13:55).


"Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Jude, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?" (Mark 6:3)


The Gospel of Luke mentions that Jesus was brought up in Nazareth ( Luke 2:40, 52; 4:16) and  He left the city at the age of thirty years. (Luke 3:23). According the Gospel of John, Nazareth, perhaps, did not have a very good reputation.

"And Nathanael said to him, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

(John 1:46).


The residents of the city reply to this question today: "No, all good stays in Nazareth!"

Later History of Nazareth

The Annunciation Church in Nazareth
The Annunciation Church in Nazareth

After the second Jewish Bar Kokhba  revolt against Rome was crushed (135 AD), the region of Galilee became an area of exile for Jews from Judea and other regions. Galilee became a center of Jewish life and thought for hundreds of years. There is a suggestion that in Nazareth there lived a Jewish priestly family Ha Pitsez  whose name is inscribed on the synagogue ruins discovered in Ceasarea National Park.


During this period, there was likely a community of thriving Jewish followers of Jesus.  According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, this community passed down the oral traditions concerning the identification and reverence of the house of the Holy Family and other holy places in Nazareth. In the Byzantine period (4th to 7th centuries AD), the first Christian churches were built in Nazareth.


An unknown pilgrim from Piacenza provided the  first written testimony about the churches in Nazareth in 576 AD,

"The House of Saint Mary is a Basilica and there happen many miracles from her clothes. In this city, Jewish women are so gorgeous... and... it was given to them by saint Mary who was their relative..."


Another written account by the Frankish Bishop Arculf from the period of Arab Moslem reign  in 680 AD:

"There are two quite large churches (In Nazareth), one in the center of the city...  where was the house in which our Savior was brought up... and another church  where there is a house which was visited by the Angel Gabriel  and the good tidings were pronounced to blessed Mary."


The earliest evidence of Mount of Precipice veneration was during the 9th century as a place where angry Nazareth residents wanted to stone Jesus. Around 1010,  Egyptian caliph El Hakim ordered destruction of the churches in the Land but it is not clear whether his decree was implemented in Nazareth. What is obvious, by the time the Crusaders arrived in the Nazareth the churches were in ruins. 

From the Crusaders Through Modern Times

Modern Nazareth
Modern Nazareth

In 1099,  Nazareth was captured by the Crusader Army led by Tancred and the Church of the Annunciation was built during the1260s.  Just a short time later, the city was invaded by the new rising power, the Mamluks. 


Sultan Baybars decreed the destruction of the churches due to fear that the massive walls of monastaries and churches would aid the defence of the Crusaders if they returned.   The Moslems did not touch the holy sites of the cave of Mary's house in the Annunciation Church and the cave with Mary's Spring in St. Gabriel's Church.

After the Crusaders were driven from Nazareth, it declined into a little insignificant village.


In 1516, Palestine was occupied by the Turkish Ottoman Empire for 400 years. 

The British Army arrived in 1947 and returned the Christian holy sites and churches  to their initial owners. Over the thirty years of the British Mandatory Government's rule, the population of Nazareth grew from 7,500 to 15,500 residents. The city's infrastructure was improved and it was appointed an administrative center of the region.


According to the Partition Plan of the UN of November 29, 1947 the territory of Palestine was divided for the Arab and Jewish states. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Nazareth was secured by the Israeli Defence Forces and the local population did not flee. Since then, Nazareth and its residents (2/3 are Arab Christians and 1/3 are Arab Moslems) are a part of the State of Israel. The population of Nazareth is 77,000 people.