This morning we headed north of Nazareth to the ancient town of Zippori, or Sepphoras. This was a large town developing just north of Nazareth at the time of Jesus. It is quite possible that St. Joseph would have come here to work in the building of this city. Although a Jewish town, it was a Roman center on a famous trade route and was designed in a Roman style. We walked through the huge waterworks and saw some very nice mosaics from the 1st century. To some extent, one set of ancient ruins is starting to look like the next, but this was a fairly interesting city.
After Zippori, we went to Bet Sharim. This town was the home of a famous early rabbi named Judah Ha Nasi. The place where visitors go is actually an ancient cemetery. The most impressive site was a huge underground burial cave with many chambers and sarcophagi. We also saw the place where the famous rabbi is said to be buried.
After lunch we returned to Nazareth for a tour of the site there. Our first stop was at the Orthodox church that is built on the site of Mary’s well. The Orthodox believe that the angel Gabriel first appeared to Mary while she was getting water from the well, but she was scared and so he had to appear again back at her home. However, devotion at this place dates only to the 18th century. After this we went to visit the church of St. Joseph which is built on top of the 1st century carpenter shop of St. Joseph and thereby likely also the home of the Holy Family. We ended our official tour with a brief trip to a Melkite Catholic church and the Synagogue where Jesus taught, but the highlight of my tour was yet to come.
I decided that I wanted to return to the church of St. Joseph to pray for a while. I went down into the grotto below the main church in order to be close to the home of the Holy Family which is still underneath this level. There are stairs that lead down to the original house and there is one place where you can look through the floor and see it, but it’s rather difficult. As I was praying, I met a worker who had access to the cave below and I persuaded him to let me go down there for a few moments. So, there I was, standing in the first century home of the Holy Family. What an amazing experience. Our guide told us that they wouldn’t have had enough money for Joseph to own a home and a carpenter’s shop, so the home doubled as both. This was the place where Jesus grew up and learned how to be a carpenter from his dad. Mary would have cooked there meals here. I wanted to stay here and pray longer, but the worker was waiting for me so I had to come back out.
After asking the worker some questions, I went back upstairs to pray for while. As the worker and I were leaving the church at the same time, he asked me if I had seen “the rest of the houses.” He then proceeded to show me where they are excavating the entire first century city of Nazareth. Believe it or not, that would have only included 25 families! I got to see several other first century homes as we made our way down the hill from St. Joseph’s house toward the Church of the Annunciation. Toward the end of the row of houses I saw one that had some nice plants in front and asked what it might be. He told me that this was Mary’s house. Then I was able to connect it all together. The remnants of Mary’s house that you see in the Church of the Annunciation would have been the underground chamber. There are stairs in the back that I thought led nowhere, but they actually lead outside to the original entrance where I found myself looking down those same stairs. The houses of Mary and Joseph are across town from each other, but as I said before, the town was small. They are only about 100 yards apart at the most. Mary’s house is very well preserved and there has been a place of Christian devotion at this site since the first century. Jesus spent 30 years living quietly in this town of 25 families and Mary and Joseph even longer. What a blessing to be present in this holy place.