What was Nazareth like in the first century?
Jesus of Nazareth, a phrase occurring seventeen times in the New Testament, has identified a small, unwalled town in southern Galilee with Jesus for all time. Located some fifteen miles west of the Sea of Galilee and twenty miles east of the Mediterranean Sea, Nazareth had a population between two hundred and four hundred people at the beginning of the first century. An obscure town, Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, by Josephus, or in the Talmud. It is situated in the hills four miles southeast of Sepphoris, Herod Antipas’ early capital.
Nazareth’s archaeological record indicates that the inhabitants exploited the soft limestone in the area to build basements, cisterns, grain storage facilities, and olive and wine presses, reflecting its main economic enterprise-agriculture. Nazareth had no palaces, bathhouses, or paved streets, indicating that the people lived in humble homes that spread across a south-facing slope. It was an all-Jewish village that was most likely settled during the Hasmonean expansionist period just before Jesus Christ’s birth.
In direct contrast to its first-century political and economic obscurity, Nazareth plays a significant role in the Gospel narratives. In Nazareth, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced the birth of the Messiah (Luke 1:26). Joseph and Mary returned there sometime after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:23). From Jesus Christ’s youth until he was thirty years of age, Nazareth was Jesus’ home. Finally, it was the place Jesus chose to announce the fulfillment of messianic prophecy concerning him (see Isaiah 61:1-2) as he began his ministry (Luke 4:16-30).