Friday, July 12, 2013

The Jewish Town of Nazareth

Makor Rishon recently interviewed Nabila Espanioly, an Arab political activist and future Knesset member for Hadash (based on a rotation agreement).  Espanioly is head of the Al-Tufula Pedagogical Center, which recently published a booklet for Nazareth kindergarten teachers about the history of Nazareth.  As for the presence of Jews in Nazareth, the booklet states (translation mine): "Archaeological excavations have found no sign of Jews living in Nazareth.  The synagogue building [the Synagogue Church] is actually a church built in the Crusader Era after the 11th century."

The booklet denies there were Jews in Palestine in the First Temple Era, and then continues "If there were Jews in Nazareth at any time, then they were a foreign population, who were welcomed by the Arab-Canaanite families in Nazareth".

That is, of course, nonsense.  It's a shame the people of Nazareth know so little about their history.

In the first centuries CE, Nazareth was a small Jewish village.  Lucas (4:15) describes how the town's most famous son, Jesus, came to the local synagogue to speak on the Sabbath day.
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah.  He opened the book and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."  And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, 'Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, "Is not this Joseph’s son?"

This picture should be familiar to any Jew.  As we do today, on the Sabbath the Jews would read from the Torah.  The Israeli custom was to read the Torah over a three or three and a half year cycle.  Following that one of the synagogue goers would read from the Prophets, and then someone from the community would stand up to give a sermon.

In 2009 the Israeli Antiquities Authority excavated a Jewish home in the town, dating to the first century BC (English, Hebrew).  Among other artifacts, the archaeologists discovered fragments of chalk vessels, used exclusively by Jews for purity reasons.  They also found a pit, which was probably hewn as part of the Jewish preparations for the Great Revolt (67 CE)

The lack of Jewish antiquities might have to do with the fact that very few excavations were done, and are mostly limited to what the IAA calls "emergency digs" when there's new construction, as was the case with the 2009 dig.  Nonetheless, a few antiquities have been found dating to the first centuries CE.

A Jewish lamp, note the Menorah on the handle

Hebrew inscription: Soam Bar Menachem, RIP

Following the Bar-Kochba revolt, the Priestly families (the Kohanim) moved up to the Galilee.  Nazareth became known as the town of the 18th Priestly Division, the Happizzez family.

The Israeli custom was to pray on the Sabbath for the Priestly Division of that week.  Several fragments found in a synagogue in Caesarea dating to the 3rd century list a portion of the Priestly Divisions, and mention Nazareth by name.

The four Priestly towns mentioned on the fragment: Mamlach, Nazareth, Achla and Migdal

Sevearl Hymns (Piyyut) list Nazareth among the Priestly Divisions.  Eleazar Ha-Kalir mentions Nazareth among the Priestly towns in his lamentation "Eicha Yashva Havatzelet Hasharon", now read on Tisha Be'Av day.  From this Piyyut, we also clearly see that the Hebrew name was pronounced: Nat'zrat

The 4th century bishop, Epiphanius of Salamis, wrote that Nazareth was a Jewish town.  In his book Panarion he tells the story of a Jewish convert to Christianity, Josephus:
"Josephus asked nothing of the emperor but this very great favour—permission by imperial rescript to build Christ's churches in the Jewish towns and villages where no one had ever been able to found churches, since there are no Greeks, Samaritans or Christians among the population.  This rule of having no gentiles among them is observed especially at Tiberias, Diocaesarea, [which is] Sepphoris [Tzippori], Nazareth and Capernaum."  

Ephipanius is slightly exaggerating, and apparently non-Jews did live in the town, but it is clear that Nazareth was a Jewish town.  Not surprising, since until the Persian Conquest in the late 7th century, the Galilee was generally a Jewish stronghold.

Antoninus of Piacenza visited Nazareth around 570 and toured the local synagogue.  From his description we learn that Nazareth was still a Jewish majority town at the time (my translation from Hebrew)
"Afterward we came to the city of Nazareth, where there are many wondrous things.  The synagogue still has the book which was used to teach Our Lord the alphabet.  There is also a bench in the synagogue where Our Lord would sit with the other kids.  The Christians can raise and move the bench, but the Jews can't move it at all; and it can't be taken out.   
And so beautiful are the Jewish women of the town, that you can't find more beautiful women among the Hebrews of the land, and they say it comes from Mary, who was, they say, their mother.   
And though the Jews have no mercy on [or: love for] the Christians, despite that the women are filled with mercy."

Apparently the synagogue served for both Jewish and Christian worship.

In 614, the Persians conquered Israel with the help of the Jews.  According to Eutychius, the Jews of Nazareth joined in battle.  When Emperor Heraclius reconquered the land a few years later, he massacred the Jews of the Galilee in retribution.  Whatever Jews remained were expelled from Nazareth.

And so came the end of the Jewish history of Nazareth.  By the time Arculf, a Frankish bishop, came to Israel in 670, the synagogue had been fully turned into a church.

Under Muslim rule Nazareth was a small village.  A 13th century Arab historian mentions Jews in the city, though there are no other corroborations for that fact.

See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.  

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