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Christmas Decoded? What New Discoveries in Nazareth Tell Us About Jesus

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Just in time for holiday deadlines, Israeli archaeologists announced Monday they had uncovered remains of the first dwelling in the city of Nazareth that can be dated back to the time of Jesus.

Digging not far from Basilica of the Annunciation, where tradition says the angel Gabriel visited Mary, archaeologists found remains of a wall, a hideout, and a water system that appeared to collect water from the roof.

Researcher Yardena Alexandre also found clay and chalk vessels used by Galilean Jews of the time -- an indication the home belonged to a simple Jewish family.

The findings suggest Nazareth was probably a small hamlet with about 50 houses populated by poor Jews.

"From the little written evidence available we know that first century Nazareth AD was a small Jewish village located in a valley," Alexandre said, adding that "until now a few Jesus-era graves were revealed, but never have we unearthed the remains of contemporary residences."

So what does this new discovery tell us about Jesus?

The answer is not very much. We still have no evidence that Jesus was ever in Nazareth or in Bethlehem, the two towns featured in the Christmas story. In fact, one of Alexandre's statements is classic archaeological hyperbole fed to a gullible press: "It was likely Jesus and his childhood friends would have known the house." Oh, really? Based on what?

If anything, this new discovery shows how minor a place Nazareth was and draws new light to a central paradox of the Christmas narrative: Why would a pregnant mother from the Galilee travel as far south as Bethlehem to have a child? The given reason of a census is hardly persuasive. (The most logical answer is that King David is from Bethlehem and since the Hebrew Bible states the messiah should come from the line of David, a Bethlehem birth would bring the new baby into David's home region.)

While this week's findings tell us little about Jesus, they do highlight a number of often overlooked features of Jesus' world.

1. Jesus was a Jew, and his life story makes sense only when understood in the context of Jewish ritual. Two of the more striking finds in Nazareth this week were clay and chalk vessels, which were used by Jews at the time to ensure the purity of the food and water kept inside the vessels.

2. The Jesus story was deeply political. The hideout at the Nazareth house, for example, is likely related to the growing tension between Jews and Romans in the late first century B.C.E., a showdown that colors Jesus' birth story -- and especially his death narrative.

3. The Bible is grounded in the history and landscape of the Ancient Near East. The Bible is full of details of time and place that would have resonated deeply to people at the time, but are often lost on us today.

Discoveries like the one in Nazareth titillate the press because they promise something they can't deliver: If one feature of the Bible is true, the entire thing must be true. The real truth is that even if we found a house in Nazareth with the names Mary and Joseph on the mailbox and a birth announcement of a baby Jesus carved into a wall, we'd still never find proof that God spoke to Mary, conceived a child, and sent forth a messiah into the world.

That's not a subject for science. That's a matter of faith.

And that's exactly as it should be.

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