When Steve first visited Nazareth, the place was deserted because it was 2000, the year of the Intifada. When he stepped out of the bus near the Christian Basilica, all the hotels were closed. There he was in Nazareth, knocking on the doors of hotels without any luck. At one of the places, a man stuck his head out of the third floor window and yelled, ‘What do you want?’
‘I’m after a bed’, he yelled back.
‘I can’t help you.’
‘Any idea who can help?’
‘Try the Sisters of Nazareth.’
The Sisters of Nazareth did have a room and that’s where he stayed for a week. He was the only guest.
His intention was to approximate the location of Yeshua’s house in old Nazareth. From the descriptions in The Urantia Book, he guessed roughly where the house might be. The descriptions were quite detailed. They gave three points of reference: the top of the hill, the road to Cana, and the direction from Mary’s well. Steve did some basic triangulations to help determine the location. On his first morning in Nazareth he went down to breakfast with the sisters. He sat at a table overlooking purple bougainvillea flowers in the courtyard and unfolded his map. His plan was to walk around the area where Yeshua had walked. He was gathering an idea of the location of the well on the map and some other details of the landscape in the area. The sisters became curious and asked him about the lines drawn on his map.
‘Oh, I just want to get the feel of the place, and I think Jesus grew up somewhere around here’, he said, preoccupied.
He got up from his table, took his camera, map and compass, and headed off around Nazareth, taking measurements and more readings. As he walked around the hilly area near the convent he thought, ‘That’s interesting. Where I’m staying is quite close to the house’. He took measurements for most of the day, stopping only for lunch at a kebab place on the main street.
The next morning Sister Margherita came up to him and said, ‘You are not the normal type of tourist we usually get here’.
‘I’m not, am I?’ he laughed in that self-deprecating way she had noticed about Australian tourists. ‘I just have a deep interest in it.’
She looked at him intently and said, ‘You might be interested in an archaeological site, under the church here. Would you like to see it?’
Steve had planned to continue with his measurements for the house of Joseph where the young Jesus had lived, but he consented. After all, he had plenty of time and he could afford some kindness to the sister.
They walked out to the courtyard. Sister Margherita opened up the steel gates to the excavations and they walked downstairs along marble steps leading underground. She turned the lights on. The excavations continued all the way down. As they descended he looked up and saw a Byzantine copula above, which was about a thousand years old. They kept walking deeper into the excavations until they came to a well half filled with water. To their left, carved out of the rock, were two thousand-year-old water basins for washing.
But the best was yet to come. Sister Margherita said, ‘Look at this’. They walked around the corner and stepped into what was a first-century home. Steve was staggered because it had two rooms and the plan matched the descriptions in The Urantia Book perfectly. When Joseph and Mary married they had had a house with a single room, but later on Joseph had built a second room which was used as a workshop.
‘Coincidences happen’, he thought.
On the floor of the house lay Roman paving stones which had been put down a little bit later to protect the floor from too many visitors. Two flights of stairs had also been added afterwards: another sign that lots of people visited the place. Sister Margherita allowed Steve to absorb what he saw in silence without seeking a response. She stood there like a silent guide. When she thought he had seen enough she led him back upstairs, and he returned to the hills to make more measurements and continue his private experience of the young Yeshua. He spent another day walking, searching and making careful measurements. That night, at about two in the morning, he woke up in his bed sweating, ‘This is it! This is his house. I’m sleeping on top of it’. He had been searching for the house all around where it was actually located! As if the possibility of it was already there waiting to be named, too much to digest for the rational mind.
Steve got up from his bed, went to his suitcase and carefully opened The Urantia Book. ‘What the hell’, he thought. ‘I’ll check if the house under the convent matches the descriptions from The Urantia Book.’ He read aloud from the book: ‘The home of Jesus was not far from the hill in the northerly part of Nazareth, some distance from the village spring, which was in the eastern section of the town. Jesus’ family dwelt in the outskirts of the city …’
Steve paused here and mumbled something to himself, skipped some lines, then continued: ‘Here Jesus made frequent trips up to the top of this nearby highland, the highest of all the hills of southern Galilee save for the Mount Tabor range to the east and the hill of Nain, which was about the same height … Their home was located a little to the south and east of the southern promontory of this hill and about midway between the base of this elevation and the road leading out of Nazareth toward Cana’.
The exact location of The family home of Joseph and Mary.
After a restless night he went to the breakfast room early, anxiously waiting for the sisters.
‘Do you realise what you have here?’ he yelled in excitement when they came down with coffee. But the sisters were quiet. He drank his coffee, but couldn’t eat anything. He couldn’t understand the sisters’ lack of response. So he got up, went back to the hills behind the convent and took more measurements. He originally thought a church on the top of the hill was the place from where he needed to measure. But it wasn’t. At the very top of the hill was a water reservoir, and when he took measurements from there they all pointed to the excavation Sister Margherita had shown him.
Steve went to check his readings against this information. His original estimates had the house located between streets 6173 and 6156; the convent was situated only 150 metres to the east. So that morning he went again to confirm his measurements. On the way to the top of the hill he found a small path along an old water reservoir close to the hill’s peak between the Church of the Adolescent Jesus and the Mosque of Nabi Saen. This was the perfect place for a reservoir, as the water would have maximum fall from this highest point. The spot was about 150 metres east of the site where Steve had originally taken the measurements. His new readings indicated that the house was right under the convent, which also happened to be halfway between the promontory and the road to Cana, now called Paulus VI.
Steve went back to the sisters, telling them that, according to his measurements, this was the house.
They were very cautious. ‘Maybe’, they replied.
He was suspicious of their lukewarm response and decided to do some research on the house. The Franciscans from St. Joseph’s Church across the street from the sisters claimed Joseph’s workshop was in the cavern under their church, so perhaps the sisters didn’t want to rock the boat? But the sisters were not completely disinterested or unwilling to name the excavations under their convent. As Steve was finishing his breakfast, Sister Margherita, who was sitting across the table, told him in a conspiratorial tone more about the history of the site. The site had always been known as the ‘home of the Saint’, she told him, even when there had been no visible home on the site. When the sisters had made an offer on the land about one hundred and fifty years previously, the owners had remarked, ‘Be careful. This is the home of the Saint’. Yet there was nothing there. The site was discovered only with the commencement of the convent’s construction.
‘There was so much activity around this site for so long — there has to be a reason for it’, Sister Margherita said.
‘What sort of activity?’
‘Some priest appears to be buried next to the home. Underneath the home, someone has constructed a tomb with a rolling-door closure. Also, a crusader’s spurs were discovered there. The crusader had come from France to this place and hung up his spurs on the wall of the house. This kind of thing was done only in holy places. So you see how much attention this place has had. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?’
Another sister called out to her in French. Sister Margherita apologised for talking too much and left.
But that was more than enough for Steve by then. He wanted to know more about the site. Sister Margherita gave him the key so he could revisit the excavated house under the convent, where this time he took pictures. He breathed more deeply as he went down there by himself.
‘It’s the house where Jesus grew up’, he kept thinking. He entered the first room, which was much more modest and smaller than the second room, which had been built later. According to what he had read about the house, it all made sense. Joseph, Yeshua’s father, had been poor at that time and they had built the additional room when things picked up a little. In the first room, Steve sat at the stone slab which had once served as a table. He sat cross-legged at the table where Yeshua had eaten his meals. For a while he couldn’t move — out of emotion, out of elation.
The nuns had told Steve about Father Senes. They were in no hurry to share information about the excavations; the disclosures trickled in every morning, over breakfast. He listened, then took notes later in his room. The trip to Lebanon was definitely out of the question now. Instead, he went to the École Biblique and the Rockefeller Library in Jerusalem to look for documentation on excavations conducted under the convent in the past. His curiosity was heightened when he found cards in the filing systems about archaeological studies under the convent, but when he went looking for the documents they weren’t there. The strange disappearance of documents from such venerable institutions only strengthened his resolve to unravel the mystery. The experiences from Nazareth sparked a journey to various places in search of a set of the archaeological notes made by Father Senes.
It was important to the sisters, he thought, to have the documentation — for historical value, if nothing else. Still, Steve sometimes asked himself, ‘Why do I bother? All this expense. Am I mad?’ The more he thought about it, the more he realised that his primary concern was to gather professional archaeological information and cultural information and, most of all, to preserve the site. Not to inform the world about it necessarily, but to preserve it. An announcement was tempting, but that decision belonged to the sisters. He felt he would be betraying their confidence, even if they had never asked for secrecy. But the situation was touchy when it concerned an issue of this kind. The house of Joseph — where Yeshua grew up. Imagine that. During his subsequent visits, Steve took his camera gear and photographed every brick, every stone of the building.
Steve found out that a Jesuit priest trained as an archaeologist had spent some time on the site. His name was Father Silvio. The sisters told Steve that Father Silvio worked in Rome, but also had an apartment in Amsterdam. Since Steve couldn’t find any of Father Senes’ notes in the Jerusalem libraries, he decided he would visit Father Silvio and ask him if he knew anything about them. But Steve let it go for two years.
A couple of years later Steve was in Paris at a conference with a friend, Neil, and suggested they take a train to Amsterdam to look for Father Silvio. Steve had Father Silvio’s phone number and called him several times from Paris, but never got a reply. One time Father Silvio’s secretary, Dominique, answered but she gave no definite indication that they might meet. Steve and Neil discussed the pros and cons of the matter in a cafe in Marais in Paris. Steve finished his crème brûlée and said to Neil, ‘Why don’t we just go?’
The next day they took a train from Paris to Amsterdam. They argued all the way to Amsterdam, which kept them awake and made the trip seem shorter. Once in Amsterdam, they left the main station and started looking for the street where Father Silvio lived. They had the name of the street but not the number, meaning they had to guess. At the end of the street they saw a cottage completely overgrown with creepers; Steve declared to Neil that he knew it was the place.
‘How?’ Neil asked.
‘It feels right’, Steve retorted seriously.
They knocked on the door and Dominique, the secretary, opened it. She was expecting them, she said, and showed them in. They sat down at a big oak table and waited until Father Silvio, a very focused, alert man in his late fifties, walked in.
Steve was stunned. The elusive Father Silvio, who had the key to the mystery of the house in Nazareth, was standing right in front of them. The Flow had been right again, but he thought better of rubbing it in to Neil.
After recovering from the sight of Father Silvio, Steve began to stutter like a nervous student: ‘H-Hello. We bring … uh … g-greetings from the Sisters of Nazareth’.
Father Silvio looked intrigued, and a bit amused. He raised his eyebrows and smiled.
Steve cleared his throat. ‘I’m looking for some of Father Senes’ archaeological notes.’
Father Silvio leaned towards him and said, ‘They are very rare’.
But Steve was on a mission now and regained his clarity. ‘I know. I’ve been looking for them for two years.’
Father Silvio nodded thoughtfully, as if considering a life decision. He looked again at Steve and said, ‘Wait’.
He disappeared behind the door while Steve and Neil stared at the ceiling. After about half an hour, Father Silvio came back with a huge pile of books, about eight volumes. He put the books on the tables in piles. ‘The first pile’, he said, ‘is Father Senes’ archaeological notes. The second pile is my private notes on the site; the third pile is secondary references from pilgrims who have travelled through the place’.
‘Do you believe’, Steve gathered the courage to ask, ‘that the house under the convent is the home of Jesus?’
Steve would never forget this moment: Father Silvio simply stated in a matter-of-fact way, ‘Yes’.
Later Steve asked himself if Father Silvio was even allowed to admit this, since the official home of Jesus, according to the Catholic Church, was supposed to be where the Franciscans indicated.
Suddenly Father Silvio looked exhausted. He slid the books across the table as if to say, ‘I don’t want to know about this. It is yours. You are welcome to copy these books’. And he left the room.
Dominique followed him out then came back to show them Father Silvio’s library, complete with a photocopier. Steve looked at the two-storey-high rows of books. Dominique noticed his reaction and told him there were over fifty thousand religious texts in the library and that Father Silvio had given them permission to look over them freely. Over two hours Neil and Steve made two sets of copies of all the documents from the three piles. They worked in a trance, aware they were photocopying priceless materials that biblical archaeologists around the world would kill for. Why had Father Silvio decided to share this treasure with them and not serious academics? Maybe he wanted to let this part of his life go. Maybe he didn’t want ambitious professors using it as a stepping-stone to academic fame and promotion. Who knew? Or maybe, just maybe, like everyone else who met Steve, Father Silvio trusted his integrity and, as a religious man and priest, he saw the honesty of Steve’s intentions. Perhaps Father Silvio wanted the world to know about the results of his excavations, but being a Catholic priest, couldn’t announce them himself. The point was that Neil and Steve walked out onto the street, looked at the two bags of documents they carried, and said in one voice, ‘Can you believe this?’
They decided Neil would take one set to Australia with him while Steve took the other set to the Sisters of Nazareth. Steve flew back to Jerusalem, hopped on the bus to Nazareth, and told the sisters he had a gift for them. They all came down to the dining room where Steve pulled out all the notes and references. The sisters started to dance down the hallway singing ‘Thank you, thank you’ in unison like little girls who had received a Christmas gift.
Steve faced a dilemma. After the trip to Amsterdam his conviction that this was the house of Jesus had strengthened. He spoke to Sister Margherita.
‘Look, Steve’, she said. ‘It’s for the best if we just don’t tell anyone about this.’
So Steve dropped the matter.
On Christmas Day 2005, I’ve anticipated the moment since our arrival in Nazareth, but the sisters are now very strict with visitors. They show the site only at restricted times. I check the references from The Urantia Book Steve has given me. The book describes the house ‘as a one-room stone structure with a flat roof and an adjoining building for housing the animals with a “grinding mill” at the back (p.1350)’. Later, when more children were born to Joseph and Mary, they added another room ‘which was used as a carpenter’s shop’ (p.1350). Then I look through the copious materials Steve has given to me before our trip: four small volumes of archaeological data collected on the house by Father Senes between 1936 and 1960, and the papers of Father Livio. As I organise the material, I can’t decide whether to put all the information in chronological order or to delve, like an archaeologist, from the most recent times back to the oldest. Father Senes began, like any archaeologist would, with the more recent layers.
The modern story of the house starts on 26 January 1855, when the Sisters of Nazareth moved from France to the Holy Land and bought ten small buildings there. Three years later a workman fell into a cistern about five metres deep, and uncovered a spacious vaulted room and a cave. Gradually other discoveries were made, including the first-century fountain and house as well as a tomb. The first archaeologist to work on the excavations under the convent was Victor Guerin, who in 1885 was introduced to the sisters by the French pilgrim, Father Fulgence. It was Guerin who also sent the sisters an early medieval text by Arculf from 670 CE. Arculf dictated his notes from the Nazareth pilgrimage to Abbot Adamnam. This testimony was well known in the early Middle Ages and was included in a text by Bede circa 720 CE about holy places (locis sanctis, 5). A reproduction of it was found in 1157 by Peter Deacon, a librarian at the monastery of Monte Cassino.
Below is Arculf’s text as I find it in Senes’ and Livio’s notes:
The town of Nazareth, according to Arculf who received hospitality here, has no surrounding wall like Capernaum. Set on a hill, it nevertheless has tall stone buildings. Two very large churches were built there. The first, in the centre of the town, is constructed over two vaults on the spot where once stood the house in which the Lord our Saviour was brought up. This church, built on two moulds and, as already mentioned, on two interconnected vaults, has beneath it — between the two moulds — a very clear fountain from which the entire population draws water. The water is hoisted to the church above in small vessels by the system of pulleys. The other church was built on the site where once stood the house in which the Archangel Gabriel visited Blessed Mary, whom he found alone and to whom he spoke. We gathered this information about Nazareth from Saint Arculf who received hospitality there two nights and just as many days.
Father Livio’s notes also include an earlier testimony translated in the fourth century from Greek into Latin by my old friend Jerome. In the Onomasticon, Eusebius wrote about Nazareth:
‘There is a church on the site where the angel came to announce the important news to the Blessed Mary, and there is another one on the site where the Lord was brought up’.
Victor Guerin and Abbe Vigoreaux of the Pontifical Biblical Commission concluded, based on the archaeological evidence they found, that the house of the Holy Family was under the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth. The letter Abbe Vigoreaux sent to Mother Superior on the 1 October 1899 states:
After having carefully examined the localities that you have brought to light, I cannot hold the doubt that you have discovered the sanctuary described by Arculf as having been built on the site of the house of St Joseph: all the details in his description fit in perfectly with what I have seen.
So how come nobody has known about this before? Okay, the Franciscans built their church on top of what had probably been Mary’s house until she married Joseph. Why couldn’t the sisters claim they’d found the house in which Yeshua actually lived with his parents, brothers and sisters? First of all, the First World War brought all excavations to a stop. Then the Franciscans claimed they had Mary’s house next door to the church. However, the building wasn’t old enough to be what they claimed it to be. The sisters didn’t want to upset the delicate balance of Christian claims in Nazareth. They had also naively given away most of the artefacts found on the site to the Franciscans.
The excavations recommenced in 1940 with Father Senes who, up until his death in the 1960s, continued excavating the place and eventually reached the same conclusion. He was convinced he had found the house where Yeshua lived. The sisters quietly kept the knowledge to themselves. I suspect they were discouraged from advertising the discovery as it would disclaim the holy sites already ‘established’ by the Franciscans.
Then along comes the enigmatic Father Silvio. It is a pity I never met him. Steve has a terrible memory of how people look. I would have loved to visit him in Amsterdam. I imagine him as a tall man with dark hair, highly intelligent and curious, but unwilling to shake the establishment. Or perhaps he had been discouraged from doing so?
What he has done for us is to create a tentative chronology of how things happened, which I believe to be very useful.
A house was built near a fountain in the first century — in the era when Yeshua was born. The house, as with the Church of Annunciation on the other side of the road, became a meeting place for early Christians.
Then there was a time gap. In about the fourth century Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, started a frenzy of church building in all the known or projected holy places associated with the presence of Yeshua/Jesus. He appointed Count Joseph of Tiberias, a converted Jew, to build two churches in Nazareth: one of the Annunciation and one of the Holy Family/Nutrition. Both churches quickly became places of pilgrimage.
We have the testimonies of Arculf and Eusebius (translated by Jerome) to confirm these events.
In the eighth century, the churches were destroyed with the Islamic expansion and conquest, but the memory of the site of the great Saint buried on the site of the House of the Holy Family lingers in popular memory.
A number of mosques built on the site were destroyed by natural means — probably earthquakes — which made the Islamic clerics believe the Saint buried there was not theirs.
During the eleventh century waves of Christian Crusaders invaded the Holy Land. The Crusaders discovered the remains of an old Christian church on the site and Byzantine Basilica. They considered it a holy place and so left their spurs on the wall in memory of the visit, with a wish to be buried there. They also tried to rebuild a church, but after the battle of Hattin in 1187 they left the Holy Land.
About five centuries pass. The Franciscans came to Nazareth in the seventeenth century. In 1620 a Franciscan called Father Quaresmio wrote that ‘at a stone’s throw to the north’ were the ruins of the Crusaders’ church ‘which was never built.’
In 1881 the Sisters of Nazareth bought the land. The Sister Superior was told by a man who sold her the land, ‘Be careful, my land is on holy ground. This is where the Saint was buried’. Soon after, Guerin (in the 1880s) then Senes (1940-1963) excavated the place and reached the same conclusion.
In October-November 2000 Steve arrived in Nazareth.
In August 2002 Steve went to Amsterdam and met Father Silvio. He obtained all the documents from Father Silvio; that is, the medieval reports, the notes relating to Guerin and Senes, and Father Silvio’s own chronology. Steve made two copies of all the documents: one for himself and the other for the sisters.
In December 2005 Steve, Martin and I arrive in Nazareth.[About a year later, the sisters will decide to employ a full-time archaeologist to work on the site. They will choose a professor of archaeology from the UK].
The tour guide is explaining the archaeological details of the rooms, the cistern, the naves and columns, and the layers of other buildings above. Archaeological details are always a weird maze to me, but the previous readings of the site’s archaeological notes help me — I can take in everything the guide says almost unconsciously, and so concentrate on the feeling of the place. I love the place and its energy.
I breathe in the peace of the place full with the possibility of Yeshua’s early presence — the great being who was born into a normal family and achieved his full spiritual potential as a human being, as a divine being, and as a man, inspiring others to reach beyond their human condition and its limitations.
For a moment I stand on the threshold to the house. Once inside, I have the feeling I am visiting a misunderstood friend with whom I want to make peace. Two thousand years of complications and political power games between us are nothing. They are not him, and they are not me. For a moment in his house I feel his peace clearing away my inner turmoil.