SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Friday, December 23, 2005
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Nazareth, Israel -- On a rocky hillside in Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up and spent much of his life, a familiar scene is taking shape. In the courtyard of a stone stable, surrounded by rough-hewn wooden farming implements, a young man and his wife are comforting their newborn son. They are dressed in simple, handwoven tunics, and the baby is lying on a bed of fresh straw in an animal's trough.
It is as if they had been transported back in time 2,000 years to the birth of Christ and the simple rural community where Mary and Joseph lived, probably less than a mile away. This is Nazareth Village, an authentic re-creation of a first-century Holy Land farm.
This week, the village was the scene for a dramatic retelling of the Nativity by torchlight, accompanied by readings from the Gospels and carols in Arabic for the local community. The play has been staged in Nazareth since 2000, and it draws thousands of spectators.
Although there are other Nativity plays in the Holy Land, this is probably the most authentic reconstruction of the birth of Nazareth's most famous son. The crowded courtyard is buzzing with the raucous sounds of donkeys, sheep and chickens that share the rough accommodation. The steady thud of hammers and chisels drift over from a nearby carpenter's workshop. The air is thick with the smoke of oil lamps, the fresh farmyard odors of animal dung and viscous white goat's milk cooking in a pot on an open fire.
The village was born a decade ago, after Dr. Nakhle Bishara, medical director of the Nazareth Hospital, urged his colleagues to take a patch of bare, rocky hillside next to the hospital and transform it into a center for pilgrims that would explain how Jesus lived in Nazareth.
"Nazareth today is a very busy city," said Bishara, a Christian Arab Israeli whose family has lived here for nine generations. "Two thousand years have so changed Nazareth that you can't recognize anything from Jesus' time today. ... If we can bring this back to life as it was at the time of Jesus, then we can help people who come to Nazareth."
Bishara enlisted the help of Professor Stephen Pfann, president of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem. On Pfann's first visit to the site, he was amazed to discover the remains of first-century pottery jars and a Roman-era wine press on the hillside.
"This was a first-century Jewish village, a stage upon which history was built," Pfann said. "In this environment, many of the New Testament stories come alive.
"Being here brings more meaning out of the Bible," he said. "We hope that people will emerge with a certain amount of culture shock and with an enhanced understanding of the Scriptures."
Nestled among the olive groves on the man-made agricultural terraces -- some dating back to the first-century farm -- a small rural community is coming to life. There are houses, a carpenter's workshop, a synagogue, stable, wine press, olive press, water cistern and stone quarries. The working farm has sheep, chickens and donkeys that pull wooden plows through the rocky soil.
Clothes, tools and even the food have been re-created as precise replicas of the daily materials used by Jews under the Roman occupation. More buildings are reconstructed each year.
Every detail of the village, from the crops to the buildings, is based on careful scholarship. Pfann and a team of scholars, archaeologists, architects and engineers have produced hundreds of pages of documented research and plans based on ancient writings, mosaics and archaeological discoveries. To finance their work, they have raised about $5 million so far, mainly from Christian donors abroad.
"We all grew up with this quaint notion of Jesus, the peaceful shepherd," said D. Michael Hostetler, the first director of the village. "But his was a time of occupation and turmoil. When he speaks about loving your enemy in the context of Roman brutality, it takes on special meaning and has even greater relevance to conditions today."
Modern research shows the phrase "no room at the inn" to be a simple linguistic mistake. "There were no inns in the type of village which Bethlehem was in the first century," said Claire Pfann, the wife of Stephen Pfann and also a teacher at the University of the Holy Land, referring to the town where Jesus was born. "The Greek word kataluma, or eliya in Aramaic -- used to describe the Nativity scene in the Gospel of Luke -- is always used to describe an upper room or guest room, which was typically found in the one or two patriarchal houses which would have been in such a village.
"Visitors would have stayed in these guest rooms, which would have been occupied because everyone had returned to Bethlehem for the census," she said. "Since they were full, the family had to share the stable under the house with the animals."
As Nazareth Village continues to grow, the organizers expect more revelations about the life of Jesus to help visitors to appreciate the times in which he lived and the challenges he faced.
"The village is a real message for all local people and foreigners to come and touch what real life was like here in the first century," said Nermine Haj, a local pharmacist and guide. "Jesus used parables that touched people's life, so they knew what he was talking about. He talked about materialistic things, but his words had deep spiritual meaning. We can really see it here in the village. It's very exciting to see how people used to live and how Jesus used all these everyday things to reach their hearts."