The Guardian – 22 October 2003
A shopkeeper running a small souvenir business in Nazareth has made a sensational discovery that could dramatically rewrite the history of Christianity
Elias Shama’s small souvenir shop in Nazareth, the town of Jesus’s childhood, barely catches the eye. Tourists usually pass by it on their way to the neighbouring Mary’s Well church, claimed by the Greek Orthodox church as the site where the Archangel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was carrying the son of God.
Before the Palestinian intifada erupted three years ago, the shop did a steady trade selling the usual pilgrim fare – olive-wood crosses and Virgin Mary statuettes – to any tourist who strayed from the 100 or more coach parties briefly herded into the city each day from across Israel. Now, with constant stories of Palestinian suicide attacks in the news, the pilgrims are long gone.
This summer, though, Shama’s shop, Cactus, attracted a handful of visitors prepared to brave the violence. A team of forensic archaeologists and biblical scholars have been poring over a network of tunnels Shama unearthed under his shop several years ago. They believe he has made a discovery so remarkable it will rewrite the history books, changing our understanding not only of the Holy Land but of the life of Jesus himself.
Shama began excavating the tunnels after he and his Belgian wife, Martina, bought the shop in 1993, and found a series of 4ft-high passages, separated by columns of small bricks supporting a white marble floor. In one corner they found a walled-off room where a residue of wood ash revealed it once served as a furnace.
The American excavators are convinced that what Shama has exposed is an almost perfectly preserved Roman bathhouse from 2,000 years ago – the time of Christ, and in the town where he was raised. In a piece of marketing that is soon likely to be echoing around the world, Shama says he has stumbled across the “bathhouse of Jesus”. The effects on Holy Land tourism are likely be profound, with Nazareth becoming a challenger to Jerusalem and Bethlehem as the world’s most popular site of Christian pilgrimage.
Professor Richard Freund, an academic behind important Holy Land digs at the ancient city of Bethsaida, near Tiberias, and Qumran in the Jordan Valley, says the significance of the find cannot be overstated. Over the summer he put aside other excavation projects to concentrate on the Nazareth site. “I am sure that what we have here is a bathhouse from the time of Jesus,” he says, “and the consequences of that for archaeology, and for our knowledge of the life of Jesus, are enormous.”
Freund’s confidence has been shored up by radar and ground-penetrating surveys his team carried out showing the floor of another, older bathhouse under the one excavated by Shama. He hopes to use carbon-dating to establish whether the upper or lower bathhouse is Roman.
After originally identifying the site as Ottoman, dating back only 150 years, Israel’s antiquities authority has now admitted that the bath’s design means it must be much older. The hypocaust (an underfloor system of heating channels) and frigidarium (cold room) are typical of Roman bath layout. “What we are looking at now is probably Roman but even if it proves to be from a later period, then the bath underneath certainly is Roman,” says Freund. “Either way, we know that under the shop lies a huge new piece of evidence in understanding the life and times of Jesus.”
Freund, of the Maurice Greenberg Centre for Judaic Studies at Hartford University in Connecticut, says the discovery means that historians will have to rethink the place and significance of Nazareth in the Roman empire and consequently the formative experiences of Jesus. It has been assumed that the Nazareth of 2,000 years ago was a poor Jewish village on the periphery of the empire, where local families inhabited caves on the hillside that today contains the modern Israeli-Arab city. On this view, the young Jesus would have had little contact with the Romans until he left Nazareth as an adult; his father, Joseph, one of many craftsmen in the town, may have worked on a Roman palace at nearby Sephoris.
But the huge scale of Shama’s bathhouse suggests that Nazareth, rather than Sephoris, was the local hub of military control from Rome. The giant bath could only have been built for a Roman city or to service a significant garrison town. That would mean Joseph and Mary, and their son Jesus, would have been living in the very heart of the occupying power. This is likely to have huge significance for New Testament scholars in their understanding of Jesus’s later teachings.
Even more significantly, the bathhouse opens up the possibility of discovering a treasure trove of artifacts from the time of Jesus in his hometown. Surprisingly, given its central place in Christian heritage, Nazareth has been little mined for archaeological evidence in recent times. Israeli officials, possibly intimidated by the thought of trying to dig under an overcrowded city of 70,000 Arabs, have mostly sealed up and forgotten its subterranean world of secret passages and tombs. Other areas, including around the Cactus shop, have never been properly excavated.
This failure makes Shama’s find all the more intriguing, since there is a dearth of archaeological material linked directly to Jesus. Generations of charlatans have exploited pilgrims by offering them “certified” pieces of the cross, but in practice archaeologists have nothing from Jesus’s life, or from Mary’s. Shama observes: “If we dig deeper there will be coins and trinkets and pottery. Who knows, maybe Mary or Jesus dropped such things while in the bathhouse.”
Freund is more circumspect, though in support of Shama’s hopes he produces a document written nearly 500 years ago by Rabbi Moshe Bassola of Ancona after he made a pilgrimage to the area. In his account the rabbi writes: “We came from Kfar Kana, arriving the next day in Nazareth, where the Christian Jesus lived. The citizens told me that there existed a hot bathhouse where the Mother of Jesus immersed herself.”
Freund is sure that plenty remains to be found under and around Shama’s shop. “We are talking about relics lying untouched, buried under the ground, for 2,000 years at the place where Jesus lived, and from the time when he was living here. It doesn’t get much more exciting than that.”
Further excavation of the site, however, is not yet assured: Shama’s discovery is mired in financial difficulties and the sectarian acrimony that has blighted the Middle East for centuries. Given the find’s significance, it is surprising to learn that Shama, a Christian Arab, is receiving no outside support, even from the state. Since he and his wife sank the last of their life savings in excavating and developing the site, the shop is close to collapse – and with it perhaps the bathhouse project.
The most powerful player in the Christian world, the Vatican, has so far refused to throw its weight behind the dig, possibly fearing that Shama’s find threatens its own dominance where tourism in the city is concerned. Its Basilica of the Annunciation, the Middle East’s largest church, is on the other side of town from Mary’s Well. There has been a long-running dispute between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches about whose church is on the true site of the Annunciation.
The Catholics claim the Basilica is built over a grotto that was Mary’s home; the Orthodox, basing their tradition on an alternative Gospel that Mary was drawing water from Nazareth’s well when she was visited by Gabriel, say their Mary’s Well church, half a kilometre away, is located over the original spring. Shama’s bathhouse, next to Mary’s Well church, poses a double threat to them: it strengthens the claim of the Orthodox church to be the true site of the Annunciation, and it will make the Mary’s Well area the main tourist attraction in Nazareth.
Shama has had no help from Israeli officials either. But in a sign of what may be a turn-around, Dror Bashad, head archaeologist at the northern division of the antiquities authority, recently visited the site. Afterwards he wrote in Shama’s visitors’ book: “Make sure to continue executing all your work with the coordination and approval of the antiquities authority since it has become clear we are talking about an ancient bathhouse from at least the Roman period.”
Despite his financial difficulties, Shama has big dreams for the bathhouse. He hopes one day to be able to fill it, or a replica, with water drawn from the spring at Mary’s Well. “It can be done,” he says. “We will make the bathhouse of Jesus live again, just like it was 2,000 years ago.”