In 1971, 21 years old, I had just finished six weeks working on a kibbutz in Israel and was doing some sightseeing with an orthodox Jewish friend from Canada before returning to the U .S. When we made a three-hour stop in Nazareth, I really expected to find something related to the most well-known resident of the city and was hoping that the experience would somehow create some interest and appreciation for Jesus for my friend. I was disappointed. The only major Christian site to visit in Nazareth, the Church of the Annunciation, was focused on Mary, Jesus’ mother.
During the 30 years since then, this story has been repeated daily by thousands of other drive-by pilgrims and tourists. Half of the 2.5 million visitors who come each year to Israel stop in Nazareth for an average of two hours and leave somewhat disappointed.
Like many others since then, my visit to Nazareth gave me little more than a new appreciation for Nathaniel’s cynical question 2,000 years earlier: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “Come and see,” Philip had answered.
Thirty years later I did. On a hot afternoon in July, 2000 I returned to Nazareth. I was preparing to lead, with my wife Janet, an EMU cross-cultural to the Middle East in Spring 2001 and was looking for learning ideas. Michael Hostetler ’75, Mennonite Mission Network appointed director of the Nazareth Village, had urged me to bring the group of EMU students to spend some time at the Nazareth Village, a first-century recreated village about which I had heard. “Come and see,” Michael suggested.
I was more than a little skeptical, imagining a kind of McNazareth, a Jesus-according-to-Disney, with cute little goats and smiling guides in bathrobes, the sleeves not quite covering their digital wrist watches.
Mike met me at the entrance of Nazareth Village, located about 500 yards from the center of Nazareth where Jesus grew up. As soon as we entered the property I knew that I would bring EMU students to spend some time at Nazareth Village, for with its meticulously researched and constructed stone houses, its synagogue, terraced fields, sheepfold, olive press, vineyards, sheep, goats, donkeys, winepress, flowers, thorns, wheat, tares, stony ground, and people working with first century tools, it struck me as a unique and incredible resource for understanding the world of Jesus and his life and teaching within it.
One can smell, feel, touch, hear, see and even taste the New Testament. I had known Jesus, the living word, but had never known the living world of Jesus. I had, like John, beheld his glory, but I had never quite grasped his poverty by visiting the dark stone house with dirt floors in which Jesus grew up. Jesus had entered my world, but I had never entered his, until then.
The development of Nazareth Village is a story of vision, faith, courage and perseverance in a region of the world filled with religious conflict and misunderstanding, immense suffering, hatred, violence, fear and pain. It is the kind of world that Jesus, and his first followers, lived in. It is the world in which Mike and Ginny Hostetler work to make life and teachings of Jesus accessible to Muslim, Jewish, and Christian visitors.
Modern Nazareth is a town of about 70,000. Muslims are 70 percent of the population and 30 percent are Christian. On a hill overlooking Nazareth is a new town of 45,000 Jewish inhabitants, Nazareth Illit. The mixture of Christians, Muslims and Jews creates an environment of tension. In this sometimes tense context, the highly dedicated Christian, Muslim, and Jewish staff of Nazareth Village work together. In recent years the majority of the visitors to Nazareth Village are Muslim and Jewish groups. An article in the Jerusalem Post written by Israeli writer, Allan Rabinowitz, described a Jewish group leaving the Village “excited and impressed.”
Not only does the Village introduce people to Jesus who taught and lived forgiveness, it demonstrates the reality of Jesus’ message. It is a model, not only of the good news in the past, but also of the good news of the present and future.
Mike first became acquainted with the vision of Nazareth Village when he met Dr. Nakhle Bishara, an Arab native of Nazareth and an Orthodox Christian who serves as medical director of Nazareth Hospital. Mike, a videographer from Scottdale, Pa., was in Nazareth producing a video “Brother, Brother” and heard Dr. Bishara share his vision of creating a village that would give local and international visitors to Nazareth, the chance to “meet Jesus in the same way that visitors did 2,000 years ago [having] the same impact that changed the whole world.”
Mike returned to the United States having caught Bishara’s vision. Later, he came back as Mennonite Mission Network appointee to direct the development of the Nazareth Village on the 12-acre site. Since then, Mike has given creative and energetic direction to the building of the Village and the expansion of the program. Mike’s enthusiasm is boundless, the ideas endless, and listening to Mike, they are all feasible.
Recently, Ginny ’77 has been carefully researching first century food and has developed an authentic menu straight out of the first century that will be served by arrangement to groups of visitors at the Nazareth Village. Visitors will be invited to dinner at the home of a first century citizen of Nazareth who has just returned from a trip to the Sea of Galilee where he had met Jesus. It is a delightful way of sharing the story of Jesus.
But, as Luke’s story of Jesus in Nazareth indicates, presenting the good news of the gospel in Nazareth has never been without struggle. Mike and Ginny, like Jesus and his early followers have often been misunderstood, especially by North Americans who have visited Disneyland but not Nazareth Village. They struggle with finances, trying to keep Nazareth Village going when tourism has fallen to alarming levels due to the Intifada. The tension and anxiety of the violence around them takes its toll.
Yet, they remain. Through the creative and tireless efforts of Mike and Ginny, and the dedicated and talented staff In Nazareth Village, the life and teachings of Jesus have become real, relevant, attractive, and credible in Nazareth once again, in a land where Christianity is associated with the Crusades and the Holocaust, Desert Storm and the invasion of Iraq.
If only Christians everywhere could introduce the real Jesus in the same way.
Published in Crossroads, Spring 2003