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Nazarenes live and act as Jesus did

By Michael McKinley and David Gibson
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NAZARETH VILLAGE, Israel (CNN) -- Two thousand years after Jesus walked the hills of the Galilee, a group of American and Israeli scholars have created Nazareth Village, the kind of first-century Hebrew town where Jesus grew up, in the very city where he was raised.

That makes Nazareth Village a treasure not only to archaeologists and Christian pilgrims, but also to filmmakers.

Because in spite of the religious significance and nostalgia surrounding the biblical town of Nazareth, today's sprawling, modern-day version of the city would have been unrecognizable to Jesus.

Then, a decade ago Dr. Stephen Pfann, president of the University of the Holy Land, spotted remnants of an ancient wine press while visiting nearby Nazareth Hospital.

Encouraged by the hospital administration, Pfann worked with fellow biblical scholars, including his wife, Claire -- one of the on-camera experts in the CNN Presents documentary "After Jesus" -- to painstakingly rebuild this modern-day archaeological marvel on a 20-acre patch of hillside in the midst of a bustling city of 70,000 people -- Muslim, Jewish and Christian.

Nazareth Village is no dry museum piece or shallow tourist trap, but a working village that recreates a Jewish community at the time of the first century.

Today, Nazarene men, women and children from the surrounding neighborhood dress in authentic first-century costumes to plow fields, bake bread and press olives.

They also are rebuilding the village using the ancient materials and methods that Jesus and his family would have used. There are houses, a carpenter's shop, a synagogue and a stable.

Nazareth Village is not only a popular destination for schools and tourists, but it is also a key location for television and film productions that deal with Jesus and his time.

Recently, re-enactors from Nazareth Village were taken to a southern Italian town to appear in the recent Christmas film, "The Nativity," which tells in historical detail the story of the birth of Jesus.

Much of that historical precision was provided by the folks from Nazareth Village.

Indeed, the town works with producers to give us what we need by way of events and characters to tell our Jesus stories.

When we were filming segments for "After Jesus," the re-enactors helped us cast our scenes.

One tour guide had played the Apostle Peter before, and slid into his role with genial ease; another played the mercurial Apostle Paul, and worked with us to reveal the character of this complex man, who is often seen as second only to Jesus in the foundation of Christianity.

And then there were the children, full of energy and fun, but mindful of their elders and their role in this accomplishment.

It is one that is all the more extraordinary given the troubles brought upon Nazareth by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nazareth is in the heart of the Galilee, the northern province of Israel, just as in biblical times.

And today, just as then, it is often caught up in the violence that afflicts the area.

Most recently, rockets from Hezbollah militias, situated just a few miles to the north across the border in Lebanon, struck the city during the conflict with Israel.

While Nazareth Village wasn't directly hit, the conflict recalled the daily violence of the Roman occupation during the time of Jesus and his contemporaries.

For today's Nazarenes, any outbreak of violence generally leads to a drastic drop-off in tourism, mainly by Christian pilgrims from North America.

The industry provides an economic lifeline for the poor city and especially for Nazareth Village, which scrapes by largely on donations.

More than ever, the message of peace at the heart of Christianity is something embraced by both the "citizens" of the village and those who do visit.

The village is keen to show how the rhythm of rural life in this rocky, hilly country would have influenced Jesus, a carpenter now called the Prince of Peace.

And while our show deals with how the teachings of this humble Galilean became a global religion after he died, Nazareth Village is a powerful reminder of how he lived.


The children of Nazareth Village are playful and energetic but mindful of the violence nearby.



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