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In search of Jesus' Nazareth

Baptism

Traces of biblical times scant in modern incarnation

In this story:

December 24, 1996
Web posted at: 2:50 p.m. EST (1950 GMT)

From Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers

Nazareth, Israel (CNN) -- For nearly two millenia, Nazareth has been holy to pilgrims because it's the place where Christmas and Christianity began. Much has changed in 2,000 years, but pilgrims still come in search of Jesus Christ's home town. Some are disappointed in what they find. movie icon (1.4M/2 min. and 29 sec. QuickTime movie)

El-Assal

According to the Bible, in the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth to tell a young, virgin Jewish girl named Mary she had found favor with God and would conceive and bring forth a son called Jesus.

"She must have committed her life to understanding the almighty and God made her his choice," said the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Riah Abu El-Assal.

Then, as now, if an unwed Middle Eastern girl becomes pregnant, she might be stoned to death, but Mary had the courage to "accept the challenge," El-Assal told CNN. icon (286K/26 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Carpenter

Luke tells us Mary was promised to a young carpenter named Joseph who found it difficult to learn his bride was with child. It took an angel messenger to ease his anguish.

The bishop calls Joseph "a man of goodwill who listened to the voice of God."

As a young man, Jesus took up his father's craft, and carpentry remains an honored profession in Nazareth. Today, young men still learn to work with wood as Jesus must have done.

Nazareth: then and now

Nazareth

But looking for modern evidence of the holy family can be frustrating, pilgrims report. The biblical village of 400 people is now home to 60,000, most of them Christian Arabs. And Nazareth is now almost as noted for its traffic jams as it is for Jesus.

"It's much noisier and dirtier than I thought it would be," says one recent visitor. But another pilgrim expresses a view that faith is stronger than personal comfort. "Jesus died for us," she says.

Three holy sites in Nazareth lay claim as the location for the Annunciation -- where the angel Gabriel called Mary. At one site -- with a fountain noted in Greek Orthodox tradition -- thirsty pilgrims can drink free holy water.

The belief in Christianity has also brought commerce to Nazareth. Carvings made of olive wood are plentiful, as is the sound of cash registers.

Street beggars, cell phones

Signs of old and new are easily juxtaposed in Nazareth, where blind beggars and cell phone users can both be seen on city streets.

Transaction

But perhaps the best thread of continuity to biblical times is the donkey, the lowly animal Mary rode to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

Donkeys "were and still are used by the poor people," says Dr. Geries Saed-Khouri, a biblical scholar and director of the Al-Liqa Center. They "help us reflect on the poor."

But no longer do donkeys carry the Virgin. Instead, they are used to collect garbage on streets too narrow for trucks.

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