NAZARETH, Israel (Mennonite Mission Network) — Two thousand years ago in Galilee, Nathanael demanded of Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip’s reply: “Come and see” (John 2:46).
Based on present-day media coverage of Israel/Palestine, many North Americans might echo Nathanael’s incredulity. Nazareth Village calls across political division to these doubters, reiterating Philip’s challenge to overcome negative expectations.
In April and May of 2008, 11 Mennonite tour groups took Philip’s advice and went to Nazareth Village, a Mennonite Mission Network partner organization. Compared to the three Mennonite groups per year the village has averaged since it opened in 2000, this level of Anabaptist interest is unprecedented.
Nazareth Village is a living recreation of Jesus’ hometown as it existed 2,000 years ago. When visitors enter the village, they step into a living, breathing first-century Galilean town. Actors become villagers as they work functional farms and use olive press, carpentry shop and synagogue. Guests tour the village and interact with its residents.
Why the increased Mennonite interest in this place?
Dorothy Jean Weaver, Eastern Mennonite Seminary professor of New Testament and recent Middle East trip leader, articulated the general sentiment.
“This site is one that surpasses virtually all others in its ability to interpret the story and stories of Jesus,” she said.
According to Nazareth Village director and Mission Network worker Shirley Roth, the desire among Mennonites to interact intimately with the Jesus story probably comes from the Anabaptist emphasis on keeping faith centered firmly in Christ’s teachings.
Jamie Gerber, pastor at Crosshill (Ontario) Mennonite Church helped lead a May Middle East study tour sponsored by Mennonite Church Eastern Canada and Mennonite Central Committee Canada.
Gerber connected the Mennonite attraction to Nazareth Village with Christ-centeredness when he wrote, “Mennonites, of course, take pride (in a humble way) in being followers of Jesus’ way of life, [and] Nazareth Village provides an opportunity for hands-on life experience in Jesus’ world.”
Linford Stutzman, professor of culture and mission at Eastern Mennonite University and a co-leader with Gerber and others, said, “I had known Jesus, the living word, but I had never known the living world of Jesus. Jesus had entered my world but I had never entered his.”
One member of Gerber and Stutzman’s group, Conrad Grebel University College student Cassie Mathies, better understood Jesus’ socio-political reality after experiencing his physical reality.
Mathies’ group reenacted the moment when Jesus entered the synagogue and read from Isaiah, proclaiming the fulfillment of the prophecy about his mission on Earth (Luke 4:16-19).
In the Nazareth Village synagogue, the group divided into the different social groups that would have originally heard Jesus’ message—the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots and the farmers. They placed themselves in the traditional synagogue seating arrangement based on the social hierarchy of the day and then discussed how each group would have responded to Jesus’ words.
“To follow Jesus meant upsetting their own survival and the social order they were clinging to for dear life,” said Mathies. “Sometimes, when just reading the Bible, it’s hard to imagine how radical Jesus’ ministry really was for the time.”
John Mark Stratford, part of a Bluffton (Ohio) University Middle East tour, wrote, “Much of our time travelling around Israel and Palestine we saw ruins. And more ruins. And some really intact ruins, but still, they were ruins.”
Nazareth Village, however, was not ruins, wrote Stratford. “Finally on our tour I came close to getting to experience what being alive during biblical times would have been like.”
Besides the physical differences, Bluffton trip leader and professor of religion Randy Keeler said that Nazareth Village provided a good balance to other stops on their tour. Many of the organizations they visited focus on activist, political approaches to ministry.
This work is very important, Keeler said. But he praised Nazareth Village for offering, not a hard gospel message, but “a soft voice speaking the reality of the life of Christ.”
Roth also noted the village’s unpretentious approach to ministry.
“We focus on telling the stories and parables of Jesus, not a particular church dogma or religious bent,” she said. “Everyone can connect with something at the village.”
In a creative twist, Bluffton students not only observed Nazareth Village’s ministry, but helped enact it. After a brief tour, students donned first-century garb and joined the village’s population for the day.
Joe Sutter spent the day as a shepherd.
“It was funny being on the other side of the tourism,” he said, “with people taking pictures of you.”
Teresa Hershberger wrote, “I soon found that Nazareth Village [left] a special aroma on my soul and my clothes.” Her group cleaned out the sheep and goat pen.
Hershberger said a day spent chopping through a half-foot of packed-down animal waste expanded her limited view of biblical shepherds. “I had never thought of the humility that goes along with being a shepherd,” she said.
Even after such a humbling and smelly experience, Hershberger concluded, “I could not be more thankful for this opportunity.”