Women in Nazareth

Nazareth Women in Bible times

Questions/activities for Bible study groups

  1. Look at the ‘to do’ list for women in ancient Israel. Check off all the items a modern woman would do.
  2. Read the extract from the Book of Proverbs (below). If you are a wife and mother, check the items off against your own life.
  3. Interview your own mother, or an older female relative (questions further down this page). Try to discover details of her life, to understand her better.
  4. Read the heart-breaking ‘Prayer for a New Mother’ by Dorothy Parker (below), and spend some quiet time thinking about it.

An ancient ‘to-do’ list for women

The modern view of women in the ancient Near East is that they were down-trodden, subservient to their husbands and burdened by many children. This could not be further from the truth. The home was important in Jewish religion. In our society, people associate prayer with a church. In the Jewish religion, both the home and the synagogue were places of prayer. A rabbi or scholar was in charge of prayer in the synagogue, but in the home, each individual woman in charge of a household was responsible for the prayer-services held in that home.

Women regarded the house as their kingdom. They ruled it. Men came and went from the house, but it was essentially the domain of the women. It is true that they worked hard – but then so did the men. Moreover, judging by the list of tasks performed by the ‘Woman of Worth’ described in Proverbs 31:10-31, they had aspirations we would regard as ‘non-traditional’.

This is what they aimed for in their lives – their ‘to-do’ list:

  • find a well-educated and well-to-do man as a husband – someone who could give them a comfortable life, and their children a good start in life
  • spin and weave cloth, to make the family’s clothing and (in earlier times) the tents they lived in
  • make and sell finished items of clothing; this meant skill in weaving and embroidery
  • design and make suitable clothing for all members of the household
  • dress well and attractively, so that she was confident and her family was proud of her
  • keeping physically and mentally strong and fit; no lolling on silken cushions for the Woman of Worth
  • give religious instruction to the children: a mother was their first teacher, and the great influence on her children’s lives
  • gather food and assemble a varied and healthy diet for the members of the household; the Jewish dietary laws supported this
  • administer the finances of the family and oversee the family business, with all the necessary skills this involved
  • buy investment property wisely
  • supervise investments and make a profit from them, then re-invest the profits
  • perform charitable work and care for the poor; this was seen as one of the main duties of a Jewish woman
  • oversee the emotional and physical well-being of members of the household; she was the ‘go-to’ person in the household
  • be available at all times to anyone who needed her.

The list hardly mentions children – but not because children were unimportant. They were the center of a woman’s life, her crowning achievement and a great blessing given by God. Not having children was counted as a very great misfortune. The household that a woman governed was centered on the maintenance of a healthy and happy extended family.

The status of mothers and motherhood has been so down-graded in the modern world that it is hard to appreciate the honor given to biblical women who gave birth to children and raised a family. But such was the case in the ancient world, at least in the part of the world where Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth.
Women’s greatest achievement was to give birth, preferably to a boy. Their second achievement was to raise a child

  • who believed and trusted in God
  • who respected tradition, and
  • who lived a good life.

Bible Study Resources

Read the following extract from the Book of Proverbs. If you are a wife and mother, check the items off against your own life. You’ll probably find you measure up quite well!

10 When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls.
11 Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.
12 She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life.
13 She obtains wool and flax and makes cloth with skillful hands.
14 Like merchant ships, she secures her provisions from afar.
15 She rises while it is still night, and distributes food to her household.
16 She chooses a field to buy; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She is girt about with strength, and sturdy are her arms.
18 She enjoys the success of her dealings; at night her lamp is undimmed.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.
20 She reaches her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy. Oil lamp
21 She fears not the snow for her family; all her charges are doubly clothed.
22 She makes her own coverlets; fine linen and purple are her clothing.
23 Her husband is prominent; he sits with the elders of the land.
24 She makes and sells garments, and stocks the merchants with belts.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come.
26 She opens her mouth in wisdom, and on her tongue is kindly counsel.
27 She watches the conduct of her family, and eats not her food in idleness.
28 Her children rise up and praise her; her husband, too, extols her:
29 “Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; she who fears the Lord is praised.
31 Give her a reward of her labors, and praise her at the city gates.
Book of Proverbs 30:10-31

Bible Study Activities

A Woman’s Life

Interview your own mother, or an older female relative. Try to discover details of her life, to understand her better. Ask some of the following questions, or compose your own:

  1. What are the three major events in your life that you remember best?
  2. Can you describe one of these events?.
  3. What have you done that you are most proud of?
  4. What did you find most difficult in your life?.
  5. Did you learn about Mary and Joseph of Nazareth when you were at school?
  6. If so, how were they portrayed?
  7. What part did Mary or Joseph play in religious rituals you were involved in?
  8. Did you try to imitate any of their qualities in your own life?

You could, if you wish, answer some of these questions yourself, and jot down your ideas and memories.

Mary’s life in Nazareth

Read the heart-breaking ‘Prayer for a New Mother’ by Dorothy Parker, and spend some quiet time thinking about it.

Prayer for a New Mother
The things she knew, let her forget again —
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.
Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing,
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.
Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.
Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.

Daily Life in Nazareth

Try to imagine the daily life of Mary or Joseph, living in the little village of Nazareth.

  • What are the smells? The colors? The sounds? The smells?
  • What is the landscape? What time of day is it?
  • What is the mood of the people whose eyes meet yours?
  • Are the people old or young? Dark or fair? Good-looking or ugly? Tired or energetic?
  • What are they wearing (clothing, footwear, jewelry)?
Peasant women like Mary often had elaborately embroidered clothing for special occasions

Peasant women like Mary often had elaborately embroidered clothing for special occasions

Find Out More

Nazareth in the gospels

Maps Nazareth & Jerusalem

About Nazareth

What was ancient Nazareth like?

Questions for Bible study groups

  • What is the strange way you can tell the size of ancient Nazareth?
  • Roughly how many people lived there?
  • What was the large town nearby? How might it have affected Nazareth?

Why is Nazareth famous?

Nazareth is famous for one thing, and one thing only: it is the home town of Jesus.
It was here that Jesus spent his boyhood, living with his mother and father, and here that he faced the sceptical townsfolk of Nazareth.

The village seems to have been held in some contempt in 1st century Palestine. It was a nondescript dot on the map with not much to offer, overshadowed by nearby Sepphoris, the luxurious Greek-style capital of Herod Antipas. It is beguiling to think that Joseph and Jesus, as builders, may have traipsed over to Sepphoris to work on the new buildings.

Bible study resource: ancient Nazareth

  • Nazareth lay in the hills twelve miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee: fertile land.
  • Excavations show just how small it actually was – but every bit of space was used effectively. It was built on porous rock, so as well as the buildings above the surface there were underground cisterns for water, vats for oil, and silos for grain. There was a single, ancient spring for water.
  • It was a conservative town, clinging to traditional Jewish culture in a world that had been radically affected by Greek thought and culture.
  • It had a population of about 400, so everyone knew everyone else. The people were physically robust, strong-minded, practical, respectful of traditional and loyal to family.
  • They spoke Aramaic, a language with a strong poetic tradition. Being able to talk well was a valued skill.
  • Young Jewish men were expected to be literate. The Jewish queen Salome Alexandra had made reading and writing compulsory for all Jewish boys – for study of the Torah.


Ancient Nazareth – its size

Nazareth was small. We know this because of the discovery of underground tombs. These were chiseled into the soft limestone bedrock, and their position shows the limits of the village’s perimeter to the west, east, and south, since burial was always done outside inhabited areas. It would have been 2,000 feet at its greatest east-west length and around 650 feet at its greatest north-south width, though the actual area inhabited in the first century was much less, perhaps only around ten acres. Steep ravines and ancient terraces on the northern slope confined the oval-shaped settlement.

The people of Nazareth were essentially farmers, so they needed space between the houses for livestock and their enclosures, as well as land for plants and orchards.
Nazareth would have had a population of around two to four hundred in antiquity, that is to say, several extended families or clans.

The village of Nazareth in the 19th century

The village of Nazareth in the 19th century

The tombs surrounding Nazareth were also very modest. Each of them was typically Jewish. The body was first buried in a body-length shaft cut at right angles into the walls of the tomb chamber, sealed with a large stone rolled into place. When the flesh had decayed, the remaining bones were gathered together and usually placed in an ossuary or bone box.

Ritual bathing pools or mikveh were also found at Nazareth. Used for ritual-purity immersion, they were found at virtually every Jewish site in Galilee, the Golan, and Judea.

The little village of Nazareth, off the main road, over the hill but still within walking distance of the city of Sepphoris, was Jesus’ home. The peasant families who lived there eked out a living, paid their taxes, and tried to live in peace. They were observant Jews, so they circumcised their sons, celebrated Passover, did not work on the Sabbath, travelled as pilgrims to Jerusalem, and valued the traditions of Moses and the prophets.

The Nazareth fountain, a link to Jesus, 1894 photograph

The Nazareth fountain, a link to Jesus, 1894 photograph

The only feature in the present-day town of Nazareth that can be linked directly to Jesus is the well. The actual structure is probably later, but we can stand in front of it and know that in that spot Mary once hauled water each day for her family’s needs.

This event was depicted in James Tissot’s ‘Jesus and His Mother at the Fountain’ (above) — though it is historically unlikely that a grown boy would have taken part in what was seen in 1st century Palestine as women’s work.

Find Out More

Nazareth in the gospels

Maps Nazareth & Jerusalem

Maps for Jesus’s life

Bible maps: life of Jesus

Jerusalem buildings

Provinces of Palestine

Jesus' return to Galilee

The ministry of Jesus

The sea of Galilee

Visits to Jerusalem

The road to Calvary