The Holy Family

Reading Time: 9 minutes

The Following is a Short Story by Dominic Dybala, University of Dallas

C. 7 AD, Nazareth, Galilee, Roman Judea.[1]

Joseph opened his eyes to a sky above him still dark, the eastern horizon just graying. The carpenter sat up on his bed roll on his house’s roof and placed a hand on his twelve year-old son’s shoulder to wake him. They had a long walk to work.

“Good morning, Jesus.”

Little Jesus’s eyes shot open and met those of his father’s. Joseph smiled, and Jesus smiled back. The little boy outstretched his hands and yawned. “Good morning, Dad.” Joseph knelt facing east and his son followed suit, following along with the Modeh Ani prayer, in Hebrew. “I give thanks before You, Living and Eternal King, that You have returned within me my soul with compassion; how abundant is Your faithfulness! Blessed is He Who opens the eyes of the blind.”[2]

The roof of their house was slightly tilted, allowing the occasional precious rainwater to drain off and be collected in a bucket. Since the roof was often used as a living space, it had wooden guard railings for safety, some of the little wood, along with the roof beams, in the house of limestone.

“One more day at Sepphoris before we leave for Jerusalem for Passover,” Joseph said, rustling his son’s black, curly hair. “Let’s make it a good one.”

Joseph went to the edge of the house and climbed down the ladder, and Jesus looked around before following him. On one side of the house was the mountainside into which it was built. The other side stretched down and away gloriously, the rest of Nazareth, a humble town of about five hundred residents, spreading to the left, right, and below. Small paths winded between small white-stuccoed stone buildings, reflecting the dim light of the pre-dawn haze.

The family’s home consisted of a one-room house, a workshop, and a small courtyard connecting the two, partially covered with an awning of woven goats’ hair for shade from the Mediterranean sun. Jesus entered the outhouse latrine in the courtyard just as his father left it. He relieved himself, then carried the bucket out through the workshop some distance away from any other building and dumped it, as was his twice-daily chore. When he returned, he stopped at the animal stall before going inside. His family’s donkey and milk-goat, haltered to a post, awoke at his approach. He picked up an armload of hay from under the awning, and set it before the animals for breakfast. As they ate, he milked the goat. When he was finished, he scratched the head of the goat, and rubbed the head and kissed the nose of the donkey before going inside.

The house was lit by a small fire in the middle of the floor, around which his mother sat, cooking flatbread.[3] The only furniture in the house was a low table: they slept on bed rolls on the floor, or on the roof in good weather. One wall of the house was the limestone hill itself, providing a certain natural coolness. This mountainside wall had a few shelves cut in it for storage, such as for clothes and food stuffs. Each side wall, of stone and mortar, had one window, small and high to prevent entry. These were covered in the summer with wood lattice to keep the house cool, and woolen sheets to keep it warm in the winter.[4] The family owned a few oil lamps, which they used for additional lighting.

Mary looked from her cooking up at her son with love. “Good morning, Jesus.”

“Good morning, Mom!” The boy gave his mother a kiss on her cheek, then went to a shelf in the wall. As Jesus put on his knee-length woolen tunic over his head over his undershirt, he recited a prayer Joseph had taught him: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His Commandments, and commanded us to clothe ourselves with tzitzit.” The referenced four blue tzitzit tassels hung down from his tunic and swung as he moved.[5] He then fastened the tunic with a rope belt and turned and joined his parents on the floor around a small, low table next to the fire.

Jesus and Joseph each held out their hands over a bowl as Mary poured water from the pitcher over them. She had gotten the water from the neighborhood well, as she did twice a day. They rubbed their hands as Joseph prayed aloud: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning the washing of hands.” When they had dried their hands on a cloth, they closed their eyes as Joseph recited the prayer before meals. “Blessed are You, Lord God of all creation, by Whose goodness we have the food before us. Fruit of the earth and work of human hands, may it nourish and strengthen our bodies to Your service.”

“Amen,” the three said together. 

Jesus closed his eyes in pleasure as he took a bite of the fresh, warm barley and rye bread, which they ate this morning with cheese from their goat’s milk, and lentil pottage.

“How’s the work going at Sepphoris?” Mary asked.

“Not bad,” Joseph answered, dipping a piece of bread into the lentils. “Despite how lazy the Romans want to think we are, we Jews know how to get things done. I’m going to have Jesus work on making tiles for the floor mosaics today.”

Jesus looked up with big eyes. “Will the stones be in different colors?”


“And will there be a lot of them?”

“Thousands. Some of these buildings have big floors.”

Jesus smiled. “Good.”

“What, you don’t like cutting and moving big stones with your father?”

“Oh no, I like that too!” Jesus said hurriedly.

Joseph and Mary shared a smile.

When they had finished eating, the three stood facing east, and closed their eyes. Joseph led them in prayer, the Shema, in Hebrew. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One; Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom forever. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Amen.”[6]

The family tied on their wooden and leather sandals, and kissed the Mezuzah on their door post. Thus they began the five mile journey, about two hours, through hill country north-west to the city of Sepphoris.

When Herod the Great died of a painful illness, around 2 BC, one Judas ben Hezekia led Sepphoris in a revolt. The Romans under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus[7] put down the revolt and destroyed much of the city, crucifing hundreds of the rebels, and selling into slavery hundreds more. When Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, was appointed Tetrarch of Galilee by the Romans shortly thereafter, he ordered the city rebuilt and renamed it “Autocratoris,” intending to make it the “ornament of Galilee,” and his capital.[8] Jesus and Joseph, along with much of the labor force of the region, often worked on this construction project.[9]

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus walked along the rocky paths with a small group of other workers from Nazareth, men and their young sons, mostly stone masons, given the natural resources of the town and region. In time, the sun rose over the hills of the east, filling the sky with oranges. Jesus admired it as he walked, praising God for its beauty.

The city of Sepphoris was “perched like a bird” on a hill, thus its original Hebrew name, “Zippori,” bird. It was also located on the vital “Via Maris” highway, running from Egypt up north through Anatolia, making it a natural trading hub. The city teemed with Jews building up the capital of the vassal king of the Empire. The “Iron-Clad” Sixth Legion, Ferrata, was stationed nearby, and a century at a time would supervise the construction, along with Antipas’ own soldiers. The city had, either complete or in progress, public bathhouses, a theater, a Roman temple, a forum, a palace for King Herod, a synagogue, and walls around the city. The family and the work crew entered through the east gate onto the mainstreet Decumanus; the other mainstreet Cardo ran perpendicular through the center, north-south.

“Have a good day of work, Joseph,” Mary said. “I love you.”

Joseph kissed his wife on the cheek. “I love you too.”

Mary leaned down as Jesus gave her a bear hug. “I love you, little man.”

“I love you too, woman!” Jesus kissed his mother on the cheek. “Tell grandma and grandpa I say hello!”

Joseph and Jesus walked off in one direction with their construction crew, and Mary walked off in the other toward the house of her parents, Joachim and Anna, to spend the day with them.[10] She carried a loaf of fig bread for her mother, for their habit of exchanging bread every time they visited.

They set about work at once. Joseph and Jesus were directed by a taskmaster to the almost-completed synagogue, where another taskmaster gave them their assignments. Joseph would work on cutting stone slabs, while Jesus would spend the day on the floor of the synagogue, cutting thousands of tesserae stones for its floor.

The part of the floor Jesus worked on was Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac.[11] Under the supervision and direction of the master artisan, the boy knelt and took tesserae of different colors from different piles, and arranged them in the cement, gradually bringing the famous story to life, hour by hour. In the image, Isaac lay bound on a pyre of wood, already starting to catch fire, his father Abraham standing above him, a knife raised to strike. An angel hovered in the air above Abraham, on hand reaching down to grab his hand with the knife. Off to one side, a ram stood with its horns stuck in a thistle bush: the sacrifice provided by the Lord.

“‘God Himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice.’” Jesus shivered. “The Lamb of God.” Then he smiled faintly. “It’s a sacrifice for both the Father and the Son. That’s what love is.”

At last, the sun reached its height, and the workers paused for the noon meal. Jesus followed Joseph to a place where a vendor was selling fish, caught that night from the Mediterranean, which was closer to the west than the Sea of Galilee was to the east.

“Four mina?” Joseph repeated. “The price was two for two yesterday.”

“I know,” the vendor said. “Then I realised my price was outdated. First I’ve got to pay the fishermen. Then I’ve got to pay the Romans for the privilege of using their roads and protecting me from barbarians.” Here he winked ironically. “Finally, there’s Herod’s new tax to pay for the construction of the very city which you are building. I assure you, there’s very humble net profits left over for me.”

Joseph nodded and sighed. “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all within me, bless His Holy Name.”[12] He handed the vendor the coins, and Jesus selected two roast fish. They sat to eat them with the bread and figs Mary had packed for them, among a circle of other Hebrew laborers.

“Want some garum sauce?” one of their coworkers said, holding up a jar.

“It’s Roman,” said Joseph; “no thank you.”

The other worker laughed. “It’s fish, mate, not pork, it’s kosher!”

Joseph shrugged. “It’s Roman.”

“Brother, look around you. There’s a public bathhouse down that road, a theater down that one, and a temple to Jupiter over there. We’re in Rome!”

Joseph frowned. “Don’t say that.”

Jesus leaned over to the pitcher of garam and wrinkled his nose. “It smells funny, no thank you.”

The other worker laughed good naturedly and rustled Jesus’ hair. “I like your son, Joseph. And he’s a good worker too. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.”

After having eaten, the Hebrew workforce settled down for their usual early afternoon nap.[13] About a half hour later, they were back at work.

As the sun approached the horizon, the workforce was given their wages and released for the day. Joseph and Jesus went with their fellow Nazarians to the east gate, where they found Mary waiting for them. The family and caravan reached Nazareth just as the western sky glowed warm. Mary prepared dinner, which they ate with a little wine, Joseph led them in prayer, and they sat down to eat.

“What kind of bread did grandma trade you?”

“Olive,” Mary said, showing him the loaf wrapped in cloth. She ripped off pieces for herself, her husband, and son. Jesus smiled with delight as he took his.

“Are you excited to head out with us to Jerusalem for Passover tomorrow?” Joseph asked.

“Mhm!” The boy finished chewing and swallowing a bite of bread before answering. “I can’t wait to see John again.[14] I love playing and talking with him. And I’m most looking forward to talking to the priests about Scripture.”

Joseph shared an amused glance with Mary. “Jesus, the priests will help us offer the sacrifice, but they’re going to be busy doing that for thousands of people. They won’t have time to discuss scripture with us.”

Jesus shrugged his shoulders innocently. “They might.”

It was a little cooler tonight, so the family slept inside. Joseph again led them in nightly prayer: “Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the universe, who closes my eyes in sleep, my eyelids in slumber May it be Your will, Adonai, My God and the God of my ancestors, to lie me down in peace and then to raise me up in peace. Let no disturbing thoughts upset me, no evil dreams nor troubling fantasies. May my bed be complete and whole in Your sight. Grant me light so that I do not sleep the sleep of death, for it is You who illumines and enlightens. Praised are You, Adonai, whose majesty gives light to the universe.”[15]

“Goodnight, mom, goodnight dad,” Jesus said. “I love you.”

[1] To the best of my knowledge, Jesus appears to have been born around 5 BC.


[3] Proverbs, 31:15. “She rises while it is yet night, and gives food to her household.”


[5] Numbers, 15:37, Deuteronomy, 22:12.

[6] Deuteronomy, 6:4-9

[7] The same Varus who would later lose three legions in a German ambush in the Teutoburg Forest.

[8] Josephus, 18:27


[10] Zippori, later Sepphoris, is traditionally held to be the hometown of Joachim and Anna. I considered writing a scene in which Joseph and Jesus visit them for lunch, their grandparents and parents-in-law respectively, and would have loved to do so, but decided not to in the interest of length.


[12] Psalm 103.

[13] The word “Siesta” comes from Latin Sexta, meaning six, referring to the sixth hour of the day. The heat of midday and eating lunch naturally contribute to drowsiness. I believe there is a good chance that mad-day post lunch naps would have been practiced in this region and time.

[14] John the Baptist and his parents, Zecheriah and Elizabeth, most likely lived in a town right outside Jerusalem, called Ein Karem, or perhaps Hebron further to the south. They would likely have gone to Jerusalem for Passover as well, so Jesus and John could look forward to spending time together.