The written sources
According to the tradition of Epiphanius ("Panarion" XXX.II.10) it was the Count Joseph of Tiberias, a Jew converted at the time of Constantine, who asked to be able to build the first Christian church in the village of Nazareth, by the first half of the 4th century. There is no concrete evidence on the Count's success in his attempt to build the church, but the hypothesis is thought to be probable. Towards 383, the pilgrim Egeria saw a "grand and splendid grotto" where the Virgin Mary was said to have lived, with an altar inside and a garden where the Lord stayed after his return from Egypt.
In the testimonial accounts of the early centuries there is the tendency of people not to speak of places of worship that do not belong to their own tradition. An example are Saint Jerome and Epiphanius In the specific case of Nazareth, there is the theory that there had always been a place of prayer in the house of Mary, but this had not been found by the authors of noble stock, as it was conserved by the Jewish-Christian community. In fact Jerome, writing of his pilgrimage in the company of Paul and Eustoch, does not speak of churches in Nazareth, but only mentions the village. It is thus deduced that Nazareth was one of the places visited by pilgrims from the very early centuries.
A direct mention of the church was only to come in 570, with the visit of the Anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza ("Itinerarium", V). He observed the village, but also the "House of Mary" converted into a church, as well as the synagogue officiated by the Jews.
Following the Arab conquest of 638 there came the description of the pilgrim Arculfus, who told the Abbot Adamnan of having seen two large churches in Nazareth: “one, where our Saviour was suckled”, the other “which is known to have been built over the house where Gabriel the Archangel spoke to Mary”.
Of these two churches only that of the Annunciation remained, as can be assumed from the testimony of Willibald in 724-26, which only speaks of the Annunciation, now at the mercy of the Muslims.
The last pre-crusade testimony is by the Arab historian al Mas’udi, in 943: he writes of having visited Nazareth and found “a church held in great veneration by Christians and where there are stone sarcophagus with bones of the dead, from which seeps a syrup-like ointment, used by the Christians to anoint themselves in prayer”. These were probably sepulchres placed in the church and highly venerated by believers.