In this season so closely, though erroneously, linked to the birth of Jesus, it would do us well to pause and reflect on a few facts that obscure the claims that he was the Messiah long awaited by the Jewish faith. There is no fact more troubling to me than the designation of Jesus as having been from a town in Galilee called Nazareth.
The author of the gospel account known as Luke tells us that Gabriel was sent from God to a city named Nazareth where he informed Mary that she would give birth to a son. Luke also tells us that Joseph went to Bethlehem from a city named Nazareth. Finally, the author of Luke tells us that the holy family returned to Nazareth where Jesus then grew up.
However when we look for historical confirmation of this hometown of a god, no other source confirms that the place even existed in the 1st century AD. Nazareth is not mentioned even once in the entire Old Testament. The Book of Joshua in what it claims is the process of settlement by the tribe of Zebulon in the area records twelve towns and six villages and yet omits any ‘Nazareth’ from its list.
The Talmud, although it names 63 Galilean towns, knows nothing of Nazareth, nor does early rabbinic literature. St Paul knows nothing of ‘Nazareth’. Rabbi Solly’s epistles mention Jesus 221 times, Nazareth not at all. No ancient historian or geographer mention Nazareth. Even Josephus, the first century Jewish historian who mentioned even the most obscure settlements in his writings has not one word about Nazareth. It is first noted at the beginning of the 4th century.
Christian apologists fall all over themselves to explain ‘But of course, no one had heard of Nazareth, we’re talking of a REALLY small place.’ By semantic downsizing, city becomes TOWN, town becomes VILLAGE, and village becomes ‘OBSCURE HAMLET’. Yet if we are speaking of such an obscure hamlet, the ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ story begins to fall apart.
For example, the whole ‘rejection in his homeland’ story requires at a minimum a synagogue in which the godman can ‘blaspheme.’ There wouldn’t have been a synagogue in a village, much less a tiny bucolic hamlet.
If Jesus had grown up and spent thirty years of his life in a village with as few as 25 families, an inbred clan of less than 300 people, the ‘multitude’ that were supposedly shocked by his blasphemy and which had nearly thrown him from a cliff, would not have been hostile strangers but, to a man, would have been relations and friends that he had grown up with, including his own brothers. Presumably, they would have heard his pious utterances for years.
Indeed, had no one mentioned what had happened in Bethlehem; star, wise men, shepherds, infant-massacre and all? Why would they have been outraged by anything the godman said or did? Had they forgotten a god was growing up in their midst? And what had happened to that gift of gold? Had it not made the ‘holy family’ rich?
The expression ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is actually a bad translation of the original Greek ‘Jesous o Nazoraios’. More accurately, we should speak of ‘Jesus the Nazarene’, where Nazarene has a meaning quite unrelated to a place name. But just what is that meaning and how did it get applied to a small village? The highly ambiguous Hebrew root of the name is NZR.
The 2nd century gnostic Gospel of Philip offers this explanation: ‘The apostles that came before us called him Jesus Nazarene the Christ…”Nazara” is the “Truth”. Therefore ‘Nazarene’ is “The One of the Truth”…’
What we do know is that ‘Nazarene’ was originally the name of an early Jewish-Christian sect, a faction, or off-shoot, of the Essenes. They had no particular relation to a city of Nazareth. The root of their name may have been ‘Truth’ or it may have been the Hebrew noun ‘netser’ (‘netzor’), meaning ‘branch’ or ‘flower.’ The plural of ‘Netzor’ becomes ‘Netzoreem.’ There is no mention of the Nazarenes in any of Paul’s writings.
It was the later Gospel of Matthew which started the deceit that the title ‘Jesus the Nazorene’ should in some manner relate to Nazareth, by quoting ‘prophecy': ‘And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.’
With this, Matthew closes his fable of Jesus’s early years. Yet Matthew is mis-quoting . He would surely know that nowhere in Jewish prophetic literature is there any reference to a Nazarene. What is ‘foretold’ (or at least mentioned several times) in Old Testament scripture is the appearance of a Nazarite. For example: ‘For, lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb: and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.’ (Judges 13.5)
Matthew slyly substitutes one word for another. By replacing Nazarite (‘he who vows to grow long hair and serve god’) with a term which appears to imply ‘resident of’ he is able to fabricate a hometown link for his fictitious hero.
It seems that, along with the Nozerim, a related Jewish/Christian faction, the Evyonim , ‘the Poor’ (later to be called Ebionites), emerged about the same time. According to Epiphanius (Bishop of Salamis , Cyprus, c. 370 A.D.), they arose from within the Nazarenes. They differed doctrinally from the original group in rejecting Paul and were ‘Jews who pay honour to Christ as a just man…’ They, too, It seems had their own prototype version of Matthew, ‘The Gospel to the Hebrews’ . A name they chose for themselves was ‘Keepers of the Covenant’. In Hebrew, ‘Nozrei haBrit’, whence Nosrim or Nazarene!
In other words, when it came to the crunch, the original Nazarenes split into two: those who tried to re-position themselves within the general tenets of Judaism (Evyonim-Nosrim); and those who rejected Judaism (‘Christian’-Nosrim)
Now, we know that a group of ‘priestly’ families resettled an area in the Nazareth valley after their defeat in the Bar Kochbar War of 135 AD. It seems highly probable that they were Evyonim-Nosrim and named their village ‘Nazareth’ or the village of ‘The Poor’ either because of self-pity or because doctrinally they made a virtue out of their poverty.
The writer of Matthew may have heard of ‘priestly’ families moving to a place in Galilee which they had called ‘Nazareth’ , and decided to use the name of the new town for the hometown of his hero.
The original gospel writers refrained from inventing a childhood, youth or early manhood for JC because it was not necessary to their central drama of a dying/reborn sun-god. But as we know, the story grew with the telling, particularly as the decades passed and the promised redeemer and judge failed to reappear. The re-writer of the Gospel of Mark, revising his text sometime between 140 and 150, cites the name of the city just once, at the opening, with these words: “And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee…” (Mk I, 9)
From then on the name is completely forgotten. We may reasonably suspect that this sole reference is an interpolation.
We can trace the subsequent elevation of Nazareth in the Gospel of Luke. Luke is the writer who emphasizes Jesus’s ties to ‘Nazareth.’ Luke is the writer who goes out of his way to demonstrate an anti-Capernaum stance. Scholars have concluded Luke was not a Jew himself because of his ‘glaring errors in things Jewish’. He also makes mistakes in his geography. He knows little about the place and in his mini-drama describes an impossible incident: ‘and brought him to the precipice of the mountain that their city was built upon.’ (Luke 4).
Nazareth, in fact, is located in a depression, set within gentle hills. The whole region is characterized by plains and mild rises with no sharp peaks or steep cliffs. The terrain is correctly understood as a high basin, for in one direction is the much lower Plain of Esdraelon. There is no disguising that Nazareth is built in a valley and not on a mountain.
In the 3rd century, Church Father Origen knew the gospel story of the city of Nazareth, yet had no clear idea where it was , even though he lived at Caesarea, barely thirty miles from the present town. Even in Origen’s day, as the Church became more institutionalised, intense rivalry was developing between the patriarchs of Caesarea and Jerusalem. This rivalry was only resolved (in Jerusalem’s favour) at Chalcedon in 451. Part of the rivalry centred on control of ‘Holy places’. Hence, ‘finding’ the lost city of Nazareth was a matter of major importance,
Perambulating to the rescue, in the early 4th century, came the 80-year-old dowager Empress Helena. Preparing the way for an imminent meeting with her maker with a program of ‘Works’, she made a conscience-salving pilgrimage to Palestine. In the area of Nazareth she could find nothing but an ancient well, in fact the only water source in the area (which in itself demolishes the idea there was ever a ‘city’ ). No doubt encouraged by canny locals, Helena promptly labelled the hole in the ground ‘Mary’s Well’ and had a small basilica built over the spot. Conveniently, the gospels had failed to make clear exactly where Mary had been when the archangel Gabriel had come calling. Thus the well site acquired local supporters for the divine visitation and Nazareth acquired its first church.
A generation after the dowager empress had gone touring, another geriatric grandee, the Lady Egeria, spent years in the ‘Land becoming more Holy by the day’.
Egeria, a Spaniard, like the then Emperor Theodosius and almost certainly part of the imperial entourage, reached the Nazareth area in 383. This time, canny monks showed her a ‘big and very splendid cave’ and gave the assurance that this was where Mary had lived. The Custodians of the Cave, not to be outbid by the Keepers of the Well, insisted that the cave, not the well, had been the site of the divine visitation. This so-called ‘grotto’ became another pilgrimage attraction, over which, by 570, rose the basilica of another church. Today, above and about the Venerable Grotto, stands the biggest Christian theme park in the Middle East.
In the late 4th century, by which time the Church had control of theological correctness, Nazareth was being correctly described by Jerome as ‘a very small village in Galilee’ . He should know: he had fled scandal in Italy to set up an ecclesiastical retreat in the area for well-heeled Romans. The village owed its very existence to the imperial itinerary half a century before.
So, if the Jesus of the gospels is real, we do not really know whether he was a Nazarene or a Nazorite, but we can be fairly certain that he was not from a location called Nazareth.