- Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Psalm 71:1-6
- 1Corinthians 13:1-13
- Luke 4:21-30
This week’s Gospel continues with Luke’s story of Jesus visiting – and being rejected by – his home town. These notes focus on Nazareth and on the strange failure of Jesus to secure the loyalty of those who knew him best.
Nazareth in 1C Galilee was an insignificant village whose many centuries of existence had left no trace in the public record. Mahlon Smith sums up the situation as follows:
Tombs & agricultural evidence (silos, cisterns, olive & wine presses) provide concrete evidence that the site was inhabited from the early days of Israelite occupation of the land [12th c. BCE]. But since it had only one spring, the ancient settlement was never large. The 1st c. village, whose population was less than 500, was overshadowed by the fortified town of Japha just one mile south—described by Josephus as the “largest village in Galilee” (Vita 230)—and the city of Sepphoris, just 3.5 miles to the northwest.
Nazareth itself was not a site of historic or major strategic importance &, thus, did not merit notice in any ancient text apart from the gospel references to it as the place of Jesus’ origin. The earliest non-Christian reference is an inscription discovered in the synagogue of Caesarea Maritima that names Nazareth as one of the places in Galilee where the priestly families of Judea migrated after the Hadrianic war [135 CE]. But Nazareth remained a small Jewish village until the 4th c. CE when Constantine constructed a church that became a center for Christian pilgrimages. It was elevated to the status of city in the 7th c. CE. Since the 17th c. the Franciscans have developed it into the largest Christian center in the land of Israel. Into His Own: Nazareth
While John P. Meier [A Marginal Jew, 1:280] claims a population of 1,600-2,000 people in the time of Jesus, this seems impossible and most scholars suggest a far lower population. In his article on Nazareth for the Anchor Bible Dictionary, James F. Strange offers the following calculation:
As inferred from the Herodian tombs in Nazareth, the maximum extent of the Herodian and pre-Herodian village measured about 900 x 200 m, for a total area just under 60 acres. Since most of this was empty space in antiquity, the population would have been a maximum of about 480 at the beginning of the 1st century A.D. (ABD 4,1050-1051)
Other online resources for ancient Nazareth:
- Franciscan Nazareth site
- Nazareth Village
- 1C Nazareth House
- 2006 Nazareth and Haifa – travel diary notes
In December 2009, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of house in Nazareth dating to the first century. The new finds are in close proximity to other structures located adjacent to and below the Basilica of the Annunciation, as can be seen the the second of the two photographs here.
Nazareth in the New Testament
There are 29 references to Nazareth in the Bible. They all occur in the NT Gospels. The place of Jesus’ childhood is not mentioned in any other parts of the NT, and it plays no part in the traditions found in the Hebrew Bible.
- Mark has 5 references to Nazareth: Mark 1:9; 1:24; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6
- Matthew mentions the place 4 times: Matt 2:23; 4:13; 21:11; 26:71
- John has 5 references to Nazareth: John 1:45,46; 18:5,7; 19:19
- In Luke-Acts the town is mentioned 15 times: Luke 1:26; 2:4; 2:39; 2:51; 4:16; 4:34; 18:37; 24:19; and Acts 2:22; 3:6; 4:10; 6:14; 10:38; 22:8; 26:9
These fall into a number of categories:
Infancy and Childhood
- When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There [Joseph] made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (Matt 2:19-23 NRSV)
- In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26-27 NRSV)
- Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Luke 2:4 NRSV)
- When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:39-40 NRSV)
- Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:51 NRSV)
Jesus in Judea with John the Baptist
- In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11 NRSV)
- Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:45-46 NRSV)
- When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. (Luke 4:16-17 NRSV)
- Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt 4:12-17 NRSV)
- Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1:23-25 NRSV) = In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Luke 4:33-35 NRSV)
- As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:46-47 NRSV) = As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:35-38 NRSV)
Last days in Jerusalem
- When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matt 21:10-11 NRSV)
- While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” (Mark 14:66 NRSV) = Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” (Matt 26:69-72 NRSV)
- Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” (John 18:4-8 NRSV)
- Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19:19 NRSV)
In the post-Easter traditions of the early Christians
- As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. (Mark 16:5-6 NRSV)
- Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. (Luke 24:18-20 NRSV)
- “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. (Acts 2:22-23 NRSV)
- Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (Acts 3:6 NRSV)
- Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ (Acts 4:8-11 NRSV)
- They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” (Acts 6:13-14 NRSV)
- That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:37-38 NRSV)
- “While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ (Acts 22:6-8 NRSV)
- “Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. (Acts 26:9-10 NRSV)
The majority of these references to Nazareth occur as part of the identity formula, “Jesus of Nazareth.” They tell us that Jesus was thought to come from Nazareth, but reveal nothing about the place from which he came. (In contrast, in the references to his birth at Bethlehem the place has a special significance that adds value to the significance of Jesus.)
Nazareth is given some prominence in Luke’s writings. In part this reflects Luke’s interest in traditions about the childhood of Jesus. As Luke also continues the story beyond Easter, we see this use of Nazareth as an element in the name of Jesus continuing into Acts.
Interestingly, Paul himself never refers to Jesus in these terms in any of his letters although Luke portrays him doing so in Acts 26:9. This is another of the incidental indications that Luke-Acts was not written by a contemporary of Paul and that the representation of Paul in Acts has little relation to the historical Paul.
Jesus rejection by the people of Nazareth
Luke’s development of this story as the major opening scene in his account of Jesus’ adult activity poses questions about historicity and meaning.
On one level, there is no reason to doubt that Jesus visited Nazareth from time to time during his public ministry. It is also clear that he seems to have made Capernaum, a fishing village on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, his operational base. Yet this scene seems more like a deliberate creation by Luke designed to match the similar scene in Acts 2, where Peter inaugurates the Christian community with his sermon on the Feast of Pentecost.
There is one further twist to the story.
While many ancient cities had a significant escarpment as a feature of their natural defences, Nazareth does not. It was a tiny village clinging to the edge of its one small spring. There was no cliff over which the villagers might throw Jesus. Of course, having never visited the place, Luke was not to know that; just as most of his readers ever since have been unaware of the actual geography of Nazareth.
We may conclude, then, that the scene is the product of Luke’s imagination rather than a memory of some actual event passed on to him by others.
At the same time, there are elements of historical reality preserved in this fictional episode.
Whether or not his village neighbors ever conspired to cast him off their imaginary cliff, it remains true that Jesus seems not to have been welcomed by his own people. This may have been as true of his immediate neighbors (as this tradition suggests) as it was of the nation as a whole (as John 1:10-12 and Acts 28:23-30 each express in very different ways)
At the core of this story lies the saying about a prophet being honored everywhere except at home. This one-liner has been preserved in several different traditions within 1C Christianity. The Gospel of Thomas, the Synoptics, and John all know this tradition:
- Thom 31 = POxy1 31
- Mark 6:4 = Matt 13:57-58
- Luke 4:24
- John 4:44
What Luke may have done is to create a story that puts flesh on the bones of this aphorism. The kernel of story can be seen in Mark’s story of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth, although Luke has given it a distinctive twist in keeping with his desire to present Jesus as a dignified hero to his hellenistic readers:
Horizontal line synopsis
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The toughest of all epiphanies
Whatever historical realities may be preserved in the fictional episode created by Luke, the story invites us to consider that most demanding of all epiphany sites: the place where we are known too well for any pretence or subterfuge to hide our failings.
The traditions around Jesus suggest that his immediate family, as well as his townsfolk, did not embrace his vision of the Kingdom that is both coming and already here in our midst. Similarly, the experience of Jesus’ earliest followers was that family conflict could erupt when they became disciples. Converts over the centuries have known that reality all too well.
In the enthusiasm of a new discovery, such conflict can sometimes be deflected. But this story also speaks of the corrosive effect of that contempt which flows from familiarity. What could those close to us teach us that we do not already know? What pearls of great price do we have to share with those within our own intimate circles? How do we “keep the faith” in the enduring ordinariness of everyday life?
One of the distinctive features of Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom seems to have been to discern the Holy in the everyday, and especially in the Unclean and the Broken. Despite that — or perhaps because of it — Jesus seems not to have been very good at bringing his closest kin with him on the journey. If the tradition is to be trusted, one of the fruits of his personal faithfulness to the call of God on his life was that his family (eventually) became active participants in the community of faith after his death on the cross.
Ironically, centuries after his life ended on that cross in Jerusalem, even Nazareth would become “Jesus country.” As Mahlon Smith observed in the extract cited earlier, today it is the largest Christian center in Israel. Despite the majority of this people in this modern city being Muslim, they always elect a Christian mayor. Nazareth is, after all, the hometown of Jesus.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.