Nazareth

NAZARETH (năz'a-rĕth, Gr. Nazaret and other forms). A town in lower Galilee belonging to the tribe of Zebulun, nowhere referred to in the OT. It was the hometown of Mary and Joseph, the human parents of Jesus (Luke.1.26; Luke.2.4). After their flight into Egypt to escape the ruthless hands of Herod the Great (Matt.2.13ff.), the holy family contemplated returning to Bethlehem of Judea. Hearing that Herod’s son was now reigning in Judea, they withdrew to Nazareth in Galilee.

The rejection of Jesus Christ in the synagogue of Nazareth has been the cause of debate, whether indeed there were two rejections or merely one. Although the matter will never be entirely settled, it seems as if there were two such experiences in the life of Christ. (Cf. Luke.4.16-Luke.4.30 with Mark.6.1-Mark.6.6 and Matt.13.54-Matt.13.58.) The first occurred at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus (Luke.4.14), the second on Christ’s final visit to Nazareth (Matt.13.54ff.). The very exegetical structures of the accounts appear to make their own demands for two incidents, as in the first account (in Luke) there arose such great hostility that the congregation actually attempted to take his life. In the second instance a spirit of faithless apathy was the only noticeable reaction to his words. (Cf. Luke.4.29-Luke.4.31 with Matt.13.57-Matt.13.58.)

In regard to the city of Nazareth itself, the ancient site is located by the modern en-Natzirah, a Muslim village of about ten thousand inhabitants, on the most southern ranges of lower Galilee. Nazareth itself lies in a geographical basin so that not much of the surrounding countryside is in plain view. However, when one scales the edge of the basin, Esdraelon with its twenty battlefields and the place of Naboth’s vineyard come into view. One can see for a distance of thirty miles (fifty km.) in three directions. Unfortunately, however, the people of Nazareth had established a rather poor reputation in morals and religion. This is seen in Nathaniel’s question: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John.1.46).


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View from Megiddo to Nazareth. Mt. Tabor is in the background.

NAZARETH naz’ ə rĭth (Ναζαρέτ, Ναζαρέθ, and other forms. Meaning uncertain, but perhaps related to Heb. nazir meaning separated or nēṩěr meaning branch. Cf. Matt 2:23). A city in Galilee, the home of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.

About halfway between the S end of the Sea of Galilee and Mt. Carmel is the town of Nazareth. Important as it may seem to have been in the NT the town is not mentioned in the OT, the Talmud, or by the historian Josephus. This has even led to a wild theory that the town did not exist even in NT times, but was imagined as the home of Jesus. There is reason to believe that Nazareth was a rather insignificant town in Jesus’ day overshadowed by the larger city to the N, Sepphoris. Modern Nazareth has only one spring. Situated in the hills to the N of the plain of Esdraelon, it thus commands a good view of the ancient battlegrounds. To the N one also can see Mt. Hermon, to the W the Mediterranean, and to the E Bashan.

There is considerable discussion regarding the meaning of the name and its connection with the Nazirites of the OT. There is an obvious similarity of the letters, but the connection between this town and that religious order defies any clear explanation. The problem grows more complicated in consideration of the name Nazarene. Should it be “Nazirite”?

Jesus is called a Nazarene (Matt 2:23), as were His disciples (Acts 24:5). Matthew (2:23), apparently had Isaiah 11:1 in mind: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (Heb. nēṩěr) shall grow out of his roots.” In all other places He is Jesus of Nazareth (except the RSV of Mark 14:67 where He is “the Nazarene, Jesus”). However one renders the word, it is clear that Jesus was not a Nazirite, as that order is described in Numbers 6. It is interesting that to this day the word for “Christians” in both Arab. and Heb. is basically this same word.

There is no question that the Nazareth of the NT is the modern town of En-Naṩira or Nazareth. The spring which rises near the Church of St. Gabriel is channeled to the Well of Mary in an open square. Doubtlessly Mary came to this well to fetch water for the needs of her little household.

Luke 1:26f. declares that the angel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth. Despite the fact that she bore Jesus in Bethlehem, and later the family fled to Egypt, their home was in Nazareth. To it they returned, doubtlessly because of the terror still present in Judea during Archelaus’ reign (Matt 2:20-23). The two incidents in the boyhood of Jesus recorded by Luke clearly state that He lived with His parents in Nazareth (Luke 2:39, 51). The location of the so-called Carpenter Shop of Joseph in the complex of the Church of the Annunciation has little basis in fact. That church is the largest Christian church building in the whole Middle E.

Upon reaching the age of thirty and the beginning of His ministry, our Lord went from Nazareth of Galilee to be baptized by John. An interesting comment on Nazareth from the mouth of Nathanael appears in John 1:46. When Philip told Nathanael he had found Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” This question has been understood in many ways, but the most common is that Nathanael was casting an aspersion on the smallness of Nazareth, perhaps viewing it as a rival to his own little village of Beth-saida.

The reason Matthew gave for Jesus leaving Nazareth to live in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1f. (Matt 4:13-16). Another good reason was the so-called first rejection of Christ in Nazareth, spelled out rather fully by Luke (4:16-30). “He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day.” He read from Isaiah 61:1f. and told them that He was the fulfillment of that prophecy. Then He proceeded to illustrate from the lives of Elijah and Elisha that prophets are rejected by their own people. In their anger the citizenry led Him to the brow of the hill on which the city was built, that they might throw Him over. But He escaped in the crowd.

Two identifications have been made for this hill. There is the traditional Hill of Precipitation or Mount of the Leap (Jebel el-Qafza) to the S and W, and a cliff closer to the town near an ancient synagogue. This latter is more likely since it is nearer the town.

Some gospel harmonizers see a second rejection of Jesus at Nazareth in the parallel accounts of Matthew (13:54-58) and Mark (6:1-6a) as part of the second period of His Galilean ministry. Again, the people were offended at Him when He read in the synagogue. He retorted with the maxim: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” Then Mark adds the postscript which is another good reason for moving Jesus’ ministry away from Nazareth, “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:4ff.).


Helena the mother of Constantine built the first shrine in Nazareth in the 4th cent. Since that original one, other religious edifices have been erected and subsequently destroyed. In the first Moslem takeover of the Middle E, Nazareth suffered much. It was rescued by the Crusaders in 1099 and later made the seat of the bishopric of Beth-shan (Scythopolis). Saladin defeated the Crusaders at the nearby Horns of Hattim and Nazareth changed hands again (1187). Frederick II took it in 1229 but it was lost thirty-four years later to the Mamaluke Sultan Baybars. The Turks gained control in 1517 and in 1620 the Franciscans became guardians of the holy places throughout the Holy Land. The British captured Nazareth from the Germans and the Turks in 1918. Thirty years later the Israelis took Nazareth without a fight from the Arab, Fawzi Kawukji, and to this day it is under their control. Apart from Jerusalem Nazareth has the largest Arab and the largest Christian population in Israel with more than 25,000 inhabitants. Because it is so heavily populated, archeological excavation is impossible.

Bibliography

G. F. Moore, “Nazarene and Nazareth” in The Beginnings of Christianity, ed. F. J. F. Jackson and K. Lake, I (1920), 426-435; E. Kraeling, Bible Atlas (1956), 358-361, 383f.; Encyclopaedia Britannica, IV (1968).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(Nazaret, Nazareth, and other forms):

1. Notice Confined to the New Testament:

A town in Galilee, the home of Joseph. and the Virgin Mary, and for about 30 years the scene of the Saviour’s life (Mt 2:23; Mr 1:9; Lu 2:39,51; 4:16, etc.). He was therefore called Jesus of Nazareth, although His birthplace was Bethlehem; and those who became His disciples were known as Nazarenes. This is the name, with slight modification, used to this day by Moslems for Christians, Nacara--the singular being Nacrany.

The town is not named in the Old Testament, although the presence of a spring and the convenience of the site make it probable that the place was occupied in old times. Quaresimus learned that the ancient name was Medina Abiat, in which we may recognize the Arabic el-Medinat el-baidtah, "the white town." Built of the white stone supplied by the limestone rocks around, the description is quite accurate. There is a reference in Mishna (Menachoth viii.6) to the "white house of the hill" whence wine for the drink offering was brought. An elegy for the 9th of Abib speaks of a "course" of priests settled in Nazareth. This, however, is based upon an ancient midhrash now lost (Neubauer, Geogr. du Talmud, 82, 85, 190; Delitzsch, Ein Tag in Capernaum, 142). But all this leaves us still in a state of uncertainty.

2. Position and Physical Features:

The ancient town is represented by the modern en-Nacirah, which is built mainly on the western and northwestern slopes of a hollow among the lower hills of Galilee, just before they sink into the plain of Esdraelon. It lies about midway between the nodetitle and the Mediterranean at Haifa. The road to the plain and the coast goes over the southwestern lip of the hollow; that to Tiberias and Damascus over the heights to the Northeast. A rocky gorge breaks down southward, issuing on the plain between two craggy hills. That to the West is the traditional Hill of Precipitation (Lu 4:29). This, however, is too far from the city as it must have been in the days of Christ. It is probable that the present town occupies pretty nearly the ancient site; and the scene of that attempt on Jesus’ life may have been the cliff, many feet in height, not far from the old synagogue, traces of which are still seen in the western part of the town. There is a good spring under the Greek Orthodox church at the foot of the hill on the North. The water is led in a conduit to the fountain, whither the women and their children go as in old times, to carry home in their jars supplies for domestic use. There is also a tiny spring in the face of the western hill. To the Northwest rises the height on which stands the sanctuary, now in ruins, of Neby Sa`in. From this point a most beautiful and extensive view is obtained, ranging on a clear day from the Mediterranean on the West to the Mountain of Bashan on the East; from Upper Galilee and Mt. Hermon on the North to the uplands of Gilead and Samaria on the South The whole extent of Esdraelon is seen, that great battlefield, associated with so many heroic exploits in Israel’s history, from Carmel and Megiddo to Tabor and Mt. Gilboa.

3. Present Inhabitants:

There are now some 7,000 inhabitants, mainly Christian, of whom the Greek Orthodox church claims about 3,000. Moslems number about 1,600. There are no Jews. It is the chief market town for the pastoral and agricultural district that lies around it.

4. Labors of Jesus:

In Nazareth, Jesus preached His first recorded sermon (Lu 4:16 ), when His plainness of speech aroused the homicidal fury of His hearers. "He did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief" (Mt 13:58). Finding no rest or security in Nazareth, He made His home in Capernaum. The reproach implied in Nathanael’s question, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (Joh 1:46), has led to much speculation. By ingenious emendation of the text Cheyne would read, "Can the Holy One proceed from Nazareth?" (EB, under the word). Perhaps, however, we should see no more in this than the acquiescence of Nathanael’s humble spirit in the lowly estimate of his native province entertained by the leaders of his people in Judea.

5. Later History:

Christians are said to have first settled here in the time of Constantine (Epiphanius), whose mother Helena built the Church of the Annunciation. In crusading times it was the seat of the bishop of Bethscan. It passed into Moslem hands after the disaster to the Crusaders at Chattin] (1183). It was destroyed by Sultan Bibars in 1263. In 1620 the Franciscans rebuilt the Church of the Annunciation, and the town rose again from its ruins. Here in 1799 the French general Junot was assailed by the Turks. After his brilliant victory over the Turks at Tabor, Napoleon visited Nazareth. The place suffered some damage in the earthquake of 1837.

Protestant Missions are now represented in Nazareth by agents of the Church Missionary Society, and of the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society.