ON ROUTE 60 about 131km (81 miles) north of Jerusalem and about 28km (17 miles) west of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, is the site of the ancient Biblical city of Nazareth. The remnants of the ancient city are almost lost amongst the sprawl of today’s city. Modern Nazareth is very much an Arab town with an Arab mayor and yet it has a mixed population of some sixty thousand inhabitants consisting mainly of Christian and Muslim Israeli Arabs.
One traveller who visited the area in the early 19th century gave his impression of Nazareth in these words: ‘Nazareth is on a downward slope of a hill...the vale that spreads out before it resembles a circular basin that is surrounded by mountains...it is a rich and delightful area.’ Another visitor of the same period describes the town that existed then as a place ‘with streets narrow and steep, the houses which are flat-roofed, are about two hundred and fifty in number with about two thousand inhabitants.’ This could have been a similar description of how Nazareth looked in the time of Jesus.
Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament but we are introduced to it in the New Testament where we read that the angel Gabriel was sent by God to speak to a young Jewish girl named Mary, ‘...to a city of Galilee named Nazareth’ (Luke 1.26).
It is assumed from this verse and others in the Bible, that this ancient town of Nazareth was the birthplace of this privileged young Jewish maiden, Mary the mother of Jesus but there are scholars who dispute this, pointing to the verses that connect Mary and her husband Joseph to Bethlehem. But modern Nazareth is very firm in its claim and visitors to the city see this reflected in the abundance of churches and shrines and the many tourist gift shops all dedicated to Mary and her son Jesus.
In the times when the Roman Empire occupied Israel, when the land was called Palestine, it seems that the town of Nazareth was of no great importance. We get some idea of how it was viewed from a remark made by Nathaniel, one of the disciples of Jesus, who said, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth’ (John 1.46). This may have been a popular remark at the time, coupled with a general tendency to despise this obscure town of Nazareth.
There is perhaps an explanation if we go back in the Bible to the times of King Solomon, when Hiram king of Tyre was supplying Solomon with cedar, cypress and gold to build the temple and his own palace in Jerusalem. As a surety Solomon gave Hiram twenty unnamed cities in Galilee. It is interesting that when we read about this transaction we notice that, ‘…Hiram went from Tyre to see the cities which Solomon had given him, but they did not please him. So he said, ‘What kind of cities are these which you have given me, my brother?’ And he called them the land of Cabul’ (1 Kings 9.12,13). The name Cabul is said to be like the Hebrew for ‘good-for-nothing’. So we can ask, was the town of Nazareth among these ‘good-for-nothing’ cities in Galilee that so disappointed Hiram?
Yet another reason for the way the Jews generally viewed the towns of Galilee like Nazareth, is perhaps the fact that in Old Testament times the northern half of Israel was subject to invaders and settled by other nations. One noted authority says of Galilee just before the times of Jesus; ‘Owing to the pressures from people farther north, its Jewish population found themselves .. surrounded on three sides by non-Jewish populations .. under the Maccabees,(165-38 BC) the Gentile influence upon the Jews became so strong that the Jews were actually withdrawn south for half a century. Thus Galilee had to be recolonized, and this fact, together with its diversity of population, contributed to the contempt felt for the Galileans by the southern Jews (Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Part 1, Page 537 Inter-Varsity Press). The writer of this note gives as an example the contempt displayed when Nicodemus was at one stage defending Jesus from the ruling Pharisees council, who then rounded angrily on him saying, ‘Are you also from Galilee? Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee’ (John 7.52).
So it happened that this despised town of Nazareth was chosen by God to be the place that would nurture Jesus from a young age through childhood and adolescence and into manhood. Perhaps it was all to emphasise the humble background of Jesus, beginning with his lowly birth in a stable in Bethlehem and continuing in virtual obscurity in Nazareth until the time came for him to be revealed to his people.
View of Nazareth by David Roberts 1839
In the Gospel record of Luke we learn that after Joseph and Mary had taken the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to carry out purification rituals required by the law, ‘...they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon him.’ (Luke 2.39,40). When we think about some of those words in this verse that describe Jesus as ‘strong’ and ‘wise’ with the ‘grace of God upon him’, we have an insight into what the people of Nazareth must have witnessed and experienced, as this Son of God grew up as their neighbour, through his childhood into adolescence and manhood.
This was the privilege that the people of ancient Nazareth enjoyed as he lived and worked among them. They must have known him very well as he mixed with them, until the time when he reached the age of about thirty and then he suddenly left Nazareth. But news came about him, reporting that he was now preaching throughout the whole region of Galilee teaching in the synagogues of all the towns he visited. Then we read that ‘he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up’ (Luke4.16).
We are then told that during this visit to Nazareth, on the Sabbath day, Jesus went to the synagogue there. This was a place of worship where he was well known and the attendant handed him the scroll of Isaiah to read. Jesus read out a portion from Isaiah chapter 61. He then astounded his former neighbours in Nazareth by saying that the Scripture he had just quoted applied to him! He was telling them that he was the person that Isaiah and all the other Old Testament prophets wrote about, he was their Messiah!
Luke tells us that these people of Nazareth at first ‘marvelled at the gracious words’ which Jesus spoke. However it seems that the meaning of the words of this man who had grown up and lived and worked among them, gradually sank in, their ‘marvelling’ turned to incredulity and disbelief.
Mark’s Gospel record says that ‘…many hearing him were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to him, that such mighty works are performed by his hands! Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’ And they were offended at him. (Mark 6.2,3).
As the meaning and importance of the words of Jesus hit home with the people of Nazareth, their amazement turned to annoyance. Here was this man they had known from a boy – a kind and gracious man who had lived among them, who had probably carried out work for most of them, built their houses, repaired their ploughs, helped them in many ways with those skilful hands. But now here he was in their synagogue, saying that he was the promised Jewish Messiah, the one that their sacred Scriptures spoke so much about.
It was all too much for the people of Nazareth and their disbelief and angry reactions were such that Jesus ‘could do no mighty work there’ (verse 5). Luke records that Jesus bluntly told them that their disbelief showed that they were no better than the Israelites of the times of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. When they heard this, ‘all those in the synagogue…were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust him out of the city; and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, he went his way (Luke 4.28,29).
What a testimony this event in the Nazareth synagogue is to the frailty of the human nature we possess. In a flash we see that the emotions of religious piety and worship turned into a lynch mob mentality. Their momentary admiration for Jesus turned like lightning into hostile anger, fury, hate and savage intent. But the time for Christ’s sacrifice had not yet come and he walked away safely from these murderous people of Nazareth. There is no record that he ever went there again.
The importance of Nazareth to students of the Bible relates to the life of one of its inhabitants who grew up there 2,000 years ago. In most cases where there is reference to the town, it is because the most wonderful man who ever walked this earth, Jesus of Nazareth, lived there for most of his life before he commenced his ministry. His neighbours rejected him but their loss can be our gain – if we listen to his teaching and apply it in our lives.