Nazareth (Mark 1)

Nazareth today

The town of Nazareth is located north of the Jezreel Valley in the hills of lower Galilee, approximately 4,8 km south of Sepphoris. While Sepphoris was an opulent Greco-Roman city during Jesus’ youth and functioned as the capital of Galilee until A.D. 20, Nazareth remained in relative obscurity. Nazareth occupied about 60 acres, with a population of only about 500. In his writings Josephus named some 45 Galileean towns but never once mentioned Nazareth, and neither does the Talmud, which names 63 other Galileean sites. The insignificance of Nazareth provoked disparaging comments already in Jesus’ days, such as Nathaniel’s retort: “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Nevertheless, the New Testament explicitly identifies Jesus as “the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matthew 21:11). This humble town was the residence of Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:39) and the place where Jesus grew up (Matthew 2:23, Luke 4:16). It was also the jumping-off point for His public ministry (Mark 1:9) and the site of His first rejection (Luke 4:16-30). He is frequently referred to in the Gospel narratives simply as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Mark 1:24, Luke 18:37), and the titulus (official placard) that Pilate affixed to the cross dubbed him as “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (John 19:19). Even His earliest followers were labelled “the Nazarene sect” (Acts 24:5).

Both Matthew and John, however, connected the origin of Jesus from Nazareth with an important precedent in the Bible. Matthew 2:23 states that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy, “He will be called a Nazarene“. What was Matthew referring to? No Old Testament text contains those specific words, and Matthew did not indicate the source of his reference. Some have conjectured that he was alluding to Isaiah 11:1, in which the Messiah is called a “Branch” (the Hebrew word for branch, netzer, sounds similar to Nazareth). Others have proposed that Matthew was referring to the concept of the Nazirite, a person considered to God’s service (Numbers 6:1-21, Judges 13). But John also linked his first mention of Jesus’ origins in Nazareth to his assertion that Jesus was the fulfillment of what Moses and the prophets had written (John 1:45). John did not claim that Jesus’ coming from Nazareth in and of itself fulfilled Scripture, but he did report Nathaniel’s astonishment at the idea that the Messiah could have hailed from such little-known hometown (John 1:46).

Archaeological excavations conducted beneath the Church of the Annunciation have revealed that ancient Nazareth was an agricultural village. Pottery was found there dating from the Iron Age II (900-600 B.C.) to the Byzantine period (A.D. 330-640). Excavations have also uncovered a number of Jewish tombs, including four that were sealed with rolling stones, typical of tombs used up to A.D. 70 and similar to the one in which Jesus was laid. In addition, a third-century A.D. Jewish-Christian synagogue was discovered there. Oriented toward Jerusalem, it contained Jewish-Christian iconography within its mosaic floor. The synagogue that Jesus attended as a young man and in which He first proclaimed Hid Messianic identity (Luke 4) probably stood beneath this later structure. The present day Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth was dedicated in 1969 and represents the largest Christian church structure in the Middle East.

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