The Importance of Nazareth in the Christian Tradition
Nazareth was a small and insignificant village during the period of Jesus. While the site was settled during the period 600-900 BCE, it was too small to be included in the list of settlements of the tribe of Zebulon (Joshua 19:10-16), which mentions twelve towns and six villages. Nazareth is not included among the 45 cities of the Galilee that were mentioned by Josephus, and her name is missing from the 63 towns in Galilee mentioned in the Talmud.It seems that the words of Nathanel of Cana, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:47) characterized the site’s seeming insignificance. It is needless to say that the people of Judea had never heard of Nazareth.
And from this we understand the reason that Pontius Pilate decorates the cross with the sign “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19) – meaning that the “King of the Jews” is from “nowhere.” The early name “Nazarenes” given to the Christians might have been a derogatory nickname that the people of Judea gave to the followers of Jesus (Matthew 26:71, Acts 6:38). Jesus was known throughout the Galilee as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Matthew 21:11 , Mark 14:67) – but for those not from the Galilee, this name had no meaning for them. In order to explain where Nazareth was located, the Galileans had to explain that the village was near Gat-Hyefer (Jonah’s hometown,Kings II 14:25), which could be seen from Nazareth. Archeological excavations conducted in Nazareth (by Bagati since 1955) show that Nazareth was a small agricultural village settled by a few dozen families.
The pottery remains testify to a continuous settlement during the period 600-900 BCE. After those years, there was a break in settlement until the year 200 BCE.
Since then, the site of Nazareth has been consistently inhabited. Most of the archeological finds consist of caves, cisterns and grain storage bins. The agricultural character of the site is made obvious with the discoveries of oil mills and mill stones. There were a large number of underground rooms because the soft chalk of Nazareth made it easy to hew caves.
Nazareth is located between the open space of the Jezreel valley and the mountainous regions of the Galilee. The valley and its history were well known to the Jews of Nazareth in the time of Jesus.During the first 20 years of his life that he spent in Nazareth, Jesus had many an opportunity to walk on the mountain ranges, to look over and think about the history of his people. The great battles that had taken place in the valley, together with the great hopes that were dashed with their losses, must have affected and shaped his view on life. The valley of Jezreel, as it is seen from Nazareth, is a natural battlefield. This fact must have influenced the idea of “…all the holders of swords shall fall by the sword,” (Matthew 28:52). Another geographical area adjacent to Nazareth was the lower Galilee and the Beti Netofa valley.
In this region there were many small Jewish villages and towns settled by Hellenized Syrians. The largest of these towns was Tzippori, the capital of the Galilee until the year 18 BCE. Even though Tzippori is a 45- minute-walk from Nazareth, the town is not mentioned in the New Testament. The main events in Jesus’s life, as described in the New Testament, are the annunciation of his birth (Luke 1:26-38),his childhood and early manhood (Luke 2:39-52, Matthew 2:19-23), and the clash with his fellow citizens (Matthew 13:54-58, Luke 4:17-30). From the very first events relating to the life of Jesus in Nazareth, we learn that the people of his village did not approve of his thinking and behavior. To them he was Jesus, one of the sons of Joseph the carpenter (the other brothers were James, Joseph, Simeon and Judah – Matthew 13:55). Luke describes with great drama how Jesus was rejected by the people of Nazareth. After his sermon in the synagogue aroused their anger, the people took him “and brought him to the precipice of the mountain that their city was built upon” (Luke 4). Some have pointed out that this sentence in Luke is not correct, as Nazareth is built in a valley and not on a mountain. But the valley of Nazareth is on a mountain overlooking the Jezreel valley – and the mountain of the precipice overlooks the valley of Nazaret and the valley of Jezreel.
Nazareth is also holy to Christians because it throws light on the holy family, especially Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is the place where a Christian believer can consider Mary’s qualities. Her character as a noble woman, a woman of purity, simplicity, sensitivity and pureness of heart. Mary is portrayed as a mother who devotes herself to the education of her son and remains devoted to him in the most trying of circumstances (she was present at his crucifixation – John 19:25 – and recognized him as the messiah – Acts 2:36). For Catholics, Mary has a special significance – and her special place in the New Testament is hinted at in the verses”Blessed art though of women” (Luke1:41) and “Peace unto thee woman of grace, God be with you” (Luke 1:28).
Dr. James Fleming