What good came out of Nazareth

Reporter takes a look at the hometown of Jesus today and how it looked back then.

Christmas is coming, and here I am in Nazareth. No doubt Jesus and his boyhood friends ascended these whitewashed boulders south of their hometown to view the fertile Jezreel Valley while remembering the victories of Deborah and Barak and Gideon, who overcame enemies described in Judges as "like locusts in number."Or they imagined that valley, bordered by Mount Tabor and the tel of Megiddo, hosting every army that marched between the kingdoms of Mesopotamia and Egypt in the terrain of the apocalyptic struggle which John would later call Armageddon (Revelation 16). From the town's northern ridge residents could view Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, and Cana in the equally fertile but smaller Beth Netofa valley, which accommodated a lively Roman trade to points east from the port of Ptolemais (Acco). With all the bustle of armies and merchants so near, it's hard to imagine the first-century hamlet of Nazareth, with its population of only a few hundred, remaining free of the commotion all around. This isolation was made possible by the geological formation of the mountains around the town. They are composed of a rich, hearty limestone, allowing the chalk soil of Nazareth to sink into a bowl-like basin. On the downside, the chalk supported few crops and held water poorly. Such facts no doubt prompted Nathanael, a native of nearby Cana, to remark: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1). The chalky soil of Nazareth caused Joseph, a master builder, to look outside the village for work and materials. Joseph (not a carpenter, as most translators render the Greek word tekton) would likely receive a good wage for his skills in the trickier aspects of construction, according to Paul Wright, director of Jerusalem University College. These skills included laying a foundation, fashioning a door that could swing and lock securely in dry or damp weather, building winepresses, ossuaries, mikvehs (ritual baths), etc. Although work was found outside of town, the quiet village offered Joseph's family a life of rustic innocence. A builder like Joseph might feel safe leaving his family of seven children (certainly more, but the girls aren't mentioned) in secure isolation away from Greek and Roman influence. Wright explains that Jesus' teaching style stems from this rural background. "The imagery Jesus used in his parables came from the world he knew, from what he experienced and from daily activities - things that he did himself, or saw his family members doing, or observed as he walked the highways and pathways of Galilee. It was also imagery that the bulk of his audience would readily know, for their lives for the most part were lived in the same Galilean world." Such fertile ground yielded the parables of the fig tree, vineyard, sheep and shepherd, mustard seed, wheat and weeds, the sower and yeast, etc. As a likely apprentice to Joseph, Jesus required knowledge of applied mathematics, where to find the best materials (usually stone), as well as physical strength and stamina. But village life also offered a practical education in how to tend a plot of ground, grow wheat, cultivate vines, or care for olive and fig trees, according to Wright. "Every family living in a small village had a piece of land from which their basic foodstuffs came. Mary and Joseph likely owned a small flock of sheep and goats, and Jesus must have spent many hours during his 'silent years' between birth and baptism tending the flock - as did David, by the way, during his years of preparation." Old Testament Nazareth had probably been destroyed by the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE, but the victory of the Maccabees about a century before Jesus was born invited settlement by returnees from Babylon. Wright proposes that many of these ancient "settlers" repopulated the Galilee as part of their return to the Land of Israel (the northern kingdom), while others came for the economic prospects. Jesus' family was devout, as indicated by synagogue attendance (Luke 4) and pilgrimage (Luke 2), while Joseph's vocation allowed them to enjoy the economic opportunities afforded by Nazareth's location. WHILE NAZARETH'S southern mountains rise abruptly and forebodingly from the Jezreel Valley, the northern hills slope gently toward the Beth Netopha Valley and Sepphoris's demographically mixed population - about a 90-minute walk from Nazareth. It's likely that Joseph walked to Sepphoris every week, returning on Fridays to celebrate the Sabbath. Joseph disappears from the biblical account while Jesus is a boy, and some scholars believe this implies that Jesus assumed head-of-family responsibilities early. Joseph's last appearance in the gospels is the pilgrimage to Jerusalem during which he and Mary anxiously look for Jesus in the crowded capital (Luke 2). According to Wright it's reasonable to think Jesus continued to support the family until the other sons were of age. This might explain why his ministry didn't begin until he was about 30. Further, Wright suggests that Jesus' compassion for widows, orphans and children resulted from his early assumption of responsibility. Jesus' boyhood among a close-knit extended family was ideal in many ways, but the downside is observed in his return to Nazareth (Luke 4). Family members can be protective, but can also react violently to any perceived slight. As Jesus rose to read the scripture, he was known by everyone there; indeed, Jesus referred to them as his own relatives (Mark 6). Luke (chapter 4) records that Jesus read from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…" His townspeople were initially proud of Jesus, a "local boy done good" according to Wright. But when Jesus perceived they were already jealous of the works he had accomplished at Capernaum, wanting those done in Nazareth as well, he explained that he would be blessing even gentiles. This was unacceptable. They took him to the "brow of the hill" near Nazareth in order to throw him off the cliff. Tradition holds that this is the cliff overlooking the Jezreel Valley. The scripture doesn't elaborate, but somehow Jesus "passed through their midst" (Luke 4). At this point Jesus moved his base of ministry to Capernaum, fulfilling a prophecy of Isaiah 9 that a great light would arise out of Zebulun (the tribe in which Nazareth was located) and Naphtali (Capernaum's tribe). That prophecy culminates in the lovely passage often read at Christmas: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…" Later, Jesus returned to Nazareth with his disciples, but was unable to do any great work there, surprised as he was by his kinsmen's unbelief (Mark 6). The name Nazareth comes from a messianic prophecy in Isaiah 11:1: "Then a shoot will grow from the stem of Jesse, and a branch (netzer) from his roots will bear fruit." Gospel writer Matthew offers the detail that Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned to Nazareth after Herod died, but also connects that with Jesus' messianic call: "that what was spoken of by the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He shall be called a Nazarene'" (Matt. 2:23). Consequently, it seems Pontius Pilate achieved more than he realized when he recognized him as "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" on the day of the crucifixion.