Some scholars say that Nazareth did not exist during the time of Jesus and that Nazareth was introduced as just a tale of convenience. Others say that it did exist.
It is crucial to see which of them is more likely to be right as this has a direct bearing on why the ossuary of Joseph of Nazareth was not among the ossuaries of the Talpiot tomb.
Indications That Nazareth was the hometown of the family of Jesus
Modern-day Nazareth is a busy city that is growing by the day. It is a little more than fifteen miles from the Sea of Galilee. Many scholars believe that it is situated quite close to the ancient village. Its population of about 200000 is made up of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Although it is populated predominantly by Jews, it is also home to a large Arab population. In fact it is home to Israel’s largest Arab community. In addition to these two communities, Nazareth also has a significant Christian population. This population is made up primarily of Maronite, Greek Orthodox and Coptic Christians. Nazareth is now a site of great significance to Christians (1).
Nazareth immediately before and during the time of Jesus was a puzzle. Some said that the place was continually inhabited; others were of the opinion that the claim of the existence of Nazareth during the time of Jesus was merely to imply the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. So what is the truth: did Nazareth exist during the time of Jesus or was it just a tale of convenience?
Jewish Groups Began To Resettle In Nazareth Sometime 134-104 BCE
Jewish groups began to resettle in Nazareth sometime during the reign John Hyrcanus I, the Hasmonean king (134-104 BCE) (2). The size of the village may not have been more than a few hectares and included tilled fields and orchards. Others have estimated the size of Nazareth, including cultivated fields and orchards, to be in the region of 200X800 yards, based on the location of tombs belonging to the Herodonian period (3). Other archeological finds consist of caves, cisterns and storage silos and a large number of underground rooms. Indications are that Nazareth had been in continuous occupation since 200 BCE.
Nazareth is situated between the Jezreel valley and the mountainous sections of Galilee. Bordering Nazareth are lower Galilee and the Beti Netofa valley. All of ancient Nazareth consisted of no more than fifty houses spread across an area of less than five acres. The houses itself were small and made of mud bricks. Regular houses consisted of two rooms and a courtyard. Some houses were two stories. The doorframe was made of shaped stone and the door itself was of wood. In a few cases the walls were plastered with mud and straw. In the case of two-story houses the first floor was accessed with the help of a ladder. Most houses had a small garden with vineyards and olive trees (4).
In houses that were two storied the first floor, served as sleeping quarters. People normally slept on beds made of wooden structures and ropes stretched across the upper frame. Poor people slept on mats and it was not uncommon for more than one person to sleep on the same mat. After sunset, olive oil lamps provided light. In any case most people went to bed at sundown (5).
Food was usually cooked over a domed oven and utensils were made of mud and reed baskets were used for storing food. The kitchen always had some space where grain, oil and wine were stored. Sometimes food was hung from the ceiling to guard against rodents and insects.
Nazareth Was No More Than An Insignificant Little Village
Those that support the continuous habitation of Nazareth concede that at the best of times the place was no more than an insignificant little village in Galilee, about 65 miles from Jerusalem in spite of the fact that it figures significantly in the New Testament. Archeological study of the place is near neigh impossible because of subsequent buildings that have come up everywhere. However from whatever studies done there, some estimates approximate the population of Nazareth at the time of Jesus at around 400. Some sources state that the population of Nazareth at the time of Jesus was around 600. James Strange, an American archaeologist, who initially estimated the population of Nazareth to be about 1600 to 2000, later revised his estimate to “a maximum of about 480”. He also remarked that the earliest that Nazareth was referred to in ancient Jewish sources was not until the third century CE (6).
People who claim that Nazareth was inhabited at the time of Jesus state that the village was primarily agricultural. To back this claim they state that the soil in this region was rich and fed by a perennial spring. However agriculture here was family oriented. Excavations in this region have yielded vestiges of what could have been a wine and an oil press.
Life in this Nazareth was influenced by the city of Tzipori (ancient “Sepphoris”) which was just 6 kms away. Tzipori or Sepphoris was destroyed by the Romans in 4 BCE was thereafter rebuilt at a great expense (7). Its population was predominantly Jewish but also exhibited elements of Hellenization. Because of the proximity of this busy town it has been a matter of conjecture whether both Joseph and Jesus may have gone there daily to take part in the reconstruction work (8).
Israeli archaeologist Yardenna Alexandre who carried out excavations in Nazareth uncovered what could have been a Jewish house. He also came across a pit which he explains could have been a hiding place for Jews during the Great Revolt in 67 CE against the Romans. Even the Israel Antiquities Authority that conducted excavations in Nazareth came across a house that could have been inhabited during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE (9). Alexandre stated this “The discovery is of the utmost importance since it reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth” (10).
Factors Suggesting That Nazareth Did Not Exist During the Time of Jesus
Scholars who claim that Nazareth did not exist during the time of Jesus say that there is no legendary, archaeological or historical evidence to show that it did. They say that Nazareth was inhabited during what archeologists refer to as the Middle Bronze II period i.e. 2200 – 1570 BCE. According to them Nazareth was razed to the ground by the Tiglath-Pileser II, who conquered the whole of Galilee around 733 BCE. After capturing the region Tiglath-Pileser II sent most of the people of the Northern Kingdom into exile to Assyria and in their place settled the region with people from the other countries he had conquered (11).
Later, Antiochus, in an attempt to wipe out Judaism, desecrated the Temple and banned all Jewish practices (12). As a consequence of this when the Maccabean era under the Hasmonean dynasty began in 167 B.C., only a few isolated Jewish groups were living in Galilee. Later Hyrcanus and his successors compelled the Gentiles of the region to either leave or convert to Judaism (13).
Nazareth Is Not Mentioned In The Old Testament
Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, the Talmud (the Jewish law code), nor in the Apocrypha and it does not appear in any early rabbinic literature. Besides this not only is Nazareth not mentioned in any historical and biblical texts of that time, it is not also among the list of settlements of the tribes of Zebulon (Joshua 19:10-16) which mentions twelve towns and six villages. Nazareth is also not mentioned by Flavius Josephus (37- 100 AD) a reliable historian of that time in his lengthy descriptions of the region. The name is also not among the 63 towns of Galilee mentioned in the Talmud (14).
In further support of this even though Nazareth is mentioned 29 times in the New Testament, it is mentioned only in the later texts of the Gospels and the Acts. Earlier writings of the New Testament, such as that of Paul, mention Jesus 221 times, but don’t mention Nazareth at all (15).
Based on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the books of Nag Hammadi, early Christian scholars have reason to believe that Nazareth did not come into being until about three centuries after the death of Jesus.
The Custodia di Terra Santa is an arm of the Franciscan Order. It was formed for the specific purpose of acquiring land in Nazareth that Christians believed is sacred to them. In pursuance of this Fr. Tommaso Obicini da Novara Custos of the Holy Land, acquired this sacred tract the Druse emir, Fakr ed-Din in 1620 CE. And this limited tract is the area in which all Roman Catholic excavation was done. Author René Salm who has studied this piece of land concludes that this area was not where the people of Nazareth lived, but is a stretch where they cultivated crops and buried the dead (16).
René Salm also argues that although the Catholic Church claims that Nazareth was inhabited from as early as the Bronze and Iron Ages, it was in fact a settlement not until a thousand years later. He adds that the name Nazareth does not appear in any Jewish text nor was it mentioned in the voluminous writings of Josephus in 1 CE (17).
Another Settlement In The Nazareth Basin Called Japhia Was Mistaken For Nazareth
It is also argued that another settlement in the Nazareth basin called Japhia was mistaken for Nazareth. The reasoning is that it is referred to in the Bible (Jos 19:12), and in the Egyptian Amarna letters of XIV BCE. Japhia was a settlement that lay about 3 kms South West of today’s Nazareth. However it was completely destroyed in 67 CE during the First Jewish Revolt. And even there no Bronze-Iron Age remains were found below the Roman ruins. It is claimed that it was Japhia that moved to where Nazareth is today after it was destroyed by the Assyrians in 732 BCE (18).
Fr. B. Bagatti who was the then chief archeologist claims that “…life did not begin in the place in a recent epoch, but already existed in the Bronze Period, to continue down to our own days” (Exc. 319). In other words he claims that Nazareth was continuously habited from the Bronze Age to the present day. However others refute this claim stating that it does not take into consideration all the facts that indicate the contrary. Those arguing against Fr. Bagatti’s claim state that the only reason that the Church sticks to this claim is to support the requirement of Christian doctrines (19).
Church Of The Annunciation Is In The Middle Of An Ancient Roman Cemetery
Another reason why this place cannot be the place where Jesus grew up is the location of the Church of the Annunciation where Archangel Gabriel is said to have appeared to the Blessed Virgin. What is wrong with the location of the church is that it is in the middle of an ancient Roman cemetery. Because the Talmud (m. Bava Bathra 2:9) stipulates that burial places be located at a minimum distance of “fifty ells” from the nearest house, as contact with the dead was considered a source of “ritual impurity” there is no way that Mary’s house could have been where it is claimed to be. Jewish law (halakha) stipulated that tombs should be outside the city walls at a distance no less than 50 cubits which is about 25 meters (20).
Since earlier Catholic archeologists were not aware of this Jewish stipulation they openly acknowledged the presence of tombs in the vicinity and even insinuated that some members of Jesus’ family may have been buried there (21).
The Word Nazareth Was Used In The Scriptures To Trace The Lineage Of Jesus
Others who dispute the existence of Nazareth during the time of Jesus say that the word Nazareth was used in the scriptures to trace the lineage of Jesus and does not refer to a geographic location. They say that the word Nazareth was derived from the Hebrew netzer which in turn was obtained from the verb “to shine”. It is argued that Isaiah’s prophecy “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit” was wrongly interpreted to mean “from Nazareth”. What Isaiah meant was that a messiah would be born from the line of David. He was not referring to a village named Nazareth. However the evangelist Mark construes the word literally. On the other hand the evangelist Matthew interprets the word to trace the genealogy of Jesus when he says that Jesus “came and resided in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’” It has also been claimed that the word Nazareth may have been derived from the Hebrew words na•tsar, meaning “to watch,” or from ne•tser, meaning branch (22).
In Judges 13:5 Samson is a Nazirite. A Nazirite was a unique type of religious ascetic. Some scholars say that Matthew originally referred to Jesus as a Nazirite. However when the ascetic necessities did not find favor with subsequent religious observances the word was later changed to Nazarene making it necessary for the continuous habitation of Nazareth in spite of the fact that the name does not appear anywhere until after the gospels were written (23).
Some scholars claim that Bethlehem was in fact the hometown of Joseph and Mary because that is where they were to return to after their flight to Egypt (Gospel of Matthew (2:13-23), in which he describes Joseph’s flight to Egypt with his wife Mary and infant son Jesus after he learns from the Magi that King Herod intends to kill the infants of that area). It was only after finding that Archelaus the son of Herod Antipas had become the new king of Judah, they fled to Galilee. Archelaus was supposed to have been an even crueler ruler than his father. He was in fact deposed in year 6 by the Romans because of the numerous complaints from the populace. Galilee was later ruled by a much calmer king (24).
Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar has insinuated that the accounts of both Luke and Matthew relating to the childhood of Jesus are inventions. He also suggests that the story of the flight of the holy family to Egypt may have also been one such fabrication. Since Matthew was writing for the people of Judea he was trying to compare Jesus to Moses. Some critics of this narrative believe that this was an attempt by the evangelists to relate both Bethlehem and Nazareth to Jesus (25).
If Nazareth Existed During The Time Of Jesus It Must Have Been Insignificant
While Nazareth may have existed during the time of Jesus, it may have been so insignificant that it 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. Probably Nathanael of Cana said “can anything good come out of Nazareth? (John 1: 46)”, merely to ridicule Nazareth for its insignificant size. Probably it is with the same objective that Pilot puts the sign “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19) at the top of Jesus’ cross. He was probably saying that this king of the Jews is from an almost nonexistent place. Some suggest that the name Nazarene by which Christians of Galilee were referred to could have been a derogatory name given to them by the people of Judea. When the Christians of Nazareth were asked where their hometown was, they had to explain its location with reference to Gat-Hyefer (Jonah’s hometown, Kings II 14:25), a place that could be seen from Nazareth. The difference in the account of the nativity of Jesus between Matthew and Mark is just one of the problems of the synoptic gospels (26).
Preoccupation With Nazareth Being The Hometown Of Jesus Is Retrospective Prophecy
The reason for the preoccupation with Nazareth being the hometown of Jesus is, according to some scholars, “Vaticinia ex eventu — retrospective prophecy”. This process involved relating an event to a prophecy in order to give the event greater credibility. According to some scholars, this was done in one of two ways. One way was to fabricate a document that appeared ancient and foretells future events. These scholars often cite the Old Testament book of Daniel which they say was in fact written centuries later than it was claimed. The other way of retrospective prophecy was to interpret ancient passages as prophesying later events.
During the time of Jesus it seemed to the Jews that unless an event was prophesied in the scriptures it was not only insignificant but also lacked in credibility. It was such an obsession that events in the New Testament were edited to show that they were fulfillments of Old Testament prophesies. The reason for such incorrect relation between the Old and New Testaments could have arisen because of errors in translation, after all the authors of the New Testament were only familiar with the Greek translations of the ancient scriptures. Another reason could be the use of non-canonical ancient texts.
One such error could be the Nazareth controversy. Even though there is no prophesy in the Old Testament relating to a messiah, king, or prophet coming from Nazareth, it was generally understood that Jesus was from Nazareth. However there is a contrary belief of the Jews that Jesus could not have been the messiah if he is from Galilee and not from Bethlehem. (John 7:41-2). Even the biblical authors may have been aware of this because of the following passage from the Old Testament: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” Micah 5:2 (27).
This is the reason why the evangelists wrote contradictory accounts of the nativity of Jesus. And they probably did feel secure in the knowledge that not many people in those days knew how to read and even those that did could not prove the veracity or otherwise of what was written because the scriptures were not accessible to the public at large. Another example of retrospective prophesies is the reference by Mark 14:49 and Matthew 26:56 relating to the arrest of Jesus. There is no such prophesy in earlier literature (28).
Please also read my blog “Mysterious Joseph Of Nazareth – Facts And Myths” at bit.ly/1No6crL
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(20) Gibson, Shimon. (2009). The Final Days of Jesus, The Archaeological Evidence, HarperCollins Publishers Inc. New York
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(27) Beware of false prophets..(2010). retrieved 2011, from http://www.badnewsaboutchristianity.com/cd0_prophesy.htm
(28) McDonald, James. (2010). Christian Deceptions The Retrospective Prophesy. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.badnewsaboutchristianity.com/cd0_prophesy.htm
(Fig1) Excavation of a house from the time of Jesus http://www.antiquities.org.il/Article_eng.aspx?sec_id=25&subj_id=240&id=1638&hist=1
(Fig 2) Basilica of the Annunciation http://www.atlastours.net/holyland/basilica_of_the_annunciation.html