The Gospel of Luke records that the angel Gabriel has the honor of delivering Jesus’ birth announcement (Luke 1:26). Not surprisingly, the first human to receive the good news is the child’s mother, Mary (Luke 1:26-38). The location of the Annunciation, however, was likely shocking to Luke’s original audience. It happens in Nazareth.
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26-27 NASB)Jesus puts Nazareth on the map. At the time of his birth, the town was largely unknown and those who were familiar with it were not overly impressed (John 1:46). Prior to its association with Christ, Nazareth was nowhere. It was hardly the place one would expect an earthshattering announcement to be made.
Nazareth is situated in Galilee, a small region in northern Israel. It is a long way from Jerusalem, the nation’s religious epicenter. If an ancient traveler trekked at the standard pace of fifteen miles per day it would take four or five days to reach Jerusalem form Nazareth.
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) introduces:
Nazareth was the village of Jesus’ youth in lower Galilee (Matthew 2:23; Luke 1:26, 2:4, 39), not far north of the Jezreel valley. It is about equidistant from the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean (only fifteen miles from the former). It is identified in the Gospels as the village of Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:39, 51), an identification few have disputed, since Nazareth is not a name one would pick out of the air to be the hometown of a messianic figure. Only four miles away was the capital city, rebuilt by Antipas [20 BCE-39 CE] in 4 B.C., Sepphoris, “the ornament of all Galilee” (Antiquities of the Jews 18.27), but a city predominantly Gentile in character, in a region ringed by Greek city-states (Tyre, Sidon, Scythopolis) and principalities (Gaulanitis and Samaria)...Nazareth seems to have been uninhabited after the Assyrian invasion in 733 B.C. until the second century B.C. It was during the rule of John Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.) that the city was finally resettled by Jews, for the region of Galilee was reconquered by this Hasmonean ruler. (Witherington, New Testament History: A Narrative Account)Though inconsequential, Nazareth is close enough to a major city to not be deemed backward or remote. Walter L. Liefeld (b. 1927) and David W. Pao (b. 1966) situate:
It was off, though not totally inaccessible from the main trade routes. Its close proximity...to the major city of Sepphoris...reminds us that Nazareth was not exactly isolated from the wider cultural world. Its relatively insignificant size contrasts with Jerusalem, where Gabriel’s previous appearance had taken place. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Luke~Acts (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary))The text describes Nazareth with the Greek pólis (Luke 1:26). This word is customarily translated as “city” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NKJV, RSV), “town” (CEV, HCSB, NIV, NRSV) or “village” (MSG, NLT). Though city is an accurate rendering of the Greek, Nazareth certainly does not comply with modern connotations of this term.
Bruce J. Malina (b. 1933) and, Richard L. Rohrbaugh (b. 1936) clarify:
The Greek word here translated “town” (polis) is the common Hellenistic term for “city.” Yet Nazareth in Jesus’ day could hardly be described in that way. It was a small village of a few hundred people, perhaps under the administrative control of the nearby city of Sepphoris. (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 227)John T. Carroll (b. 1954) comments:
Polis (city) in Greek...[is] perhaps reflecting Luke’s own social world more than the size of this small Galilean town. On Luke’s preference for the term polis, even for towns and villages such as Nazareth, Nain (Luke 7:11), and Bethsaida (Luke 9:10), see Richard L. Rohrbaugh [b. 1936], “The Pre-Industrial City in Luke-Acts: Urban Social Relations” 125-26; Douglas E. Oakman [b. 1953], “The Countryside in Luke-Acts” 170. Luke uses polis 39 times in the Gospel (cf. Mark’s 8 times) and kōmē (village) only 12 times (cf. 7 in Mark). (Carroll, Luke: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 38)The city’s name has several variant spellings in the New Testament. Alfred Plummer (1841-1926) surveys:
The form of the name of the town varies much, between Nazareth, Nazaret, Nazara, and Nazarath. Karl Theodor Keim [1825-1878] has twice contended strongly for Nazara (Jesus of Nazara, English translation ii. p. 16, iv. p. 108); but he has not persuaded many of the correctness of his conclusions. Brooke Foss Westcott [1825-1901] and Fenton John Anthony Hort [1828-1892] consider that the evidence when tabulated presents little ambiguity (ii. App. p. 160). Ναζαράθ is found frequently (eight out of eleven times) in Codex Δ, but hardly anywhere else. Ναζαρά is used once by Matthew (Matthew 4:13), and perhaps once by Luke (Luke 4:16). Ναζαρέθ occurs once in Matthew (Matthew 21:11) and once in Acts (Acts 10:38). Everywhere else we have certainly or probably Ναζαρέτ. Thus Matthew uses the three possible forms equally; Luke all three with a decided preference for Nazaret; while Mark and John use Nazaret only. This appears to be fairly conclusive for Nazaret. Yet Frederick Henry Ambrose Scrivener [1831-1891] holds that “regarding the orthography of this word no reasonable certainty is to be attained” (A Plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament, ii. p. 316); and Henry Alford [1810-1871] seems to be of a similar opinion (I. Prolegomena, p. 97). Bernhard Weiss [1827-1918] thinks that Nazara may have been the original form, but that it had already become unusual when the Gospels were written. (Plummer, St. Luke (International Critical Commentary), 21)The name’s origin is also disputed. Charles R. Swindoll (b. 1934) speculates:
The name Nazareth most likely derives from one of two Hebrew terms. Netser is the Hebrew word for “branch” or “shoot,” which forms a wordplay for Isaiah (Isaiah 11:1) and Matthew (Matthew 2:23). Just as likely is the Hebrew word natsar, which means “to watch.” Nazareth rested in a bowl-shaped depression 1150 feet (350 meters) above sea level. This made it a perfect place to keep watch over the vast Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. the Plain of Esdraelon, the Valley of Megiddo, Armageddon), roughly one thousand feet below. (Swindoll, Insights on Luke, 43)Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) relays:
It has been suggested by Paul Barnett [b. 1935] that the name Nazareth derives from the Hebrew word netzer (branch), indicating that it was resettled by those of Davidic ancestry (see Isaiah 11:1 about the branch and the root of Jesse). The connection between the word netzer and Nazareth seems apparent in texts like Mark 10:47 and Luke 18:37-38. Mary and Joseph, if of Davidic descent, may have found this a natural place to settle at some point. (Witherington, New Testament History: A Narrative Account)What is not debated is Nazareth’s insignificance, which is apparent when Luke supplies the qualifying phrase “a city in Galilee called...” (Luke 1:26). Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) researches:
Called Nazareth [is]...literally, “the name of which was Nazareth.” Though this phrase is lacking in manuscripts D and the Vetus Latina, it is otherwise attested by the best Greek manuscripts. (Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (The Anchor Bible), 343)
The narrator further identifies the locale with the descriptor “in Galilee”. I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) notes:
The description της Γαλιλαίας (Luke 4:31) is added for the benefit of non-Palestinian readers who would probably never have heard of so insignificant a village as Nazareth (Luke 2:4, 39, 51, 4:16, Acts 10:38). The name is variously spelled, modern editors preferring Ναζαρέθ (see Paul Winter [1904-1969], ‘“Nazareth” and “Jerusalem” in Luke chapters 1 and 2’, New Testament Studies 3, 1956-57, 136-42). The site of Nazareth in the Galileean hills has long been known, but only recently has inscriptional evidence been found (Jack Finegan [1908-2000], 27-33). (Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Greek Testament Commentary), 64)The audience’s incomprehension is assumed. This is reasonable as there would be no cause for someone outside of the region to know of Nazareth. The obscure locale simply does not have much to commend it.
David A. Neale briefs:
Nazareth...is so obscure that it is never mentioned in the Old Testament, or in Josephus [37-100]’ list of fifty-six towns in the Galilee. Neither is Nazareth mentioned in the Talmud, which lists sixty-three towns there. “From Jewish literary texts, then, across almost one thousand five hundred years, nothing” (John Dominic Crossan [b. 1934] 1991, 15). This utter obscurity is in itself a literary motif; Jesus a “nobody” from a town no one notices, rises to prominence on the center stage with Jerusalem, albeit tragically so. (Neale, Luke 1-9: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (New Beacon Bible Commentary), 56)Jonathan Marshall (b. 1978) explores:
Work on Nazareth tends to conclude that it was predominantly a peasant Jewish village with no political importance or conclusive evidence of Hellenization or Romanization before A.D. 40. Following the growing consensus ...on the ethnicity of Galileeans in general, Jonathan L. Reed [b. 1963] and John Dominic Crossan [b. 1934] argue that the people of Nazareth were most likely “Hasmonean colonizers or Jewish settlers” who had arrived within the last two centuries before the common era. Material evidence confirms the picture of a small, Jewish village of approximately 5 hectares and 400 persons. (Marshall, Jesus, Patrons, and Benefactors: Roman Palestine and the Gospel of Luke, 71)David E. Garland (b. 1947) encapsulates:
The town of Nazareth receives no notice in Scripture, intertestamental literature, Josephus [37-100], or rabbinic literature. This means that the story moves from sacred temple space [Luke 1:8-25] and Judea to farflung nowheresville in Galilee. (Garland, Luke (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 78)Nazareth is so insignificant that it took centuries to discover it in the archaeological record. Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) informs:
The existence of this insignificant Galileean hamlet is known...from a Hebrew inscription found in 1962 at Caesarea Maritima which, though now fragmentary, listed the twenty-four priestly courses...and the villages or towns where they were resident. It locates the eighteenth course, Happizzez (I Chronicles 24:15), at Nsrt, “Nazareth.” The inscription dates from the end of the third to the beginning of the fourth century A.D. See Michael Avi-Yonah [1900-1974], “A List of Priestly Courses from Caesarea,” Israel Exploration Journal 12 (1962) 137-139; “The Caesarea Inscription of the Twenty-Four Priestly Courses,” in The Teacher’s Yoke: Studies in Memory of Henry Trantham [1882-1962] (editors E. Jerry Vardaman [1927-2000] and James Leo Garrett, Jr. [b. 1925]; Waco, TX: Baylor University, 1964) 46-57. The later prominence of the town is the result of the Christian gospel tradition; for ancient descriptions of it, see Donato Baldi [1888-1965], Enchiridion Locorum Sanctorum § 1-42. (Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (The Anchor Bible), 343)Jonathan L. Reed (b. 1963) expounds:
Excavations under several churches have found dwellings dug into bedrock and around caves. Silos, olive and wine presses, as well as storage jar receptacles are indicative of the village’s agricultural base. Evidence for a necropolis helps determine the extent of the 1st-century ruins, which correlate to a population of well under 500...A 3rd-century C.E. synagogue mosaic inscription from Caesarea locates one of the Jewish priestly courses at Nazareth after the destruction of the temple. It is doubtful that a priestly connection can be retrojected into the 1st century, but it does indicate that Nazareth was acceptable for Jewish priests to settle. (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], “Nazareth”, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 951)The detour to Nazareth marks a major departure. Joel B. Green (b. 1956) tracks:
Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel takes place at the center of the Jewish world, the Holy Place, only a veiled doorway from the presence of God’s glory [Luke 1:5-25]. But Gabriel travels to Mary, far away from the temple mount in Jerusalem, to Nazareth in Galilee — insignificant, despised unclean...The geographical focus has shifted north, from Jerusalem and the Judean hills, to Nazareth in Galilee. The narrative has departed the socio-religious culture center, the temple. Gabriel holds these scenes together as God’s spokesperson [Luke 1:19, 26]. (Green, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 84-85)This geographical shift likely jolted Luke’s original audience. R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) characterizes:
The setting of the Annunciation drew amazement from first-century Jewish readers because Gabriel ignored Judea, the heartland of God’s work through the centuries, and came to Galilee, a land that was the subject of abiding Jewish contempt because of its mongrelized population. Even more, the angel not only bypassed Judea for Galilee, but the city of Jerusalem for the village of Nazareth. Nazareth was a “non-place.”...Nazareth, a shoddy, corrupt halfway stop between the port cities of Tyre and Sidon, was overrun by Gentiles and Roman soldiers. When guileless, straight-talking Nathaniel mentioned Nazareth, he said, “‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’” (John 1:46), implying that it was miserably corrupt. By consensus, Nazareth was not much. (Hughes, Luke, Volume One: That You May Know the Truth (Preaching the Word), 29)Mary is not presented as being any more exceptional than her town of origin. F. Scott Spencer (b. 1956) observes:
Unlike Zechariah’s profile [Luke 1:5-7], Mary’s introduction elicits little expectation of spiritual acumen. She appears as an unremarkable young engaged woman, with the most common Jewish female name of the period, from a small, no-account Galilean village called Nazareth...Her husband-to-be comes from a promising lineage (“the house of David”), but is otherwise undistinguished. Gabriel pays Mary a special visit in her home hamlet, not in the Jerusalem temple, and there is no indication that she has been praying or seeking divine guidance. The angel’s appearance and annunciation are acts of pure grace. (Spencer, The Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles (Interpreting Biblical Texts), 104)Though Nazareth is insignificant, God’s use of it is very significant. God could have positioned Jesus anywhere and yet chooses to place him nowhere. This gives hope to all who stem from humble roots. Jesus’ rearing in Nazareth is a reminder that Christ did not come just for the rich, the religious and the important. As his name indicates, Jesus comes to save all.
Of all of the places in the world, why did God implant Jesus in Nazareth? How do you picture Nazareth? What contemporary location would you equate to ancient Nazareth? Who do you know of who came from nowhere? Who has put their hometown on the map?
Luke’s narrative will revisit Nazareth. Ju Hur notifies:
The geographical settings in the prologue anticipate those given in the rest of the Gospel: desert (Luke 1:80), Judea (Luke 1:39, 65, 2:4), Galilee or Nazareth (Luke 1:26, 2:4, 39, 51) and Jerusalem (Luke 2:22, 25, 38, 41, 45; cf. Bethlehem: Luke 2:4, 15). (Hur, A Dynamic Reading of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts, 197)Jesus will not only return to his hometown (Luke 4:16-30) but will forever be known as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Luke 4:34, 18:37; Acts 10:38, 26:9). Robert F. O’Toole (b. 1936) educates:
More than any other New Testament writer, Luke writes of Jesus’ being from Nazareth...Jesus grew up in Nazareth, and people later use the name of this town to identify him. The annunciation to Mary occurred in Nazareth (Luke 1:26); and since Jesus was from the house of David, Joseph and Mary leave from there to go to Bethlehem (Luke 2:4), but they return with Jesus to Nazareth (Luke 2:39; cf. Luke 2:51) to live...Even evil spirits address him as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Luke 4:34), and by the time of Acts 24:5 the Christians are described as the sect of the Nazarenes. The ordinary people (Luke 18:37) and the disciples refer to Jesus “of Nazareth” (Luke 24:19)...During his earthly life and after his resurrection, both friend and foe knew him as Jesus of Nazareth. (O’Toole, Luke’s Presentation of Jesus: A Christology, 8-9)Jesus is still remembered as Jesus of Nazareth, a designation to which he never seems to object. Christ’s lowly origins serve as a constant reminder not to overlook anyone no matter how insignificant they may appear to be on the surface.
How do you think that being raised in Nazareth shaped Jesus? Do you think, in modern terms, that Jesus’ hometown represented a “p.r. nightmare”? Where are you from? How does the perception of your hometown shape your image?
“The person you consider ignorant and insignificant is the one who came from God, that he might learn bliss from grief and knowledge from gloom.” - Khalil Gibran (1883-1931)