Nazareth, the largest city in the Northern District of Israel was the childhood home of Jesus. Despite being such a well-known place, it is only mentioned in the four Gospels and the book of Acts. Although the city was never mentioned in the Old Testament, it is suggested Nazareth comes from the Hebrew word Netzer, which means branch, and alludes to the prophetic message in Isaiah 11:1 about the “branch of Jesse” that would eventually lead to the birth of Jesus. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
In Biblical times, Nazareth was a town rather than a city, or to be more precise, “a town in Galilee.” (Luke 1:26) In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel visited Mary at her home in Nazareth to inform her that she would have a son. Her fiancé, Joseph, also came from Nazareth but, as we know, Jesus was not born there, but in Bethlehem. “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.” (Luke 2:4)
Joseph and Mary could not immediately return to Nazareth due to King Herod the Great, who was searching for Jesus with intent to kill. Instead, the family fled to Egypt where they remained in relative safety until, “Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:22-23)
Jesus grew up as a Nazarene and the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth” appears at least seventeen times in the Bible. The Acts of the Apostles tends to refer to Christ as Jesus of Nazareth more than the Gospels, however, the Gospel of Mark tells us an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24) The Gospel of John records at Jesus’ crucifixion, “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19:19)
When the writers of the Bible introduce new people, they usually reveal where they came from, therefore, hometowns must have been important and used as a way to judge people’s character. Nazareth, being only a town and not yet a city, was not a highly regarded place, evidenced by the future apostle Nathanael’s reaction when he first heard about Jesus. “‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked.” (John 1:46) It is not certain why Nazareth was looked down upon, however, when Jesus “went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom,” (Luke 4:16) he was rejected by the crowds who “drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.” (4:29)
There is very little in the history books about what Nazareth was like during the life of Jesus. There is no archaeological evidence of its existence until the Roman period, during which time Jesus was born. Similarly, although it is mentioned in the New Testament, there are no extant non-biblical references to Nazareth until around 200 AD. To make matters more confusing, the earliest references to Nazareth contain conflicting information, for example, one source said approximately 2000 people living in Nazareth at the time of Jesus, whereas, a different source states it had a population of 400. It was not until 2009 that any archaeological remains were discovered in the area dating to the time of Jesus.
Texts from the 6th century claim pilgrims began travelling to Nazareth to see the Jewish synagogue where Jesus was taught and the freshwater spring, known as Mary’s Well, where the Annunciation reputedly took place. Evidence has been found of a church built on the site believed to be Mary’s house and it is believed the town benefited from the Christian pilgrim trade. Unfortunately, anti-Christian hostility broke out when the Persians invaded in 614 AD. Many Jewish people helped the Persians to persecute and slaughter the Christians until Emperor Heraclius of the Byzantine Empire conquered the land in 630 AD. As punishment for their cruel acts, Heraclius expelled the Jews from Nazareth, turning it an all-Christian town.
As well as the church over Mary’s house, there was also a church where Joseph once lived. This, however, was destroyed during the Arab Muslim period, which lasted from 638 AD until the Crusader Period. In 1099, the Crusader Tancred made himself Prince of Galilee and used Nazareth as his capital. The town remained under Christian control until 1187 when the Muslims reclaimed it. Fortunately, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II managed to negotiate safe passage for Christian pilgrims, although, the Egyptians later destroyed all the Christian buildings when they invaded in 1263.
Due to all the invasions, Nazareth had become a poor village, although a few Arab Christians were determined to remain there. In the 14th century, Franciscan monks returned to Nazareth, however, were evicted in 1584 by the Ottoman Empire. Fortunately, in 1730, the leader of the Galilee, Zahir al-Umar, was more sympathetic to the Christians and allowed a Franciscan Church to be built. Permitting the Greek Orthodox community to build St Gabriel’s Church, which still stands today, followed in 1767.
Nazareth has since been occupied by a variety of people and nationalities, for instance, Napoleon in 1799, Britain in 1917 and Israel in the 1950s. Today, Nazareth still belongs to Israel, however, it receives a lot of trade and visitors from many places across the world, which has helped Nazareth grow into a sizeable city.
Today, Nazareth is home to many religious buildings, the majority of which are Christian, however, there are still plenty of Muslim places of worship. Churches include the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, the Greek Orthodox Church of St Gabriel, the Melkite Synagogue Church, the Roman Catholic St Joseph’s Church, the Mensa Christi Church, and the Basilica of Jesus the Adolescent.
Just for fun, did you know Nazareth is twinned with these cities?
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon