Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Geographic Origins of Jesus, Part II: The Hometown of Jesus

In the first part of this study, we looked at the birthplace of Jesus. In that study, I concluded that Jesus was almost certainly not born in Bethlehem. In drawing this conclusion, I took it as undisputed fact that Jesus’ hometown was Nazareth. Indeed, this is the clear belief of the Gospel writers, and even plays a role in understanding the problems faced by Luke and Matthew in getting Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. However, there is some historical question as to whether or not Jesus was even, in fact, from Nazareth.

To begin this study, let me assert, again, that it was the clear and undisputed fact among Christians of the Gospel era that Jesus’ hometown was Nazareth. There can be no question that the Gospel writers took this as common knowledge. As alluded to above, it was this very common, widely-held knowledge that presented such an issue for the writers of the Bethlehem birth stories. Jesus is referred to time and time again in the texts of the New Testament as hailing from Nazareth.

A problem, however, with this understanding arises first in the archaeological record. Archaeologists working in Galilee have compiled artifacts and evidence of human habitation in the area of Nazareth going all the way back to the prehistoric period. Cave men and hunter-gatherers lived in the area of Nazareth. Archaeologists have also gathered evidence of human habitation in the area during the historical period that predates the Jewish era. Thus, groups such as the Canaanites are known to have inhabited the area of Nazareth – though there is no evidence to suppose they called their town by that name.

However, beginning with the Jewish period – that is, by about the time of King David in around 1000 B.C.E. (and actually quite a bit earlier) – the archaeological well runs dry. There is little to no evidence of human habitation in the area after the Jews arrived. Throughout all of ancient Jewish history, there appears to have been no one living there; or, if some settlement existed, it was so minor as to have left no significant archaeological evidence, and to have never garnered any mention in the texts of the Old Testament (at least, not with the name of Nazareth). This period of archaeological drought continues up to and through the time of Jesus. The archaeological discoveries do not begin to pick up again until about the 2nd century C.E., or 100 years after Jesus’ death.

This first bit of evidence has caused some to question whether Jesus, then, could have been from a town that did not, apparently, exist in the early 1st century. From there, these folks begin looking for other possible evidence to support this supposition. They find it in the ancient Jewish sect of the Nazirs, to which we now turn.

The Nazirs were Jews who took an ascetic’s vow. As outlined in the Old Testament book of Numbers, the Nazirite vow included abstaining from wine and other fermented beverages, up to an including eating grapes, refraining from cutting body hair, and avoiding dead bodies, graves, or tombs. While some Nazirs appear to have taken the vow for life, most took the vow only for a predetermined period of time. It functioned, then, rather like a Buddhist leaving society for a year to pray and meditate, and then later returning to regular life.

Those familiar with the New Testament will probably already begin to see that we have at least one New Testament figure who was undoubtedly a Nazir – John the Baptist. John is described as living in the wilderness, eating only what he could scrounge up from nature, abstaining from alcohol, refraining from cutting his hair, and wearing animal skins as clothes. Furthermore, the Gospel of Luke, in describing an angelic visit to John’s father, tells us that John is to be a Nazir from birth, taking the appropriate vows.

As all Christians should be aware, Jesus and John the Baptist are very closely linked. The Gospels describe the relationship between these two men as one of messenger and coming messiah. John the Baptist, then, “prepares the way” for Jesus, predicting his arrival on the scene, and describing him as “one whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

However, many scholars do not believe the relationship was quite so one-sided in Jesus’ favor. In fact, many Jesus scholars believe that Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist, who later broke from his mentor and became a prophet in his own right. There is an array of evidence for this, which is far too detailed to discuss in depth in this essay. For our purposes I will point out first that Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as going to John for baptism, something that would seem to imply that Jesus was, in fact, following John. Additionally, much of Jesus’ message builds on the message of John (and then later diverges), and this is another important piece of evidence to suggest that Jesus began as John’s follower. We know of John’s life and message not primarily from the Christian tradition, but rather from Jewish records. John the Baptist was revered by Jews as an important 1st century figure and prophet, and as such, he was written about extensively by historians such as Josephus. Scholars argue that the New Testament depicts John as merely heralding Jesus’ coming, and insisting routinely on his own secondary status to Jesus, simply because it would not have fit with emerging Christian theology to describe Jesus – who was understood as the messiah and Son of God – as starting secondarily to John the Baptist.

The logical conclusion, then, to be drawn from this evidence of Jesus as John the Baptist’s disciple is that Jesus, too, took the Nazir vow. Following this assertion a little further, one can imagine how the story might have unfolded: Jesus came into John’s inner circle and became his follower, he subsequently took the Nazir vow and spent an unspecified period of time praying and meditating and retreating from society, eventually completed the requirements of his vow, and then returned to society “preaching and teaching” the new insights he had gained during his ascetic spiritual quest. In at least one Gospel account of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is made to tell his followers that he will not “take of the vine” again (meaning, he will not drink wine or eat grapes) until he enters the kingdom of God. Perhaps, for this Gospel writer, Jesus was renewing his vow in light of his coming crucifixion.

Having looked now at who the Nazirs were and how Jesus has come to be connected with them, we turn back to the original problem: In light of the lacking archaeological record, what other evidence is there to suggest that Jesus did not actually come from Nazareth? Based on the similarity of the two words, you may already see where I am going.

Folks who argue that Jesus did not come from Nazareth have postulated that the Nazareth tradition sprang up on the basis of a misunderstanding. Jesus, these folks say, was widely known during his life as “Jesus the Nazarene.” This designation, they argue, was based on the fact that Jesus was known to have taken the Nazir vow. The moniker would have followed Jesus after his death and into the early Christian period. As Christianity spread to non-Jews, as well as to Jews who may not have known any better, the designation of “Jesus the Nazarene” got misinterpreted by people unfamiliar with the sect of the Nazirs. Instead, they assumed it meant that Jesus was from a town called Nazareth. In time, the misunderstanding propagated, and eventually came to be understood as common knowledge. In light of this, the argument goes, we do not actually know where Jesus came from, but it could not have been Nazareth. Nazareth, these folks say, became a new town only after Jesus’ death, and this is why the archaeological evidence does not reappear until the 2nd century.

Seeing now the issue raised by some skeptics, should we make the conclusion that Jesus was supposed by the early Christians to have been from a town called Nazareth, but this was based on a misunderstanding driven by ignorance of the sect of the Nazirs and Jesus’ association with them, and Nazareth, in actuality, did not exist during Jesus’ life?

It may surprise some of my more traditional readers – who sometimes accuse me of perpetually trying to deconstruct the traditional beliefs surrounding Jesus – that my answer to this question is a firm “no.” I do, in fact, believe that the evidence for Jesus’ Nazareth origins is overwhelming. Furthermore, I believe that the arguments of the skeptics, when each branch is taken to its logical conclusion, lead to the firm assertion that Jesus must have been from a town called Nazareth. I turn now to my reasons for this belief.

As I have stated now several times, there can be no question that the Gospel writers, beginning sometimes after 70 C.E., were utterly convinced that Jesus was from a real town called Nazareth. For them, it was undisputed common knowledge. It was so widely known, that it presented a serious composition problem for those writers who wanted to place Jesus in Bethlehem for his birth. Since we can know with certainty that the Gospel writers believed Jesus was from Nazareth, it stands to reason that there must have been a real town, with real inhabitants, called Nazareth by the time the Gospel writers were creating their stories. Otherwise, they would have been asserting that Jesus was from a town that everyone knew did not even exist. There could have been no obvious reason for the Gospel writers to be using Nazareth metaphorically or interpretatively as part of their creative memory of Jesus (recall that Nazareth never appears in the Jewish scriptures), so we must assume that their use of this town name was based on the fact that they really believed and knew that such a town existed.

This alone, however, is not enough. Perhaps the town existed by the Gospel era, but had only first sprung up after Jesus died. By this line of reasoning, one might assume that the misunderstanding began in new Christian converts after Jesus died, and these converts, assuming there was a town called Nazareth, went to Galilee to find it. Upon arriving, they found no such town, so they simply founded one themselves and called it Nazareth. As such, by the time of the Gospel era, there really was a Nazareth.

This explanation, however, is fraught with improbability. The disciples and followers of Jesus, who had known him and learned from him personally, were obviously the first people to spread the Christian message. They were the first people to begin converting people to the new Christian religion. Furthermore, they would have known where he was from. If their converts, who met Jesus through them as “Jesus the Nazarene,” began propagating the mistaken idea that Jesus must have been from a town called Nazareth, these disciples and personal companions of Jesus would have obviously steered them straight. “No,” they would have said, “Jesus was a Nazir, that’s why he’s called the Nazarene. There is no such town as Nazareth. Jesus was actually from Capernaum” (or Magdala, or Acco, or Tiberius, or whatever Galilean town Jesus was actually from in this scenario). The mistaken designation could not possibly have blossomed into widely-held common knowledge because there would have been too many people who knew Jesus personally who would have stepped in to correct it.

But what if the mistake did not begin to grow until after most of Jesus’ personal companions had died? If we follow this line of thought, we see that it, too, is fraught with improbabilities. First of all, most of Jesus’ personal companions would not have been dead until about the 60’s C.E. We know Mark’s Gospel was written shortly after 70 C.E. (and remember, Mark already assumes the common knowledge that Nazareth existed). There would not have been enough time between the deaths of Jesus’ companions, and the beginning of the Gospel era, for such an error to grow to epidemic proportions. Secondly, it cannot be assumed that knowledge of Jesus’ hometown would have died completely with his companions. Clearly, in their many years of missionary work, preaching in synagogues, discussing Jesus with converts, and starting churches, facts about Jesus’ life – such as where he was from – would have trickled down. Thus, even after all his closest companions were dead, second generation Christians would have known where Jesus was from. Thus, if some people – who for whatever reason did not know about Jesus’ hometown – began assuming a place called Nazareth, these second generation Christians would have stepped in to stem the tide of misunderstanding.

It is also vital to point out that if a town had sprung up after Jesus’ life and had been named Nazareth and passed off as Jesus’ actual hometown, there would have been countless people who would have known the town was actually new and had not existed before. Even if there were a lot of early Christians ignorant of Galilean geography (and it is true that people did not exactly have atlases sitting on their bookshelves at home), there still would have been plenty of folks who did know that Nazareth had never existed during Jesus’ life. These people, too, both Christian and non-Christian alike, could have easily stemmed the tide of the growing misunderstanding. “There was no town of Nazareth during the life of Jesus,” these people would have said. “The town there now was only just settled fifteen years ago, and it was started by Christians!”

It is simply an untenable proposition to assert that Nazareth could have been founded after Jesus’ life, without countless people – both Jesus’ own companions and their later converts, and other folks who simply knew the geography of Galilee – pointing out that the town had not existed previously. There would have been far too many people aware that Nazareth was not really the hometown of Jesus for the idea to have grown, by 70 C.E., to the point of common, undisputed knowledge.

For this reason, one must assert that not only did Nazareth indisputably exist as an inhabited town by the time of the Gospel era, but it must also have existed during the life of Jesus. Any other assertion is simply untenable and does not follow the line of reasoning to its logical conclusion.

We have now established, I believe conclusively, that Nazareth must have been a real, inhabited town even during the life of Jesus. However, this does not, in and of itself, mean that Jesus was, in fact, from Nazareth. Perhaps the moniker “Jesus the Nazarene” really did refer to Jesus’ Nazir roots, and not to any origins in the town of Nazareth. However, the same arguments used to establish the conclusion that Nazareth really existed during the time of Jesus can be used to counter any continued insistence that Jesus may not have been from Nazareth. How could the disciples and closest companions of the Jesus – who would have known where he was from – let such a mistake propagate? How could the second generation Christians, to whom the knowledge of Jesus’ companions had trickled down, allow the mistake to live on? A mistake of this proportion could not have blossomed with so many people around who knew it was wrong.

What if the error began on a small scale, in some far off region? By this line of thinking, one might suppose that the early Christians – those who knew Jesus – came through some remote region of the empire, preaching and teaching the message of Christ. While there, they converted many people, and started a church. After some time, they went on their way, leaving the church to flourish. Perhaps during their time there, the subject of Jesus’ hometown never got brought up or discussed. After the missionaries left, the converts began pondering their new faith. Since they had never heard of a Nazir, they began to assume that the moniker “Jesus the Nazarene” meant Jesus was from the small hamlet of Nazareth, known to exist in Galilee. It very quickly became common knowledge among this remote group of Christians that Jesus was from Nazareth. From there, it slowly began to blossom. Perhaps there were other similar remote regions where the same mistake was made. Eventually they grow into each other and the mistake becomes common knowledge.

Again, this line of reasoning simply cannot work because as the regional mistakes began to blossom, they would have invariably met areas with Christians who did know the true hometown of Jesus. Once again, those who knew the true story would have put an end to the growing rumors of Jesus’ Nazareth connection.

Some might, at this point, wish to return to the archaeological evidence. All discussions of the supposed misunderstanding aside, how can we reconcile the dearth of archaeological evidence from the eras before, during, and even after Jesus? Actually, it is quite simple. The reason no significant archaeological evidence exists from the ancient Jewish kingdom may very well be because no one was living there. Perhaps the town was settled in late antiquity, possibly even just prior to Jesus’ life. Maybe Jesus and his family were among the first Jews to inhabit the area. During Jesus’ life, and immediately thereafter, the town was certainly small. Not even a town, really, but a village of a few hundred people. It is probably not surprising that a village with such a small population would leave no archaeological evidence 2,000 years later, particularly with all the layers of civilization that have grown on top of it. By the 2nd century, when the evidence does begin to appear in the record, it does so at that time because by then, the town had grown! Christians wanting to live in the hometown of Jesus would probably have flocked to the little village of Nazareth in droves during the century after Jesus’ life. Thus, by the 100’s, there were enough people living there to leave traces for archaeologists to uncover later.

Another important fact to point out, in refuting arguments that Jesus was not really from Nazareth, refers back to the roots of Jesus as a Nazir. The argument being put forward by some skeptics is that Jesus was a Nazir, and his designation as “Jesus the Nazarene” was based on his life as a Nazir, not on any connection to Nazareth. However, it is vitally important to remember that we cannot know with certainty that Jesus was, in fact, a Nazir. This is a scholarly conclusion based on a lot of good evidence, but it is by no means an established objective fact. There are plenty of scholars who do not describe Jesus that way, and there is certainly no explicit reference in the New Testament to Jesus ever taking the Nazir vow. Thus, if Jesus, in fact, never took the Nazir vow, then the entire argument about a misunderstanding is null and void from the outset. If Jesus was never a Nazir, then the argument cannot be valid, because it begins on a false premise. Again, there are a lot of good reasons to suppose Jesus may have taken the Nazir vow, but we cannot know this for certain.

In the end, I think the entire issue is put to rest simply by recognizing that the premise of the argument is not evidence that Jesus was not from Nazareth, but is simply evidence of a 1st century coincidence – a coincidence, by the way, that is rather mundane and not all that unusual. Jesus was from a town called Nazareth. It also just so happens that he fell into the inner circle of a man who was a committed figure in the Nazir sect, and Jesus, too, may have taken a vow of Nazir asceticism. The fact that Nazareth and Nazir are similar words is just a coincidence. A modern analogy might be a man named Louis who happens to live in Louisville. I am sure there are many Louis’s in Louisville, and I am sure there is nothing significant whatsoever about that fact. I am equally certain that there are plenty of Yorks in New York and Francis’s in San Francisco. There may even be some Hell’s Angels in Los Angeles and one or two dentists in Denver. And as there is no greater meaning behind any of those mundane coincidences, neither is there any significance behind the coincidence that Jesus was from the town of Nazareth, and may also have been a Nazir.

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