Did Jesus really come from Nazareth? A mythicist ponders the first of two intriguing biblical mysteries.
When you look at a crucifix above a church altar, or at an old master’s painting of the Crucifixion, you will usually see a sign affixed to the cross above Jesus’ head reading ‘INRI’. ‘INRI’ stands for the Latin phrase Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, which translates into English as ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews’.
This inscription derives from the description of the crucifixion in the Gospel of John:
Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. [John 19:19]
That short phrase seems simple enough, but in fact it embodies two intriguing mysteries about the gospel narratives. Did Jesus really come from Nazareth? And why was Jesus called the King of the Jews, a claim he never made for himself? These questions present a challenge to historicists, but are not so daunting when approached from a mythicist point of view.
In this post, we’ll look at the first question, and examine the second question in the next. (See INRI: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews? Part 2)
Jesus of Nazareth
In the Nativity stories in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, but his parents take him to Nazareth as an infant where he is raised. According to these gospels, in Jesus’ time, Nazareth was a town (or city, depending on your translation) [Matthew 2:23, Luke 1:26] in Galilee with a synagogue [Matthew 13:54], that was built ‘on the brow of [a] hill’ with a cliff [Luke 4:29]. However, these details present a problem. Nazareth is built in a valley surrounded by gentle hills, and, according to the historical and archaeological evidence, it did not exist in the first century CE.
Before the gospels, Nazareth was not mentioned in early Christian writings, or the Old Testament. It was not known to the apostle Paul or the historian Josephus, nor was it referred to by any historian or geographer before the beginning of the fourth century CE. The earliest archaeological excavations, which began in 1955, were led by Catholic priests using dubious methodology and ‘must be’ logic to ‘discover’ evidence of a first century city. Most likely, the few items they unearthed came from the well-documented village of Japhia, further down the valley, which buried its dead in the area where Nazareth now stands, and where Josephus lived for a while. Japhia was destroyed by the Romans in about 63CE during the Jewish Wars, and the area was only resettled by a few families after the Bar Kochba revolt in 135CE when the Jews were expelled from Judea and many settled in Galilee.
Even in the third century, Christians could not find Nazareth, or even knew how it should be spelled. Church father Origen, who lived in Caesarea about 50 km away, did not know where Nazareth was or whether it was Nazaria or Nazareth. When Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine went on pilgrimage to Palestine in the 320sCE, there was nothing to be seen on the supposed site of Nazareth but a well, which she dubbed Mary’s Well and had a small basilica built over it. By the fifth century, the small village that had grown around the basilica had begun to welcome a trickle of pilgrims. Today, Nazareth is the largest city in the Northern District of Israel with a population of over 75,000 and visited by more than one million tourists each year.
Nazareth or Nazarene?
As we can see from the two versions of the inscription on the scroll, Jesus was called both ‘Jesus the Nazarene’ and ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. We have come to accept that they mean the same thing, that ‘Nazarene’ just means someone who comes from Nazareth, but that is not actually the case. ‘Nazarene’ does not mean ‘from Nazareth’. The Ancient Greek for ‘Nazarene’ is Nazõraios. It does not mean ‘coming from’ a town and it has no grammatical connection to the words for ‘from Nazareth’, which would be Nazaretos or Nazaranos.
So, who or what is a ‘Nazarene’? We know that ‘Nazarene’ was a term applied to early Christians. In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is accused of being ‘a ringleader of the Nazarene sect’ [Acts 24:5]. In the Talmud, Jesus is usually referred to as ‘Jesus the Nazarene.’ Even today, in Middle Eastern languages, the words for Christians derive from ‘Nazarenes’ giving us Notzrim in Hebrew, Nasrani in Syriac and Naşrani in Arabic.
However, other historical references to Nazarenes are sparse and sometimes contradictory. We know of the Nazarenes only from what the church fathers wrote in opposition to them. The term was used by Jerome to designate Jewish Torah-observant Christians whom he considered heretics who ‘pretend to be both Jews and Christians, [but] are neither.’ As is usual with the history of early Christianity, we have no texts from the Nazarenes themselves. All that exists is a hypothetical Gospel of the Nazarenes reconstructed from quotations in the writings of those same church fathers.
In the fourth century, the famed heresy hunter, Epiphanius of Salamis was the first to refer to the Nazarenes as a distinct sect and wrote of them:
They were Jewish, were attached to the Law, and had circumcision… They have (sic) no different views but confess everything in full accord with the doctrine of the Law and like the Jews, except that they are supposedly believers in Christ. For they acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and that all things have been created by God, and they declare that God is one, and that his Son is Jesus Christ… As to Christ, I cannot say whether they … regard him as a mere man, or whether, as the truth is, they affirm that he was born of Mary by the Holy Spirit… They have the Gospel according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. [Panarion 29]
It is notable that Epiphanius describes them in the present tense, as, in fact, a Christian sect known as the Nazarenes survived into the 11th century.
As for the meaning of the word ‘Nazarene’, it may have derived from the Hebrew root NZR which could mean both ‘truth’ and ‘branch’. The Ancient Greek word Nazõraios seems to be simply a transliteration of the original Hebrew or Aramaic word. There are, however, numerous variations in the spelling of Nazõraios in the earliest surviving gospel manuscripts, which is understandable given that they had been hand-copied for generation after generation by copyists who were not necessarily trained scribes. There are even differing English versions of the word. It should be translated as ‘Nazorean’ which is closer to the original Greek, but can also be spelled ‘Nazoraean’, ‘Nazorian’ or ‘Nazarean’. It may well be that English biblical translators chose to use the variant ‘Nazarene’ because it comes closest to ‘Nazareth.’
Jesus the Nazarene to Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus is referred to as both Jesus of Nazareth and as a Nazarene in both the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. As the Gospel of Mark was written first, we’ll look at how he describes Jesus and then compare Mark to the Gospel of Matthew.
Nazareth or Nazarene are referred to five times in the Gospel of Mark. In four cases [1:24, 10:47, 14:67, 16:6] either one or the other is used as an epithet for Jesus. Whether the epithet is ‘the Nazarene’ or ‘of Nazareth’ wavers depending on your translation, which, no doubt, can be attributed to the many variants in the Greek manuscripts. However, an in-depth study of the manuscripts reveals that Mark only ever used the epithet Nazõraios, i.e. Mark always called him ‘Jesus the Nazarene’.
On only one occasion does Mark refer to Nazareth as a place:
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. [Mark 1:9]
However, there is a contradiction here, because elsewhere, Mark refers to Capernaum (which is also in Galilee, albeit, about 50km from the site of Nazareth) as Jesus’ home:
A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. [Mark 2:1]
Nazareth is mentioned four times in the Gospel of Matthew, and each time it is clear the reference is to a place and not just an epithet.
Having been warned in a dream, [Joseph] 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]
When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum… [Matthew 4: 12–13]
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’ [Matthew 21:10–11]
… another servant girl saw [Peter] and said to the people there, ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth…’ ‘…your accent gives you away.’ [Matthew 26:71–73]
And then there is a verse closely reminiscent of Mark 1:9:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. [Matthew 3:13]
The only phrase in Matthew that refers to Jesus as a Nazarene is verse 2:23, above, which cites a prophecy in scripture that no one has ever been able to find.
It is clear that, throughout his gospel, Mark called Jesus a Nazarene, as a religious rather than geographical epithet. The gospel’s one reference to Nazareth in Mark 1:9 is most likely a later adjustment or interpolation intended to bring Mark into line with the later gospels. On the other hand, Matthew has clearly changed the religious epithet ‘Nazarene’ to the town of Nazareth and mentions ‘Nazarene’ only in order to tie it to Nazareth.
Meet the Ebionites
Before we continue, we should pause to meet another early Christian sect that, according to Irenæus in his treatise, Against All Heresies [3.11.7], also used the Gospel of Matthew – the Ebionites. ‘Ebionites’ was also a designation for Jewish Torah-observant Christians. Some church fathers used the name interchangeably with ‘Nazarenes’ so it is unclear whether they were the same as, a sub-set or an off shoot of the Nazarenes. Epiphanius distinguishes them as a separate sect possibly more observant than the Nazarenes.
While Epiphanius states that the Nazarenes may have believed that Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit, he is adamant that the Ebionites believed that Jesus ‘was conceived by sexual intercourse and the seed of a man, Joseph’ and that, reminiscent of the Essenes, ‘every day, if a man has been with a woman and has left her, he must immerse himself in water’. [Panarion 30]
The name ‘Ebionite’ may have derived from the Hebrew word ‘ebyon’ meaning ‘poor’ and they may have practised voluntary poverty like the earliest Christian communities as described in the Acts of the Apostles. It was the Ebionites who resettled the valley of Japhia and named their settlement ‘Nazareth’, meaning ‘The Village of the Poor.’
From Mark to Matthew
To understand why these two evangelists made the choices they did, we should take into account their intended audiences. Mark was writing for gentile Christians who had no direct ties to Palestine or Judaism, while Matthew was writing for Torah-observant, Jewish Christians, including the Ebionites.
One of Mark’s themes, disguised though it might be in allegory, is that Christianity has split from Judaism and superseded it. (See Who invented Jesus? The Origins of Mark’s Gospel) In contrast, Matthew’s theme is that Christianity is entirely compatible with Judaism, the Torah and the Law, as his Jesus says:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. [Matthew 5:17–18]
To begin with, we could ask why did Mark call Jesus a Nazarene, if Nazarene meant Christian and therefore a follower of Jesus? How could Jesus be one of his own followers? On the other hand, why was Matthew so determined to downplay the epithet of Nazarene, introduce Nazareth, and even make up a non-existent prophecy to justify the change?
As we have seen, the origins of the term ‘Nazarene’ is as the word used by Jews for the early Christians. However, since the Jews considered Christians to be apostates, mistaken in their beliefs and hostile to Judaism, the word ‘Nazarene’ had a strong negative connotation for them. In fact, they used it to mean ‘heretic’ as Epiphanius tells us:
…when they recite their prayers in the synagogues, [they] curse and anathematize them, saying three times a day, ‘God curse the Nazoraeans.’ [Panarion 29]
As we have also seen, the word ‘Nazarene’ may have derived from the root NZR which could mean either ‘truth’ or ‘branch’. These disparate meanings would be attributed to the fact that the Hebrew alphabet consists solely of consonants and vowel sounds are designated by symbols placed above or below the consonants. This would allow for wordplay between words written with the same consonants.
It may well be that the earliest Christians called themselves by a name derived from NZR meaning ‘truth’, but their Jewish detractors may have altered it to a word derived from the meaning ‘branch’ as in ‘to branch off’, ‘to diverge’. ‘to go astray’, as in the following reference to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud:
… on the eve of Passover they hanged Jesus the Nazarene… because he practiced sorcery, incited idolatry, and [led] the Jewish people astray… [Babylonian Sanhedrin 43]
For Jewish Christians, therefore, the epithet ‘Nazarene’ would have been offensive, but to a gentile Christian the word may have had neutral, even positive connotations.
I would suggest that Mark, as a gentile, proudly took on the designation of ‘Nazarene’ for his Jesus, though not necessarily with the meaning of ‘heretic’ but rather more as ‘dissenter’, to emphasise that what Jesus taught was in contrast, even in conflict, with Judaism.
On the other hand, Matthew, who was writing for a Jewish audience, could not call his Jesus ‘Jesus the Heretic’. At the same time, he did not want to diverge too much from Mark’s text, and so looked around for an alternative. He found it in the very community his gospel may have emerged from, the Ebionites, and in particular, one of their small settlements, Nazareth. In having Jesus come from Nazareth, Matthew was saying to his audience, ‘Jesus was one of us.’
The choice each evangelist made tells us something further about when the gospels were written. As Mark’s Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple in 70CE, the general consensus amongst biblical scholars is that it was written after that year, though how long after is open to debate. All we can be sure of is that at the time Mark was written, Christianity was already well-established in Palestine and had begun to spread amongst the gentiles. Matthew must have been writing after 135CE when Nazareth was first settled. We can also see how wide-ranging and diverse Christianity was at this time when there were gentile sects, that had long broken with Judaism, co-existing with Torah-observant, Jewish sects which persisted well after Christianity had spread to the gentiles.
Pauline Montagna © 2023
Kenneth Humphreys, Nazareth – The Town that Theology Built on his website, Jesus Never Existed
Dr Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Sheffield Phoenix Press (2014)
Dr Richard Carrier, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, Prometheus Books (2012)
David Fitzgerald, Jesus: Mything in Action, Vol I, Create Space (2016)
Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The battles for scriptures and the faiths we never knew, Oxford University Press (2003)