“ 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 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 2:21-23.
Nazareth (Arabic: النَّاصِرَة, an-āṣira; Hebrew: נָצְרַת, Nāṣəraṯ; Aramaic: ܢܨܪܬ, Naṣrath), is situated north of Jerusalem close to Galilee. Now the largest city in the Northern District of Israel, Nazareth has become, quite different from ancient times, the "the Arab capital of Israel". In 2019 its population was 77,445. The inhabitants are predominantly Arab citizens of Israel, of whom 69% are Muslims and 30.9% Christians. Nazareth Illit ("Upper Nazareth") was declared a separate city in June 1974, wholly built alongside old Nazareth, had a Jewish population of 41,734 in 2019.
When the state of Israel was created in 1948, Nazareth was still a small Christian town. The influx of Muslim refugees from surrounding villages changed its demographic makeup, and the high birth rate in the Muslim community quickly push up the proportion of Muslims in the population.
As the largest Arab city in Israel, Nazareth is now a cultural, political, religious, economic and commercial center of the Arab citizens of Israel, and has become also the center of Arab and Palestinian nationalism.
Upper Nazareth was initially built to “Judaise” Nazareth with the intention of making old Nazareth a poor Arab ‘ghetto’ next to a modern Jewish city. Nonetheless the task did not come to fruition and many wealthier residents of Nazareth went and bought homes in Upper Nazareth instead, such that by now a quarter of the city’s residents are Palestinians. The city has a lot of macro and mini political rivalry going on between the Jewish, Christian and Arab fractions.
Christians obviously are versed with the name of “Nazareth”, the name of the town where Jesus grew up after His birth in the City of Bethlehem. Nazareth was an uncelebrated, forgotten town, off the beaten track at the time, and supposed to have a meagre population.
Nazareth is indeed more widely known today than it was in Jesus’ day. Its population then was estimated to have been between one hundred and four hundred people, and its lack of mention in the Talmud and by the historian Josephus might suggest that it was even smaller.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, grew up in this once very obscure town in Israel. Yes, the Son of God. Eminent first-century figures didn’t know or speak much about the town of Nazareth, and outside of Israel the town wasn’t even known. The Gospel writers had to explain what Nazareth was — a town in Galilee — when it was first mentioned (Matthew 2:23; Mark 1:9; Luke 1:26).
After his memorable visit to the temple at the age of twelve, Luke tells us Jesus “went down from Jerusalem” with his parents. Indeed he did. To leave Jerusalem was to “go down” — perhaps not geographically but socially. And yet, the Son of God “went down with them and came to Nazareth” (Luke 2:51).
The large nearby town of Sepphoris, 6 km away, which had a population of thirty thousand and was more well known, comparatively much more affluent, with culture, shopping, and undoubtedly all the other things expected of a prosperous city. Luxury villas with extravagant tile mosaic floors have been excavated. At the time of Jesus’ early life, Sepphoris was being rebuilt by Herod Antipus. It appears that Jesus and Joseph worked there as craftsmen, in support of Sepphoris’ prosperity.
Nazareth’s low social status is well seen in John 1:45-46 when Philip, one of Jesus’ first disciples, told his friend Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
800 years before Christ's birth, Isaiah prophesied that "a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit" (Isaiah 11:1). The word "branch" in Hebrew is “netzer”, the same root word which the name "Nazareth" comes from. Some historians have suggested that Nazareth was named as "the town of the branch," meaning "the place where the Branch of David lives."
In the New Testament, Matthew connects Nazareth with the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1: "And came and resided in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’" (Matthew 2:23). A big part of the Old Testament was written predicting, or in response to, the destruction of Israel. The northern half of the country was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C. The southern half of the country Judah was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire in 587 or 586 B.C. Isaiah's prophecy contains a double message (as are many prophecies in the Bible) that remained hidden until Matthew the tax collector, under the Holy Spirit's inspiration, solved the puzzle and uncovered the messianic prophecy.
It appeared that around 100 BC, a few Jewish families from the line of David returned to Israel and established the town of Nazareth. They settled in Nazareth largely on account of persecution from Herod. They may have chosen this name as a way of articulating their hope that one day the Messiah would come to Israel. It was as if they were saying, “We believe God will deliver us. We believe the day will come when God will send a new king who will deliver us.” Little did they know that the branch foretold in Isaiah, and similarly in Jeremiah and Zechariah, would be a child who would grow up in their own village!
According to Josephus, Herod the Great destroyed all the public genealogies of the Jews. Some private genealogies survived, being secretly recorded and hidden up by families. These records indicated that Nazareth was home to a large clan or “branch” of David's line. The whole town was literally one big family. So when Jesus stood in the synagogue and announced that he was the Messiah of whom Isaiah spoke, the people who were angry were Jesus' family members: aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. Jesus' relatives and neighbours had a strong reaction to the announcement and had tried to push Jesus off a cliff, a fate he miraculously escaped. The story is movingly narrated in Luke 4: 14-28:
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 Truly I tell you, he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown”. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[g] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, 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. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
While it is completely absent in the Old Testament, there are 28 other mentions of the name of Nazareth in the New Testament. I here quoted some relevant verses:
“In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee”. Luke 1:26
“When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth”. Luke 2:39
“Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” John 1:45
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip”. John 1:46
“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.)” John 18:5
“Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they said”. John 18:7
‘Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the jews”. John 19:19
“Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Acts 3:6
“Then came the revelation to Paul of Tarsus, who would admit, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth” Acts 26:9
Here even Jesus himself — in the only record we have of him self-identifying with Nazareth — took up the newly honorific title when he appeared on the Damascus Road: “ I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. “ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied”. Acts 22:7-8
The Arab Muslim invasion of AD 638 had no immediate impact on the Christians of Nazareth and their churches. At the time there were two “bigger”churches, one at the house of Joseph where Jesus had lived as a child, and one at the house of Mary where she received the Annunciation - but no synagogue, which had possibly been transformed into a mosque. The ruins from Arab Muslim wars of the Church of Joseph remained untouched for a very long time, while the Church of Mary is repeatedly mentioned throughout the following centuries, and it is now one of the largest Catholic Church in Israel.
Why did God choose this town of all places to find the mother of Christ? Why would God choose this village, which was looked down upon by the people of Galilee and one which was of such low standing that it was not included in the lists of towns of Galilee? Why have this story not taken place in Sepphoris among the wealthy living in their luxury villas, but instead in Nazareth among lowly working-class people, some of whom even lived in caves? What does it tell us about whom God can use to accomplish his purposes, or where does God’s character lies?
In God’s sovereign plan for his Son, He left the buzzing, big-city temple, the very nexus of the nation’s activity and excitement, and “going down” to the small-town of Nazareth, to live thirty years in obscurity. Here he would remain until John the Baptist’s arrest (Matthew 4:13, Luke 16:16). “Nazarene”, often used as a downgrading description, became a stigma he would carry for the rest of his life.
Maybe we can always know this much, God looks for the meek and the humble to use for his greatest purposes. God chooses the least likely to accomplish his most important work. God chose a slave people to be his chosen people. God called the youngest of Jesse’s seven shepherd sons, David, to become Israel’s greatest king.
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).
Why again did God choose Nazareth for Jesus’ hometown? Do we not also find the answer in Matthew 2? “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”” (Matthew 2:23) It was to fulfil the words of the Scripture. And out of the humble, broken down stump comes the righteous branch that will save the world.
I am always baffled and feel uneasy about the fact that Nazareth, where Jesus Christ grew up, is now an Islamic town, inhabited mostly by Islamic Arabs, who would not come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah and God. I ponder the words as it is written “I tell you the truth, he continued, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” (Luke 4:24)
Trust that His plan is not only sovereign, but that everything has been mapped out from the beginning of time.
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