What's in a title: Jesus of Nazareth, the Nazarene

Nathanael asks the question, Photo: Church of St. Joseph, Nazareth (Image: S.K. LO (Flickr))

FLOWER MOUND, TX, April 30, 2012 — Jesus’ family immigrated to the city of Nazareth shortly after the great migration of the Jewish people from Babylonian captivity. Jesus’ names “Jesus of Nazareth” and the “Nazarene” came from the historic line of David as a “shoot” of a Branch (Netzer).

Following the death of Herod the Great, his kingdom was divided into two kingdoms as stipulated by his will. Antipas was to rule over Galilee and Peraea as tetrarch. Herod selected the centrally located Galilean city of Sepphoris (Hebrew “Zippori”) as his capital. Antipas launched a huge building project that lasted during Jesus’ lifetime. As the largest and most beautiful city in Galilee, it had a great influence on Nazareth, even though the Gospels do not mention it by name. 

Nazareth is a thriving city today, but in Jesus’ time it was a small village of about 400-500 in population. Capernaum was probably larger with a population of 1500-1700. The nearby Herodian cities of Sepphoris and Tiberius were certainly consumer cities. The large building projects of the period in them provided a lively economy for farmers, builders, and fishermen. 

Herod Antipas’ building projects called for basalt and limestone quarrying, agricultural products, fish, and meat. Joseph, and even Jesus, may have had jobs in Sepphoris or Tiberius. Capernaum was near enough to profit from the expanding economy as well. Tessarae stone was used for mosaics covering floors in affluent private homes and public buildings. Limestone was used for frescoes and plaster. Local non-Herodian cities lacked these amenities and stood in stark contrast. Roofs were made of a mixture of mud and straw with mud packed floors. 

The wealth developed by Herod in Galilee led to economic woes and challenges to Jewish values in many of the smaller villages. Jesus spoke of the blessings to the poor; he empathized with the hungry, supported release from debt, and encouraged the settlement of land disputes rampant in Sepphorus and Tiberius. And yet, Jesus did not single out Sepphoris and Tiberius for condemnation, but rather Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin. 

The traditional view of Jesus working in a carpenter’s shop with his father in Nazareth needs some revision. With the archaeological discovery of Sepphoris and some indications from Josephus, the evidence suggests that the term describing Joseph as a “carpenter” may really mean the more general occupation of a “building contractor,” which would certainly include stone work. 

It may affirm that much of Joseph’s work was done in the nearby major city of Sepphoris, located just three miles north of Nazareth (perhaps an hour’s journey). Herod’s desire to arrest Jesus may have been the reason Jesus did not spend too much time in the capital preaching and hence no direct mention of visiting Sepphoris.  

The residents of Nazareth, like many small villages were basket weavers, tanners, shepherds, carpenters, farmers, fishermen (if near the Sea of Galilee), and of course, masons. It was common for sons to inherit their fathers’ occupation and to be trained by them. Certainly Jesus would have taken the occupation of Joseph. In a city known for its ultra conservative Hasidic theology and its label as an insignificant country town, it is no wonder Nathanael asks the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)    

Apparently, sometime around 100 B.C., the clan of David returned from the Babylonian captivity and settled in Nazareth and Batanea. Jesus’ baptism by John at Salim near Aenon (Matthew 3:13) was near the site of Batanea (i.e. Cochaba, north of Beth Shean). 

Matthew 2:23 records, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Jerome was the first to associate the fulfillment of this prophecy with Isaiah 11:1 “And a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a Branch (Netzer) will bear fruit.” Revelation 22:16 reads, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” The beggar Bartimaeus shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” (Mark 10:47) 

During excavations at Caesarea in 1962, an inscription was found listing priestly families who settled in Galilee during the Roman period. One of the families lived in Nazareth. The Dead Sea scrolls refer to the Essenes and calls them, “Netzer shoot planted by God.” This suggests that Jesus, the Nazarene, refers to his Davidic lineage rather than a “Nazirite” (a religious ascetic) as some previously suggested.  

Jesus’ life in Nazareth had minimal impact on his ministry when compared to his ministry in Capernaum, and yet; he is not called a “Capernaumite.” It would appear that his name was attached to his city of his ancestors (Nazareth) and his link to the line of David “Nazarene.” 

The modern pilgrim must see the “Nazareth Village” when visiting Galilee. It is advertised as:

“Based on New Testament scholarship and the most up-to-date archaeology, Nazareth Village brings to life a farm and Galilean village, recreating Nazareth as it was 2,000 years ago.” This inexpensive experience will help visualize daily life in the Nazareth of Jesus’ day.


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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.


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