According to the Gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem but lived in Nazareth. While there has been a lot of scholarly discussion about whether or not he was actually born in Bethlehem,a both places are useful for teaching about the historical Jesus—regardless of any perceived conflict—and inspire us to take a deeper look at how Jesus was influenced by his environment.
The Biblical towns of Bethlehem and Nazareth are strikingly different from each other in many ways; at the same time they figure prominently in the life and ministry of Jesus. The issue to be discussed is the birthplace of Jesus. It seems clear from the infancy narratives in the Gospels that Bethlehem was the place of Jesus’ birth: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’” (Matthew 2:1–2); “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem … He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son” (Luke 2:4–7).
The infancy narratives in the Gospels give no indication that Jesus was born elsewhere.
The Gospel of John also attests that the birth of Jesus took place in Bethlehem: “Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (John 7:42).
Micah, one of the four great prophets of the eighth century B.C.E., is responsible for the classic messianic poem wherein a new David shall arise from Bethlehem, the birthplace of David, to rule in a future age: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). The New Testament interprets this poem as a reference to Jesus’ birth.
The family of David was closely associated with Bethlehem. The Lord sent Samuel to Bethlehem to find a replacement for King Saul from among the sons of Jesse. When David was presented, the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one” (1 Samuel 16:12). Then Samuel anointed David in the presence of his brothers, and the spirit of the Lord descended upon David from that day on. The name Bethlehem first occurs in 1 Samuel 16:4.
Nazareth, an obscure agricultural village in Southern Galilee, is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), in the Talmud or by the historian Josephus. Joseph may have settled in Nazareth because of its proximity to Sepphorisb where opportunities for work were readily available when Herod Antipas was reconstructing his capital there. Jesus and his family probably spent a significant amount of time at Nazareth. Luke’s Gospel is a valuable source of information about Jesus’ childhood. For example, Luke relates that Jesus and his parents were still living at Nazareth when Jesus was 12 years old. Every year Jesus and his parents went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover festival and then returned to Nazareth. Luke relates that on one particular year Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, unbeknownst to Mary and Joseph, to engage in discussion with the teachers in the Temple. Subsequently, he went with his parents and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them (Luke 2:41–51).
During his public life, Jesus visited Nazareth infrequently because he had not been received cordially there; according to Luke 4:16–27, quite the contrary occurred: “When they heard this, all in the [Nazareth] synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff” (Luke 4:28–29). What sparked this outrage was that in the synagogue of Nazareth Jesus had declared himself the fulfillment of prophecy (Luke 4:21). The Temple in Jerusalem manifested an aversion to everything foreign—not so the synagogue.
It is obvious from the foregoing that Nazareth derives its importance entirely from its relationship to the life and teaching of Jesus.
The term “Nazarene” (the Greek word has two different spellings [see below, Matthew 2:23], both understood as references to Nazareth) is applied to Jesus in all four of the Gospels and in Acts. Otherwise the 068 derivation and meaning of this word are surrounded by conjecture. It may be a play on Isaiah’s prophecy that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse [that is, from the family of David’s father], and a branch [historical king; Hebrew netzer] shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). This passage projects into the future the expectation of an ideal king.
“After being warned in a dream, he [Joseph] went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’” (Matthew 2:22–23). The source of this citation is unknown.
When evaluating Biblical literature some readers are disappointed to learn what they had been reading is not fact but fiction. If the material is not a blow-by-blow description of a person or event, its value in their estimation has been compromised. For those who have been trained in mathematical precision, the presumption is that anything less is devalued. Just the facts, they say; anything less is watered down. For them this narrow approach will produce an end product that is both bland and vapid.
On the other hand, literature that is the product of creativity and imagination is rich and vibrant. It is the difference between prose and poetry.
All of us should be enriched by our environment—not untouched by it. So too in the time of Jesus. My purpose in this column is to illustrate how both Nazareth and Bethlehem influenced Jesus.
According to the Gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem but lived in Nazareth. While there has been a lot of scholarly discussion about whether or not he was actually born in Bethlehem,a both places are useful for teaching about the historical Jesus—regardless of any perceived conflict—and inspire us to take a deeper look at how Jesus was influenced by his environment. The Biblical towns of Bethlehem and Nazareth are strikingly different from each other in many ways; at the same time they figure prominently in the life and ministry of Jesus. The issue to be discussed is the birthplace […]
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