🔼The name Nazareth in the Bible
The name Nazareth belongs to the place in Galilee where Jesus spent most of his childhood and lived up to His early ministry days. The young Joseph and Mary lived there (it's where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her about her impending pregnancy; Luke 1:26), and where they returned after their flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:23, Luke 2:39).
It's generally assumed that the Nazareth mentioned in the New Testament is the same as the town called such today, but certainty does not exist in this regard. The name Nazareth neither occurs in the Old Testament nor in any other writing apart from the New Testament, until the third century AD in the work of the Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus, who localized the physical relatives of Joseph in Nazara and Cochaba, near Decapolis. Africanus' original work is lost, but this particular passage was quoted by Eusebius (Church History; 4th century AD). It may very well be that the name Nazareth was taken from the New Testament and projected back on some existing town somewhere in the general area.
From the New Testament we learn that Nazareth was located in Galilee (Mark 1:9) and built on a hill (from which Jesus' unappreciative fellow townsmen tried to throw him; Luke 4:29). Jesus was often referred to as Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22, 3:6, 4:10, 6:14) but more commonly as Jesus the Nazarene (= someone from Nazareth, not to be mistaken for Nazirite; Matthew 26:71, Mark 1:24, Luke 4:34, John 19:9). Consequently, His followers were referred to as Nazarenes (Acts 24:5).
🔼Traditional etymology of the name Nazareth
It's a bit of a mystery why the Powers that Be (or else the very early gospel tradition), placed Jesus' childhood in a town that no one else ever mentioned. The Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and not from an obscure hamlet in gentile-infested Galilee (notes too the astonished Nathanael; John 1:46, see Isaiah 9:1 and Matthew 4:15). The Bethlehem prophecy was met by Jesus' birth during the people's movement caused by the census, but the need for Nazareth in the narrative is harder to explain. Why did Jesus become known as Jesus of Nazareth (Jesus of Nowhere Ville; Jesus of Irrelevance) and not as Jesus of Bethlehem, or even Jesus of Capernaum?
According to Luke, Nazareth was large enough a town to sport its own synagogue, which contained its own scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:17), and folks inside who obviously saw so many faces that they had to think a moment who the fellow was reading from Isaiah (ah, it's that nice son of Joseph — Luke 4:22). But Josephus, the general-turned-historian who battled the Romans in Galilee and who later reported that there were 240 towns in Galilee (Vita.45), mentions 45 Galilean cities by name but not Nazareth (which was a πολις, a city, and not a κωμη, village). Likewise, the Talmud mentions 63 Galilean towns by name but not Nazareth. Likewise, Paul himself never mentions Nazareth in his writings (but then again, he also doesn't mention Bethlehem).
To answer to this embarrassing hiatus, Eberhard Nestle blithefully submits in his Hastings Bible Dictionary article on Chorazin (which also nobody mentions) that the absence of the names Nazareth and Chorazin from the historical records is "an interesting illustration of the scantiness of our literary tradition". But another "interesting illustration" comes from various archeological projects, which have shown that the site of present day Nazareth was occupied in the first century by hardly more than a few rural families (Bellarmino Bagatti, Stephen Pfann, Yardena Alexandre).
In the early 1900's, the brilliant British Biblical scholar Thomas Kelly Cheyne suggested that Nazareth was not one specific town but rather synonymous with Galilee as a whole (Enyclopaedia Biblica, under Nazareth). Other scholars reject this idea: In the Jewish Encyclopedia, G.A. Barton calls Cheyne's proposal "in the highest degree precarious" but forgoes any reasoning; James Strahan (Hastings Dictionary of the New Testament) whole heartedly agrees with Barton's condemnation of Cheyne's base assault on this "sacred name," which clearly reeks of sentimentalism and is certainly void of both scientific rigor and intellectual courage.
The trouble with the name Nazareth continues in that we only know it in Greek, and it's difficult to establish which Hebrew or Aramaic word or name was transliterated to form it. Scholars attest that the chances are excellent that it came from either the plural form or else a feminine version of a noun from either the verb נזר (nazar), or any of the two verbs נצר (nazar):
🔼Nazareth's traditional meaning
Some scholars derive our name from נצר I (nasar I), meaning to watch, and translate it with something like Watch(-tower) or Sentinel. Others like to believe that the name Nazareth came from the verb נצר II (nasar II), meaning to be green, and translate it with Branch(es). And indeed, the latter would link our name to the enigmatic (and otherwise very difficult to place) Matthean prophecy "He shall be called a Nazarene (Ναζοραιος)" (Matthew 2:23). The problem is that nowhere in the Old Testament the Messiah is predicted to come from Nazareth, but by deriving Nazareth from נצר II (nasar II) the Matthean prophecy could be considered a reflection of Isaiah 11:1, 53:2 and Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12, which tell of a shoot or branch (נצר neser) coming from Jesse; a servant named Branch.
There are, however, several detrimental problems with this interpretation:
- The prophecies tell of either a man named Branch or else a branch of Jesse. They don't state that this man should come from a place called Branches. When Messianic prophecies contained specific references to towns, these towns were also part of some kind of larger tradition (Bethlehem, for instance was not a random town, it was the city of Jesse's son David; the Messiah thus a "son" of David). Since Nazareth isn't mentioned in the Old Testament, a prophetic reference to it would be rather inert.
- Although Isaiah uses the word נצר (neser) in his prophecy of the branch (11:1 and 60:21), this word is otherwise used for other (negative) metaphors. The word for branch that the other prophecies use is יונק (yoneq; Isaiah 53:2), and צמח (semah; Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12).
- Hebrew names that contain the letter צ (tsade) are commonly transliterated into Greek containing a σ (sigma), and not a ζ (zeta), as does Nazareth; see the names Isaac, Melchizedek, Perez and Sabaoth. The Greek letter ζ (zeta) is usually the result of the Hebrew letter ז (zayin); see Boaz.
Other scholars find it much more plausible that Jesus was supposed to be called not a Nazarene but a Nazirite; a holy man, and that Nazareth means Nazirites. The word Nazirite doesn't occur in the New Testament (apart from perhaps Matthew 2:23), but if it did, it would probably look a lot like Nazareth (the Septuagint uses ναζιραιον, naziraion for Samson in Judges 13:5). The problems with this theory are also fatal:
- Jesus was obviously not a Nazirite. First of all, we would have heard about it if He was. Secondly, He came close enough to dead people to have broken His vow (John 11:43, see Numbers 6:6), and He dealt with wine and grape products often enough to assume He consumed some too at times (Mark 14:25, Luke 7:34, see Numbers 6:3).
- One does not become a Nazirite by living in a place called Nazirites, one becomes a Nazirite by making a special vow of dedication (Numbers 6:2). Nowhere in the New Testament are we told that Jesus made such a special vow, or in the Old Testament that the Messiah should be expected to do such a thing.
🔼A slightly more daring etymology
Here at Abarim Publications we have our own ideas about the etymology of the name Nazareth. Our guess is that this name didn't come from either נזר (nazar), or נצר (nazar), but is in fact a Niphal participle of the verb זרה (zara), meaning to scatter or winnow, or זרע (zara'), meaning to scatter or sow:
In Hebrew a passive tense may be formed by sticking the letter נ (nun) in front of a verb (that's the Niphal stem), and Nazareth might simply mean (It Was) Scattered / Sown. Numbers 5:28 reads, "If the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and have children (נזרעה זרע; nazar'a zera')". And through Ezekiel, the Lord says: "I am for you and I will turn to you, and you will be cultivated and sown (נזרעתם; nazara'tem; Ezekiel 36:9)".
We're guessing that Nazareth was initially the Semitic name for the settlements "scattered" in the Galilee and Decapolis regions (this kind of suburban structure was very common in ancient Israel — see our articles on the names Kiriath-arba, Biziothiah, Jazer, Netophah, Ono and Samaria), but consequently and probably primarily for what was going on there: the blending of Semitic and Greek cultures.
Judging from names on tombs, by Jesus' time the Jew-gentile ratio in Galilee was about fifty-fifty, and the influence of Hellenism on Judaism was colossal. As opening sentence of his masterful tome Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus, Mark A. Chancey resolutely states, "By the time of Jesus, all Judaism was Hellenistic Judaism". It stands to reason that in Galilee of the early first century a battle was being waged between puritan Jews, their pagan invaders and the hybridized apostasy this produced. And it stands to reason that there were several different ways in which folks responded to these contaminations: ignore it, fight it or enjoy it.
🔼Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth
Jesus' take on the gentile presence in Israel appears to be two-fold: He certainly acknowledges the difference between an uncontaminated manifestation of divine revelation and one that is marred by nonsense (see the parable of the tares sown among the wheat; Matthew 13:25), but, surprisingly He doesn't simply declare Judaism to be the wheat and paganism to be the tares. When He preaches in the synagogue of Nazareth, He quotes Isaiah's proclamation of the Year of Jubilee, which was the super-Sabbath year, to occur every fifty years (Luke 4:18-19, Isaiah 61:1-2, Leviticus 25:10).
A regular Sabbath year happened every seven years, and during it no one was supposed to sow lands or cultivate vines, but just let them grow wild (Leviticus 25:4). All people and all animals would simply eat whatever grew, without restrictions, and this obviously tastes a lot like what went on in the garden of Eden (Leviticus 25:6-7, Genesis 2:16).
And the Lord continued: "In case you're thinking: 'what will we eat when we don't sow (נזרע, nazara') or gather?' I will bless the sixth year so much that it will yield three years worth of produce" (Leviticus 25:20-21). Jesus then explains that the Lord obviously doesn't sow seed just in Israel, but also (and at times even more so) in Sidon and Aram (Luke 4:26-27).
Right before Isaiah's proclamation of the Year of Jubilee, he relates just how the Lord would provide for Israel: Nations will come to your light (60:3), they all gather together, they come to you (60:4), the wealth of the nations will come to you (60:5), they will bring gold and frankincense and will bear good news of the praises of the Lord (60:6), they will go up with acceptance on My altar and I shall glorify My glorious house (60:7). Foreigners will build up your walls, and your gates will always be open, so that men may bring to you the wealth of nations (60:11), and you will call your walls salvation and your gates praise (60:18).
Jesus' message to the Jews at Nazareth appears to be that a fourth kind of response to Hellenization is possible and preferred: God's blessing is not confined to Israel, and there might be good stuff available in other cultures. One can look at other cultures and learn from them without violating fidelity to the Lord's commandments. In fact, the Lord would often bless His people by blessing their neighbors.
As told by Luke, those present at the synagogue didn't like Jesus' swing on things very much and proceeded to pummel Him up the hill in order to shove Him off, and that by itself is a huge clue as to what is going on. If these people were pure Mosaic Jews, they would have stoned Jesus, not throw Him off a cliff. Throwing unwanted elements off mountains was a Roman and Greek habit (see Taygetus and the Tarpeian Rock, for instance. A mass execution by this means is told of in 2 Chronicles 25:12), and Luke's report of the Jews transporting Jesus up the mountain only to see Him pass through their midst and go back down again is a rather blatant wink to the famous story of Sisyphus, who achieved a few days of immortality by scamming, and as punishment had to roll a huge stone up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again each time he came near the top.
The Jews who rejected Jesus weren't observant Jews, they were a Hellenized Judaic hobby club. News about Jesus' teachings fanned all over Galilee and He was praised by all (Luke 4:14-15). But before the advent of Facebook, people didn't know what a famous person would look like, and the Jews of Nazareth were pleasantly surprised when their own homeboy appeared to be the famous teacher everybody was talking about (4:22). Their amusement came to a quick halt when Jesus basically called them a bunch of widows and lepers (4:25-27).
Here at Abarim Publications we hold that the name Nazareth means Scattered or Sown, and became applied to that form of Judaism (that of the Nazarenes) that harvested adjacent cultures for insights without forming an uncritical hybrid. Nazarenism is summed up by Paul, "Examine everything carefully and hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21) but provided with an essential fundament by Jesus, "until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18).