Category Archives: nasarene

Was Jesus From Nazareth?

I originally posted this at Neil Godfrey's blog. I just thought I'd post it here on my own blog because I didn't feel like re-writing it 🙂

Salm’s conviction that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus is obviously contrary to the evidence of Mk 1.9, ‘Jesus came from Nazaret of Galilee.’ (p. 131)

Er, yes. That is the reason for the debate in the first place. Casey argues that all the manuscripts contain this line in Mark, so we presumably have no reason to doubt the historicity of its detail. How seriously are we meant to take this towering intellect?

If we assume that Mark was written first, and Matthew largely copied and rewrote Mark, then we have at least one manuscript that did not have “Jesus from Nazareth from Galilee” at Mark 1:9. And this manuscript is older than any other extant one. This would be Mattew 3:13. In other words, since Matthew only writes “Jesus [came] from Galilee”, leaving out the “from Nazareth” when he usually copies Mark word-for-word, then whatever version of Mark that Matthew is copying from did not have “Nazareth” at 1:9. Notice, also, that Matt inserts a gratuitous “Nazareth” in another place where it is absent in Mark, at Matt 21:11. So there’s probably no reason that Matt would leave it out of Mark 1:9 if it had been there.

This makes sense of the rest of Mark, since Mark only uses the word “Nazarene” throughout the rest of the gospel. “Nazareth” at Mark 1:9 is an outlier.

There’s also the linguistic problem of deriving “Nazareth” from “Nazarene”. There are at least four different spellings of this town name and its “gentilic” in the gospel narratives: ΝΑΖΑΡΗΝΟΣ (Nazarene), ΝΑΖΩΡΑΙΟΣ (Nazoraios), ΝΑΖΑΡΑ (Nazara), ΝΑΖΑΡΕΤ/ΝΑΖΑΡΕΘ (Nazareth). Mark only uses Nazarene (as argued). Matt and Luke use all four, and John only uses Nazoraios and Nazareth (Acts of the Apostles almost exclusively uses Nazoraios). Since the spelling is all over the place, this probably means that there was no tradition earlier than Matt that Jesus came from Nazareth, and the gospel authors subsequent to Mark did not know what to do with Mark’s “Nazarene”.

The easiest way to derive a place name from something like “Nazarene” would be to move from “Nazarene” to “Nazara”, which is exactly what Luke (4.16) and Matt (4.13) do. Just like a Gerasene (ΓΕΡΑΣΗΝΟΣ, Mark 5:1) means someone from Gerasa.

Nazoraios, also, enters the Synoptic tradition sometime around whenever Matt was written. Matt probably invented it, deriving it from misremembering or taking out of context (Matt shows a penchant for doing that 🙂 ) the prophetic-sounding Judges 13:5 where Samson is said to be a ΝΑΖΙΡΑΙΟΣ – “Nazirite” (in some LXX manuscripts). This is only one letter off from Matt’s Nazoraios. While there is a huge variance with how Judges 13:5 was translated (some say ΝΑΖΕΙΡΑΙΟΣ, others say ΝΑΖΙΡ, and some translate it literally as ΑΓΝΕΙΑ, which means what the Hebrew NZYR means: “consecrated”), there is a staggering consistency with how Matt, Luke, and John spell Nazoraios. Which probably means that they are reading from each other and not basing it on oral tradition. I would think that an oral tradition might introduce the same sort of variance that Nazirite has in the LXX.

Lastly, Nazareth, the town name, has an odd spelling if it is based on the Hebrew town. Usually the Hebrew Tsade is rendered in Koine Greek as a Sigma (like Isaac is derived from Yitzak, Sadducee from Tzadokim, etc.) but Nazareth has a consistent Zeta instead of a Sigma in the NT. According to Epiphanius, the Nasarenes were an ancient anti-Torah sect of Jews from the time period of Jeremiah.

So this leads to a sort of catch-22. If Jesus was a Nasarene, then he has no relationship with the town. If Jesus was a Nazarene (that is, someone from Nazara) then he’s from a town that didn’t exist. To solve this problem, the gospel authors simply fudge the numbers a bit and thus we end up with a convoluted tradition that has Jesus ultimately from the town that sounds kinda-sorta-little bit like Nazarene: Nazareth.

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Posted by on March 11, 2011 in nasarene, nazarene, nazareth

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