Did Nazareth exist in 1 CE? What about Arimathia?
The earliest Jewish reference to a Nazareth is from “an inscription on a marble fragment for a synagogue found in Caesarea Maritima in 1962. This fragment gives the town’s name in Hebrew as nun·tsade·resh·tav (which would be נָצְרַת – NT[s]RT or Natsrat). The inscription dates as early as c. 300 CE and chronicles the assignment of priests that took place at some time after the Bar Kokhba revolt, 132-135 CE.” This means that a town was called Natsrat sometime during the 130s – 140s CE. NT[s]R in Hebrew meaning “offshoot” or “root”.
In the first gospel written – Mark – he only once writes the word “Nazareth” (ναζαρετ::nazaret) which is a bit odd. Every other time Mark refers to Jesus being from either Capernaeum or Galilee, and calls Jesus a Nazarene (ναζαρηνος::nazarenos). “Nazarene” in Hebrew being NT[s]RY (Notsri). Though writing this name phonetically in Greek would end up as either ΝΩΣΡΗ (nosree) or ΝΑΣΡΗ (nasree), which should have ended up in Greek as Nasarene or Nosarene. How the tsade of Hebrew ended up as a “z” sound (zeta) instead of an “s” sound (sigma) in Greek is unknown, and is evidence against the Greek Nazarene deriving from the Hebrew Natsrat. Some argue that this one instance of “Nazareth” in Mark (1:9) might be an interpolation by someone reading later gospels. The Greek of the canonical gospels and Acts uses “Nazarene” six times, while “Nazorean” is used 13 times; with “Nazorean” never occuring in Mark.
According to the gospel of Philip, Jesus was a “Nazarene” because he was “from Nazara”; the word nazara meaning “truth”. This obviously has Gnostic undertones, but it’s easy to see how Nazarene can come from Nazara. Jesus the Nazarene might mean Jesus the Truth (John 14:6). Though “truth” in Greek (and in that passage of John) is αληθης::alethes.
Gospel of Philip
The apostles who were before us had these names for him: “Jesus, the Nazorean, Messiah”, that is, “Jesus, the Nazorean, the Christ”. The last name is “Christ”, the first is “Jesus”, that in the middle is “the Nazarene”. “Messiah” has two meanings, both “the Christ” and “the measured”. “Jesus” in Hebrew is “the redemption”. “Nazara” is “the Truth”. “The Nazarene” then, is “the Truth”.
This might be some sort of stretched exegesis of John 14:6 where Jesus says he’s the way (measure), truth (nazarene), and life (redemption).
There’s also the idea that “Nazarene” was a misreading of the LXX Nazirite vow (Judges 13:5,7; 16:17).
and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
Where did Matthew get this prophecy from? Possibly from Judges.
because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.
But he said to me, ‘You will conceive and give birth to a son. Now then, drink no wine or other fermented drink and do not eat anything unclean, because the boy will be a Nazirite of God from birth until the day of his death.’
That sure could be read like a messainic prophecy if taken out of context. What does it look like in the LXX:
οτι ιδου συ εν γαστρι εξεις και τεξη υιον και ουκ αναβησεται σιδηρος επι την κεφαλην αυτου οτι ηγιασμενον ναζιραιον εσται τω θεω το παιδαριον εκ της γαστρος και αυτος αρξεται σωζειν τον ισραηλ εκ χειρος αλλοφυλων
και ειπεν μοι ιδου συ εν γαστρι εξεις και τεξη υιον και νυν μη πιης οινον και σικερα και μη φαγης πασαν ακαθαρσιαν οτι ναζιραιον θεου εσται το παιδαριον απο της γαστρος εως ημερας θανατου αυτου
The bolded word is “Nazarite”. ΝΑΖΙΡΑΙΟΣ (naziraios) sounds an awful lot like ΝΑΖΩΡΑΙΟΣ (nazoraios), and Matthew already had a penchant for taking things out of context like Isaiah 7:14. So he might have just been quoting Judges from memory. Matthew’s word “Nazoraios” is the more popular wording in the New Testament as I wrote above.
But what about Nazareth? It might be that the Nazarene of Mark was retrofitted to the city Natsrat through the lense of Matthew’s prophecy. Thus the Nazaret of Mark 1:9. And with the peculiarities of Hebrew, the ending tav can be pronounced either as our “t” sound or “th” sound. Hence “Shabbat” and “Sabbath” being the same word (shin-bet-tav).
According to the archaeological data, the earliest structures in what’s now Nazareth were tombs. And according to the Mishna, towns could not be situated near tombs. So if there were tombs, then there was no town. My thinking is that Nazareth, in the 1st century, was a cemetary. A city of the dead (a necropolis). After the war in 70 CE, things got thrown into disarray. Cities (and tombs) were destroyed. At this point, the town was populated over the barely extant tombs… possibly by Greeks or Romans, or otherwise non-Jews.
So Jesus being “from Nazareth” or Natsrat might be a post-70 CE anachronism.
Joe Wallack at FRDB points out an interesting bit of literary irony here:
If the Nazareth that “Mark” was referring to was a cemetery than we have a nice Ironic balance with the beginning and ending of “Mark”:
9 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in the Jordan.
At the beginning Jesus comes from the dead (the tombs @ Nazareth). Nothing else is known about him.
6 And he saith unto them, Be not amazed: ye seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who hath been crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold, the place where they laid him!
7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
8 And they went out, and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid.
At the ending Jesus comes from the dead (the tomb). Nothing else is known about him except that he is going back to where he came from.
My thought that “Mark” intended Nazareth to refer to tombs is speculative but as we can be certain that “Mark” is primarily fiction and that he employs the literary technique of Ironic balancing many times, it is good speculation. I would even go so far as to say that when looking for possible explanations in this situation for “Mark”, a figurative one, such as I offer here, is to be preferred to a possible historical one for the reasons I give here.
Julian, Emperor of Rome in the early/mid 4th century, calls Christians “Galilaeans” and not “Nazarenes”, unlike the Jews.
As for Arimathea:
The LXX of Jos 20:8 has “Ramot[h]” in English/Hebrew, but the LXX has ΑΡΗΜΩΘ (arimoth). 1 Sam 1:19 talks of Ramah (“height”, Ramot[h] is a plural of this), while the LXX has ΑΡΜΑΘΑΙΜ (armathaim). The genitive form found in the gospels (Matt 27:57) is ΑΡΙΜΑΘΑΙΑΣ (arimathaias).
Arimathea is a Hellenization of the city name Ramoth: heights.