I’ve been thinking and talking about the town of Nazareth a lot lately. ‘Tis the season! Last weekend I did my quarterly webinar with Platinum blog members (you should look at the benefits of the Platinum level! Private webinars!) on whether Jesus was actually born in Nazareth (most of the New Testament appears to thing so). And that made me think of an even more radical view that I think is dead wrong.
Many of you will know about the vocal group of non-believers called “mythicists,” who think that Jesus never existed at all, but was completely fabricated, a complete myth. No man Jesus. Invented wholesale.
I wrote a book years ago trying to explain why that almost certainly just ain’t true. A lot of mythicists were pretty ticked off about my book and I received some rather venomous responses. But hey, what’s life without a little spice? In this case, sliced habeneros straight on the tongue….
In any event, some mythicists argue as evidence for the non-existence of Jesus the non-existence of the town of Nazareth. There never was such a place in Jesus’ time, they maintain. You may already be saying, “Wait a second: what would that have to do with whether Jesus’ existed?” (If you could prove there was never a Delaware River to be crossed, would that show that George Washington didn’t exist?). And let me assure you, I hear ya.
BUT, I thought it might be interesting in this season to deal with the issue – the occasional mythicist claim, its (ir)relevance, and, more important, its (lack of) truthfulness. Was there a Nazareth? Here’s what I say in my book, Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012).
One of the more common claims found in the writings of the mythicists is that the alleged hometown of Jesus, Nazareth, in fact did not exist but is itself a myth. The logic of this argument, which is sometimes, as we will see, advanced with considerable vehemence and force, appears to be that if Christians made up Jesus’ hometown, they probably made him up as well. I could dispose of this argument fairly easily by pointing out that it is irrelevant. If Jesus existed, as the evidence suggests, but Nazareth did not, as this assertion claims, then he merely came from somewhere else. Whether Barack Obama was born in the U.S. or not (for what it is worth, he was) is irrelevant to the question of whether he was born.
Since, however, this argument is so widely favored among mythicists, I want to give it a further look and deeper exploration. It is not a new argument. All the way back in 1906 Schweitzer had to deal with it when discussing the mythicists of his own day. Among the modern advocates of the view are several we have already had occasion to mention. Frank Zindler, for example, in a cleverly entitled essay, “Where Jesus Never Walked,” tries to deconstruct on a fairly simple level the geographical places associated with Jesus, especially Nazareth. He claims that Mark’s Gospel never states that Jesus came from Nazareth. This flies in the face, of course, of Mark 1:9, which indicates precisely that this is where Jesus did come from (“Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee”), but Zindler maintains that that verse was not originally part of Mark; it was inserted by a later scribe. Here again we see history being done according to “convenience.” If a text says precisely what you think it could not have said, then all you need to do is claim that originally it must have said something else. I should point out that the verse is found in every surviving manuscript of Mark. 
Zindler maintains that some early Christians understood Jesus to be the “branch” mentioned in Isaiah 11:1, who would come from the line of David as the Messiah. The term branch in Hebrew (which does not have vowels) is spelled NZR, which is close (kind of close) to “Nazareth.” And so what happened, in Zindler’s view, is that later Christians who did not understand what it meant to call Jesus the NZR (branch) thought that the traditions that called him that were saying that he was from a (non-existent) town, Nazareth.
Zindler does not marshal any evidence for this view but simply asserts it. And he does not explain why Christians who did not know what NZR meant simply didn’t ask someone. Even more important, he doesn’t explain why they made up the name of a non-existent town (in his view) to locate Jesus, or how then went from “Jesus is the NZR” to “Jesus came from Nazareth.” The view seems completely implausible, especially given the fact, which we have seen, that multiple independent sources locate Jesus to Nazareth. Moreover, there is the additional evidence, which we will see momentarily, that Nazareth did in fact exist as a small Jewish town in the days of Jesus.
 Quest of the Historical Jesus, chs. 22 and 23.
 I do not mean to say that Zindler does not cite evidence for his view. He claims that the name “Jesus” in Mark 1:9 does not have the definite article, unlike the other 80 places it occurs in Mark, and therefore the verse does not appear to be written in Markan style. In response, I should say that (a) there are two other places in Mark where Jesus does not have the article. (b) If the problem with the entire verse is that the name Jesus does not have article, then if we posit a scribal change to the text, the more likely explanation is that a scribe inadvertently left out the article. Nazareth has nothing to do with it. And (c) there is not a single stitch of manuscript evidence to support his claim that the verse was interpolated into the Gospel. This latter point is worth stressing, since it is the reason that no serious scholar of the textual tradition of Mark thinks that the verse is an interpolation.