In my previous post I showed why Jesus almost certainly came from the small village of Nazareth.  There have been some writers (OK, mythicists who don’t believe there ever *was* a historical Jesus), who have argued that Jesus could not have come from Nazareth since the place did not exist.  I dealt with this problem in several posts back in April of this year (check the archives for that month).

Here, though, I want to address a related issue — the claim that the early Christians who started saying Jesus was from Nazareth actually just made a *mistake*.  They misunderstood that when some believers in Jesus called him a Nazirite — someone who had taken a Nazirite vow.   Nazirite vows come from the Hebrew Bible (Numbers 6): an Israelite who wanted to be particularly holy for a period of his life would take the vow, which would include not consuming grape products (think: wine!), not touching corpses (because of ritual defilement), and not cutting their hair (think Samson).

Jesus was said — according to this theory — to have been a Nazirite and some of his early followers thought that meant that he was a Nazarene and concluded that he came from a place called Nazareth (which, in fact, never existed).  Clever, huh?

Well, too clever by half, since it doesn’t work. I deal with the issue my response to mythicists in my book Did Jesus Exist?   — looking specifically at the arguments of mythicists Frank Zindler and G.A. Wells.  Here is what I say there (edited a bit for the blog):


Frank Zindler, 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.   Now *that’s* a convenient way to deal with a passage that flat-out contradicts what you want it to say!  Simply claim it wasn’t original and that a scribe added it.  Hey, why not?

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 would say that (a) there are two other places in Mark where Jesus does not have the article (including the first verse of the Gospel!);  (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 scholar of the textual tradition of Mark on the planet thinks that the verse is an interpolation.

In any event, 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 (well, kind of close; there should be a fourth consonant on the end) 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.

G.A. Wells advances a different argument to much the same end. In his view the key to understanding the non-existence of Nazareth is in the four occasions in which Mark indicates that Jesus was a “Nazarene” (1:24; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6). According to Wells ,Mark misunderstood what this meant.  What it originally meant was that Jesus belonged to a pre-Christian Jewish sect called the “Nazarenes” who were similar to figures from the Old Testament (like strong-man Samson) called Nazirites who took vows to be specially set apart for God (they couldn’t touch corpses, drink wine, or cut their hair).  Mark didn’t know this, though, and wrongly assumed that the term Nazarene must have indicated Jesus’ place of origin, and so made up “Nazareth” as his hometown.

Once again one looks in vain for any evidence to support this view, let alone clear logic: why would Mark invent a town that didn’t exist to explain how Jesus could be a Nazarene, when what the term originally meant was that he was a Nazirite?   Moreover, Mark must have known the Old Testament.  He does quote it on a number of occasions.  Why wouldn’t he know what a Nazirite was?  And if the sectarians that Jesus associated with were Nazirites, why did they call themselves, instead, Nazarenes (these two words look very close in English, but as it turns out are not etymologically related).   Moreover, it should be stressed that there are multiple traditions about Nazareth (Mark, M, L, John).  It was not invented by Mark.

One of the things that these two examples show is that modern scholars seem to have no clue what “Nazarene” means and can’t much imagine where the name of the town Nazareth could have come from if it is not original.  So how can we posit some kind of ancient Christian motivation to invent Nazareth, if we have no idea what led Christians to do so or even what the root of the term really meant?  The problem is compounded by the fact, already mentioned, that Nazareth did exist in the days of Jesus, in the location that Mark, and the other Gospels, suggest it did.

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2022-12-15T10:57:12-05:00December 22nd, 2022|Historical Jesus|

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  1. Jtwarren December 22, 2022 at 6:37 am

    Dr. Ehrman. It makes me nervous that Paul believed Jesus was god. For example Romans 9:5. I was thinking it was much later when Jesus became god but it looks like it was being spread orally that he was god. I just feel like it’s hard to know. I feel like if they were saying he was god then maybe he was god. I know the gospels are unreliable, but what if the oral tradition is correct since that wasn’t that long after Jesus’ death.

    • BDEhrman December 22, 2022 at 1:55 pm

      Yes, he explains it more fully in Phil 2:6-11. You may want to read my discussion in How Jesus Became God. There I argue / explain what the very disciples themselves, soon after Jesus’ death, already started claiming that he had become a divine being at the resurrection.

      • Jtwarren December 23, 2022 at 5:50 am

        Thanks. I often wonder how to argue against Christians who say that jesus knew he wasn’t going to set up an earthly kingdom and he knew he was going to die and that the kingdom would be within his believers.

        • BDEhrman December 26, 2022 at 7:36 am

          At some point an argument just ain’t gonna work….

          • Jtwarren December 26, 2022 at 2:18 pm

            You’re right. I don’t know why I get nervous with liberal Christian scholars still being Christian. It’s like I feel like they’ll have some kind of argument to show that Christianity is right. Like oh Jesus wasn’t a failed prophet or Paul didn’t think Jesus was coming back imminently. It gets confusing.

  2. giselebendor December 22, 2022 at 9:48 am

    “Branch” in Isaiah is NTSR,not NZR.
    TS and Z are different letters.
    Z( Zayin,ז) is as in zombie.TS(Tsade,צ) is as in pizza.

    If Jesus was the “branch”in Isaiah (I don’t think the disciples would have known this verse),he was neither a Nazarene nor a Nazirite.Branch is Netser,with TS,not with Z.
    Nazir is with Z, but Jesus wasn’t a Nazir.Jesus,leader of a sect called ” Notsrim”,Natsoreans,was nothing that had a Z in it.
    Paul was accused of being the ring leader of such a sect.

    Jesus’ hometown of course existed,there was a place where he lived,on the area which is today part of Natsrat.
    (mistransliterated as Nazareth).From the Hebrew name,we know there is no Z. Ancient Greek was missing the correct letter,TS.

    I propose that after Jesus’ death and rumors of his Resurrection,interest would have been kindled.Where did he come from,where did he live?.There was no name to the hamlet,so they called it “the (place)(city) of the Notsri/Natsorean”(Christian),thus, Natsrat.This is what the city is still called and how it acquired its name.It wasn’t called Nazareth.Nazareth isn’t a Hebrew word.

    It would seem an extraordinary coincidence that Jesus should have been born and lived in a place called “the place/city of the Notzri/Natzorean (Christian)”.

    But that is what Natzrat ,נצרת, means.

    • BDEhrman December 22, 2022 at 2:01 pm

      Yes, that’s right. It would be based on a false etymology. As you know, that happens a *lot* in antiquity (lots of ancient myths do that, e.g.) (I guess it’s comparable/analogous to aetiological tales, such as claiming that this pillar of salt actually is Lot’s wife. Yeah, not really…)

      • giselebendor December 23, 2022 at 2:22 am


        I was trying to make two different points, though.

        My “ thesis”

        1.We don’t know the name of Jesus’ home, if it had one.

        It seems statistically extremely unlikely that Jesus was born in a place named after him. The anachronism is self-evident.

        The city quite sloppily called “Nazareth” (similarly in other languages),has a fatal flaw,the false phoneme Z.

        The insignificant place was and is called Natzrat, meaning quite plainly,“of the Notzri”,“ of the Natzorean”, “of the Christian”.

        Natzrat tells us something that happened in those early days and also what Jesus was and was not.

        נָצְרַת, Nāṣəraṯ .The millenarian name of the place, never called “Nazareth”, had no Z in it. It was also two vowels off from “ Nazareth”.

        2. Both Nazarene and Nazirite ( only Samson was a Nazirite) are unrelated to Jesus.These terms derived from an unreliable Greek transliteration,carrying the crucial Z.

        3. There was plenty of time before Paul ( accused- rightly perhaps- of being a Natzorean) to attach a name meaning
        “ of the Natzorean”, “ of the Notzri” to Jesus’ place, thus duly named Natzrat.

        4. Natzrat was named to memorialize Jesus just as Colombia was named after Colombus. It seems a straightforward case of an eponymous naming.

        • giselebendor December 23, 2022 at 7:28 am

          I wrote to the Hebrew Language Academy asking Did Natzrat come from Notzri, or Notzri from Natzrat? Chicken and Egg. They are supposed to know.
          For all derivates from “Nazareth”
          it seems a clearer case. I need to read about all these sects.

          • AngeloB December 28, 2022 at 6:24 am

            Let us know the Academy’s response

  3. Seeker1952 December 22, 2022 at 10:02 am

    Is anything signified or implied by the fact that, unlike Matthew, Luke does not address how Joseph dealt with the fact that Mary was pregnant?

    I considered the possibility that in Luke the annunciation and nativity were two separate stories and that the latter was not necessarily assuming Jesus’s divine paternity. But Luke 2:5 says that Joseph and Mary were engaged but also that she was pregnant. Would Joseph have refused to actually marry her until her “illegitimate” child was born?

    And it seems odd to modern ears that an unmarried man and woman would have taken an out of town trip together with no mention of chaperones. I understand that betrothal may have been more of a binding legal contract than we think of it today. But the actual marriage must have made some kind of significant difference.

    • BDEhrman December 22, 2022 at 2:11 pm

      Yeah, Luke seems to have left that little detail out…. On the other hand, as you will have noticed, when it comes to the infancy narratives Matthew is all about Joseph and Luke is all about Mary. Both don’t seem much concerned with the perspective of the other…

  4. KingJohn December 22, 2022 at 11:28 am

    Dr. Ehrman: I once recall an incident in one of your interviews that a lot of priests simply do not communicate the information of what the Bible actually says; in other words, if it does not fit, don’t say it. Example “The Book Of Enoch”: Do you know that in my parish I have asked the priests (we have 3) if they know about this work? They retorted they do not! WOW! (I’m Roman Catholic. As far as I know, only the Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers the above book canonical.

    My question is then, what are priests, pastors, reverends’ taught? Golly, jeesh? Any thoughts?

    • BDEhrman December 22, 2022 at 2:07 pm

      Ah, lots of things. Seminary is three years. There are massive numbers of things that have to be learned. In my training we took Old Testament, New Testament, Systematic theology, Pastoral theology, Church history, Christian philosophy, Greek, Hebrew, Church administration, liturgical studies, homiletics, and … other things! Enoch often is not among them. 🙂 I think the big problem with lots of seminary traijning though is that it is so focused on the practical things (preaching, counseling, administration, how to baptize/celebrate eucharist, and so on) — as makes sense since that’s MAINLY what most ministers do — that there’s not enough time to devote to serious academics as well. But the programs are already three years in length after college! Not an easy solution to that one. But you’d hope that more ministers would find time to become more learned about their own traditions, let alone other Xn traditions!

    • DoubtingTom December 23, 2022 at 12:02 pm

      Seminary for diocesan Catholic priests is 5 years. To become a Franciscan friar or a Jesuit priest takes at least 8 years and often much longer.
      Much of the training is counseling, administering the sacraments, and operating one or more parishes (often with multi million dollar annual budgets).
      Certainly studying the Bible is included, but more from a theological view than a historical view. Also, Catholicism is not solo scriptura. There are other sources for doctrine aside from the Bible to study. Jesuits in particular delve more into the foundation of the faith, which is one reason why they spend more years on education.
      Lastly, prospective priests work on their own spiritual formation, and having their own understanding and relationship with God, to help them lead their parishes.

  5. OmarRobb December 22, 2022 at 3:47 pm

    I would like to add more to this argument:

    There is a claim that Jesus has been called “Jesus of Nazareth”. In the social norms of naming in Palestine (current and ancient), the words “Jesus of Nazareth” imply that Jesus is from Nazareth.

    So, we have a claim that imply a meaning. We can show that this claim has a high level of probability through the following notes:

    1# There are many accounts that the original name of the follower of Jesus was: the Nazarene, which is derived from the social name of Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth”.

    2# The Jews never called the Christians “Christians” because it implies that they acknowledge Jesus to be the Christ. The Jews still call them in Hebrew “Notzri”, which is a transformation for the name Nazareth.

    3# In Kerala, in the south of the Indian continent, that far far land, there are Christian people (Saint Thomas Christians) who still call themselves “Nasrani”. The current understanding is that Christianity started there about 50AD.

  6. Em.Freedman December 22, 2022 at 4:48 pm

    Hi Dr Ehrman

    Your course on Genesis from earlier in the year has been SO infinitely helpful to me in terms of enabling me to find intertextual nods through themes and images in other works of literature! Plus your summation of the book as predominantly dealing with the theme of collateral damage has completely stuck with me. I wrote an essay in one of my final exams exploring a link between Genesis and The Tempest and how western imperialism results in masses of collateral damage.
    Honestly your scholarship just inspires me through so many avenues! I hope that you’re having a great holiday season!

    Thank you so much!

  7. Clair December 22, 2022 at 5:32 pm

    To say that Jesus was from Romano Sepphoris where Mary was said to be from, would have changed the narrative, but, where else would he have had Rabinic education in any of the sects?

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2022 at 7:11 am

      My view is that he didn’t have a rabbinic education.

  8. JacobSapp01 December 22, 2022 at 7:12 pm

    Professor Ehrman,
    It’s also worth noting that some Christian Apologists conflate the branch statement in Isaiah as a kind of prophecy that Jesus fulfilled about the Messiah being from Nazareth, a bizzare claim in a sort of opposite direction from the mythicist take. I’ve always found that one particularly cringeworthy.

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2022 at 7:22 am

      Yeah, that’s a good one.

  9. trevortimpson December 23, 2022 at 8:09 am

    How are zain and tsade transliterated in the Septuagint?

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2022 at 7:42 am

      Ah, great question. I”m out of town and nowhere near any books. Off hand I’d imagine both get transliterated iwth a Zeta. Cananyone else on the blog confirm for us?

      • trevortimpson December 31, 2022 at 7:39 am

        Tsade becomes sigma in the lxx if Sabaoth and Zipporah are anything to go by.

        • bradleywolfenbarger February 18, 2023 at 10:52 am

          Very late reply, but there are examples of tsade being transliterated into a zeta. See Zoar in genesis 13:10 and Bozez in 1 Samuel 14:4. Josephus even uses both. He transliterates Uz from genesis 22:21 with a zeta but Buz with a sigma.

          Sigma is the most common but you can find examples of tsade being transliterated with a zeta.

  10. Seeker1952 December 23, 2022 at 9:51 am

    Do you think it’s reasonable to not even consider supernatural explanations of events when plausible naturalistic explanations are available? I suppose the question is way too broad. Some so-called miracles might be examples. Natural disasters? Instances of possible intentional design vs evolution? I think what I’m getting at is that one can never absolutely rule out divine intervention but why even go there if there are plausible naturalistic explanations available?

    One thing I think of is the problem of extreme suffering. All kinds of convoluted justifications and explanations can be developed why a perfectly good, all-powerful God might allow such suffering. But a simple naturalistic explanation is available: events are simply the “accidental” results of natural laws that are indifferent to suffering.

    • Seeker1952 December 24, 2022 at 10:39 am

      Maybe I’m simply talking about Occam’s Razor. My point may be that, as a practical matter (eg, making up one’s mind about religious belief), it’s more reasonable to not even consider supernatural explanations when naturalistic explanations in a particular subject area are working.

      But wouldn’t that only leave the “God of the Gaps” which seems to me to be a non-starter?

      I’m just not sure how the “God” hypothesis actually “explains” anything. It’s more like a “placeholder” for an explanation, like saying it happened “because God wanted it to,” or that we simply don’t know why it happened so it must be God. Don’t we have to need a prior reason to believe God exists or have an idea what her intentions are before we can say that God did something?

      May we should think of it as a question like whether a super-advanced alien civilization “built the pyramids” or something like that. Are there superhuman intentional agents at work in the universe? But we’d need more evidence of their existence and intentions than just something we can’t explain naturalistically. The agents would need to be part of a broader theory.

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2022 at 7:47 am

      I suppose it depends on the individual. BUt when I read about a flood, earthquake, or arctic blast, I never ask why God (or Zeus or Neptune, or whoever) did it. This for me is a real puzzle for modern highly intelligent and educated believers who would never attribute divien causality to natural phenomena that we now DO understand but readily attribute it to ones we do NOT. Just because we don’t understand it yet, why does that argue for it being divine? Why doesn’t it just mean we don’t know enough yet? It’s a weird phenomenon, I guess based on the strange idea that we know everything that can be known, so if we don’t know something it’s unknowable, that is, non-material.

  11. Kelleysmtn December 23, 2022 at 7:36 pm

    Dr. Ehrman: As you say, all four gospels say Jesus was from (grew up in) Nazareth, but two say he was born in Bethlehem, then ended up in Nazareth. Both the Luke author and the Matthew author had their reasons for writing about the Bethlehem birth. It fit their narratives—but they don’t seem to have both made that up—they must have gotten the idea from oral traditions. What are your thoughts on the idea that he was born in Bethlehem?

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2022 at 7:58 am

      I think it’s completely implausible. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a stress on teh Nazareth tradition. And I can’t think of why “Nazareth” would have been invented as a tradition, whereas I can see clearly why Bethlehem would have been. If it was widely attested, that would be a different story and derserve more alaysis. But as it is….

  12. Seeker1952 December 25, 2022 at 11:13 am

    Maybe I overlooked it in your recent posts about the harrowing of hell et al, but why is “descended to the dead/into hell” not in the Nicene Creed, ie, the “official” creed? I’m pretty sure the Apostle’s Creed came first and it appears to be a model for the Nicene version. Why did the Nicene Creed leave it out, especially since it’s longer and more detailed to start with. I’ve always liked that inclusion in the Apostle’s Creed.

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2022 at 8:30 am

      I’ts not clear really which is first” since the Apocstles creed is based on older traditions but is not itslelf simply a replication of those older traditiosn. I don’t know. Why doesn’t it include it? I don’t know that either? I’ve often wondered, and imagine there’s a clear explanation, but I’ve never looked it up. (The Nicene creed as a whole was more focused on the Christological traditions at issue at the council of Nicea; the Descent was not disputed in the same ways.

  13. Publilius December 25, 2022 at 3:15 pm

    Dr. Ehrman wrote: . . . how they went from “Jesus is the NZR” to “Jesus came from Nazareth.” . . .

    I’m not defending Zindler, but this kind of change does not seem implausible. Look at the word “manger.” It means a feeding trough for farm animals. The NT says after Jesus was born, they laid him in a manger, i.e. they used a feeding trough as a cradle. Yet almost all Christians today will tell you that Jesus was “born in a manger,” i.e they believe “manger” means “a stable.”

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2022 at 8:32 am

      Yes, I’ve always wondered what they meant by saying he was born in a manger. Seems like it must have been a bit cramped for the two of them!

  14. thepauldasilva December 27, 2022 at 6:46 am

    An excellent post as always. There is plenty of opportunity for confusion here. I’d like to clarify a couple of points if I may.

    1. Is Nazarene what Jesus and his followers called themselves?
    2. Do we know what they were called by the rest of the community?
    3. What did the name(s) actually mean in their own time?

    • BDEhrman December 31, 2022 at 11:39 am

      1. No. 2. At the time they probably weren’t called anything. 3. It meant someone who came from Nazareth, but I’m not sure if it’s used much if at all — almost certainly not before the NT Gospels?

  15. AngeloB December 28, 2022 at 3:35 pm

    Do we know anything about modern day Nazareth?

    • BDEhrman December 31, 2022 at 12:40 pm

      Yes indeed, it’s now a large place with a big tourist industry. One of my former PhD students was born and raised there! It’s still a very interesting place to visit, though noghting like what it was then.

  16. KeitaTakahata April 25, 2023 at 7:38 pm

    1. Why did Paul take the Nazarite vow if he taught Christian’s weee no longer held under the old law (sacrificing animals, and other Jewish customs)?

    2. Did the Church in Jerusalem (Peter, Cephas, John, James) agree with Paul’s teaching of Chrsitians not needing to be under the law?

    • BDEhrman April 27, 2023 at 4:12 pm

      1. That’s found in the book of Acts, which is often not reliable on Paul. I don’t think it actually happened. 2. Paul says they did, bu tthat they didn’t draw the same conclusions about it he did (that they still hhought Jewish followers of Jesus should not eat meals with the gentile followers)

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