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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