Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving for some hundreds of years now, and it’s easy to assume we invented it.
But the basic idea of giving thanks to God for a good harvest is an old idea.
In the time of Jesus, all Jews celebrated three different harvest festivals every year: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.
Now it’s true that each of these festivals was not 100% about the harvest. These festivals commemorated other things too. But each festival included a celebration of the harvest as an essential part.
Let’s look at each of these.
Passover—Celebrating the Barley Harvest
Passover is an English word used for the celebration Jews call Pesach, which falls in March or April.
The celebration commemorates the Exodus story told in Exodus 12.
To summarize the story, the Hebrew people had been slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. The prophet Moses demanded that the Pharaoh release his slaves. The pharaoh refused, and Moses responded by calling down ten plagues on Egypt.
The last and worst of these was the death of every firstborn son in Egypt. The Hebrews were instructed to kill a lamb and smear its blood on the doorposts of their homes to mark them out to be “passed over” by the angel of death. They roasted and ate the lamb and prepared to leave.
In the morning, all of Egypt mourned their dead, and the pharaoh agreed to let the Hebrews go.
The Passover festival has been celebrated most years ever since. (2 Kings 23:21-23 says that the Passover was not celebrated for several centuries, beginning in the time of the judges in the 11th century BC, right up to the time of King Josiah in the 7th century BC.)
At the time of Jesus, Passover was the second most important festival of the year. The gospel of John records at least three Passovers that Jesus celebrated in Jerusalem.
And part of the celebration was bringing in the barley harvest. (In Israel, wheat and barley are planted in the fall. Barley matures first, in March or April, and wheat matures in late May or early June.)
Leviticus 23:10-16 spells out the regulations on how to celebrate the barley harvest at Passover.
Pentecost—Celebrating the Wheat Harvest
Pentecost come from a Greek word that means “fiftieth,” because it’s celebrated 50 days after Passover, in May or June. Jews call this festival Shavuot, which means “weeks” or “sevens”. Note that 50 days is effectively seven weeks, because in Jewish reckoning, you always count both the first day and the last day of an interval of time.
What does 50 days have to do with anything? Because in the story of the Exodus, the Israelites took 50 days to walk from Egypt to Mount Sinai, where they received the Ten Commandments. So Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Law on Mount Sinai.
Christians have long celebrated Pentecost to mark the story told in Acts 2:1-40, in which the Spirit fell on the followers of Jesus. Jerusalem was packed with visitors who had come to celebrate Shavuot.
It’s helpful here to remember that all the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish, and they all observed the Jewish festivals, just as Jesus did. So the story told in Acts 2 is about good and loyal Jewish followers of Jesus who were in Jerusalem doing exactly what Jesus would have done if he were still alive on earth—they were celebrating Shavuot.
And part of that celebration was a celebration of the wheat harvest. Exodus 34:22 spells out the command in the Torah to celebrate this harvest at the time of Shavuot.
Tabernacles—Celebrating the Fall Harvest
Tabernacles is the English word for the Jewish festival “Sukkot,” which means “booths.” The festival falls in September or October. To this day, part of the celebration of this feast requires you to make a flimsy shelter and sleep in it, commemorating the flimsy shelters the Israelites used while wandering in the desert in the Exodus story.
The command to live in these booths is given in Leviticus 23:42-43.
But this festival is often called the feast of ingathering, because it came just as the fall harvest of grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives was wrapping up. These were a major part of the diet in ancient Israel, and a good harvest meant a year of good eating and good drinking.
The command to celebrate this feast of ingathering is given in Exodus 34:22.
Jesus and Thanksgiving
We can be absolutely certain that Jesus celebrated all three of these thanksgiving festivals every single year of his life.
He may have celebrated some of them at home in Nazareth.
But the gospels record several instances of him celebrating them in Jerusalem, which was where every loyal Jew hoped to celebrate them every year.
It’s common to speculate on “what would Jesus do” if he lived in our place and our time.
I think we can be very sure he’d celebrate Thanksgiving with us.
But would he discuss politics? Would he watch football? Would he eat a second helping of pumpkin pie?
You bet your socks he would. Jesus doesn’t seem to have been shy about talking about important political issues (preaching the kingdom of God in first-century Jerusalem was a political statement). He was accused by some of having too much fun with the wrong sort of people (even hanging out with prostitutes and tax-farmers). And he was specifically called a glutton and winebibber.
But I think he would have also taken time to reflect on the good things that had happened in the past year.
And we know Jesus lived in a time when very bad things happened. People sometimes died in epidemics, or starved to death because the economy was bad. People sometimes died in riots caused by ethnic divisions. Crooked politicians and rich oligarchs took advantage of ordinary people who had no way to fight back.
Jesus knew all that, and yet he celebrated the feasts every year when they came around, and he found a reason to be grateful for the food set before him (and apparently also the wine).
It’s a little-known fact that the Bible tells three ghost stories, and two of them are about Jesus.
It’s hard to say how common ghost stories were at the time of Jesus and earlier, but we have quite an ancient ghost story in 1 Samuel, and we have two ghost stories in the gospels.
Let’s look at the ancient ghost story first, because it might possibly be related to one of the stories about Jesus.
The Ghost of Samuel
The first king of Israel was Saul, a very tall man who was chosen king by the prophet Samuel. The usual dating for this would be a few decades before the year 1000 BC.
Samuel anointed Saul as king, but the two never got along very well. That’s a long story for another day, but eventually the prophet Samuel died.
Saul had always been terrified of Samuel, but he respected him and looked to him for advice. Now that Samuel was dead, Saul had nobody to turn to.
Then the Philistines came out to make war on Israel. Saul’s duty as king was to lead his men into battle. Literally lead them, which was a not-so-clever tradition of kings in ancient times.
The night before the battle, Saul was so terrified, he decided to violate his own law and consult the advice of a witch woman. He went to her in disguise and begged her to bring up the prophet Samuel from the underworld.
It’s not clear if the woman really thought she could bring up a spirit of the dead, but the story told in 1 Samuel 28 says that she did her incantations and was shocked when Samuel appeared.
It wasn’t Samuel in the flesh. It was some sort of apparition. A ghost.
This ghost of Samuel warned Saul that he would die the next day, along with three of his sons.
Saul had been terrified before. Now, he was practically catatonic.
He staggered back to his army camp under cover of darkness. The next day, he led his men into battle, and he was killed, along with three of his sons.
That’s the first ghost story in the Bible, and it’s definitely a weird one. Biblical scholars don’t really agree on how to interpret the story, but there’s no doubt that the story was well known to all Jews at the time of Jesus.
And that brings us to the next ghost story, which features Jesus.
The Ghost on the Water
All four gospels tell the story about Jesus feeding five thousand men, along with some women and children, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In the time of Jesus, this sea was more commonly called the Lake of Ginosar, and it’s shown in the map below.
The exact location of the story has been debated a lot. People have suggested two different locations. I’ve been to both, and the one that makes the most sense to me is the one on the east side of the lake, just a bit north of the village of Kursi. This location is across the lake from Capernaum at a distance of about 5 miles, and it fits the story very well.
All four gospels tell the story of this miraculous feeding. In the telling of the gospel of John, the people were extremely excited and tried to make Jesus king by force.
Jesus sent his twelve disciples back home in a boat while he sent the crowds away. The gospels don’t explain how he convinced them to leave when they were so excited, but I have a theory on that, which I’ll share in my next novel about Jesus (Son of David, the sequel to my novel Son of Mary, which is Book 1 in my Crown of Thorns series.)
But now Jesus had two problems. First, he was on land, with a long walk ahead of him to get back to Capernaum. Second, his disciples were rowing across the lake, but the wind was against them.
The gospel of Luke doesn’t say how he solved these problems, but Mark, Matthew, and John all say that Jesus simply walked across the lake on top of the water until he caught up to his disciples.
Mark and Matthew add a remarkable detail. They say that the disciples saw Jesus coming and were terrified because they thought he was a ghost.
That is, they saw something mysterious on the water, but didn’t recognize it as Jesus—until he spoke up and told them it was him. Then they let him in the boat.
Why would they imagine he was a ghost? That’s a weird idea. What put that in their heads?
I have a guess on that. It’s a very wild guess, and I can’t prove it, but it explains the facts we have, and it’s at least plausible.
My guess is that the disciples were telling stories while they rowed across the lake, and one of them was telling the story of King Saul and the Ghost of Samuel just when they spotted Jesus.
Why would they tell that particular story just then?
Because the story of King Saul and the Ghost of Samuel happened just before King David became king of Israel. The death of Saul made it possible for David to become king. And remember what we know from the gospel of John—that very day, the people of Israel had tried to make Jesus king.
So the story of King Saul might have been very much on the minds of the disciples.
As I said, it’s just a guess, but if you put yourself in the skin of the disciples, they were certainly thinking about how and when Jesus would be made king of Israel. So there’s a connection there.
Make of it what you will.
The Ghost in the Secret Room
There’s a third ghost story in the Bible, and this one also features Jesus.
In Luke 24, we read the story of the very first Easter. Jesus had been crucified two days earlier on Friday. Early on Sunday morning, some of his women followers came to finish their burial rituals and found his tomb empty. Two men in “clothes that gleamed like lightning” appeared to the women and told them Jesus was risen from the dead.
The women went back and told the men, and the men didn’t believe a word of it.
Later that day, they were all gathered together in a room, hiding out for fear of the authorities, and an apparition of Jesus appeared to them out of the blue.
That was their first thought anyway—an apparition. A ghost. And they were terrified.
But the apparition spoke to them, and they recognized his voice—the voice of Jesus.
In the story, Jesus has a hard time convincing them it’s really him. He finally asks them to give him something to eat, and they produce a broiled fish, which he then eats before their eyes.
And that seems to convince them that Jesus is really alive again, after being brutally executed.
This ends the gospel of Luke, but the story isn’t quite over.
The book of Acts was written by the same author as the gospel of Luke, and it continues the story. In Acts 1:6, we read an absolutely remarkable question by the disciples. Jesus is with the disciples for the very last time. They’re on the Mount of Olives.
And the disciples ask Jesus if right now is the moment when he’s going to restore the kingdom to Israel.
They were not asking about some spiritual kingdom, as modern Christians think of it. They were thinking like normal, everyday Jews of the first century, looking for a very physical kingdom of Israel to be restored, right here, right now.
The kingdom of David, ruled over by the son of David, Jesus of Nazareth.
So all three ghost stories in the Bible seem to be tied in very closely to the kingdom of David.
An interesting coincidence, isn’t it?
Make of it what you will.
There is no doubt that Jesus and his family celebrated the Jewish New Year. They were Jewish, and they naturally celebated all the standard Jewish holidays. And they probably celebrated in Jerusalem. That was a major time commitment, as we’ll see shortly.
Several important holy days come in the fall, in the month of Tishrei:
- Rosh HaShanah (the New Year) on 1 Tishrei
- Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) on 10 Tishrei
- Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) from 15 to 21 Tishrei
So the time spanned by these holy days is three whole weeks!
Why the New Year Starts in the Seventh Month
There’s something odd going on with the Jewish New Year. If you’ve read Exodus, you know that the holiday Pesach (Passover) begins on the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month.
That first month is called Nisan in Hebrew and it normally begins in March or April.
So how is it that the Jewish New Year comes in the fall, on the first day of Tishrei, which is the seventh month of the year? How does that make sense?
That makes sense because ancient Israel used two different lunar calendars. One began on the first day of Nisan, in the spring. The second began six lunar months later, on the first day of Tishrei, in the fall.
So both Nisan and Tishrei are actually the “first month,”—just in different calendars.
The holiday that became known as the Jewish New Year used the calendar that begins in the fall with Tishrei as its first month.
A Long Walk To Jerusalem
The fall holidays were considered the very best time of the year. And ideally, you wanted to celebrate them in Jerusalem.
That was not so easy if you lived in Galilee. Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus, was about 64 miles north of Jerusalem—as the crow flies.
But it was a bit farther as the Galilean family walks.
The shortest route ran south from Nazareth through Samaria to Jerusalem. This is the route that I call “the Samaritan Road” in my novels, because it passed through Samaria. As you can see in the map below, the Samaritan Road was not quite a straight shot. There were some forks and wiggles in the road (to go around mountains and generally find the easiest route over rugged terrain.)
The distance was probably more like 75 miles of actual walking. If you were young and healthy, you could theoretically cover that in 3 days, but 4 days was much more doable. If anyone in your party was older and slower, then 5 days was probably best.
The Samaritan Road Was Not Safe
The problem was that the Samaritan Road was not terribly safe. There was bad blood between Jews and Samaritans, going back several centuries.
The first-century historian Josephus tells us that Jewish travelers were sometimes killed on the Samaritan Road on their way to the annual holidays. On at least one of these occasions, Jews then went north from Jerusalem and wreaked their vengeance on the Samaritans.
But we know that Jews often took the Samaritan Road to Jerusalem. They probably had two reasons:
- The Samaritan Road was the shortest route from most parts of Galilee.
- The Samaritan Road went through the hill country, which was cooler than the other routes.
The gospels tell of at least two occasions when Jesus took the Samaritan Road (John 4:4-6 and Luke 9:51-55).
The Jordan Way Was a Little Safer
But Galileans had another route they could take to Jerusalem. They could head east and south until they reached the Jordan River south of the Sea of Galilee. Then they could walk south along the Jordan River (on either the east or west side) until they reached Jericho. Then it was a steep one-day climb from Jericho to Jerusalem, going west on the Jericho Road.
I call this entire route “the Jorday Way” in my novels, because a big part of the trip was alongside the Jordan River.
This was certainly a safer route for most of the trip, except for the last day climbing on the Jericho Road, which was notorious for bandits. (The story of the Good Samaritan is set on the Jericho Road).
But there were three main problems with the Jordan Way:
- For most Galileans, the Jordan Way was a longer route.
- The Jordan Way ran along the Jordan Valley, several hundred feet below sea level, which made it hotter.
- The last day of the route on the Jordan Way led up the steep Jericho Road, which made for a long, hard day of travel through lonely, dangerous country.
We know that Jesus took the Jordan Way at least once, on his final trip to Jerusalem.
A Backpacking Expedition
Whichever route you took to Jerusalem, you were looking at a trip of several days.
Getting to Jerusalem was essentially a backpacking expedition with very stripped-down equipment. You could take a pack animal, in theory, but most travelers probably just carried or wore everything they needed.
And what would you need? Here is a list of the things I’d consider essential for the trip:
- A tunic, made of wool, which covered down to your knees (if you were a man) or down to your mid-calf (if you were a woman). You did not wear underwear or socks. You did not need an extra tunic.
- For women only—a hair covering that completely obscured your hair.
- A cloth belt that wrapped around your waist and could hold coins, a knife, and other small personal items.
- Leather sandals.
- A warm woolen cloak to protect against cold and rain. This also worked nicely as a sleeping bag.
- A leather pack you could wear on your back to hold your cloak and a day’s worth of food.
- A waterskin to carry one day’s worth of water or beer. (In a world where you take water out of a well or a river, beer was often safer to drink, and it could purify water taken from a sketchy source.) The waterskin hung on a leather cord that you could sling over your neck and shoulder.
- A few silver coins to buy food and drink along the way, and to pay for a place to stay in Jerusalem, and for any sacrifices you intended to make at the Temple. Two or three coins per person per week should be enough.
- Optional (but strongly recommended)—a short knife. For general use, and for very modest protection from bandits.
And that’s all! You could wear all of it, leaving your hands free. It was light enough for each person to carry their own load.
Along the way to Jerusalem, I would expect that most people just camped out under the stars at night. There just weren’t enough inns to house thousands of travelers during the busy season.
I would also expect that they simply bought food along the way and either replenished their waterskins at every well or bought beer when they bought food.
In Jerusalem, you would need to rent a house or a room to stay. This would probably be small and barely furnished, but it would be hardly different than your home back in Galilee.
Jesus made this trip every year for the major holidays. And like any good and loyal Jew, he loved every minute of it.
It sounds absurd to ask what Jesus did on his summer vacation.
Except that we know exactly what he did on his summer vacation, because the gospels make that very clear.
Jesus Had a Day Job
Let’s start by noting the obvious fact that Jesus had a day job. He worked as a “tekton,” according to Mark 6:3. (This is the only verse in the Bible that says what Jesus did for a living.)
Note that “tekton” is a Greek word that means a manual laborer in stone, metal, or wood. This has been often translated into English as “carpenter,” but it’s not a great translation. From what I’ve been able to find, it seems that a better translation would be “builder.” Or “construction worker.”
Jesus’s father Joseph was also a “tekton,” according to Matthew 13:55. Without a doubt, Joseph taught Jesus and all his brothers the craft of the tekton, because that’s what a father did in those days.
Now Jesus had four brothers, according to the verses quoted above in Mark and in Matthew. Together with Jesus and his father, that made a total of six healthy men, all working the same job. Nazareth was a small village, and my best estimate for its size was about 200 souls. It seems likely that there wouldn’t have been enough construction work in Nazareth for the whole family.
Which means some of them often went out of town to find work. They didn’t have far to look. Tsipori, one of the two largest cities in Galilee, was only about three miles from Nazareth, and it had a lot of building activity during the first century. That’s a very plausible place where Jesus and his family could find day labor.
A day laborer could come into Tsipori, find a job for the day, and go home with a silver dinar—cash in hand. That silver dinar would feed twelve adults for a day, as we know from the Talmud.
So if all the men in the family of Jesus worked every day, they could theoretically have supported a family of 72 adults. That was far more cash than they needed.
Jesus Didn’t Work Every Day
We know Jesus didn’t work every day, because the gospels tell us that he and his whole family went to the various festivals in Jerusalem every year. See, for example, John 7:1-9. Those were big time commitments.
Passover, in the spring, lasted a full 8 days. Pentecost, in the early summer, lasted only 1 day. The long series of holidays in the fall began with the New Year, continued with the Day of Atonement, and finished with the feast of Tabernacles—more than 3 weeks.
And it took time to get to Jerusalem from Nazareth. Jerusalem is about 64 miles south of Nazareth as the crow flies. As the Galilean walks, it was probably closer to 75 miles. In theory, you could walk that in three very hard days, but four days would be much more doable, and five days would be a relaxed pace.
What this means is that Jesus and his family were gone from Nazareth at least two months out of every year, just to attend the feasts in Jerusalem.
They could afford this because they had a steady income of cash from their construction work. That was a luxury not every family in Galilee could afford. Had they been a family of farmers, some of them would have been forced to stay behind to care for their livestock and manage the farm.
But they were day laborers, able to work when they needed and take time off when they needed.
Jesus in Galilee
We know that sometime around the year Jesus turned 30 (plus or minus a couple of years), he began walking through Galilee preaching the good news that the kingdom of God was near.
There are some practical questions to ask:
- Why would anyone listen to a message like that? It sounds kind of weird.
- What did Jesus live on while he was doing this?
- It sounds impossible to walk all through Galilee. Why take on such a gigantic task?
All these questions have simple answers.
Why Would Anyone Listen?
The people of Galilee were heavily taxed by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, who was appointed by Caesar. Herod was not popular, and neither was Caesar. All of Galilee was looking for a better life. As they understood things, God would soon break in on their lives, raise up a new king—a son of David—who would toss out Caesar and Herod Antipas and all the rest and start over.
That would be the beginning of a new age, the Age to Come, in which the Son of David would rule over the kingdom of God. And that Son of David would be the anointed king of Israel, just like in the good old days. An anointed king was called in Hebrew a “mashiach.” In English, that’s usually transliterated as a “messiah.” In Greek, it’s translated as a “christ.”
News of the kingdom of God meant freedom to the oppressed people of Galilee. So if a man with a credible claim to be a Son of David came into a Galilean village, telling about a kingdom of God about to begin, the villagers would be only too happy to hear what he had to say. They weren’t thinking of a kingdom of God in the way a modern Christian might. They were thinking of a kingdom of God in the way a first-century Jew would naturally think of it—liberation from the hated Roman oppressors.
What Did Jesus Live on When He Was on the Road?
In first-century Galilee, villages had no entertainment except what they could create themselves. After the evening meal on summer nights, they’d gather in the village square to sing songs, tell stories, recite poems, study the Torah, make jokes. That was the normal entertainment.
But on a night when a visitor came to a village, he was the center of attention in the village square. A visitor was the only way to get news. So the whole village came to listen. And they all fought over who would get to offer the visitor hospitality.
Offering hospitality to strangers was a commandment, in the first place. But in the second place, it was the cool thing to do, because whoever had the visitor as guest would hear all the news first.
So Jesus had no problem finding a place to stay every night. He’d be housed and fed like royalty. And it no doubt helped that he had a reputation as a healer.
Jesus and his friends would have been able to find hospitality in any village of Galilee at no cost.
How Big of a Job Was it to Walk Through All Galilee?
Galilee was a region of about 750 square miles at the time of Jesus. (The region called Galilee today is quite a bit bigger that that.)
If you do the math, a circle with a radius of 15.45 miles has an area of 750 square miles. So any two points in Galilee were no more than about 30 to 35 miles apart. We also know that there were about 200 villages in Galilee, plus a few midsized towns and two large cities. I estimated the total population of Galilee in my blog post Around Galilee With Jesus at about 84,000 people.
In a region of 750 square miles, if there are 200 villages, that gives each village less than 4 square miles as its zone of influence. It works out that there must have been a village roughly every 2 miles or so.
If Jesus spent five months every summer going through Galilee, that would give him about 120 days per summer. Which means he could visit more than half the villages of Galilee in a summer. This would not be terribly hard. If villages were only a couple of miles apart, that’s not a big hike to move on each day to the next village.
No doubt he went back home many weekends to his headquarters at Capernaum. (Most of his men came from Capernaum, or thereabouts, and they had wives and children they wanted to see.)
Walking through Galilee is not a gigantic project. It’s very doable. If Jesus had three years to work his way through Galilee, there’s no doubt he could have hit every village at least once, and some of them more than once.
So that’s what Jesus did on his summer vacation. Don’t you wish you could have tagged along?
One of my favorite places in Israel is the site known as “Mount Precipice” in modern Nazareth. Nazareth is built on a hill and overlooks the broad, flat, fertile plain to the south known as the Jezreel Valley.
The Jezreel Valley runs east-west, and it makes a natural buffer zone between Galilee in the north and Samaria in the south.
Mount Precipice is quite close to the site of first-century Nazareth—it’s a walk of a bit more than a mile. I don’t expect that Jesus came there every day, but I suspect that when he wanted to be alone to think, he came there and sat on one of the giant rocks and enjoyed the view and had a chat with God.
The View of the Jezreel Valley
Napoleon called the Jezreel Valley the greatest battlefield on earth. I’m not a general. When I look at the valley, I see food growing. I see farms. Here’s a picture I took a few years ago, looking down on the Jezreel Valley from Mount Precipice.
The view is south and just a little bit west, with the camera angled downward to show the rocky slope. You can see a modern highway and modern farms in the valley. An ancient road ran south from Nazareth approximately where you see the highway in the picture. That was one of the two roads Jesus could take to go to Jerusalem for Passover, but it was a little hazardous because it went straight south through the enemy territory of Samaria. We know he took that road at least twice, and probably often. It’s the shortest route to Jerusalem from Nazareth, 64 miles south as the crow flies. That would be a three-day walk if you’re really pressing the pace, and four days at a moderate speed.
Mount Tabor to the East
If you look east from Mount Precipice, you see that the Jezreel Valley continues all the way until it reaches the Jordan River on the misty horizon. The valley passes between two mountains. On the north is Mount Tabor, which looks like an upside-down bowl. On the south, there’s a range of hills called the hills of Gilboa. In the photo below, Mount Tabor is on the left and the hills of Gilboa are on the right.
When Jesus stood on this spot, looking at these hills, his mind would have instantly remembered the famous battles that happened there.
In the time of the Judges, the prophetess Deborah forced the commander of the Israelite army, Barak, to go to battle against the Canaanite general Sisera. Deborah and Barak set up a strong camp on the slopes of Mount Tabor. Sisera attacked from the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley, coming north against the Israelite forces. With 900 chariots, he should have routed the Israelite army. Instead, Barak’s foot soldiers ran down the slopes of Mount Tabor and destroyed the Canaanite army. Sisera fled for his life, and ended up in the tent of a woman named Jael, who hammered a tent peg through his head while he slept. You can read all the details in Judges 4.
A century or so later, King Saul met his end on the field of battle with the Philistines. In that battle, the Philistines held the territory around Mount Tabor and Saul set up a position on the hills of Gilboa. The battle went badly. Saul and three of his sons were killed. The Philistines hung their bodies on the walls of a nearby city, Bet Shan, which is in the far distance in the photo, not visible in the haze. The story is told in 1 Samuel 31:2-12.
Jesus and the Kingdom of God
So when Jesus sat on the edge of Mount Precipice, he must have thought about these battles. And I think he wondered what was in store for Israel in his own future. During the decades he was growing up, Galilee, Samaria, and Judea were in turmoil. Local strongmen gathered bands of armed men and tried to attack the Romans. We know some of their stories, because they’re mentioned in the New Testament and in the works of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus.
During this time, tales were told in village squares about a man who would rise up and defeat the enemies of Israel. This man would be a son of David. He would destroy the Romans. He would sit again on the throne of David in Jerusalem. He would purify the Temple. And God himself would return in a visible Presence to the Temple. That would be the Kingdom of God on earth. And that son of David would also be known by a traditional title–“son of God”–which was the standard biblical name for the reigning king of Israel. You can read the traditional coronation psalm for the king of Israel in Psalm 2.
That was the theory, anyway. In practice, things didn’t turn out quite that way, but that’s what people were thinking. And if his countrymen were thinking about it, Jesus was thinking about it too. There is no sign of any warrior mentality in Jesus. But there is every sign that the world he grew up in was a warrior culture. And that was a problem, because one part of that warrior culture was led by the dominant wing of the party known as Pharisees. But that’s a story for another day.
How Mount Precipice Got Its Name
Mount Precipice is called that because of a famous story found in the gospel of Luke. Jesus had made a name for himself throughout Galilee. He came back to Nazareth, possibly expecting a hero’s welcome. Instead, he got stony looks and angry fists. Things came to a head on Shabbat when Jesus read a passage from the book of Isaiah. He stopped right in the middle—just before the good part about the Day of Vengeance. It’s not clear if that was the tipping point, but somehow his friends and neighbors got extremely angry. Emotions took over and a mob formed. They hauled him to “the precipice” and tried to throw him down. You can read the full story in Luke 4:16-30.
The story is also told in my latest novel, Son of Mary. I may have used a few more words than the author of the gospel of Luke, but it’s the same story.
We don’t know for sure where this “precipice” was. Long tradition says it was the site now known as Mount Precipice, but tradition is not proof. I’ve been around Nazareth a fair bit, and I think Mount Precipice is as good a candiate as any. While Mount Precipice is not exactly a cliff, it’s also not a safe place. You can do a lot of damage if you push a person over a drop of even 10 or 15 feet, if they land on jagged rocks. If you have more rocks to drop on him to finish him off, then you’ve got all the ingredients needed for a traditional stoning.
Here’s a picture I took of a spot that I think would fit the story quite well.
Mount Precipice is Part of the Story of Jesus
However you slice it, Mount Precipice is part of the story of Jesus. Whether he came there with a mob, or he came there alone, he was there. And now you’ve been there too, at least in pictures. Maybe someday you can go in person.
Jesus spent an enormous amount of time around the Sea of Galilee. The remarkable thing is that the Sea today looks very similar to the way it did two thousand years ago.
Here’s a snip of a map that I drew for my novel Son of Mary, showing the area around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus spent most of his time. (In the book, I call it the Lake of Ginosar, which I think is more likely what the locals called it in the time of Jesus.)
A Few Facts About the Sea of Galilee
- The Sea of Galilee is not really a sea. It’s a fair-sized lake, about 8 miles wide at its broadest point.
- It’s called the “Sea of Galilee” in Mark 1:16 and Mark 7:31, in Matthew 4:18 and Matthew 15:29, and in John 6:1.
- But it’s also called the “Sea of Tiberias” in John 6:1, in honor of the emperor Tiberius. I don’t know why the sea’s name is spelled differently than the emperor’s, but it is.
- It’s also called the “Lake of Genessaret” in Luke 5:1, presumably named after the village of Genessaret mentioned in Mark 6:53 and Matthew 14:34. There is a modern-day kibbutz on that site named Ginosar, which is the Hebrew spelling of the word transliterated Genesserat in the Bible.
Places Mentioned in the Story of Jesus
If you look at the map, you’ll see that it’s thick with places named in the gospels:
- Capernaum was the headquarters of Jesus. It appears that at least four of his disciples lived there (Peter, Andrew, James, and John), and probably a couple of others (Matthew and Thomas). Capernaum was one of the ten largest villages in Galilee, with a population estimated at a whopping level of about 1500 to 2000.
- Bethsaida was just a few miles west of Capernaum. It appears that Peter and Andrew may have been born there, and two other disciples lived there (Philip and Nathanael).
- South of Bethsaida a few miles on the east side of the lake was the small gentile village of Kursi. This is the traditional site at which Jesus healed a demonized man and there was an unfortunate episode in which about two thousand pigs got drowned. (Mark 5:1-17).
- South of Capernaum a few miles is the village of Ginosar, where Jesus and his disciples landed after the story of the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:53).
- South of Ginosar a few more miles is the large and important town of Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene. This town was even larger than Capernaum, and I’d estimate its population at up to 5000.
- Looming above Magdala was the asymmetrical mountain, Mount Arbel. This mountain is not mentioned directly in the gospels, but it’s the key landmark of the entire region. We sometimes read in the gospels that Jesus went up on a mountain. Some of these occasions may be referring to Mount Arbel, because it’s an obvious place to go if you know this area well.
- South of Magdala was the city of Tiberias, the capital of Galilee and therefore the site of a palace of Herod Antipas, who was the ruler over Galilee during the time of Jesus. When we read in Mark 3:6 that certain Pharisees got together with “the Herodians,” these Herodians were court followers of Herod Antipas, and they lived for a good part of the year in Tiberias. The city was the largest in Galilee, with a population of about 10,000.
Mount Arbel as a Landmark
There’s a lot more to say about the area around the Sea of Galilee, but I’ll save some for another blog post. I’ve spent a lot of time in the area, and my wife and I once worked for a week on the archaeological excavation at Magdala, in the shadow of Mount Arbel.
So I’ll just add this one point. Mount Arbel absolutely dominates the Sea of Galilee. From the top, you can see the entire lake, from north to south and all the way across to the eastern side.
And no matter where you are on the shores around the lake, you can see Mount Arbel. When Peter and Andrew and James and John went fishing on the lake, they could never be lost. No matter where they were on the lake, all they had to do was find Mount Arbel and they instantly knew where they were.
Here’s a picture of me and my wife, taken a few years ago on a boat trip on the lake. The view is looking west. Mount Arbel is the lopsided peak directly behind my wife’s head.
You can be sure of one thing. When you’re looking at Mount Arbel, you’re seeing a sight that looks exactly the same as it did when Jesus sat in a boat on the lake and looked toward the mountain.
I live in a small town. The population is about 20,000. I don’t feel terribly isolated, because we’re half an hour from a much larger town of about 200,000. And we’re right across the river from a good sized city of over 600,000.
It’s worth noting that my small town is about twice the size of the largest cities in Galilee at the time of Jesus. At the time he began preaching the news of the kingdom of God, the capital of Galilee was Tiberias, with a population of about 10,000. Tiberias was a day’s walk from Nazareth, so Jesus probably didn’t get there very often.
The other large city in Galilee was Tsipori, which also had a population of about 10,000. This city had been the capital of Galilee when Jesus was a boy, but the ruler of Galilee (Herod Antipas) moved his capital to Tiberias at some point when Jesus was in his twenties.
Tsipori was only about an hour’s walk away from Nazareth, so it would have been easy for Jesus to visit. It’s a good bet that he went there often, because Nazareth was quite small. Archaeologists have estimated the size in acres of the village of Nazareth to be 5 to 10 acres, with a population absolutely no more than 400, and probably a lot less.
What Nazareth Was Like
My best guess is that Nazareth had a population of around 200 people. That may seem tiny, but in the time of Jesus, it was a respectable size. In my blog post Around Galilee With Jesus, I estimated the sizes of the villages and towns in Galilee to range from around 10,000 down to about 100. A village of 200 souls would have been slightly above the 50th percentile, meaning 50% of villages were smaller. So Nazareth was a typical-sized village.
Jesus and his father and his four brothers probably all worked in the same trade, which was a problem. If there were 50 adult men in the village, then the six men in his family would have been 12% of the entire adult male population.
It seems implausible that there would have been enough work in Nazareth for all of them. Their trade is named in Mark 6:3 using the Greek word “tekton.” This is usually mistranslated “carpenter,” but the Biblical scholars say that a tekton could be any worker in wood, metal, or stone. In essence, they were builders. A sleepy village like Nazareth would probably not have enough work for them all, but the large town of Tsipori had a lot going on. So that explains why I think Jesus and his family went there often.
Nazareth today is a densely packed town in Galilee with a population of more than 75,000. The first-century village was built alongside the broad avenue now called Paulus ha-Shishi (named after Pope Paul the 6th). The modern Basilica of the Annunciation sits at the southern end of the first-century village, and the modern Mary’s Well is located a few hundred yards north of the northern end of the first-century village.
Only a very few first-century houses have been excavated (near the southern end). So we don’t have a very good idea of how things were laid out. All we can say is that the village was shaped somewhat like a zucchini, with the fat end in the south and the thin end in the north.
There’s a tourist site called Nazareth Village that I found helpful in visualizing the first-century village. It’s not perfect, but it was built in consultation with some real archaeologists. The guides dress up in first-century garb, and you can see a carpenter’s shop, a weaver’s shop, a synagogue, a threshing area, a pen with some livestock, all manned with humans dressed approximately like first-century villagers. You can also eat a first-century lunch. It’s definitely worth a visit, and the more you know about history and archaeology, the more you’ll appreciate the place.
When I was working on my most recent novel, Son of Mary, I created a map of first-century Nazareth based on everything I know—some books I’ve got, plus several visits I’ve made to Nazareth, which included two stops at Nazareth Village.
Nazareth is built on a hill. If you walk a bit more than a mile south from the first-century village, you’ll come to a place now called Mount Precipice. This is a fairly steep slope going down into the Jezreel Valley. It’s the traditional site of the story told in Luke 4:16-30, in which Jesus is nearly thrown off the “precipice” by his own hometown. I’ve visited this site several times, and it seems to me a very plausible place to stage a traditional execution by stoning. (The traditional method is to push somebody into a pit or over a drop of about 10 feet. If that doesn’t break their neck, then you drop large rocks on them until they die. Everything needed for this kind of stoning was available right there at Mount Precipice.)
A Map of Nazareth
It’s not possible to make an accurate map of the first-century village of Nazareth, because we just don’t know enough. But it’s possible to imagine the village and create something that is at least consistent with the information we have.
And that’s what I did for my book. Here is the map I ended up drawing, based on the 10% we actually know and using my imagination for the 90% that we don’t know.
They didn’t celebrate Mother’s Day in first-century Nazareth.
But pretend for a moment that they did. How many Mother’s Day cards would Mary have gotten?
That’s not an easy question to answer, because we don’t know how many children Mary had.
There’s an old tradition that Mary was a lifelong virgin and only ever had one child, Jesus.
But not everybody accepts the idea that Mary was a perpetual virgin. This is a church tradition that doesn’t go back to the first century. What does the Bible tell us?
What Mark Tells Us
The gospel of Mark mentions several siblings of Jesus. In Mark 6:3, we see the names of four brothers, James, Joses, Judas, and Simon.
These are English transliterations of traditional Hebrew names, Yaakov, Yosi, Yehuda, and Shimon.
Yosi is a nickname, a short form for Yoseph. In a home where the father is already named Yoseph, it makes good sense to give a son with the same name a nickname.
Mark 6:3 also mentions an unspecified number of sisters (plural). This means there must be at least two sisters, but it’s also plausible that he had three, or even more. My own guess is three, because that balances better with the five sons in the house. But it’s just a guess.
What Matthew Tells Us
The gospel of Matthew doesn’t add much to Mark’s information. The author of Matthew had a copy of Mark when he wrote his gospel, and he often follows it pretty closely. In Matthew 13:55-56, the four brothers are listed, but with a slight variation in the names and the order. Here, they’re called James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas.
So Matthew calls the second brother Joseph, not Joses. And he swaps the order of the third and fourth brothers.
This tells us that Matthew knew the full name of Yosi to be Yoseph, which is not at all surprising.
Also, it seems plausible that Matthew knew the correct order of sons and wanted to set the record straight. Neither Mark nor Matthew actually says that they are giving the actual birth order, but generally brothers in a family are listed in their birth order, or close to it.
My own guess is that Shimon was older than Yehuda, but that they were close in age, and Yehuda may have been physically bigger.
Matthew again leaves the sisters of Jesus anonymous, just as Mark did. And I can’t think of any other mention of sisters of Jesus anywhere else in the New Testament. The reason for this is simple. It was a patriarchal society. When sisters got married, they married out of the family.
What Luke Tells Us
The gospel of Luke only mentions the siblings of Jesus once. In Luke 8:19-21, we read that Jesus’s mother and his brothers came looking for him, but couldn’t get into the house because it was so packed. They got upset when Jesus said that all the people listening were his mother and brothers.
Similar episodes show up in Matthew 12:46-50 and Mark 3:31-35.
So Luke gives us no new information.
What John Tells Us
The gospel of John mentions the brothers of Jesus on several occasions.
In John 2:12, immediately after the story of Jesus changing water to wine, we read that Jesus and his mother and his brothers went to Capernaum and stayed there for some days. This gives us no new information, other than that the whole family was going around the countryside together at some point. But that changed…
In John 7:1-10, there’s a short story telling about how Jesus’s brothers urged him to go the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall of some year, pointing out that if he wanted to get famous, that would be the place to do it. Jesus declined to go, but his brothers went. And the text says rather pointedly that his brothers were not his followers. However, it seems there was some sort of reconciliation…
John 20:17 tells the famous story of an appearance by Jesus to Mary Magdalene on the very first Easter Sunday. Jesus gave her a message for his brothers. (A similar incident is recounted in Matthew 28:10.)
Three Theories on the Siblings of Jesus
All of this leads us to the crucial question, how exactly were these “brothers and sisters” related to Jesus?
There have been three main theories put forth over the years:
- These “brothers and sisters” were children of both Joseph and Mary.
- They were children of Joseph by a previous wife; Mary was a perpetual virgin.
- They were cousins of Jesus, the children of Joseph’s brother Alphaeus; both Mary and Joseph were perpetual virgins.
You can believe whichever of these you like. My own thinking is that #1 seems most plausible in view of the data we have. #2 and #3 seem to me to be driven by theological reasoning.
So How Many Mother’s Day Cards for Mary?
Now we can return to the original question. How many Mother’s Day cards would have been due to Mary?
If you go with theories #2 or #3, then your answer is that Mary only got one card.
If you agree with me that #1 seems like the most reasonable theory, then it seems that Mary would have been due at least 7 cards, and maybe 8. (Jesus plus four brothers plus two or three sisters.)
But there’s another consideration. The infant mortality rate in antiquity was shockingly high.
Roughly half of all children died before the age of puberty. And half of those died in the first year of life. If Mary had 7 or 8 children who lived to adulthood, then she could very plausibly have borne around 15 children. Of those, 3 or 4 would have died in infancy, and another 3 or 4 would have died as children, but lived at least long enough to know their mother.
So it’s very reasonable that Mary might have been eligible to receive Mother’s Day cards from as many as 11 or 12 different children (although they might not have all been alive at the same time).
Of course, nobody gave Mother’s Day cards in the first century. But certainly it was a commandment to honor your mother, and Jesus no doubt did.
Regular readers of this blog know that my current latest novel is Son of Mary, a novel about Jesus, which tells a tale speculating just how far Jesus might have gone in honoring his mother. Because if we know anything about Mary, we know that the village of Nazareth didn’t honor her. The village almost certainly treated her with enormous contempt.
Who told Jesus he had to die?
Who told Jesus about the crown of thorns?
Was he born knowing he was doomed to the cross?
Did his parents tell him his destiny?
Did he read it in the prophets?
But then again, maybe not.
We can’t know for sure how he learned it.
Could it be that he discovered his destiny gradually?
The same way you and I do, step by step, working it out?
We read. We talk. We think. We pray. We listen.
Bit by bit, we find our way in the world.
The ancient creeds sing that Jesus was fully God.
But they insist that he was somehow also fully man.
As a man, he learned obedience, one step at a time.
As a man, he walked with God, talked with God.
Somewhere along that journey, Jesus came to know his destiny.
That he would be scapegoated by angry, frightened men.
That he would be beaten and mocked and spit on.
That he would die in shame on a cross.
And thereby rule as king forever.
Wearing a crown of thorns.
Excerpted from the epigraph of my new novel, Son of Mary, Book 1 in the Crown of Thorns series.
Three of the gospels report a very strange incident at Nazareth. Jesus had spent some months making a name for himself all around Galilee. Then he came back to his hometown. And the villagers gave him a very cold shoulder.
You can read all about it in Mark, in Matthew, and in Luke. Each of these gives us unique information.
What Mark Tells Us
Mark is our earliest gospel, and it tells the story in Mark 6:1-6. Jesus came to Nazareth with some of his disciples and was asked to teach in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Mark reports that the villagers were astonished at both his wisdom and his mighty works.
This passage is notable because it’s the only verse in the entire Bible that tells us Jesus’s occupation. The villagers ask, “Isn’t this the tekton, the son of Mary?” The Greek word “tekton” means one who works in wood, metal, or stone. This has traditionally been translated “carpenter” in English, but we don’t actually know if Jesus specialized in wood. We truly don’t have any other Biblical data.
Now why did the villagers refer to Jesus as the “son of Mary?” Was this because his father Joseph was dead? Or was it a sneering reference to the rumors that Joseph was not the blood father of Jesus? We don’t know exactly what the villagers meant here. But we know they had a problem with him, so it’s quite plausible that they were throwing shade on him.
The passage is one of only two places in the Bible that refer to four “brothers” of Jesus by name—James, Joses, Judah, and Simon. And it mentions “sisters”—but with no number to tell us how many siblings Jesus had. Scholars have debated exactly how these “brothers” were related to Jesus. Were they sons of both Joseph and Mary? Were they sons of Joseph by some earlier wife? Were they cousins of Jesus?
We learn from this passage that the village was offended by Jesus and that he healed a few sick people but didn’t do anything more spectacular. But the reason they took offense is unclear.
If Mark’s account was all we knew, it would still be immensely valuable to us. But Matthew has some things to add.
What Matthew Tells Us
Matthew’s gospel was probably written about a decade after Mark, and it often follows Mark very closely. Most biblical scholars believe that Matthew used Mark’s gospel as a source.
Matthew tells the story in Matthew 13:54-58. He follows Mark’s account very closely, with a couple of changes that give us new information.
In Matthew’s account, the villagers don’t directly say that Jesus was a “tekton.” They say that his father was. The villagers asked, “Isn’t this the son of the tekton? Isn’t his mother called Mary?”
This is certainly less insulting than in Mark’s account. Here, Jesus is named as the son of his father, rather than the son of his mother. In a patriarchal society, that matters.
Matthew also names the four “brothers” of Jesus, but he puts them in a different order—James, Joses, Simon, and Judah. The names of the third and fourth brothers are swapped. What’s the reason for that? Was Matthew a sloppy copyist? Or did he believe that Mark had got the order backwards, and that the record should be set straight? We don’t know.
Again, Matthew makes it clear that the village took offense at Jesus, but it’s still not clear why.
Luke tells us yet a different version of things, and here we find a surprise.
What Luke Tells Us
Luke’s gospel is generally thought to have been written after both Mark and Matthew. His account is found in Luke 4:16-30, which is considerably longer than the other two versions.
Luke tells us quite a bit about what Jesus actually taught. Jesus was given the Isaiah scroll, and he read a passage that his listeners would have known well, Isaiah 61:1-2.
But he broke off the passage in the middle. He stopped literally in the middle of a sentence—just before Isaiah’s words on the Day of Vengeance.
Why did he stop there? What did the villagers think about this interruption? Was that why they took offense? Or was there more to it than that?
In Luke’s account, this is the point where the villagers say, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” There is no mention of Mary here. There is no mention of the brothers or sisters.
But what comes next is very telling. Jesus now says that they want him to do miracles like he’s done in Capernaum (and presumably in many other villages in Galilee). It looks like there’s the rub—Jesus had made a name for himself in other places, doing mighty miracles, but he didn’t do them in his own hometown first.
When Jesus starts talking about a pagan widow who honored the prophet Elijah and a pagan leper who was healed by the prophet Elisha, the villagers have had enough.
They rise up in a mob, grab Jesus, and drag him to “the precipice,” intending to throw him off. If you go to Nazareth today, you’ll be shown the traditional Mount Precipice, which is a fairly steep slope, studded with boulders. It’s not exactly a cliff, but you could certainly kill a man by throwing him over the edge and then tossing rocks on him (the traditional method for stoning a person).
Mount Precipice is a bit more than a mile from the actual village. That’s quite a hike. This mob sounds like it was extremely angry. Or else the whole thing was well-planned in advance. We can’t say for sure.
Luke tells us that Jesus “passed through the midst of them” and went on his way.
OK, what??? How did that happen? Clearly, there’s more to the story than just walking through the mob, but Luke doesn’t tell us how it happened. Did Jesus fight? Did his disciples fight? Did his brothers fight? Did God intervene? What happened at the precipice? Why did Jesus wait until the very last second to get out of trouble?
We don’t know, and there’s no way to find out. The best we can do is guess.
Novelists Make Guesses
They say that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Novelists do too, apparently.
We don’t know exactly what happened in the incident at Nazareth.
But the incident is a crucial set of scenes in my brand-new novel Son of Mary, which is Book 1 in my long-anticipated Crown of Thorns series.
Son of Mary is now on Amazon! I’ve set the e-book up for pre-order, and it will officially release on Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020. The paper edition is already up for sale now.
The novel plays on all the issues I’ve highlighted in this blog post. The ugly rumors about the legitimacy of Jesus. The brothers of Jesus. The attitude of Nazareth toward their most famous son. Their attitude toward his mother.
And the terrifying incident at Nazareth.
Let’s be clear—we can’t be certain about any of these things. But a novelist is allowed to make guesses. It’s just a story, and nobody thinks a novel tells the exact way things worked out. A novel creates a movie in your head, showing you one possible way it could have happened.
But that’s enough.
You’ll love Son of Mary because it will show you the Jesus you’ve always known in a whole new way. Enjoy the ride.