Ever wondered what it was like to be there on the day Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John?
There are a lot of questions I’d like answered:
- When and where exactly did this happen?
- What did the place look like?
- What was it like to get baptized by John?
Where Did John Baptize?
The four gospels all say that Jesus met John at the Jordan River.
Mark’s account is earliest and says that John was “in the wilderness” and also “at the Jordan River.”
Matthew’s account was written a bit later and is very similar, with more details.
Luke’s account was written a bit after Matthew’s, and includes the interesting detail that John appeared in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” which puts it somewhere around the year A.D. 28 or 29.
All three of these gospels say that John baptized Jesus.
The gospel of John doesn’t actually say Jesus was baptized. It does say that John was baptizing in the wilderness “on the other side of the Jordan,” and it tells how Jesus met six of his disciples there—Peter and Andrew, Philip and Nathaniel, and two others who aren’t named.
That’s all the biblical data we have on where the baptism happened.
As usual, when data is lacking, there are plenty of traditions to fill in the gaps.
The Traditional Baptism Site
There’s a traditional site at the Jordan River, just a few miles north of the Dead Sea, where John is said to have baptized Jesus.
The Jordan River is part of the border between the modern State of Israel and the modern Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
If you visit on the Israeli side of the river, you’ll see tourists there getting baptized.
If you visit on the Jordanian side, you’ll be shown a fairly large site that extends from the river eastward for several hundred yards. Inside that zone is an ancient monastery complex and a modern chapel. The site has been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
But Is It The Real Baptism Site?
We don’t have strong evidence that the sites on either the Israeli or Jordanian sides are the exact location where John was baptizing.
The monastery on the Jordanian side dates from a few hundred years after the time of Jesus.
The sixth-century Madaba map is a mosaic that seems to put the baptism site on the Israeli side.
But neither of these are dated very close to the time of Jesus.
So I wouldn’t say that we can locate the baptism site on a map with any real precision. For one thing, the Jordan River, like all rivers, tends to shift its banks over the centuries. For another, the real site could easily be a few miles north or south of the traditional site.
What we can say is that the traditional baptism site gives us a reasonable idea of what the actual site looked like, wherever that might be.
Pictures of the Traditional Baptism Site
My wife and I visited the traditional baptism site on the Jordanian side this past July.
If you’ve always pictured the Jordan River as a broad, raging torrent, you’re in for a surprise. In modern times, most of the water from the river gets diverted for agriculture, so the river is narrow and shallow. At the traditional baptism site, it’s about twenty feet across, and the water looks to be about waist-deep.
Our guide told us that when his father was young, the river was never less than fifteen to twenty meters across. That’s still not very wide, but it’s a lot bigger than the river you see today.
Here’s a photo of the river as I saw it:
The traditional site is more than 1000 feet below sea level, which makes it very hot. On the day we visited, it was over 100 degrees. The sun burned down on us out of a clear blue sky. We saw some date palms, some acacia trees, and a lot of tamarisk trees, which have very spiny leaves that don’t lose much moisture in the blazing sun. Here’s a closeup picture of a small tamarisk tree:
And here’s a picture of some small palm trees near a modern chapel:
Imagine the Day John Baptized Jesus
Imagine you’re there on the day Jesus comes to John to be baptized.
During the heat of the day, you rest with your friends in the thin shade of a tamarisk tree. Hundreds of people have come from Judea and Galilee to listen to the prophet John.
Later in the afternoon, John comes out and gives his message, warning Israel to repent or be consumed in the coming judgment. He’s wearing a rough tunic woven from camel hair and a belt made from the skin of some wild animal, and he looks exactly the way you’ve always imagined the prophet Elijah, in days of old.
You repent. Then you walk down into the river to do a traditional Jewish purification ceremony.
Since you’re in public, you keep your tunic on until you’re in water up to your neck. Modesty is important to you, and the last thing you’d want to do is expose your nakedness. But the law requires you to be completely naked for the purification ceremony.
Fortunately, the Jordan River is murky and greenish-brown. Once you’re far enough into the water, you pull your tunic up over your head. Now you’re naked, so you’ve met the requirements of the law. But nobody can see anything except your face, because the water is so murky.
You plunge below the surface of the water, immersing yourself completely, including the tunic you’re holding in your hand.
Once you’ve immersed, you’re now ritually clean, and so is your tunic. You pull your wet tunic back down over your head and cover your body. Your tunic is clumsy and hard to handle, so it takes a long time, but you finally get it back on.
You slog back to the bank and clamber up out of the river.
In the evening, you eat a meal of celebration with your friends. You spread out your cloaks on the pale sand and recline under the stars. You eat traveler’s food—bread and cheese and dried figs and almonds. You wash it down with beer or wine from a skin.
Somebody sings a song.
Your friend recites the poem of the creation of the world.
You stand and tell the story of how Joshua led your people across the river more than a thousand years ago and conquered Jericho. You look across the river and see the lights of Jericho in the distance. You can’t help feeling that this is the most exciting time to be alive. The kingdom of God is breaking in!
A young Galilean reclining a few feet away smiles at you. He stands and tells a story you’re not familiar with. It’s not taken from the sacred writings. But it’s the best story you’ve ever heard.
When things settle down for the night, you roll up in your cloak and lie back in the sand and stare up at the stars and wonder what’s going to happen next …
If you go to Israel, you’ll be shown all kinds of sites where Jesus allegedly walked.
The site where his mother is said to have seen the angel Gabriel.
The site where he is said to have been born.
The site where he’s said to have been baptized.
Two sites where he’s said to have fed the 5,000.
Two sites where he was arrested.
The site where he was tried.
A couple of sites where he was buried.
Many of these have churches to mark the “exact location.”
There’s a church on the site where he’s said to have ascended to heaven, complete with a footprint he is said to have left in the rock.
After a while, you start wondering what’s real. Because it’s not likely that people were following Jesus around, pounding signposts into the ground to mark the spot.
Is there any place we can know for sure Jesus stood?
We know that Jesus lived in Galilee and went to the synagogue every Shabbat. So if we could find an authentic first-century synagogue in Galilee, it would be a good bet Jesus was there.
What About the Synagogue at Capernaum?
Jesus had his headquarters in Capernaum, a village near the north end of the Sea of Galilee.
My wife and I worked on an archaeological dig in Jerusalem for a couple of weeks this summer. When that was done, we went up to Galilee for a few days. We stopped by Capernaum, one of our favorite spots in Galilee.
There’s a beautiful synagogue at Capernaum that most tourists visit. Here’s a picture I took:
It’s big and beautiful. Did Jesus stand here?
Unfortunately, this synagogue was probably built in the fourth century. So Jesus never set foot in this building. The synagogue was built on the site of an earlier synagogue, and Jesus certainly taught in that one. But not in the one shown in the photo.
The problem is that there just aren’t that many synagogues in Israel that date to the first century. Until recently, only six were known.
But in 2009, a new one was discovered in Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene. A Catholic organization wanted to build a retreat center there on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. As soon as they broke ground for the new building, they began making sensational finds, including a synagogue. They called in the authorities and launched an archaeological dig.
They found a coin dating to the year AD 29, which proved that this synagogue dates to the first century.
Did Jesus Visit the Synagogue at Magdala?
The obvious question to ask is whether Jesus ever visited this synagogue at Magdala.
And the answer seems very clear to me. Yes, he did.
Magdala is only about six miles from Capernaum. There was a road running south along the Sea of Galilee, connecting Capernaum to Magdala. You could walk between the two towns in a couple of hours.
It’s true that none of the four gospels ever mention Jesus visiting Magdala.
But that’s not surprising. The four gospels mention by name only a very few towns or villages that Jesus visited in Galilee. Nazareth. Cana. Capernaum. Chorazin. Nain. That’s most of them.
But there were more than 200 villages in Galilee, and the gospels say that Jesus walked all through Galilee.
It’s likely that he visited every single village and town in Galilee. To see how that was possible, see my blog post On The Road With Jesus.
And Magdala was one of the larger towns, probably ranking in the top five.
So yes, Jesus visited Magdala. His close friend, Mary Magdalene lived there. She was likely a wealthy woman, because the gospels say she helped support Jesus and his friends.
And the gospels are also clear that Jesus was a rabbi, a Torah teacher.
Without a doubt, he’d have been asked to speak in any synagogue he chose to visit on Shabbat.
The Strange Magdala Stone
But we can say more. The archaeologists found a strange stone in the synagogue at Magdala. Nothing like it has been found anywhere in Israel.
The stone is inscribed with beautiful artwork on all four sides and also on top.
The art shows a menorah and what appears to be symbols representing the Temple in Jerusalem.
These may well be the earliest images of the Temple that we have.
The stone may have been used to hold the Torah scroll during the reading on Shabbat.
If so, then Jesus would have stood in front of it when teaching in the synagogue.
Even if it wasn’t used to hold the Torah scroll, Jesus must have admired the art on it when he visited. It’s just too beautiful to ignore.
My wife and I worked on the Magdala dig for about a week back in 2015. We went back to visit this summer to see what progress they’ve made on the site.
Here is a picture I took of the synagogue at Magdala. Near the center, there’s a replica of the Magdala stone showing where it was found:
Here are some pictures I took of the on-site replica of the Magdala stone. In the first, you can see the menorah. The second appears to show a representation of the Temple in Jerusalem.
If You Get a Chance to Visit Magdala, Do It!
If you visit Israel on a tour, the odds are high that your guide will take you to Capernaum. This has been a traditional tourist stop for years. Many tours now also include Magdala, because it’s close to Capernaum and just as exciting.
I personally like Magdala more, because you can get closer to the archaeological finds. And because you can see a synagogue where you know with high confidence that Jesus actually visited.
Work is ongoing at Magdala, and I expect they’ll continue to uncover more of the past over the next few years.
You can read all about the archaeological park at Magdala here.
Can you name all the disciples of Jesus?
Everyone knows Jesus had 12 disciples.
But very people can name them all from memory.
Can you do it without looking them up? Try it and see.
Every time I try this exercise, something very mysterious happens.
I come up with more than 12 names.
If I scour every corner of my brain, I come up with 21 different names for the disciples of Jesus.
What’s going on here?
Work with me, and see if you agree.
21 Names of the Disciples of Jesus
The first four names of disciples are pretty easy—Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Most everyone who’s read the Bible knows these.
And just about everybody remembers Judas Iscariot. He’s a little hard to forget.
If you think for a few minutes, you’ll probably come up with names like Thomas, Matthew, Bartholomew, and Philip.
But maybe you’ll also remember Levi the son of Alphaeus.
And maybe Nathanael.
Maybe even Simon Barjona.
Aren’t those names of disciples too?
Yes, they are. That’s 12 names of disciples already.
But there’s more. A bunch more.
Here are some you might come up with if you really work hard: Simon the Zealot, Simon the Cananean, James the son of Alphaeus, Judas the son of James, Thaddaeus, and Lebbaeus. Recognize those names?
All of them are named in modern English translations of the Bible as disciples of Jesus. Members of the Twelve.
And wasn’t there a guy mentioned once as “Judas, not Iscariot?” That’s kind of a weird way to talk about somebody.
And wasn’t the name Didymus also thrown around a few times?
And isn’t somebody named Cephas?
Yes and yes and yes.
This is pretty strange. Count the names above. We’re up to 21 different names for various disciples of Jesus! Did we make a mistake?
Were There Really 21 Disciples of Jesus?
How did that happen? Some of these must be the same people under different names, right?
Biblical scholars have worked on this question for centuries, and they don’t have perfect agreement. But most everyone agrees that some of these gentlemen had more than one name.
Let’s see if we can untangle things.
You’ll find lists of the 12 disciples of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke, and also a list of 11 of them in the book of Acts.
The gospel of John doesn’t make a list of 12 disciples. This gospel only mentions 7 disciples by name, scattered through the story, and also 2 unnamed “sons of Zebedee.”
The lists of 12 generally divide up neatly into groups of 4.
Let’s look at those and see what we can learn.
The First 4 Disciples
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts all pick out 4 of the 12 disciples to mention first. They aren’t named in exactly the same order in each list, but these 4 always come before any of the others. Here they are:
- Simon, (whom Jesus nicknamed Peter).
- Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter.
- James, the son of Zebedee.
- John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James.
What We Know About Simon Peter
What’s the deal with Simon having two names?
“Simon” is the English spelling of the Aramaic name “Shimon.” This was the most common name for men in Judea during the first century, and it’s still a common name in Israel today.
“Cephas” is the English spelling of an Aramaic nickname, “Kepha”, which means “Rock.” Jesus gave Shimon this nickname when they met. But the New Testament was written in Greek, so usually “Cephas” was translated to Greek …
“Peter” is the English spelling of the Greek name “Petros” which was used to translate the Aramaic name “Cephas.”
“Barjona” is just the English spelling of the Aramaic “bar Yonah”, which means “son of Yonah.” Simon Peter’s father was named Yonah.
What We Know About Andrew
“Andrew” is the English spelling of a Greek name “Andreas.” We don’t know if he had an Aramaic name. In the Greek New Testament, he’s always called “Andreas.”
Simon and Andrew were fisherman and came from the fishing village of Bethsaida (according to the gospel of John), but they appear to have lived in Capernaum, another fishing village about 3 miles from Bethsaida. There’s no explanation for why they are said to have lived in two different villages. Possibly, they moved from Bethsaida to Capernaum at some point.
What We Know About James and John
James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, were also fisherman, and they came from Capernaum. Jesus nicknamed the two of them “the sons of thunder.” Both were part of the inner circle of Jesus, along with Simon Peter. Tradition says that John was the youngest of the 12 disciples of Jesus. He might have been as young as thirteen years old when he met Jesus!
Four Fishermen, not Twelve
These four primary disciples were all fishermen living in Capernaum. And Capernaum was the village Jesus chose as his headquarters. Could it be that Jesus chose Capernaum because that’s where his first disciples came from? It’s not clear.
People often assume that all 12 disciples were fishermen. We don’t actually know that. We only know for sure that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen.
The Second Group of Four Disciples
All the lists of disciples name a second group of four men next.
We know a bit less about these four.
What We Know About Philip
Philip came from Bethsaida, and he’s usually mentioned with Andrew. So it’s plausible he was also a fisherman, but we can’t be sure. “Philip” is a Greek name and we never hear that he has an Aramaic name. He and Andrew are the only two disciples whose birth names are Greek, and both are said to come from Bethsaida, which was a village with both Jews and Greeks. There’s a story in the gospel of John of some Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus—they came to Philip first, who took them to Andrew, who took them to Jesus. So Philip may well have spoken both Aramaic and Greek.
What We Know About Bartholomew
“Bartholomew” is the English spelling of the Aramaic name “Bar Tolmai,” which just means “son of Tolmai.” The gospels usually name him in the same breath with Philip, so it seems likely they were friends. But Bartholomew is not named at all in the gospel of John. In John, there’s a disciple named Nathanael who is close friends with Philip. Many people over the centuries have suggested that Nathanael is the same person as Bartholomew. This is possible. Then his full name would be “Nathanael son of Tolmai.” We don’t know if that’s how it played, but it might be. Nathanael is said to come from Cana, a small village about 15 or 20 miles from the Sea of Galilee. So he may not have been a fisherman. We don’t have any clear idea what he did for a living.
What We Know About Thomas
“Thomas” is the English spelling of the Aramaic name “Toma” which means “twin.” Thomas was sometimes called “Didymus,” which is a Greek name which also means “twin.” Thomas has a reputation as a doubter. But there’s a story in the gospel of John in which Thomas is the bravest of the disciples, so let’s not judge him too harshly. We don’t know what Thomas did for a living. There’s a legend that he was a builder or a carpenter of some sort. If he lived in Capernaum or Bethsaida, then he might actually have been a boat-maker. But that’s just a guess.
What We Know About Matthew
Matthew is named as a tax-collector in three of the gospels. There’s a story in the gospel of Matthew about Jesus calling him out of his tax-booth to be a disciple. The same story in the gospels of Mark and Luke tell about Jesus calling a man named Levi the son of Alphaeus. Were Levi and Matthew the same man? Traditionally, most people have believed he was. Some modern Biblical scholars have disputed this. We can’t know for sure. It’s a guess. But we can be sure Matthew was not a fisherman. He was a tax-collector, and quite possibly literate, which was rare at the time. He may have been the only disciple who could read or write. Again, we don’t know.
The Last Group of Four Disciples
All the main lists of disciples name a final group of four, but there’s quite a bit of variation in the names. One traditional way to list them is this way:
- Simon the Zealot (also called Simon the Cananean)
- “James of Alphaeus”
- “Judas of James”, also called Thaddaeus or Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddaeus
- Judas Iscariot (or Judas son of Simon)
Why all the differences in the names? And who were these people?
What We Know About Simon the Zealot
“Cananean” is just an English spelling of a Greek spelling of an Aramaic word, “kanai,” which means “zealot.” So this Simon was zealous for Torah. It’s a reasonable guess that he was in fact a Pharisee. Most of the people in the first century who were called “zealots” were Pharisees.
What We Know About “James of Alphaeus”
“James of Alphaeus” is usually translated into English as “James the son of Alphaeus.” The Greek doesn’t explicitly have the word “son”, but English translators usually supply it. Some scholars believe James was the cousin or half-brother of Jesus, because Jesus had an uncle or possibly step-father with the Aramaic name Halfai, and Jesus also had a brother/half-brother/cousin named James. And “Halfai” could be transliterated into Greek as “Alphaeus” or “Klopas.” We don’t know enough about “James of Alphaeus” to say whether he was really related to Jesus. But it’s possible. For more about James the brother of Jesus, see my blog post James, the Brother of Jesus, Part I. Also, my post Where Was James at the Crucifixion?
What We Know About “Judas of James”
“Judas of James” is usually translated as “Judas the brother of James”. I can’t find any clear reason for this. Everywhere else, “of” would be translated as “son of”. Is this Judas really the son of some James? If so, which James? And it’s more complicated, because this man is called “Judas of James” in only the lists in Luke/Acts. Mark doesn’t mention “Judas of James,” but in the same spot in his list, there’s a man named Thaddaeus. In the same spot in Matthew’s list, there’s a man named “Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddaeus”. We don’t know for sure that these are all referring to the same person, but it seems plausible. One thing we know for sure about “Judas of James” is that he is definitely not Judas Iscariot. Because all the lists also mention Judas Iscariot as a separate person. And the gospel of John talks about a man named “Judas, not Iscariot.” It’s a very strong bet John is referring to our man “Judas of James.”
What We Know About Judas Iscariot
Judas Iscariot is the name of the famous traitor who betrayed Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all call him by this name. We don’t know for sure what “Iscariot” means, but a traditional guess is that it comes from the Hebrew words “Ish Keriot” which would mean “man of Keriot.” The gospel of John tells us he was the son of a man named Simon Iscariot. But we don’t know anything about this Simon.
Lots of Questions Remain
So we’ve found 21 different names used for the 12 disciples of Jesus.
We don’t know as much about any of them as we’d like.
Where did they come from?
What did they do for a living?
Were any of them relatives of Jesus?
What happened to them later in life?
We can answer a few of these questions for a few of these men. But it’s a mysterious group.
What we do know is that Jesus saw something in each of them that he liked. If you believe that Jesus was a good judge of character, you can reasonably guess that these men were each special in some way. Even if we don’t know exactly what made them special.
Over the 14 years that I’ve been slowly working out the story world for my novel series Crown of Thorns, I’ve had a lot of fun thinking of possible ways that each one might be special.
Below is a photo of a chapel at a Catholic retreat center at Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The boat at the front of the chapel is the altar, and when you’re sitting in the pews, the boat looks like it’s floating on the water. Around the aisles on both sides you’ll see images of all the 12 disciples of Jesus. These are based on traditional church icons that go back many centuries.
Ever wondered what you’d have seen if you’d been there the day Jesus got baptized? All four gospels have accounts of his baptism: in Mark 1:9-11; in Matthew 3:13-16; in Luke 3:21-22, and in John 1:29-34.
Baptizing Jesus is not as simple as it sounds. Here are four extra facts that makes things complicated:
- The earliest Christians were baptized naked
- Christian baptism comes from the Jewish practice of immersion
- Jews at the time of Jesus immersed naked
- Jesus was Jewish
If you put those facts together, you might ask:
Was Jesus Baptized Naked?
Whoa, whoa, whoa! That’s a very weird question, isn’t it?
Why would anyone in their right minds ask such a question?
Well, when you’re a novelist writing a scene about the baptism of Jesus, and you know the facts listed above, you pretty much have to ask the question. Because you have to figure out a way to write the scene so it’s historically accurate and not weird.
But it raises another question, because John the Baptist was immersing lots of people at that time. Not just Jesus. John was immersing hundreds of people.
Men and women together.
In the Jordan river.
So now we have to ask …
Did John Baptize All Those People Naked?
That just doesn’t seem plausible, does it? Because here’s one more fact that makes it really complicated:
In the time of Jesus, Jews were very particular about not being seen naked in public. That’s one of the big issues they had with their Greek neighbors. Greeks thought it was no big deal to hang out naked in the public baths, or to exercise naked. But Jews considered it shameful to be seen naked.
In the first century, we know that Jews typically immersed in private immersion pools called mikvehs. So it was no shame to immerse naked in a private mikveh, because nobody was around to see. Here’s a picture of a mikveh that I took when I visited Magdala a few years ago. You can see stone steps leading down into a pool.
But a private immersion doesn’t square with the fact we mentioned above, that both men and women came out to hear John the Baptist at the Jordan river. And they immersed there in the Jordan. Right out in public.
So how do we make sense of all this?
It comes down to one question.
How Exactly Did John Baptize People?
I found all this quite puzzling, and I wondered if maybe people wore at least something when they immersed—a loincloth or whatever. So I emailed a well-known Biblical scholar, Prof. Joan Taylor, who is Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at Kings College London. Dr. Taylor is the author of a recent scholarly book on how people dressed at the time of Jesus, and I figured she’d know, if anyone did.
She got back to me quickly with a reply. As it turns out, she’s also the author of a book on John the Baptist, so she’d already thought about the problem of how people got baptized. There’s a simple solution that seems very plausible.
Let’s remember that, in Jewish law, you were required to be naked at the moment when you immersed yourself fully underwater.
But that doesn’t mean you had to walk down into the water naked. Or walk up out of the water naked.
You could wade out into the Jordan river with your tunic still on. (In those days, everyone wore a long tunic made of wool. They didn’t wear socks and they probably didn’t wear a loincloth or any other underclothing.)
Once you got out neck deep into the water, you could pull the tunic up over your head. At which point you’d be naked. But not embarrassed, because the Jordan river is very murky water. If anyone was peeking at you, they wouldn’t see anything.
Then you could immerse yourself fully in the water. You could also immerse your tunic at the same time.
When you finished immersing, you’d still be naked, and still be neck-deep in the water. Now you could just pull your tunic back on over your head and down over your body. Then you could walk up out of the water, fully clothed again.
In Jewish law, you’d now be clean, and your tunic would be too.
And that’s how John the Baptists’s listeners could immerse naked in public and not be weird about it.
Yes, the whole process would be terribly inconvenient. No matter how you do it, immersion is inconvenient. Modern Christian baptisms by immersion are also inconvenient. Prof. Taylor told me by email that she had witnessed a Jewish immersion ceremony in modern Jerusalem that was done exactly this way in a public place in murky water.
Do We Know For Sure That’s How Jesus was Baptized?
No, we can’t be sure that’s how Jesus was baptized.
But it’s plausible. It makes sense of all the historical data we have. It seems to me to be the best explanation of all the facts. And it’s been done that way in modern times.
Certainty is hard to come by in historical research. Sometimes the data looks contradictory. You have to put it together the best you can.
You have to remember that you might be wrong.
You have to always be open to new evidence.
But for now, I’ll take this theory and run with it.
So that’s how I wrote it in my forthcoming novel in the scene where Jesus immerses with John at the Jordan river.
According to the gospels, Jesus routinely took the road to Jerusalem for the annual feasts. The main feasts were Passover (in early spring), Pentecost (in late spring), and Tabernacles (in early fall). But we know Jesus also spent at least one Hanukkah (early winter) in Jerusalem.
For most of his life, Jesus lived in Nazareth, a village in Galilee about 60 miles north of Jerusalem. And for the last few years, he made his headquarters in Capernaum, another 20 miles or so east of Nazareth. Today, you can drive from Jerusalem to Galilee in less than two hours.
But Jesus didn’t drive, he walked. Which means this wasn’t a two-hour trip for him, it was a walk of several days.
Jesus had two main routes he could take to get to Jerusalem. We don’t know what people called these routes in the first century, so we’ll make up reasonable names:
- The Samaritan Road
- The Jordan Way
These were very different routes, each with pluses and minuses.
Walking the Samaritan Road
Coming from Nazareth to Jerusalem, the shorter route was definitely the Samaritan Road, which ran more or less straight south. As the crow flies, the distance is 64 miles, but it had to be at least 70 miles by road.
A typical traveler can walk 15 to 20 miles in a day, which means that you could walk from Nazareth to Jerusalem in about 4 days. If you set a very aggressive pace, you might be able to make it in 3 days. If you were really taking it easy, you could do it in 5.
Most of the Samaritan Road goes through the hill country of Samaria and Judea at altitudes up to about 2000 feet. In a hot country like Israel, that would mean slightly cooler temperatures.
But it would also mean going through Samaria, which was enemy territory. We know that occasionally the Samaritans harassed Jews coming to the feasts. Sometimes they killed people.
That’s one reason many travelers chose a different route.
Walking the Jordan Way
Many travelers from Galilee did an end run on Samaria. They’d cut southeast from Galilee until they reached the Jordan River. Then they’d take the road straight south along the river until they reached Jericho. Finally, they turned west and hiked up into the Judean hill country to Jerusalem.
From Nazareth to Jerusalem by the Jordan Way was probably 85 to 90 miles. So a reasonable time to walk that distance would be 5 days. Again, you could set an aggressive pace, and you might make it in only 4 days. Or taking things slower than normal, you might take 6 days.
So the Jordan Way took about a day longer than the Samaritan Road. This route drops in elevation most of the way from Nazareth to Jericho. Nazareth is roughly 1200 feet above sea level, while Jericho is about 850 feet below sea level.) The lower the elevation, the higher the average temperatures. So this route was definitely hotter.
The final day’s hike from Jericho up to Jerusalem would have been tough. The change in altitude is almost 3000 feet over a course of about 16 miles. That’s more than a 3% grade.
This last day of the journey was the infamous Jericho Road—arid, rocky, lonely, and steep. Here’s a picture I took of this country on a recent trip to Israel:
The Jericho Road was notorious for bandits, so the smart traveler went in a largish group and took a weapon.
But the one advantage of the Jordan Way was that you didn’t have to go through Samaria.
Which Route Did Jesus Take?
Jesus appears to have used both roads. We have a story about him walking through Samaria. And we have a story about him going through Jericho.
We don’t know which way he took more often. If I had to guess, I’d say that he made the decision based mostly on temperature, and partly on time.
In early spring, nights could be cold, and the Jordan Way would be warmer and therefore more inviting.
In late spring and early fall, days could be hot, and the Samaritan Road would be cooler and more tempting.
But Jesus would also have weighed the cost of the extra day to go by the Jordan Way. Jesus wasn’t wealthy. He and his brothers worked as day-laborers. Every day on the road to Jerusalem was a day not earning money on the job.
Where Did Jesus Sleep?
Not everyone in Galilee could come to Jerusalem for three or four or five weeks at a stretch, so probably most Galileans stayed home for most feasts. But even so, there would have been several thousand people on the road to Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus.
There were no chains of motels that could handle that many people all at once.
Which means most everyone camped out along the way.
You wouldn’t need a tent for camping, which is good because a tent would be too much weight to lug along.
All you really needed was a good wool cloak. Everybody had one. A heavy wool cloak was a standard part of your wardrobe, precisely because you could both wear it and sleep in it.
A cloak would typically be big enough to wrap twice around your body, which made it a very effective sleeping bag.
You could carry your cloak in a leather bag slung on your shoulders. You could also carry food in the bag.
Other Necessities on the Road to Jerusalem
You wouldn’t need to carry extra clothes. You could just wear the same wool tunic for the whole trip to Jerusalem and back. Yes, it would get dirty after a few weeks, and it would smell, but everyone else would be dirty and smelly too, so it wouldn’t be a big deal.
But you did need to carry water. When you walk miles every day in the hot sun, water is essential. You could carry water in a waterskin on your shoulder. You could refill it along the way, mixing it with beer or wine to kill germs.
You also needed a long cloth belt to wrap around your waist. If you folded this correctly, it held your money safely. A few silver dinars would buy food and drink for the whole trip.
Finally, you might slip a short knife into your belt as a defense against bandits.
And that’s all you needed. Just enough gear to get you safely to Jerusalem and back. Light enough to carry.
Jesus and his family and friends made this trip many times over the years.
What do you think? Does the road to Jerusalem with Jesus sound like an adventure worth taking? In my forthcoming series of novels, Crown of Thorns, we’ll take that journey several times.
The gospel of Mark tells us that a few women stood by Jesus when he was crucified:
- Mary Magdalene
- Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses
Most biblical scholars think that the second Mary on this list, the mother of “James the Less and Joses” was the mother of Jesus. The gospel of Matthew gives a similar list or women, and so does the gospel of Luke.
But we know that Jesus had four brothers—James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. (See my earlier post, The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus.)
The oldest of these, James, eventually became the leader of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem and was murdered by the high priest about the year AD 62. (See my post, James the Brother of Jesus, Part 1.)
But that raises a question.
Why Wasn’t James With His Brother Jesus?
If James was so important in the early history of the Jesus movement, why wasn’t he there at the cross beside his mother? Why didn’t he stand up and fight for his brother?
That’s a hard question to answer, because none of our sources tells us. But we can guess. We have a couple of clues:
- James and his other brothers were on bad terms with Jesus.
- Jesus was executed for treason.
What do those two clues have to do with the fact that James didn’t show up for his own brother’s crucifixion? Let’s look at those two data points.
James Was on Bad Terms With Jesus
Probably about six months before the crucifixion, Jesus and his brothers had an argument in their hometown.
The brothers told him he should go up to the Feast of Tabernacles and make a name for himself, if he thought he was such a big deal. The story is found in the gospel of John.
Jesus told them he wasn’t going to the feast.
So the brothers went without him.
Then Jesus changed his mind and went to the feast after all.
The passage makes the interesting comment that even his brothers did not believe in him.
That’s pretty harsh. It tells us that there was a lot of friction in Jesus’s own family.
James was the oldest of the brothers of Jesus, and the obvious leader. Clearly, James had some major issue with Jesus. We don’t know exactly what this issue was. But they didn’t get along.
So that’s one fact that explains why James didn’t come to the crucifixion. But there’s another.
Jesus Was Executed for Treason
All four gospels report that Jesus was executed as “King of the Jews.” Governor Pilate ordered that those words were written on a sign above Jesus’s head on the cross.
“King of the Jews” was not meant as a compliment.
“King of the Jews” was the charge against Jesus.
And that amounted to treason, because the Jews already had a king over them, the emperor of Rome, Tiberius Caesar.
Jesus was executed on charges of making a treasonous claim to be the “King of the Jews.”
And that put all his brothers in extreme danger, because once he was dead, they would naturally have been considered next in line to be “King of the Jews.”
The man in the most danger was James, the oldest brother of Jesus.
Even if James had been on good terms with his brother, he didn’t dare come to the crucifixion.
He would have been crucified too.
That’s the second fact that explains why James wasn’t there.
How Does This Make Sense?
We now have three crucial facts about James that don’t seem to make sense when you put them together:
- James didn’t believe in his brother Jesus before his crucifixion.
- James was afraid to come to the execution of Jesus.
- James eventually came to believe in Jesus, became the leader of the Jesus movement, and was executed because of it.
If James didn’t believe in Jesus before the crucifixion, and was too chicken to show his face at the crucifixion, what changed? Why did he come to believe in him? Why did he take on the leadership of the Jesus movement? What gave him the courage to face execution?
We can’t know the answer for sure, but we can guess.
Jesus Appeared to His Brother James
In a famous passage in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives a list of people that Jesus appeared to after his resurrection. According to Paul, Jesus appeared to Peter, then the twelve disciples, then to five hundred people all at once, and then to James the brother of Jesus.
And how did Paul know that? Again, we can’t know the answer for certain, but we can make a very good guess.
Paul knew James personally. Paul met with James several times. The first time was probably within about five years of the crucifixion. Paul’s source of information seems most likely to be James himself.
We don’t know anything more about the appearance Jesus made to his brother James. We don’t know exactly when it happened, or where, or how long it lasted, or what Jesus said.
But it changed James for the rest of his life. James was reconciled to his brother Jesus. James believed in Jesus. James took up leadership in the Jesus movement.
And about thirty years later, James was executed by the high priest as a “law breaker”. It’s not clear what that means, but the real issue the high priest had with James is simple. James was a follower of Jesus, the “King of the Jews.”
It Makes Sense After All
We saw three facts above that didn’t seem to make sense. Before the crucifixion, James was at odds with his brother Jesus. And James was too afraid to come to his own brother’s crucifixion. But then James spent the rest of his life as a follower of Jesus, and he was executed for it.
But we see that they do make sense in the light of one other fact—that James said that Jesus had appeared to him alive after the crucifixion.
We know very little about that appearance. If I had to guess, I’d say it most likely happened back home in Galilee within a week or two after the crucifixion. But that’s just a guess, and it could be wrong.
What we can know is that after this mysterious appearance, James changed his behavior.
He was reconciled to his brother. He went back to Jerusalem for good. He took up leadership in the Jesus movement. He lived unafraid for the rest of his life. And he was widely respected within Jerusalem. My novel Premonition tells the story of the end of his life.
James failed his brother Jesus at the crucifixion.
He spent the rest of his life as a very different man.
James will play a major role in the series of novels I’m working on right now–Crown of Thorns–which tells the story of Jesus before his crucifixion.
According to the gospels, Jesus did a lot of walking. For starters, he walked “all through Galilee.”
That sounds like an exaggeration. Galilee was a big area, right? How could anyone walk all through Galilee? How long would that take? Where would you stay?
It turns out we can make some good guesses on that. Over the last few years, while working on my Crown of Thorns series of novels, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about what it was like to go on the road with Jesus.
The answers might surprise you.
How Far Across Galilee?
In the time of Jesus, the region of Galilee covered about 750 square miles. It was roughly circular in shape.
If you remember your high school geometry, you can calculate the diameter of a circle that has an area of 750 square miles.
It works out to just under 31 miles across.
In ancient times, people walked everywhere, and a reasonable number of miles to walk in a day would be 15 to 20 miles.
That means you could walk from one side of Galilee to the other in only two days.
Jesus had a base of operations in Capernaum, which was a good-sized village on the eastern edge of Galilee, perched on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
It’s a reasonable guess that he wanted to celebrate Shabbat most weekends in Capernaum. (His men would certainly be eager to get home to their wives.) It’s a reasonable guess that he left Capernaum every Sunday morning and went out walking with his followers in some direction.
Within two days, no matter which direction he went, he’d reach the opposite end of Galilee. He could comfortably spend a couple of days there, and then head back home.
By going a different way every week, Jesus could easily travel through all Galilee and still get back home by Friday afternoon.
How Many Villages in Galilee?
But realistically, how long would it take to visit every single village in Galilee?
As it turns out, not that long.
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, there were 204 villages in Galilee. (Josephus was born about the year AD 37 or 38 in Jerusalem. Shortly after the beginning of the Jewish Revolt in AD 66, Josephus was made general of the Jewish forces in Galilee. His assignment was to defend the region against the Roman forces. So he got to know Galilee pretty well before he was captured by the Romans. He spent most of the rest of his life writing up a history of the Jewish people, with special emphasis on the war in which he played a crucial role.)
Is 204 a reasonable number of villages? Let’s do a little math. If there are 750 square miles and 204 villages, each village would be the main center of commerce for a zone of a little less than 4 square miles. That works out very roughly to a zone of influence with a radius of 1 mile.
Picture the entire region of Galilee dotted with small villages, each with a couple of hundred people who worked the local farms. Neighboring villages would be connected by dirt roads. The distance from one village to the next would be a couple of miles.
That is entirely believable.
Road Trips With Jesus
Now suppose Jesus stayed each night in a different village when he was out traveling. That would mean he’d visit about 5 villages each week (assuming he stayed in Capernaum every Friday night and Saturday night).
So in 41 weeks of travel, he could stay overnight in every single village in Galilee.
Probably he didn’t travel much in the rainy season, from say November to March. And probably he spent a couple of months out of the year in Jerusalem at the major festivals.
If he spent 5 months out of each year on the road, he could easily spend one night in half the villages of Galilee each year. And he could easily walk through most of them several times each year. (If villages were about 2 miles apart, he could walk through 8 to 10 villages every day, no matter which direction he was going.)
What About Hotels?
I used to wonder where Jesus and his followers stayed when they went out on the road. Were there hotels? Did they have to camp out? Were there restaurants to eat at?
It’s important to remember that entertainment was very limited in ancient times. At the end of each day, if the weather was good, the whole village would gather in the village square.
Somebody might tell one of the ancient tales. Or sing a song. Or do a juggling act. Or whatever else.
But on nights when some traveler was visiting a village, the whole village would come out to hear the news.
Because the only way to get news in ancient times was to hear it from people traveling through.
This means that travelers were respected. Travelers were valued. Travelers were honored.
If you were a traveler, you could stop in any village and ask the elders for hospitality, and the whole village would fight for the honor of giving you food and drink and a place to sleep. Because whoever got that honor would hear the news first, before the rest of the village.
And if you were good at telling tales? If you had a reputation as a famous rabbi? If rumors ran wild that you could heal the sick?
You’d have no problem finding a home to stay in, every night you were on the road.
We can’t know exactly what it was like to go on the road with Jesus.
But I think we can make a reasonable guess.
According to the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus had four brothers, James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. James was apparently the oldest of these brothers. We don’t know a lot about James, or any of the brothers. The New Testament only mentions them a few times, mostly in passing.
It has been debated whether they were brothers, half-brothers, or cousins. (See my earlier post, The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus.)
But these brothers, whoever they were, must have been important. They grew up with Jesus. If they were older than him, they took care of him. If he was older than them, he took care of them. In a very small village like Nazareth, with few children the same age as Jesus, his brothers and sisters would have been among his closest friends.
The oldest of these brothers was apparently James. He was also the most important. James ultimately became a leader in the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. For decades, he was the undisputed leader. Not Peter. Not John. Not Paul. James, the brother of Jesus.
What the New Testament Says About James
The earliest historical documents that mention James are almost all found in the New Testament. So it’s useful to gather together what we know from the New Testament. As it turns out, there’s a fair bit. Not as much as we’d like, but more than you might guess.
In this post, I’ll make a list of every place James is mentioned (or possibly mentioned) in the New Testament. In future blog posts, I’ll look at these in more detail, so consider this just an overview. Here they are, organized roughly in order:
During the Life of Jesus
- The Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus turning water into wine in a village called Cana. Immediately after this, Jesus and his mother and his brothers went with Jesus to Capernaum and stayed there a few days. We don’t know what they did there, or why they didn’t stay. We can guess that they stayed with their new friends, Peter and Andrew and James and John, who lived in Capernaum. If this happened in the late fall of the year, then winter was coming on and that may have played a role in their decision. But there’s a lot we don’t know about this short stay.
- The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and the book of Acts all list the twelve disciples. One of the Twelve is named “James the son of Alphaeus.” Some historians have speculated that this James the son of Alphaeus is the oldest “brother” of Jesus and is actually either a cousin or else a half-brother by a different father. But others think this is an entirely different man than James the brother of Jesus. There is no way to know for sure.
- At some point after he became famous, Jesus visited his hometown and was invited to teach in the synagogue on Shabbat. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew explicitly name the four brothers of Jesus at this point in the story—James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. These two gospels are the only New Testament sources that state clearly the names of all the brothers of Jesus. And there are at least two sisters mentioned here, but their names aren’t given.
- At some other point in his career, Jesus was teaching in a packed house. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke tell how the mother and brothers of Jesus came, asking to see him, and he seems to have refused to go out to meet them! It appears that his family may have come because of rumors that Jesus had gone crazy. (The evidence is a little fuzzy here.) This story is our first hint that Jesus was not on good terms with his family.
- The Gospel of John tells an incident that happened about six months before Jesus was crucified. His brothers challenged Jesus to go up to Jerusalem and make a name for himself at the coming feast (Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot). Jesus refused to go, but then afterward went secretly. This story makes a special point to say that none of his brothers believed in Jesus yet. So here is more evidence of a rift between him and his family.
Before and After the Crucifixion
- The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke tell about a small group of women who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. One of these women is named as “Mary the mother of James and Joses.” This would appear to be Mary, the mother of Jesus, although these gospels don’t actually say that. Note that “Joses” is a short form of “Joseph,” and we know that one of Jesus’s brothers went by this nickname. So it seems very plausible that this Mary is the mother of Jesus. Notice that none of the brothers are named as being at the crucifixion. It’s a strong bet that they weren’t there. But we don’t know the exact reason. Certainly, it would have been dangerous for them. Possibly, they were still not on good terms with him.
- The Gospels of Matthew and John report that on Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to one or more women and gave them personal messages to “my brothers.” This might mean “brothers” in the sense of “spiritual brothers,” but it might also mean his actual blood brothers. We can’t be sure. My own suspicion is that he meant his blood brothers, James, Joses, Simon, and Judas.
- The apostle Paul reports in his letter to the Corinthians that one of the early appearances of Jesus after Easter Sunday was to his oldest brother, James. It’s a fair guess that this might be the reason James began to believe in Jesus. But we can’t know for sure. We do know that the crucifixion is generally dated by historians to the years 30 or 33, so now we can start mapping the career of James the brother of Jesus on a very rough chronology.
The Early Jesus Movement
- In his letter to the Galatians, Paul reports that about three years after he began following Jesus, he went to Jerusalem and spent fifteen days with the apostle Peter and with James. This is probably about five years after the Crucifixion, so we’re talking about the mid to late 30s. It’s clear that by now, James was one of the leaders of the Jesus Movement, but he was not yet the main leader. From the book of Acts, we know that Peter and John appear to have been major figures around this time, and they may well have shared leadership with James.
- At some point in the early 40s, Peter was arrested by King Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem. Agrippa intended to execute Peter, and his terrified friends held a late night prayer meeting. The book of Acts tells the tale of how Peter miraculously escaped from prison. He left town, but not before sending a messenger to James to let him know of his escape. With Peter gone, it looks like James now took on more responsibility as a leader of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem.
The Gentile Controversy
- In his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells a story set sometime in the late 40s or very early 50s. Paul was then living in the great city of Antioch in Syria. A thriving community of Jesus followers lived there, with many Jews and many Gentiles. Then a controversy broke out. Paul had a major fight with Peter, along with certain “men from James”—apparently sent from Jerusalem to see what was going on. Things got rather nasty, and Paul told Peter he was a hypocrite for changing his behavior to the Gentiles after the men from James arrived. It’s not clear what James thought at this point, but he is now a man with enough authority to send men hundreds of miles from home.
- Paul also tells in his letter to the Galatians about the aftermath of this confrontation. He went to Jerusalem and made his case for the full equality of Gentiles within the Jesus Movement. James was there, along with the apostles Peter and John—together, they were the three “pillars” of the community. And Paul says that all of them accepted his claims. By this time, Peter had been gone from Jerusalem for about ten years. It’s not clear whether John still lived in Jerusalem (he is said to have eventually moved to Ephesus, on the western coast of Turkey). The New Testament doesn’t give any hard data on the travels of John. But this was a rare meeting—James, Peter, John, and Paul, all in one place.
- The book of Acts tells a very similar story about a council held in Jerusalem about this same time. In this telling of the tale, Paul makes his case, but then he runs into opposition from a group of Pharisees who were members of the Jesus Movement. (This may sound astonishing, that some early followers of Jesus were at the same time Pharisees, but the text is unambiguous. And we also know that Paul still considered himself a Pharisee, so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising.) In any event, Peter then pitches in to support Paul. Up to this point, the community is divided. The fate of the Jesus Movement hangs in the balance. Will Gentiles continue to be second-class followers of Jesus, or will they gain full equality? At this crucial moment, James gives his verdict, which becomes official policy for all time. Gentiles are accepted as they are, without need to be circumcised. This episode in the book of Acts makes it crystal clear that James is now the first among equals. He alone has the authority to make the final decision.
The Final Years of James, the Brother of Jesus
- Several years later, in the mid-50s, Paul writes a letter to the Corinthians, who are chafing at his leadership in his absence. As part of his argument, Paul asks rhetorically whether he doesn’t have the right to financial support from the Jesus Movement, including the support of a wife, just like the brothers of Jesus and the apostle Peter. It’s not clear here which brothers of Jesus were getting financial support (along with their wives). Did this include James? Did James ever travel? Did James have a wife? We don’t know. But if not James, then some of his younger brothers, and they certainly had his blessing.
- The book of Acts tells the story of Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem, about the year 57. Paul met with James and the other leaders of the Jesus Movement. But there was a problem. Rumors were swirling in Jerusalem about Paul (possibly stoked by those Pharisees who opposed him a few years earlier—we don’t know for sure). Somebody suggested that Paul should visit the Temple to pay for some sacrifices as a PR gesture. It may have been James himself who suggested it. Certainly, James agreed to it. And this turned out badly. When Paul went to the Temple, a riot broke out, and he was nearly killed. Roman soldiers rescued Paul. (The story of this is told in my novel Transgression.) After a couple of years in prison, Paul was sent on to Rome, where he eventually was beheaded by Nero.
- The final episode in the life of James is not told by any source in the New Testament. The Jewish historian Josephus tells the story of how a certain high Priest, Annas the son of Annas, arrested James about the year 62. The Roman governor had recently died, and there was no replacement in Judea, so Annas ran a kangaroo court and executed James, along with a number of others. (The story of this is told in my novel Premonition.) Afterwards, certain upright citizens complained to the new governor when he finally arrived, and Annas was tossed out of office. Who were these upright citizens? We don’t know for sure, but they were possibly Pharisees, because Josephus was himself a Pharisee and always speaks of them in glowing terms. If it was Pharisees who complained about the unfair execution of James, that tells us something about how well James got along with them. In any event, he seems to have been a popular, much-loved man in the city of Jerusalem.
Two Books of the New Testament
- There is a book of James in the New Testament. The author of this letter identifies himself only as “James,” without further explanation. Was this written by James, the brother of Jesus? This book was written in Greek. We know that James the brother of Jesus spoke Aramaic as his native language. Ultimately, the church of later centuries came to believe that the book was written by James, the brother of Jesus. But the New Testament itself doesn’t actually say so.
- There is also a book of Jude in the New Testament. The author identifies himself as “brother of James.” Was this Jude the same man as the brother of Jesus named “Judas” mentioned in Mark and Matthew? Again, this brother would have spoken Aramaic, and this letter is written in Greek. And again, the church of later centuries attributed this book to Judas, the brother of Jesus. But again, the New Testament doesn’t say so.
That is essentially all the information we have from the first-century sources on James, the brother of Jesus. (Unless I’ve forgotten something.) It’s not a lot. But it gives us a fuzzy picture of James, enough to know that he was a man who led his people through turbulent times.
We know that he made a decision that has had a lasting impact for twenty centuries—the decision to give full equality to Gentiles.
And we know that he met his end at the hands of the son of the high priest Annas who had killed Jesus. We might guess that there was some sort of vendetta of the family of Annas against the family of Jesus. We can’t know for sure, but it seems plausible.
Some pious legends about James were written in the second century and later. The later the legend, the harder it gets to figure out what’s fantasy and what’s reality. The basic data on James the brother of Jesus comes from the New Testament and the one passage in Josephus.
Homecomings don’t always work out the way you expect. Three of the gospels tell accounts of Jesus returning to his hometown, Nazareth, where he got a rather rude welcome.
The earliest account appears in Mark 6:1-6. Jesus teaches in the synagogue on Shabbat, and his friends and neighbors are, to say the least, unimpressed. Jesus responds by saying that a prophet is not without honor, except in his own country. The townspeople take offense at him. The end result is that, aside from healing a few sick people, Jesus doesn’t make much of a splash.
The next-oldest account comes up in Matthew 13:53-58, and it runs along pretty much the same lines as the story in Mark. Jesus teaches in the synagogue. The people want to know where he learned it all, and they take offense. Jesus responds with his saying about how a prophet is not without honor, etc.
The newest account from the gospels is the one told in Luke 4:16-30, and it’s a slightly longer tale. In this telling of the incident, we see a full-scale riot. On Shabbat, Jesus goes to the synagogue and is invited to read from the book of Isaiah. He reads a certain passage and breaks off reading it in mid-stream, just before the part about the Day of Vengeance. The villagers ask who he thinks he is. Jesus elaborates on the idea that prophets never get any respect in their own country. The villagers rise up in rage, drag him away to the “brow of the hill,” and try to throw him over the edge. Somehow or other, Jesus escapes death. (Wouldn’t we like to know how!)
What Ancient Nazareth was Like
I’ve been to Nazareth several times. It’s a good-sized town in the northern part of modern Israel, with a population of more than 70,000. In the oldest part of the town, streets are tight, traffic is intense, and buildings are packed close together. You can visit numerous churches, including the famous Basilica of the Annunciation.
If you visit Nazareth, you could easily get the idea that it must have been a large, bustling town in the time of Jesus. But in fact the archaeological remains from the first century are pretty scarce. The first-century village appears to have been very small.
I’ve seen estimates that Nazareth in the first-century was a village of 200 to 400 people. In a village that small, everyone pretty much knows everyone. In a village that small, everyone is related to pretty much everyone. In a village that small, old grudges can last a long time.
If you do visit Nazareth, I highly recommend that you visit a site called Nazareth Village. When I first heard of Nazareth Village and browsed its website, I got the impression that it was just a hyped-up tourist trap. But I was wrong. I talked to one of my friends who’s a New Testament scholar with a lot of experience working on archaeological digs, and he assured me that Nazareth Village is absolutely worth visiting. It’s backed by solid research. The workers there wear clothes in the style of first-century Galilee. The steeply sloping ground has been terraced much as it was in the first century. You can see people threshing grain, caring for animals, weaving cloth, and working with carpenter tools, much as it was done in the first century. A wine vat has been excavated there that dates to the first century, and it’s easy to imagine that Jesus himself might have stomped grapes on that very spot as a young man. If you arrange things in advance, you can eat a meal of foods that were common in the first century.
I’ve been to Nazareth Village twice and really enjoyed it. One of the high points of the site is a small synagogue replica constructed in much the same way that the village synagogue would have looked in the time of Jesus. (A number of first-century synagogues have been excavated in Israel, so modern archaeologists have a reasonable idea of how they looked.)
The Synagogue at Nazareth Village
The first thing you notice about the synagogue at Nazareth Village is that it’s small. Most American houses cover more area than this synagogue.
When you go inside, you see stone benches that rise up like bleachers on all four sides. But these “bleachers” only go up three levels. So seating in the synagogue was very limited. You could fit in 100 people comfortably. Possibly 200, if you really packed them in. Here’s a photo I took from one corner of the synagogue. I’ve blurred out the other tourists in the photo:
There’s a small table in the center of the synagogue where someone could read from a Torah scroll or one of the prophets.
The roof of the synagogue has a shallow slope, just enough to shed rainwater. It’s supported by wooden rafters. Large reeds are laid cross-wise on these rafters. On top of the reeds is a thick layer of hard-packed clay.
And that’s the synagogue. Easy to build, and easy to maintain, but without a lot of creature comforts. As a side note, we know that Jesus and his father were builders of some sort. English Bibles usually call Jesus a “carpenter,” but the Greek word used is “tekton,” which means someone who works in stone or metal or wood. Or all three. So it’s possible that Jesus and his father and other family members may have helped build the synagogue at Nazareth. It seems very likely to me that they would have helped maintain it. For more about the family of Jesus, see my blog post The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus.
Imagine the Scene
Sitting in the synagogue, I could imagine a Shabbat service gone bad. In a dirt-poor village where a local boy gets famous and comes home, it might look to his old friends like he’s gotten too big for his britches. Old grudges could easily surface. I could imagine angry grumbling, then barbed insults, then loud shouting, and then a riot.
There’s more to say about this story, and I’ll say more in future blog posts. The riot scene in the synagogue at Nazareth will play a key role in Book 1 of my Crown of Thorns series. But for the moment, it’s enough to get a feel for the place itself—the tiny village and the tiny synagogue that were home to a Jewish boy who grew up to make a name for himself far beyond what his friends ever imagined.
One of the most surprising verses in the New Testament is Luke 6:15, where we read that one of the twelve disciples of Jesus was a Zealot. His name was Simon, and Luke refers to him as “Simon who was called the Zealot.”
The passage in Luke has two parallel passages in Mark 3:18 and Matthew 10:4. Newer translations of these passages typically also call this disciple “Simon the Zealot.” Older translations usually call him “Simon the Cananaean.” (“Cananaean” is just the Aramaic word “qanay” transliterated into the Greek word “kananiten” and then transliterated into the English word “Cananaean.” And the Aramaic word “qanay” means approximately“zealous one.”)
What was a Zealot doing in the band of Jesus? What did he think about Jesus’s command to “love your enemies?”
That’s a good question, and we don’t actually know the answer. If you ask Biblical scholars, you’ll get a wide range of suggestions, but we don’t really know which is right.
But we do know quite a lot about the Zealots.
Who Were the Zealots?
Back in the 1980s, when I began researching my first novel about first-century Jerusalem, I came across a book by David Rhoads, titled Israel in Revolution 6-74 CE. The book covers the years 6 through 74 of the first century and it’s about the events that led up to the Jewish Revolt, which began in the summer of 66 and ended at Masada in either 73 or 74 (opinions vary).
It’s a good book by a good scholar, and I read through it carefully. Several times.
One thing I learned is that there were several different factions of revolutionaries in first-century Israel.
I can’t cover them in huge detail in a blog post, but here’s a list of the five factions Dr. Rhoads identified:
- The Sicarii
- The Zealots
- John of Gischala
- The Idumeans
- Simon bar Giora
Most of these were active only during the Jewish Revolt, which began in the year 66. The Zealot party appears to have been created late—in the winter of 67-68. In naming themselves the “Zealots,” it looks like they were reusing a word that had been used for a long time before. (That is, there were probably zealous people, “zealots” with a lower-case, who were looking for revolt for many years before they got one. When the revolt finally began, some of them formed an organization and named themselves “Zealots” with an upper-case.)
The Zealot party came late to the game, but the Sicarii began working for revolution a good 60 years earlier. It’s worth saying a few words about them.
Who Were the Sicarii?
The Sicarii movement began about the year 6. A certain Galilean named Judas led an armed revolt against the Romans in Judea. The revolt didn’t get very far, and we don’t know what became of Judas. His revolt is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus and also by the New Testament, in Acts 5:37.
We do know that his movement lived on. Judas the Galilean had two sons, James and Simon, who were crucified by the Romans about the year 46.
In the 50s, men of this movement assassinated a number of chief priests in the Temple. Their tactic was very simple. They came into Jerusalem for one of the festivals, went into the Temple courts, found their intended victim, and stuck a knife in his back. Then they escaped in the confusion.
The knives they used were short sickles call “sica” and so they were called “Sicarii”—meaning approximately “knife-men.”
Judas had another son (or more likely grandson) named Menahem who played a major role in the Jewish Revolt in the year 66. He led the group who captured the Roman garrison at Masada by some sort of trick at the start of they war. They held it for 7 or 8 years, until the very end of the war, when they committed mass suicide to avoid being captured.
Menahem and his knife-men play a role in my novel Retribution, set in Jerusalem in the years 62 to 66.
What About Simon the Zealot?
So what was Simon the Zealot? If there was no Zealot party until the winter of 67-68, then how is it that Simon the Zealot was following Jesus in the early 30s?
Nobody knows for sure, because we just don’t have much info on Simon. But my best guess is that Simon identified with the revolutionary spirit of Judas the Galilean and his Sicarii. That is, he was a lower-case “zealot.”
Simon the Zealot was not necessarily a close friend of Judas the Galilean. He may never have met him.
But revolution was in the air, and I would guess that Simon the Zealot breathed deep from that air.
But that’s just a guess, because we’re very short on facts.
Here’s what we know. Simon the Zealot was not the only person breathing that revolutionary air. It’s reasonable to think that most Jews of the time would have longed for freedom.
Rome captured Jerusalem in the year 63 BC, and they never went home. So for the hundred years before Jesus came on the scene, Rome had been grinding its iron boot into the face of Israel.
And then Jesus of Nazareth came along, talking about a new “kingdom of God” that was right around the corner.
Anyone breathing that revolutionary air would have heard these words of Jesus as a call to revolt.
Which raises one more question.
Was Jesus a Zealot?
Some historians think so, although not very many. The problem is that the saying “love your enemies” doesn’t fit very well with the zealot idea of “drive the Romans into the sea.”
It’s true that Jesus used some words (“kingdom of God”) that a revolutionary would use. But many of his other words don’t fit with a revolutionary. And neither do his actions.
But here’s an important point. When you understand the revolutionary spirit that pervaded Galilee and Judea in the first century, you begin to read the story of Jesus in a new way. You begin to see connections you didn’t see before. Like why a man named “Simon the Zealot” might be attracted to Jesus.
And maybe, just maybe, you understand the story of Jesus a little better.
That’s why I’ve been interested in the zealots and the Jewish Revolt for many years.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this in many future blog posts.