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.
In a previous blog post, I talked about what it was like to go On the Road With Jesus.
Jesus took a lot of road trips. He seems to have gone often to the major feasts in Jerusalem (Passover in the spring, Pentecost in early summer, Tabernacles in the fall). It was a long trip to go from his home region of Galilee down to Jerusalem. Each trip must have taken several weeks.
But he also took a lot of local trips inside Galilee.
What was Galilee like?
Galilee Was Small
Galilee was a pretty small region in the time of Jesus. It was roughly circular in shape, and the diameter was just a bit over 30 miles. (In modern Israel, the region known as Galilee covers a bit more land area, but it’s still quite small.)
You could walk from any point in first-century Galilee to any other point in two days. No problem.
Jesus’s hometown was Nazareth, a medium-sized village in the southern part of Galilee. He seems to have made his headquarters in Capernaum, a largish village in the eastern part of Galilee.
And what do I mean by “medium-sized” and “largish?”
You might be surprised.
I’d estimate Nazareth had a population of about 200 to 400 people.
I’d estimate Capernaum had a population of about 1500 to 2000 people.
Those numbers seem awfully small. Where do we get those numbers?
How to Estimate the Population of Ancient Towns
Archaeologists estimate the size of ancient towns and village by looking at two factors:
- The area the town covers.
- Whether the town was walled or unwalled.
Here’s a reference book, in case you’re interested. It’s a fairly geeky book, but I’m a geek and I enjoyed it immensely. Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, by Jonathan L. Reed.
Reed’s book says that ancient walled towns had 100 to 150 people per acre, and unwalled towns had about 40 to 60 people per acre. (Why were walled towns denser? Because if a town had walls, everyone wanted to live inside the walls. But once the walls were built, they couldn’t easily be moved, so as time went on, people crowded into them more and more, building multi-story houses until the town had as many people as it could hold.)
So to estimate the population of an ancient town, you have to do enough excavations to determine if it had walls and how much area the town covered.
Big Cities and Small Villages
According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, there were 204 villages in Galilee. (Josephus was the general in charge of the defense of Galilee during the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66-70, so he spent a lot of time there.)
Josephus claims that these villages all had at least 15,000 inhabitants. Assuming all these villages were the same size, first-century Galilee would have had a population of at least 3 million people,.
But that’s very naive on two counts.
- For one thing, we know that the two largest cities in Galilee at the time of Jesus were Tsipori and Tiberias. Each had a population of only about 10,000 people, based on their areas. So all the other towns and villages in Galilee had to be smaller. Historians believe that, like most ancient writers, Josephus wildly inflated his population estimates.
- For another thing, if you look around in your own state or country, you’ll see that cities, towns, and villages have wildly different sizes, from enormously large down to very, very small. It never happens that all the towns have the same size, not even approximately. Large cities are 100 times or even 1000 times larger than small towns.
How To Estimate the Population of Galilee
Still, we can estimate the population of Galilee with reasonable accuracy.
We know that the population of cities and towns roughly follows the famous “80/20 rule.” This rule says that 20% of the cities have approximately 80% of the population. This is what mathematicians call a “power-law distribution.” The math is a little complicated, and I won’t go into it here.
But I wrote a small program on my computer to estimate the populations of all the villages in Galilee using a power-law distribution based on the 80/20 rule. I only needed two numbers:
- The population of the largest city, which is about 10,000.
- The number of cities, towns, and villages, which is about 204.
Using these two numbers, I ran my program and had it print out the theoretical populations of every village, from the largest to the smallest. Please note that this is theoretical. Reality never fits a theory exactly, and nobody expects it to.
The actual numbers would have been a bit different from my calculations, but not enormously different. Usually, the biggest discrepancy between theory and reality comes in the #2 spot. In our case, we know that the #2 city in Galilee was actually just about the same size as the #1 city. So as you’ll see below, the theory is off by about 80% for the #2 city. But we expect the theory to be closer to reality for all the other spots in the calculation.
What we want in this kind of calculation is to get the general trend. Let’s look at a selection of the numbers I calculated.
The Population of Galilee at the Time of Jesus
- The #1 city had a population of about 10,000.
- The #2 city had a population of about 5,504.
- The #3 town had a population of about 3,882.
- The #4 town had a population of about 3,030.
- The #5 town had a population of about 2,500.
- The #6 town had a population of about 2,137.
- The #7 town had a population of about 1,871.
- The #8 town had a population of about 1,668.
- The #9 town had a population of about 1,507.
- The #10 town had a population of about 1,376.
- The #20 town had a population of about 757.
- The #30 town had a population of about 534.
- The #40 village had a population of about 417.
- The #50 village had a population of about 344.
- The #60 village had a population of about 294.
- The #70 village had a population of about 257.
- The #80 village had a population of about 229.
- The #90 village had a population of about 207.
- The #100 village had a population of about 189.
- The #125 village had a population of about 156.
- The #150 village had a population of about 134.
- The #175 village had a population of about 117.
- The #200 village had a population of about 104.
- The #204 village had a population of about 102.
Adding up the numbers for all the cities, towns, and villages gives us an approximate population of Galilee of about 84,000 people.
A Sanity Check on the Numbers
Is that reasonable? In this kind of rough calculation, I’d like to know if the number is good within a factor of 2 or so.
We can do a reality check quite easily. Jonathan Reed’s book says that it took about 2 acres of arable land to feed one person, using the farming methods available in the first-century.
So to feed 84,000 people, Galilee would have needed about 168,000 acres of arable land, which amounts to 262 square miles. Galilee at that time covered about 750 square miles. Some parts of Galilee are very hilly and rocky, so only a fraction of the land is arable. It’s reasonable to think there were at least 262 square miles of arable land.
So it looks like Galilee had enough land to feed 80,000-plus people, but it would have been stretching things to try to feed 200,000. And feeding 3 million would have been wildly out of the question.
This is a good sanity check on our calculations. Our estimate of 84,000 people is the right order of magnitude.
On the Road With Jesus
We can do one final calculation. If Jesus spent about 120 days per year on the road, talking to people in Galilee, could he have met them all?
The answer is yes, in principle. In 3 years, he’d have a total of 360 days to meet people. By interacting with 233 people per day, he could theoretically meet every single Galilean in that time. And 233 is the size of a typical village.
Jesus could spend one day in each of the small and normal-sized villages. Then he’d need to spend considerably longer in the larger towns and cities, but there weren’t many of those.
It’s entirely possible he did exactly that.
Nazareth Was Typical, Capernaum Was Good-Sized
I calculate that if Nazareth had a population of around 200 to 400, then it ranked somewhere between #42 and #94 in the list of all the towns and villages in Galilee. It was a typical-sized village, not enormous, not tiny.
And I calculate that if Capernaum had a population of around 1500 to 2000, then it was somewhere between #6 and #9 on the list. It was larger than most towns, but not as large as the very biggest.
So the story the gospels tells us makes very good sense geographically.
Jesus came from a typical hometown, Nazareth. Not the smallest. Not the largest. Most people in Galilee came from a village much like his.
But Jesus made his headquarters in a somewhat larger town, Capernaum. Not the very biggest he could have chosen, but certainly a prominent town. It’s reasonable to choose a prominent town for your headquarters. Why did Jesus choose Capernaum? Because several of his disciples lived there—Peter, Andrew, James, and John at least. And probably also Thomas and Matthew. Possibly others.
And in the three years Jesus spent traveling around Galilee, he could have interacted with every single person who lived there.
You sometimes hear it said that Jesus was a country boy from a tiny village in Galilee.
That is true, sort of, but it’s a bit misleading.
Yes, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a small village covering maybe 10 acres. At that time, Nazareth had a population of somewhere around 200, give or take. It might possibly have had as many as 400 souls. A small village, typical in first-century Galilee.
But Nazareth was also only about 3 miles away from the big city of Tsipori. When Jesus was a boy, Tsipori was the capital city of Galilee. (When Jesus was in his twenties, the capital was moved to Tiberias, a city on the Sea of Galilee.)
All of this means that Jesus lived only about an hour’s walk away from the big city.
But is there any reason to think Jesus ever took that walk? Yes, there is …
A Builder, Not a Farmer
It’s useful to remember that Jesus was probably a builder. The word used in Greek is “tekton,” which means a craftsman in wood, metal, or stone. In English Bibles, this word is usually translated as “carpenter.” But “tekton” is broader than a carpenter, and it’s a word often used for builders.
By the way, we know Jesus was a tekton from only a single text in the New Testament, Mark 6:3. The parallel text in Matthew identifies his father as a tekton.
It’s likely that most of the villagers in Nazareth were farmers, working their small plots of land around the village. Jesus wasn’t a farmer, because he had no choice. His father wasn’t a farmer, and if you don’t inherit land, you can’t farm it.
If Jesus was a builder, what did he build? It’s a reasonable guess that he built or helped build houses in his own village. But there was a limited amount of that sort of work. Nazareth probably had two or three dozen family houses. That’s not a lot for a builder to do.
But Tsipori, on the other hand, had an enormous amount of work available. The reason is simple.
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Tsipori was attacked and destroyed in the years shortly after King Herod the Great died. Jesus would have been a very young boy at this time.
Soon after that, Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, was given rulership over Galilee. Antipas rebuilt Tsipori and he made it the capital of Galilee for about twenty years.
Rebuilding a city takes workers, and Herod Antipas hired a lot of builders.
So it’s possible that one of the builders he hired was Joseph, a tekton from Nazareth. Nobody can prove this, but it’s at least possible.
Can we say more than merely possible? Yes, we can.
Too Much of a Good Thing
It’s very, very likely that Joseph trained Jesus and his four brothers in the craft of the tekton. (The texts in Mark and Matthew that I linked to above name his four brothers as James, Joses, Simon, and Judas.) For more thoughts on these brothers, see my post The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus.
Assuming this one family in Nazareth had 6 healthy men, all working as tektons, they probably represented somewhere between 5% and 10% of all the able-bodied men in the village. It’s a reasonable guess that this family had too much of a good thing—there probably wasn’t enough work for them all in Nazareth.
And that’s why I think it quite likely that some members of the family found work in Tsipori. When there was no work to do in Nazareth, it would just make sense to walk on over to Tsipori and hire yourself out for the day. There was plenty of work in Tsipori, and a good craftsman could get hired on the spot.
Jesus and his family had a very good reason to do that.
An Advantage for Jesus
Working as a day-laborer was not a high-prestige job. But it gave Jesus one huge advantage over his fellow villagers, most of whom were farmers. A subsistence farmer is tied to his land. He can’t simply take off for weeks at a time, leaving his land and his animals unmanaged.
But a day-laborer can. In one day, a day-laborer could earn one dinar, enough to feed 12 people for a day. A family of six hard-working men, all working as day-laborers, could earn 6 dinars a day. But they’d only need 1 dinar per day for food for the entire family.
What did they do with the rest? They saved it. And when it came time for one of the major feasts, they could simply walk away from the village for several weeks. No crops to worry about. No animals. No worries.
Being day-laborers gave Jesus and his family the freedom to travel. And we know they used it. The four gospels make it clear that Jesus and his family went to Jerusalem often for the major feasts—Passover in the spring, Tabernacles in the fall, and possibly also Pentecost in early summer. Each of these feasts took weeks to go to, when you account for travel time. (It took at least 4 or 5 days to walk from Nazareth to Jerusalem, each way.)
Jesus and his family apparently had that time, because we know they took that trip often. Which meant they must have had the money to make the trip.
And where did they get that money? It’s just a fact that there’s a lot more money in a city than in a village.
I think they got the money working in Tsipori. I think Jesus knew this city well.
What Was Tsipori Like?
Tsipori at the time of Jesus was a thriving city with about 10,000 people. Herod Antipas lived there and ruled Galilee.
Tsipori is built on a hill, and there was a fortress at the top of the hill. (Jesus once observed that “a city built on a hill cannot be hid,” and he might well have been thinking of Tsipori when he said it.)
Tsipori had a very large system of cisterns for holding water. The city covered somewhere between 100 and 150 acres, and it was probably a walled city, or at least parts of it were walled.
I’ve visited Tsipori a couple of times. Nobody lives on the site now. It’s a major archaeological park, and it’s been very extensively excavated. If you go to Israel, I highly recommend a stop at Tsipori. It’ll give you a great sense of what the city was like in the first century. My wife and I went to Tsipori again this past summer.
Here is a picture I took of the main city street of Tsipori with the citadel in the background:
Here is a picture of the main cross street in Tsipori looking south:
And here’s a picture of some of the houses in Tsipori, with Nazareth in the background. (Nazareth today is a largish city with a population of about 80,000 people.)
This summer when I walked through the streets of Tsipori, I looked around and asked myself which of these houses Jesus and his family might have helped build. It’s a question I can’t answer. But I think it’s reasonable to believe that he worked on some of them.
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.