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.
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.
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 mysterious “brothers of Jesus” are mentioned several times in the New Testament. Were they really his brothers? Or something else?
That’s a much more complicated question than it looks. I think a good starting point is with the gospel of Mark.
Most New Testament scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was the first of the four gospels to be written, sometime around the year AD 70.
There’s an interesting story in Mark chapter 6, verses 1 to 6, about Jesus going to his hometown after he’d gotten somewhat famous in the rest of Galilee. You can read it here.
Take a look at verse 3, in which the people of Nazareth complain about Jesus: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.” (KJV)
There are a lot of interesting points in this one verse. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
What We Learn About the Family of Jesus
Here are four things we learn from this text:
- Jesus was a “carpenter.” This is the only verse in the Bible (other than the parallel verse in Matthew 13:55) that tells us what Jesus did for a living. The Greek word is “tekton” which is a broad term that can include people who work in wood, metal, or stone. So we don’t actually know for sure whether Jesus was a carpenter, or a metal-worker, or a stone-worker.
- Jesus is called “the son of Mary.” That’s rather odd. We know that Mary was married to Joseph. So why isn’t Jesus called the “son of Joseph?” You can probably think of several possible reasons, but we don’t know which is right. We can guess, but we don’t know with certainty.
- Joseph is not mentioned at all in this verse. Most scholars think it’s because Joseph was dead. This seems likely to me, but again, nobody knows for sure.
- Four brothers of Jesus and at least two sisters are mentioned. The brothers are named James, Joses, Judah, and Simon. The sisters aren’t named, and we don’t know how many there were.
What Does it Mean by “Brothers?”
Scholars have debated for centuries what the words “brothers” and “sisters” mean. You might think it’s “obvious” what these words mean, and it certainly would be obvious if the Bible was originally written in English. But the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and it’s about people who spoke Aramaic. So there’s always the possibility that something got lost in the double-translation from the Aramaic story world to the Greek texts to the English translations.
It’s worth noting that there are several other New Testament texts that refer to these “brothers.” We’ve already mentioned Matthew 13:55, which is Matthew’s restatement of the text in Mark. In Mark 3, Matthew 12, and Luke 8, there are three parallel stories about Mary and the brothers of Jesus coming to look for him. Also, the apostle Paul talks about “James, the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19. And Paul also mentions the “brothers of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 9:5.
The elephant in the room is that there is an ancient tradition that says Mary was a perpetual virgin. Maybe you don’t believe the tradition, and maybe you do, but the point here is that many people over the centuries have believed it. And, for them, that means these “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus can’t be born of Mary.
Three Theories on the Brothers of Jesus
So here are the three main options that Christians have come up with over the years on the brothers (and sisters) of Jesus: (These theories are discussed in more detail in a Wikipedia article here.)
- Joseph was married earlier to another woman, by whom he had four sons and at least two daughters. This first wife died and then Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus. (This view is common among modern Eastern Orthodox Christians.)
- Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus, and Jesus was the only child in this nuclear family. The four “brothers” and the “sisters” were actually cousins of Jesus, born to his uncle Clopas and aunt Mary. Either this uncle Clopas was the brother of Joseph, or this aunt Mary was the sister of his mother Mary, or both. (This view is common among modern Catholics.)
- Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus, and then they later had four more sons and at least two more daughters. (This view is common among modern Protestants.)
And there are other theories held by various Biblical scholars which I won’t go into, because it gets complicated very quickly. My friend, Prof. James Tabor, has written extensively about this on his blog and in his books. (James is one of the directors on the archaeological dig I’ve worked on several times. We agree on many things and disagree on many things, and we can have a spirited discussion without getting angry.)
Which Theory is Right?
Large groups of Christians have defended each of these major options. Various of the early church fathers supported each of these options.
Which theory is right?
That’s a loaded question. There are some strong theological opinions bound up here, and sometimes people get extremely angry.
I think we don’t all have to agree on the answer. We can discuss it without getting emotional. Different people have different beliefs and we can respect other people’s beliefs, even if we don’t agree. The reason I’m blogging about it here is that not everyone is aware that there actually are different viewpoints. I was raised not knowing that Options 1 and 2 existed. I had an email from one of my fans not long ago who didn’t realize that Option 3 existed.
The main point of this blog post is to point out that there are several live options, and that people of good will can disagree on which is right.
I was raised Protestant, and grew up believing Option 3 is correct. (As I mentioned above, for a long time, I didn’t know there even were Options 1 and 2. I thought everyone believed Option 3.)
My view is that we can’t know for certain which option is correct. It looks to me like most historians and New Testament scholars believe that the “brothers” and the “sisters” are best understood as being sons and daughters of both Joseph and Mary, as in Option 3. But not all historians. Not all New Testament scholars. History is fuzzy.
How a Novel is Different from History
Historians often will lay out all the evidence and then make a list of the possible interpretations of the evidence, the way I did above. Usually, they say which interpretation they think is most likely. But they leave open the possibility that one of the other interpretations could be right.
It works fine to keep our history a bit fuzzy. None of us knows everything. We have to always remember we could be wrong.
But fuzziness doesn’t work so well in writing a historical novel.
If you’re writing a novel about Jesus, and if all the members of his family are important characters in the novel, then you can’t dither around by quoting probabilities. You have to make a definite choice and stick with it, even though you know the choice might be wrong.
Because a novel is not fuzzy. A novel is written in sharp focus.
I’m currently polishing up Book 1 in my Crown of Thorns series on the life of Jesus. I had to decide early how to refer to these “brothers” of Jesus—James, Joses, Judah, and Simon.
I decided to write them as biological children of Mary and Joseph. Some people will agree with this choice. Some will disagree, but they’ll realize that it’s just a story, which means I make no claim to be exactly right on things we can’t know for sure. And I suppose some will disagree and be angry about it.
No matter which option I choose, somebody somewhere would disagree, so I might as well just choose the one that makes the most sense to me.
So that’s what I’ve done. If I catch a little heat for it, that’s okay. Heat comes with the job.