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.