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.