Homecomings don’t always work out the way you expect. Three of the gospels tell accounts of Jesus returning to his hometown, Nazareth, where he got a rather rude welcome.
The earliest account appears in Mark 6:1-6. Jesus teaches in the synagogue on Shabbat, and his friends and neighbors are, to say the least, unimpressed. Jesus responds by saying that a prophet is not without honor, except in his own country. The townspeople take offense at him. The end result is that, aside from healing a few sick people, Jesus doesn’t make much of a splash.
The next-oldest account comes up in Matthew 13:53-58, and it runs along pretty much the same lines as the story in Mark. Jesus teaches in the synagogue. The people want to know where he learned it all, and they take offense. Jesus responds with his saying about how a prophet is not without honor, etc.
The newest account from the gospels is the one told in Luke 4:16-30, and it’s a slightly longer tale. In this telling of the incident, we see a full-scale riot. On Shabbat, Jesus goes to the synagogue and is invited to read from the book of Isaiah. He reads a certain passage and breaks off reading it in mid-stream, just before the part about the Day of Vengeance. The villagers ask who he thinks he is. Jesus elaborates on the idea that prophets never get any respect in their own country. The villagers rise up in rage, drag him away to the “brow of the hill,” and try to throw him over the edge. Somehow or other, Jesus escapes death. (Wouldn’t we like to know how!)
What Ancient Nazareth was Like
I’ve been to Nazareth several times. It’s a good-sized town in the northern part of modern Israel, with a population of more than 70,000. In the oldest part of the town, streets are tight, traffic is intense, and buildings are packed close together. You can visit numerous churches, including the famous Basilica of the Annunciation.
If you visit Nazareth, you could easily get the idea that it must have been a large, bustling town in the time of Jesus. But in fact the archaeological remains from the first century are pretty scarce. The first-century village appears to have been very small.
I’ve seen estimates that Nazareth in the first-century was a village of 200 to 400 people. In a village that small, everyone pretty much knows everyone. In a village that small, everyone is related to pretty much everyone. In a village that small, old grudges can last a long time.
If you do visit Nazareth, I highly recommend that you visit a site called Nazareth Village. When I first heard of Nazareth Village and browsed its website, I got the impression that it was just a hyped-up tourist trap. But I was wrong. I talked to one of my friends who’s a New Testament scholar with a lot of experience working on archaeological digs, and he assured me that Nazareth Village is absolutely worth visiting. It’s backed by solid research. The workers there wear clothes in the style of first-century Galilee. The steeply sloping ground has been terraced much as it was in the first century. You can see people threshing grain, caring for animals, weaving cloth, and working with carpenter tools, much as it was done in the first century. A wine vat has been excavated there that dates to the first century, and it’s easy to imagine that Jesus himself might have stomped grapes on that very spot as a young man. If you arrange things in advance, you can eat a meal of foods that were common in the first century.
I’ve been to Nazareth Village twice and really enjoyed it. One of the high points of the site is a small synagogue replica constructed in much the same way that the village synagogue would have looked in the time of Jesus. (A number of first-century synagogues have been excavated in Israel, so modern archaeologists have a reasonable idea of how they looked.)
The Synagogue at Nazareth Village
The first thing you notice about the synagogue at Nazareth Village is that it’s small. Most American houses cover more area than this synagogue.
When you go inside, you see stone benches that rise up like bleachers on all four sides. But these “bleachers” only go up three levels. So seating in the synagogue was very limited. You could fit in 100 people comfortably. Possibly 200, if you really packed them in. Here’s a photo I took from one corner of the synagogue. I’ve blurred out the other tourists in the photo:
There’s a small table in the center of the synagogue where someone could read from a Torah scroll or one of the prophets.
The roof of the synagogue has a shallow slope, just enough to shed rainwater. It’s supported by wooden rafters. Large reeds are laid cross-wise on these rafters. On top of the reeds is a thick layer of hard-packed clay.
And that’s the synagogue. Easy to build, and easy to maintain, but without a lot of creature comforts. As a side note, we know that Jesus and his father were builders of some sort. English Bibles usually call Jesus a “carpenter,” but the Greek word used is “tekton,” which means someone who works in stone or metal or wood. Or all three. So it’s possible that Jesus and his father and other family members may have helped build the synagogue at Nazareth. It seems very likely to me that they would have helped maintain it. For more about the family of Jesus, see my blog post The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus.
Imagine the Scene
Sitting in the synagogue, I could imagine a Shabbat service gone bad. In a dirt-poor village where a local boy gets famous and comes home, it might look to his old friends like he’s gotten too big for his britches. Old grudges could easily surface. I could imagine angry grumbling, then barbed insults, then loud shouting, and then a riot.
There’s more to say about this story, and I’ll say more in future blog posts. The riot scene in the synagogue at Nazareth will play a key role in Book 1 of my Crown of Thorns series. But for the moment, it’s enough to get a feel for the place itself—the tiny village and the tiny synagogue that were home to a Jewish boy who grew up to make a name for himself far beyond what his friends ever imagined.
One of the most surprising verses in the New Testament is Luke 6:15, where we read that one of the twelve disciples of Jesus was a Zealot. His name was Simon, and Luke refers to him as “Simon who was called the Zealot.”
The passage in Luke has two parallel passages in Mark 3:18 and Matthew 10:4. Newer translations of these passages typically also call this disciple “Simon the Zealot.” Older translations usually call him “Simon the Cananaean.” (“Cananaean” is just the Aramaic word “qanay” transliterated into the Greek word “kananiten” and then transliterated into the English word “Cananaean.” And the Aramaic word “qanay” means approximately“zealous one.”)
What was a Zealot doing in the band of Jesus? What did he think about Jesus’s command to “love your enemies?”
That’s a good question, and we don’t actually know the answer. If you ask Biblical scholars, you’ll get a wide range of suggestions, but we don’t really know which is right.
But we do know quite a lot about the Zealots.
Who Were the Zealots?
Back in the 1980s, when I began researching my first novel about first-century Jerusalem, I came across a book by David Rhoads, titled Israel in Revolution 6-74 CE. The book covers the years 6 through 74 of the first century and it’s about the events that led up to the Jewish Revolt, which began in the summer of 66 and ended at Masada in either 73 or 74 (opinions vary).
It’s a good book by a good scholar, and I read through it carefully. Several times.
One thing I learned is that there were several different factions of revolutionaries in first-century Israel.
I can’t cover them in huge detail in a blog post, but here’s a list of the five factions Dr. Rhoads identified:
- The Sicarii
- The Zealots
- John of Gischala
- The Idumeans
- Simon bar Giora
Most of these were active only during the Jewish Revolt, which began in the year 66. The Zealot party appears to have been created late—in the winter of 67-68. In naming themselves the “Zealots,” it looks like they were reusing a word that had been used for a long time before. (That is, there were probably zealous people, “zealots” with a lower-case, who were looking for revolt for many years before they got one. When the revolt finally began, some of them formed an organization and named themselves “Zealots” with an upper-case.)
The Zealot party came late to the game, but the Sicarii began working for revolution a good 60 years earlier. It’s worth saying a few words about them.
Who Were the Sicarii?
The Sicarii movement began about the year 6. A certain Galilean named Judas led an armed revolt against the Romans in Judea. The revolt didn’t get very far, and we don’t know what became of Judas. His revolt is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus and also by the New Testament, in Acts 5:37.
We do know that his movement lived on. Judas the Galilean had two sons, James and Simon, who were crucified by the Romans about the year 46.
In the 50s, men of this movement assassinated a number of chief priests in the Temple. Their tactic was very simple. They came into Jerusalem for one of the festivals, went into the Temple courts, found their intended victim, and stuck a knife in his back. Then they escaped in the confusion.
The knives they used were short sickles call “sica” and so they were called “Sicarii”—meaning approximately “knife-men.”
Judas had another son (or more likely grandson) named Menahem who played a major role in the Jewish Revolt in the year 66. He led the group who captured the Roman garrison at Masada by some sort of trick at the start of they war. They held it for 7 or 8 years, until the very end of the war, when they committed mass suicide to avoid being captured.
Menahem and his knife-men play a role in my novel Retribution, set in Jerusalem in the years 62 to 66.
What About Simon the Zealot?
So what was Simon the Zealot? If there was no Zealot party until the winter of 67-68, then how is it that Simon the Zealot was following Jesus in the early 30s?
Nobody knows for sure, because we just don’t have much info on Simon. But my best guess is that Simon identified with the revolutionary spirit of Judas the Galilean and his Sicarii. That is, he was a lower-case “zealot.”
Simon the Zealot was not necessarily a close friend of Judas the Galilean. He may never have met him.
But revolution was in the air, and I would guess that Simon the Zealot breathed deep from that air.
But that’s just a guess, because we’re very short on facts.
Here’s what we know. Simon the Zealot was not the only person breathing that revolutionary air. It’s reasonable to think that most Jews of the time would have longed for freedom.
Rome captured Jerusalem in the year 63 BC, and they never went home. So for the hundred years before Jesus came on the scene, Rome had been grinding its iron boot into the face of Israel.
And then Jesus of Nazareth came along, talking about a new “kingdom of God” that was right around the corner.
Anyone breathing that revolutionary air would have heard these words of Jesus as a call to revolt.
Which raises one more question.
Was Jesus a Zealot?
Some historians think so, although not very many. The problem is that the saying “love your enemies” doesn’t fit very well with the zealot idea of “drive the Romans into the sea.”
It’s true that Jesus used some words (“kingdom of God”) that a revolutionary would use. But many of his other words don’t fit with a revolutionary. And neither do his actions.
But here’s an important point. When you understand the revolutionary spirit that pervaded Galilee and Judea in the first century, you begin to read the story of Jesus in a new way. You begin to see connections you didn’t see before. Like why a man named “Simon the Zealot” might be attracted to Jesus.
And maybe, just maybe, you understand the story of Jesus a little better.
That’s why I’ve been interested in the zealots and the Jewish Revolt for many years.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this in many future blog posts.
If you’ve read through the New Testament, you might be rather surprised at how often “King Herod” keeps popping up in the story.
The book of Matthew tells a story of how the evil King Herod killed all the babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to get rid of the infant Jesus. In the story, Joseph and Mary escape with their son to Egypt, and only return a few years later when they learn that Herod is dead.
Thirty years later, Jesus is an adult preaching in Galilee, but then he gets in trouble with … King Herod again! And this King Herod captures and kills John the Baptist and is on the lookout for Jesus. You may be wondering what’s going on here? Wasn’t King Herod already dead? Did somebody make a mistake?
Another dozen years pass, and King Herod pops up yet again, this time in the book of Acts, where he arrests one of the apostles (James) and has him beheaded. Then he arrests another apostle, Peter, who miraculously escapes. Then there’s a short story about him getting a bit conceited at a festival when the crowd acclaims him as a god. In this story, Herod is suddenly stricken with a strange illness and dies a few days later.
More than a decade later, the apostle Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and taken to the port city of Caesarea, where he meets the Roman governor. The governor talks to Paul for a bit, and then puts him in prison in … Herod’s palace. So which Herod is this?
How the devil does King Herod keep popping up for so many decades? Is he a zombie or what?
Four King Herods
Here’s what’s going on. The New Testament actually tells about four different king Herods, all part of the same dynasty. And it mentions a few other members of this family. Here’s a brief summary of the four main Herods:
- King Herod the Great was born about the year 73 or 74 BC and died about the year 4 BC. He’s the King Herod who appears in the Bethlehem Massacre story in the book of Matthew. He took ten different women as wives and had a lot of children. But he was a bit paranoid and executed his favorite wife and three of his sons. People joked that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son (since Herod kept kosher and therefore didn’t eat pigs). Herod was a prolific builder, and you can see his work today all over modern Israel—including the gigantic stone platform now known as the Temple Mount. He also created the city of Caesarea and built a palace there where Paul would be tried many decades later.
- Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great and inherited a third of his kingdom. Herod Antipas was not actually a king. His official title was tetrarch, but people sometimes flattered him by calling him king. He was born before 20 BC and died sometime after AD 39. He’s the Herod who arrested and beheaded John the Baptist, and then went asking around for Jesus. Antipas divorced his first wife so he could marry his niece—who also happened to be his brother’s wife. His step-daughter later married another of his brothers. The Herod family tree was about as incestuous as you can get.
- Herod Agrippa I was a grandson of Herod the Great and nephew of Antipas. He was educated in Rome and eventually became king. He ruled over Judea for only a few years, from AD 41 to 44. He’s the Herod who beheaded the apostle James and arrested Peter and then died mysteriously at the festival. But he also played a central role in choosing one of the emperors, Claudius Caesar. In a very real sense, Agrippa played the role of king-maker. In doing so, he prevented the Roman Senate from destroying the position of emperor and returning the empire to a republic. This decision had repercussions for twenty centuries, right down to our own time.
- Herod Agrippa II was the son of Herod Agrippa I and ruled for some years over certain small territories north of Galilee. He presided over one of the trials of the apostle Paul, along with his sister Bernice. There were rumors that Agrippa and his sister were sleeping together. Bernice later became the mistress of the Roman general Titus, the one who captured Jerusalem in the year AD 70. I don’t believe Bernice was quite the terrible person that some of the historians want to make her. She did one thing that was undeniably heroic. So I made her a fairly major character in two of my novels, Premonition and Retribution, where I show her as the flawed hero I think she probably was.
The above summary only scratches the surface on the amazing Herod family. We know a lot more about them from the historical records. They were, in a word, a remarkable dynasty that had a major impact on the Roman empire. In a future blog post, I’ll give more details about each of the four Herods.
And why does this all matter? Because Jesus of Nazareth grew up in a real world, with real enemies. Some of his most powerful enemies were members of the Herod family. So you can bet that the Herods are going to come up in my Crown of Thorns series.
The more you know about the world of Jesus and the real historical people in that world, the better you’ll understand the mission and message of Jesus.