“N” Is for Nazarene

WHEN THE “ISLAMIC STATE” FIGHTERS seized Mosul in northern Iraq they marked Christian properties for seizure by painting the Arabic letter ﻦ (“N”) for “Nasrani” on the buildings. Muslims do not use the Arabic word for “Christian” (Maseehi – followers of the Messiah) but refer to Jesus’ disciples as Nasrani, followers of the Nazarene. They assume it is an insult. In response, many Western Christians, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, began displaying the ﻦin solidarity with their beleaguered Eastern brethren.

Nasrani is, in fact an ancient designation in the Aramaic-speaking world. To this day the Syriac Christians of India, whether Catholic, Church of the East or Orthodox, refer to themselves as Mar Thoma Nasrani (St Thomas Christians). To be a Nazarene was – and remains – an honorable way for Syriac Christians to call themselves followers of Jesus.


Nazareth in the Scriptures

The Gospels refer to Nazareth as a city (“polis”); by our standards it was probably a small village. In the first century AD Nazareth was a place of no importance, probably inhabited only by local farmers and tradesmen. Apart from the Gospels there is no mention of it in early documents before the third century. This led some scholars to suggest that Nazareth did not exist in Christ’s time. In 2009, however an Israeli archeologist working in Nazareth discovered the remains of a house dating from the first century. “The discovery is of the utmost importance,” she noted, “since it reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth.”

Unlike many of the more populous towns in Galilee, Nazareth had an exclusively Jewish population. There were no Gentiles or even Samaritans living there, a good indication that the village held little economic or political interest. Its residents seem to have been regarded as “Jewish hillbillies” by their neighbors. Thus, when Philip told Nathaniel, from the nearby town of Cana, about Jesus, “Nathaniel said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’” (John 1:46). Its residents were devout, however, and had a synagogue where Jesus was accustomed to pray.

Nazareth: Icon of the Divine Humility

As the early Church came to emphasize the divinity of Christ, its appreciation of the depth of God’s love for us grew. The Church spoke of the incarnation as an act of Kenosis, or self-emptying. In the words of St Paul, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phillipians 2:5-7).

That the incarnation took place in Nazareth, an insignificant Galilean village, points to the depth of the self-emptying which the Word of God assumed for us. Nazarenes, including the Theotokos herself, were people of no account by the world’s standards. They had nothing of value to either the rulers of Israel or its priests. They were basically “invisible” to the important ones of their day. Nazareth wasn’t “on the map,” as it were. Yet it is here that a young woman was chosen to usher in the new covenant kingdom. As St Paul would later point out, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty;  and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).

Capernaum “By the Sea”

The Gospels tell us that Nazareth was “where [Jesus] had been brought up” (Luke 4:16) but that He began His public ministry in the nearby towns of Cana and Capernaum. When He returned to Nazareth, the Lord encountered opposition to His teaching (cf., Luke 4:16-31); and so, as we read in Matthew 4:13, He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum.

On the main highway to Damascus, Capernaum “by the sea” (Matthew 4:13) was an important crossroads for traders and other travelers to Asia Minor, Syria and present-day Lebanon. As such it had a customs office and a detachment of Roman soldiers was quartered there. Its location on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (known to the Romans as Lake Tiberias and today as Lake Kinneret) was a rich fishing ground. It was among these fishermen that Jesus called His first disciples, Andrew and Peter, James and John.

Capernaum became Jesus’ home after He left Nazareth. There He attracted disciples from Capernaum, including Matthew the tax collector, as well as from the nearby villages of Cana (Nathaniel) and Bethsaida where Philip lived.

Christian Nazareth

Nazareth remained a Jewish town for centuries. Its first church seems to have been built by a wealthy convert, Joseph of Tiberias, at the time of St. Constantine. The church, dedicated to the Annunciation, was rebuilt during the Crusades and again in the eighteenth century. It is located over an underground spring, where the Virgin Mary was reputedly drawing water at the time of the Annunciation. Water from the spring still runs inside the apse of the church and also feeds the adjacent site of “Mary’s Well,” located 150 yards away.

The local Jews seem to have appreciated the importance of Nazareth for Christians. In AD 570 a pilgrim from Piacenza in Italy (sometimes identified as Antoninus) wrote of his visit to the town: “The synagogue still has the book which was used to teach Our Lord the alphabet.  There is also a bench in the synagogue where Our Lord would sit with the other children.”

Jews were expelled from Nazareth in the early seventh century during the war with the Persians. When the Frankish bishop Arculf visited Nazareth in 670, the synagogue had been turned into a church.

The present “synagogue church” in Nazareth is of medieval origin, possibly built in the twelfth century by the Crusaders, and is now sunken about five feet underground. This church was under the control of the Franciscans until the 18th century, when the emir Daher al-Omar passed it to the Greek Catholics.

Nazareth remained a predominantly Christian town throughout the modern era until the resettlements after World War I. Today it is the largest Arab city in Israel noted for its software development and munitions industries.

Finds in Capernaum

The nineteenth century saw excavations conducted in parts of Capernaum resulting in the discovery of the ruins of an ancient synagogue, and a fifth-century octagonal church. During the twentieth century further excavations unearthed portions of a first-century house that had been venerated as the house of St Peter as early as the mid-first century. First turned into a church probably in the fourth century, it has come to be known as “St. Peter’s House.”

Another modern find is a fishing boat, built sometime in the first century bc, which was discovered in 1986 during an unusually low water level in Lake Kinneret. The boat had been preserved in the mud of the lake-bed, and was found to contain various items, including an oil lamp and a cooking pot. Dubbed the “Jesus boat,” the craft is now on display at a nearby kibbutz.