Spong on Jesus’ historicity: The Nazareth connection

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by Neil Godfrey

I am not sure if Bishop John Shelby Spong believes in god (he speaks of a “god experience”, and of atheism as being defined as not believing in a “theistic definition of god”, which definition he also rejects) but he does believe in Jesus. This, according to his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (2007). After acknowledging, even arguing the case of, the many theological and mythical constructs that have built up a non-historical figure of Jesus as found in a surface reading of the New Testament, he laments that some go one step too far and reject belief in the historicity of Jesus altogether.

So in chapter 19 Spong devotes the equivalent of a full 4 pages out of a 315 page book to establish the reasons for believing Jesus was, nonetheless, an historical person. He gives 4 reasons that he believes establish this historicity:

  1. No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”
  2. Jesus “clearly began his life as a disciple of John the Baptist”
  3. He was executed
  4. “Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history”

This post addresses Spong’s view that no mythical character like Jesus would have been assigned a hometown like Nazareth. (I have so many loose threads on this blog I am still meaning to put up on this blog that I’m reluctant to say I will address the other points of Spong here “soon”.)

Firstly, to some extent it still depresses me to find scholars from the mainstream (not only the conservative mainstream) like Spong displaying profound ignorance of the arguments forwarded by those who posit hypotheses for Christian origins that find no place for a single historical heroic founder. If Spong or any scholar seriously wishes to persuade those tottering between the two opinions they need to become a lot more savvy of the arguments that lay at the base of both sides.

But my depression over this is not really stronger than it is over the more general fact that so many highly educated people cling to irrational and “mystical” beliefs in the first place. (To my mind, there is far more humbling awe to be experienced the more we learn about the world and the beauties our minds experience than can ever be captured by any catch-all mystical belief.)

The first three points that Spong lists for Jesus’ historicity fall under what scholars call the criterion of embarrassment. This oft cited criterion for historicity of any number of gospel stories argues that a particular event that would be embarrassing for the early Christians would not be recorded for posterity unless it was simply so well-known as a fact they had no choice but to admit it and deal with it.

Spong wrote: No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth”

Problem one. This is simply not true for the following reasons:

1. It is a common archetype that folklore heroes should be reared in a place of undistinguished and humble status. Oedipus grew up a castaway under the care of shepherd family; Theseus, true heir to the throne of Athens, grew up in the humble city of Troezen; one version of the Dionysus legend even has that “saviour” divinity being reared in Hades or Hell; Romulus the founder of Rome was also reared as an outcast by a shepherd family; Perseus drifted in a wooden chest to the island of Seriphos where he was taken in and raised by a fisherman. There is nothing unusual about a story of a god-man being reared in his early years in humble circumstances. Compare the mythic hero archetypes listed by Lord Raglan.

Indeed, when Nathaniel asks Philip in the Gospel of John if anything good can come out of Nazareth, it is most plausible to think that the author is reinforcing this archetype of humble earthly origins to secure Jesus as fitting the type. And this is consistent with the plot of the Gospel of John as discussed by Jo-Ann Brant in “Divine Birth and Apparent Parents: The Plot of the Fourth Gospel”, published in Ronald Hock’s Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (1998).

2. The Gospel of Mark, generally thought to be the earliest New Testament gospel written, carries the major theme of the hidden identity of Jesus. This was a key fact of the early Jesus story — to explain how a divinity could make an appearance on earth yet not be recognized for who he really was. This motif was also prominent in noncanonical writings, in the apologies of Justin Martyr, and in that famous Pauline passage about the son of god giving up his divinity to humble himself. The idea of Jesus growing up in a nondescript village sounds quite theologically consistent to me. And Spong does see fit to doubt historicity of other claims that can be traced to theological expediency.

3. Spong not only restricts his case to Nazareth but to the area of Galilee as well. Yet Galilee is, as Matthew informs us point blank, as theologically expedient as is the choice of Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth. Any author who was mindful to make Isaiah 9:1-2’s claim that “a great (saving) light” was to come via Galilee would place Jesus here. And Galilee was a crossroads, a place of Jews and gentiles. What more apt place for the birth of a gospel that grows out of the Jewish religion to become inclusive of all races? Again, we need to weigh the likelihood of historicity against the likelihood of a theological inspiration.

Problem two. Contrary to Spong’s assumption in his question, no-one argues that anyone set out to create a mythical character hailing from the village of Nazareth. The idea that Jesus grew up in Nazareth was a later development introduced as an attempt to explain why Jesus was often called “the Nazorean”. He was not usually called “Jesus of Nazareth” at all, despite what many English translations of the passage indicate.

1. While the gospel of Mark calls Jesus a “Nazarene”, the gospels of Matthew and John and the Book of Acts call him a “Nazorean”. (Both terms are found in Luke’s gospel.) As Robert Price has noted (2003, p.53), this variation immediately prompts suspicions that the epithet did not originate in the name of a village. Neither word can easily be said to be a derivative of Nazareth. A person from Nazareth would have been a Nazarethenos or Nazarethanos or Nazarethaios (Kennard, 1946).

Yet Matthew (4:13) and Luke (4:14) use the word Nazara, not Nazareth, for the hometown of Jesus. And Nazarene can more comfortably be said to derive from Nazara. (Compare Gadarene from Gadara.) But this raises the question why Nazareth was the more frequently used name of the village. Did the term Nazara come to Luke and Matthew after having been invented as an early attempt to explain why Jesus was called a Nazarene (or Nazorean)?

2. Both the author of Acts (24:5) and the fourth century writer about heresies, Epiphanius, inform us that Nazoreans were an early Christian or even pre-Christian sect. (More details can be found at this link.) It is hardly likely that a religious sect would take the name of the birthplace of its founder — unless there were many other disciples there. There is no known case of a religious sect having done so. Rather, the name indicates “Keepers” or “Guardians” or “Covenanters”. The term may refer to those who kept the Law (Torah), or perhaps the Secrets or Mysteries (Mark 4:11).

From what is known of the Nazorean sect (Torah-observers) it is understandable why later “proto-orthodox” Christian authors would want to find a new association or meaning of the term, such as a concocted place name.

3. Matthew is first gospel that attempts to explain the origin of the term Nazorean, and he does so most clumsily and implausibly. In 2.23 he tells his readers that Jesus was taken to Nazareth in order to fulfill the scripture that said “He shall be called a Nazorean.” There is simply no link between the name of Nazareth and the label of Nazorean, and there is no such prophecy. Some have wondered if Matthew’s memory was faulty and he was thinking of the passage that spoke of Samson, “The child shall be called a Nazirite” (Judges 13:7). This may have been a Freudian slip since Nazirite suggests something closer to sectarian practices of the Nazoreans. Neither word is related to Nazareth.

There is also the possibility that Mark introduced “Nazareth” in 1:9 to present readers with the suggestion that the town was the origin of Jesus’ epithet. Mark does have a habit of making many allusions without making explicit his reasons for doing so, or his sources, unlike Matthew. Kennard, however, notes that the very few references to the town of Nazareth in the gospels all appear to belong to later editorial or redactional strata (Kennard, 1946).

4. While geographical labels attached to names are used to identify individuals in literature, they are not used in direct address. No-one addressed Paul to his face as “Paul of Tarsus”. But Jesus of Nazareth is used as a form of address to Jesus himself (e.g. Mark 1:24). The word Nazorean seems rather to suggest an identification with a particular cult or title, like “John the Essene”. “Jesus of Nazareth/Nazorean” also appears to be a magical name that has the power of exorcism in Acts 3:6 and 4:10. (Kennard, 1946)

5. Although our versions of Mark’s gospel narrate that Jesus “came from Nazareth” to be baptized by John, some find it questionable whether that particular phrase (came from Nazareth) was in the original text. Matthew copies large chunks from Mark into his gospel, but he omits that phrase from his copy of that section of Mark (Matt.3:13). One possible explanation for such an omission is that it was not in Matthew’s text of Mark. The phrase could have been later inserted into Mark to counter the impression elsewhere in Mark’s gospel that the hometown of Jesus was in fact Capernaum (c.f. Mark 2:1; 9:23; and compare Mark 1:21-27 with Mark 6:1-6). There is no manuscript evidence to support any such omission, however.

(The Kennard citations come from Was Capernaum the Home of Jesus? by Spencer Kennard Jr. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Jun., 1946), pp. 131-141
doi:10.2307/3262610 )

Problem three. Facts on the ground.

1. None of the signs of village have been found at the site of Nazareth around the period of the early first century. No hearths, no wall foundations, no evidence of streets. In other words, no evidence of dwellings at all.

2. No non-gospel text from the era mentions Nazareth at all despite hosts of other place-names in Galilee being known. Josephus gives no reason to think he ever heard of the village.

3. Archaeological finds that have been located around Nazareth are often vaguely dated (“between the early and late Roman empire” period — what does that mean?), and are mostly funerary. Jewish villages were not built upon or abutting cemeteries.

4. Some finds of a winepress and farm life have been found there, again vaguely dated. But neither a farm nor a cemetery is a village.

5. It is not impossible that the village of Nazareth was founded later (3rd century?) by Christians — where they thought the original place must have existed.


No-one argues that someone set out to create a mythical character from Nazareth. The New Testament generally identifies Jesus as a Nazorean, a name that cannot be said to have derived from Nazareth. Nazareth is rarely mentioned at all in the NT and it is only very clumsily associated with Jesus’ Nazorean epithet, apparently as a late attempt to explain — or hide — the origin of the term Nazorean. Place-names might be used to identify a person but were not used as forms of direct address, as we find in the case of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels. Nazorean more likely points to a sect later found to be an embarrassment to Church authors.

There is no evidence that there was a village of Nazareth in the early first century. The name and place appears to have been fabricated to help re-write and hide the meaning of the term “Nazorean” that was widely associated with Jesus, probably because it originally suggested practices that later Christian authors regarded as heretical.

In the process of re-writing the term as a place name, the necessary obscurity of such a place fitted well the theological and mythical needs of a Jesus biography. Jesus could thus match other semi-divine heroes by being raised in obscurity. And the obscurity of Nazareth also fit the theological message of a divine being giving up his glory to live the humblest of existences, his true identity unrecognized, so that the divine plan could be fulfilled.

I’m surprised Spong does not relegate the Nazareth connection to the many other theological apologetics (especially given Matthew’s gauche attempt) in the gospels and that leave no grounds for assuming historicity.

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0 thoughts on “Spong on Jesus’ historicity: The Nazareth connection”

  1. Why do I always miss the obvious? Comment on another post by Stephen Carr:

    # Steven Carr Says:
    July 31st, 2007 at 6:00 am edit

    ‘No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”’

    That explains why Paul never suggested that Jesus hailed from the village of Nazareth in Galilee.

  2. Take a look on google books at the book ‘Fragments of the commentary of Ephrem Syrus upon the Diatessaron’ by James Rendel Harris. In the introduction itself he notes that Ephrem quotes Marcion as asking why the inhabitants of BETHSAIDA would have tried to throw Jesus off the cliff if Jesus had not preached against the Creator God? In other words, although canonical Luke has this taking place in Nazareth, Marcion thought it took place in Bethsaida.

    Ok. Now go read Tertullian’s ‘Against Marcion’ book 4 chapter 8. Tertullian says “The Christ of the Creator had to be called a Nazarene according to prophecy [see Matthew 2:23]; whence the Jews also designate us, on that very account, Nazarenes after Him. For we are they of whom it is written, ‘Her Nazarites were whiter than snow;’ even they who were once defiled with the stains of sin, and darkened with the clouds of ignorance.

    (Tert. continues) But to Christ the title Nazarene was destined to become a suitable one, from the hiding-place of His infancy, for which He went down and dwelt at Nazareth, to escape from Archelaus the son of Herod. This fact I have not refrained from mentioning on this account, because it behoved Marcion’s Christ to have forborne all connection whatever with the domestic localities of the Creator’s Christ, when he had so many towns in Judaea which had not been by the prophets thus assigned to the Creator’s Christ.”

    That second part is a cryptic saying, but what I think Tertullian means is that Marcion changed the name of Nazareth to some other city in Judea because he didn’t want Jesus associated with a town that was prophecied of in the Old Testament. It is confirmed by Ephrem’s commentary on the Diatessaron that Marcion had Jesus preach and be rejected at this point in the gospel at Bethsaida rather than Nazareth.

    Ok, so what does any of this have to do with the question of whether Jesus really was from Nazareth or whether Nazareth existed in Jesus time????

    Simple: there is no prophecy that the Messiah would be from Nazareth, despite Matthew’s gospel claiming so in chapter 2:23. For the last however long the gospel of Matthew has existed, nobody has been able to find any passage in the OT “he shall be called a Nazarene.” Even Tertullian is only able to appeal to some obscure passages about Nazirites.

    Could the whole concept of Jesus’ association with Nazareth be an anti-marcionite interpolation in our canon? Could the Catholics have invented the notion that Jesus was from Nazareth in order to use passages about Nazirites as prophecies that Jesus would be called a Nazarene? Could they have made Jesus live in a town that didn’t exist in his own time as a way to connect him with what Tertullian calls “domestic localities of the Creator’s Christ” by the invention of a fictious prophecy and falsification of the gospel story? I think they very could have.

  3. Possible, but balance possible arguments against other possibilities. . . .

    1. Compare those arguments examining the variations on “Nazareth/Nazarine/Nazar . . .” that strongly suggest that later authors were either ignorant of the origin of an obscure term or attempted to deny its origin (e.g. in a sect of “Watchers”?).

    2. Note also that Ephrem wrote in the fourth century — and as such our earliest evidence that “Bethsaida” was used in the Marcionite gospel is not a reliable indication of what was in Marcion’s second century text.

    3. And the idea of Christ being found in the Old Testament scriptures surely predates Marcion, and is there any reason to see the Nazareth prophecy any differently from any number of other strained allegorical interpretations that emerged over time?

  4. As to #2, although Ephrem wrote in the fourth century, he wrote in Syriac which makes him more likely to have access to the sources since the Marcionites continued their existence longer in the middle east than in the west. He also appears to literally be quoting Marcion. Besides that, what I quoted from Tertullian does indeed back Ephrem up here. Combine that with the evidence you present for the modern theory that Nazareth may not have even existed in Jesus’ time, and then the fact that Marcion was active BEFORE the Bar Kochba rebellion (the time Nazareth began to exist), and I think we’ve got something here. Remember, although the later heresiologists like Ireneaus and Tertullian claim that Marcion started his church after coming to Rome in 140, Justin Martyr tells us that he (Justin) is writing 140 years after Jesus birth and expresses surprise that Marcion is still alive and still teaching. That means that our earlier source about Marcion (Justin) tells us that Marcion was an old man by 140 (or 136, depending on when you think Justin thought Jesus’ birth was). So, Marcion must have written his gospel prior to 140, since 140 was nearing the end of his ministry and life. Note also Polycarp calls him ‘first-born of Satan’ meaning he must be one of the earliest heretics, not the last in a line from Simon to Cerdo to him as the later redactor of Ireneaus would have it. Now, if Nazareth didn’t exist before 140, how could Marcion prior to 140 have included Nazareth in his gospel as Jesus’ hometown? He couldn’t. Only a gospel written after 140 could include Nazareth (assuming this theory you present is right in its assessment of when Nazareth came into existence).

    As to #1, the authors being ignorant of the derivation of the term Nazareth meaning ‘watchers’–so what? To them it is useful to help them misconstrue references to Nazirites in the OT as a prophecy of Jesus being associated with this town, as in Matthew 2:23. That’s all they need it for, to be an anti-marcionite polemic to connect Jesus to the ‘domestic localities of the Christ of the Creator.’ They don’t need accurate knowledge of its etymology.

    As to #3, how can you say the idea that Jesus (not Christ per se, for to the Marcionites he is Chrest) is found in the Old Testament? The only evidence of an early acceptance of this view is Justin Martyr, who writes 140 years after Jesus’ birth (as he claims) and who expresses surprise that Marcion is STILL alive and STILL teaching. These words indicate PLAINLY that Marcion’s teaching ministry PREDATE Justin’s. Yes, the Nazareth ‘prophecy’ is obviously a strained interpretation, but why was such a strained interpretation sought? Why were any strained allegorical interpretations sought? Opposition to Marcion is the answer, I think.

    1. But Marcion believed in continual editing of the gospel — there is no reason to think the later Marcionites read the same word for word gospel as Marcion 200 years earlier. It would seem unlikely, given the Marcionite belief that the gospel was not an authoritative text (it could only be interpreted through Paul) and required continual revision as Pauline revelation led.

      Epistle of Barnabas, Gospels of Peter and Mark, 1 Peter, Epistle of Hebrews, et al — if any of these predate Marcion then we see the idea of Jesus being born out of OT scriptures.

      Allegorical interpretations of venerated texts, including ancient literary ones, was what was happening at this time — not just with respect to the OT. Homer is the obvious example. Other myths also. Philo did not need Marcion to allegorize any of the Jewish scriptures. Christianity may well have had its origins in a strand of Judaism that took allegorization in a certain direction — e.g. fleshing out Wisdom and the Logos, allegorizing Isaac, etc etc. This was not seen as straining at camels, but as “wisdom” among ancients. Christianity may well have grown out of such a “wisdom” strand of Judaism that was condemned by the rabbinic movement that consolidated itself as one major voice for Jewish identity after the fall of Jerusalem.

      My point is that Marcionism is not necessarily the only or even best explanation. Most of our evidence is too patchy and circumstantial. There are very valid and reasonable alternatives to investigate.

      1. “But Marcion believed in continaul editing of the gospel”? What? Where do you get that? I know Tertullian makes the claim that Marcion saw himself as a reformed and that the Marcionites were “daily” reshaping their gospel, but given Tertullians lack of credibility, I dismiss that as over the top rhetoric. Tertullian who used the Shepherd of Hermes often all of the sudden rejects it on the ground that Hermas was excommunicated for seducing a virgin (after his beliefs on marriage no longer agree with Hermas due to becoming a montanist). There an obvious lie for the sake of defending the truth mentality there. Again, he begins his Against Marcion by saying his previous 2 treatises should be treated as though having never existed and this 3rd should henceforth be called the 1st, and throughout the first 3 books he constantly makes arguments against the Marcionites on the basis of the claim that they don’t believe their god created anything, and even though he admits in the middle they believed he created the third heaven, he continues to argue against them claiming they didn’t believe he created anything! There is no credible basis for believing that Marcion believd in “continual editing of the gospel.”. It, in fact, is clearly Tertullian who believes in continual editing, since he thinks he can recall his 1st and 2nd treatises and rename the 3rd as 1st!

        Also, Aphrahat and Ephrem both witness to the Diatessaron having Jesus actually be thrown off the cliff in Bethsaida. In Against Faustus, Augustine quotes Faustus (without refutation) as saying that Jesus was thrown off the cliff without being hurt. Do a google search for the term Aphrahat and the phrase in quotes “from the height into the depth” and look at the review of Baarda’s essays on the Diatessaron. Baarda found a great amount of evidence that the Diatessaron has Jesus fly down to Capernaum after being thrown off the cliff, a thing which clearly makes more sense from Bethsaida than Nazareth.

  5. I think Jon 1:44 and John 12:21 may fit in with this as well. The synoptics all have Jesus enter Peter’s house while in Capernaum. Yet according to John, Peter lives in Bethsaida. Could John 1:44 have originally said “Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Jesus” rather than “the city of Andrew and Peter”? And in the gratuitous refence to Philip being from Bethsaida in chpater 12 when the Gentiles say “we would see Jesus” could the “ofd Bethsaida” have originally been in the phrase “we would see Jesus of Bethsaida”? The only other explanation is John was trying to purposefully contradict the synoptics on Peter’s residence with no good reason to do so. Moving Peter from Capernaum to Bethsaida to cover up that Bethsaida is Jesus’ hometown seems good enough for an orthodox corruption.

  6. Re your comment above: 2009/10/08 at 1:51 am . . .

    Few scholars, surely none at all, take Tertullian’s words at face value. But you are faulting him for the sorts of variations in expressions and selective use of sources that everyone justifiably makes use of all the time. The supposed contradiction, for example, between the claim that Marcion’s god was not the creator god of the Jewish scriptures (and thereby created nothing) and the claim that Marcion’s god created the third heaven is really nothing more than a pedantic quibble over semantics.

    Marcion did not consider his “gospel” (Luke or whatever) was authoritative — that status was attributed to gospels by others. We misunderstand Marcionism if we think of it (as we are led to by Tertullian and Irenaeus) as something of an opposing parallel to what they (Tertullian and Irenaeus) believed about the status of the gospel.

    R. Joseph Hoffmann discusses this in detail in his book on Marcionism. Particularly chapter four but throughout. Marcionite revisions of the narrative of Jesus were ongoing. It has been argued that Luke was associated (as a companion) with Paul as an effort to counter the Marcionite view that Paul alone — and not “Luke’s gospel” — was the sole authority of revelation. Our canon was prompted in part by an intent to settle an authoritative text (or set of texts) as opposed to the mutable and inferior status Marcionites gave the narrative account in comparison with Paul’s writings.

    The fact that Tertullian openly explains his essay on Marcionism is his third attempt tells us much, but this is a separate discussion and not to be dismissed as little more than evidence of some sort of inadvertent deviousness.

    I’m traveling right now but when back and settled again will see if I can dig out the references and post details.

    Thanks for the link. Will read Baarda.

    1. That the Marcionites or any other group would have had an evolving response to the evolving canonical gospels is obvious, but that is because the canonical gospels were still evolving not because the Marcionites didn’t have an authoritative gospel of their own. What most scholars appear to do is assume Marcion was just a disorganized troublemaker animated by Satan trying to destroy the wonderful truth of God in an off the cuff unintelligible manner. Of course such a ‘heretic’ would just bungle around making fun of existing gospels and not have his own. But it is clear that this is not what Marcion was. In fact, he appears more on the defense than offense, doesn’t he? Isn’t that odd for someone without an authoritative text of his own? His church was actually bigger and more universal than the Catholic church until the merger of the Catholics with Rome and the pogroms against the Marcionites waged by church and state together. You don’t get to be the biggest church by not having an authoritative gospel. Nor do you call forth the volumes of virtriol against yourself that Marcion did if you’re just an off the cuff heretic without an authoritative text that rivals that of your opponents.

      1. Your views on what Marcion was doing and where scholars are wrong are not the same as those I read in some of the main scholarly works on Marcionism — by von Harnack, John Knox, E.C. Blackman, R. Joseph Hoffmann, Joseph Tyson, for example. I don’t know of scholars who argue the sorts of ways you suggest that they do.

        Marcionites were apparently editing their “gospel” text (something you seemed to find surprising when I first mentioned it) but the evidence points to a different motive for these revisions from the one you are claiming here. You seem to be assuming that there was some sort of rivalry between Marcionism and “Orthodoxy” to establish the most “authoritative” gospel text. If so, this is erroneously imputing into Marcionism the approaches of the “orthodox” to a gospel authority. The Marcionites did not accept the “gospel” narrative as The Authoritative Gospel in the same way as the “orthodox” did. “Orthodoxy” seems to have attempted to combat Marcionism by attributing to the gospel an authoritative canonical status equal to that of Paul’s letters that the Marcionites would never have countenanced.

  7. There is also a statement in Tert’s Against Marcion that indicates that Marcion focused his evangelism efforts on proselytes to Judaism, not to Catholics. How would he convert Jews or Jewish proselytes by an attack on the Catholic gospels? He might convert Catholics by attacking their gospels and reinterpreting them. But if he’s out convertin Jewish proselytes, he must have his own gospel.

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