Why is Nazareth in the narrative? Why are women at the tomb?

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by Neil Godfrey

Still catching up with other questions that have bypassed the comments lists on the blog. I’m sure many readers have responses that will be more cogent and comprehensive than mine, so welcome a collective wisdom. They’re not questions I have thought a huge amount about so only have a few sketchy comments to make.

Here are the next two questions for us (courtesy of Nate).

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1.  All honest historians agree that the Holy Family’s trip to Bethlehem (either to flee from a raging king, or for the sake of a census) is absolute rubbish.  It’s obvious that the Gospel authors need Jesus to be born in Bethlehem for Davidic symbolism and the purposes of prophecy fulfillment.  But if there was no historical Jesus whatsoever, then why deal with a town like Nazareth in the story?  I know archaeology has shown that there wasn’t really much a Nazareth to speak of in the relevant time period, so if we were Gospel writers, why not just have Mary and Joseph situated in their home town of Bethlehem?  Why make up the plot element of them being in Nazareth and having to trek back to Bethlehem, only to come back to Nazareth, a place of utter insignificance, later on?  Why not leave that complication completely out of the story if you’re trying to pass your fictitious character off as historical?

1. Nazareth

I’m far from being on top of all the studies that have been written on the Nazareth epithet about Jesus, and I’m sure someone reading this will have a lot more detail at their fingertips. Tim?

Besides, my own explanation hangs on several other propositions that many would consider far-left field. So I’m sure others have more “saner” explanations.

It appears that a significant body of Christians around the Syria-Levant region called themselves  something like “Nazarenes” (Nazoreans?), and their Jesus was Jesus the “Naz—-” (sorry, I don’t have the actual transliterations handy.) The name probably meant something like “keeper” or “observer”.

This group of Christians appears to have been significant enough for even a late catholicizing narrative like Acts to co-opt the name for Christians in Paul’s day. (See Tim’s earlier comment.)

Matthew was much more mainstream than whoever were these “Nazoreans” (his gospel was the most popular one through much of the second century), and he disposed of them by changing the meaning of the name and taking their Jesus of Nazareth into the ranks of his “orthodoxy”. Hence his crude force-fit of “Nazarene” meaning from a person from a prophesied town that was not really prophesied in the OT. (Matt. 2:23)

I happen to think Matthew is a second-century creation, and by that time there really was a village called Nazareth in Galilee. Matthew was familiar with Pharisaical teaching and Pharisees had moved into the region after the fall of Jerusalem in 70. So population growth, Pharisees and synagogues appear, and the town of Nazareth, too. It’s Matthew’s anachronistic setting for Jesus some decades earlier.

By the time Luke was on the scene he knew the “tradition” well that Nazareth had been assigned the hometown of Jesus by the “orthodox” so also included it in his gospel.

Mark’s and John’s references to Nazareth, I suspect, were late additions. We know John’s gospel is multilayered with redactions over time. Mark 1:9 has raised questions in the minds of some who wonder why Matthew did not copy that word along with all the others from that section of Mark that he did copy. Makes one suspect Matthew did not see that word in his version of Mark.

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2.  I’ve heard numerous explanations from mythicists of various stripes….but what’s your preferred explanation for why women (with zero credibility) were the discoverers of the empty tomb in the gospel tradition?  I know this falls under the criteria of embarrassment, but different instances of this criteria are often answered in different ways.  I was wondering how you personally make sense of this specific issue – if this is fiction, why not posit a gang of credible witnesses instead of women (1 or 2 or even 3), none of which would have their testimony count in the places where it would matter?

2. Women witnesses at the tomb

Not really an explanation, but just thoughts . . . .

Women were stereotypically at tombs or the funerals in many ancient narratives beginning with Homer.

I really don’t follow the criterion of embarrassment argument here since no-one believed the women anyway.

If it’s fiction, the women are acting true to type: they’re the principal mourners, no-one believes what they see.

I have read that it is also a typical motif in narratives, myths, for a god or divinity of some sort to make unexpected appearances in front of socially less credible members of the community, just to show up the leaders and humble them a bit. I have read this is a common theme, but I don’t have examples off the top of my head, sorry. Will keep a lookout for some and post them here. (We have the same in the angel visiting Manoah’s unnamed wife, twice. The reader is meant to laugh at Manoah getting his chauvinistic comeuppance, I think.)

It’s interesting that we have that section in 1 Corinthians 15 where a list of witnesses meant to impress is given. Not a woman among them, unless we include some among the 500.

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Neil Godfrey

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31 thoughts on “Why is Nazareth in the narrative? Why are women at the tomb?”

  1. Ah, you do have specific views about the origins of at least some of the NT documents. This is helpful.

    Is this as specific as your views about the origins of Matthew, Luke, and John get – or can you be more specific?

    As for the rest of the NT, I think I recall reading elsewhere on your blog that you believe the origin of the Paul story was a Hellenistic fable. Is this correct?

    1. I have lots of ideas to explore. I’m an explorer, not a colonizer. As I just said by way of reminder in a comment to Bill, this blog is to share ideas and spark thought, to allow others who are interested to be aware of some of the possibilities (as I see them) given the nature and extent of the evidence we have.

      1. Yes, that’s fine…and it’s helpful to know.

        Be aware therefore when I ask you about your views, it is to ask you about the possibilities you currently entertain. I am not trying to get you to be more committed to a given view than what you want to be – but I do want to know what the view is (or possible views are).

  2. I’m a bit confused why you have reverted to the traditional view of markan priority in all of your recent posts. “Makes one suspect Matthew did not see the word in his copy of Mark.” The way you follow Markan priority so strongly in all your recent posts is a little odd given your earlier post on the synoptic problem.

    1. I like to keep ya guessing! As I’ve tried to point out a few times one of my main reasons for this blog is to share stuff whose circulation is normally restricted to the scholarly guild, yet is of potential interest to a much wider audience. And that’s what I do. I have not investigated in the same depth the arguments for Mark the Last as I have for it being the First. Yet I know that there are niggling doubts about some aspects of the question. And when I read that the question of Markan priority has to some extent been accompanied by the same sorts of intellectual bullying and such tactics as we find used against minimalists and mythicists, I feel uncomfortable. I’d like to check it out for myself.

      I paused my little series of posts on Mark till I got hold of Horae Synopticae, and it has just arrived today. I need to check some citations in that chapter I was going through in those earlier posts.

      But my posts on “third party” topics will generally approach things from the mainstream perspective in other areas, such as the existence of Q and Markan priority and conventional dating of the gospels and letters of Paul, etc.

      In this post I offered some speculative thoughts and that’s really all they are. I am not committed to any hard and fast position on just about anything in biblical studies. It is all too too uncertain.

        1. If I were a full time scholar who had all the time and resources I need at my disposal I might be able to dig in my heels and defend one hypothesis over the other. Or maybe I would despair even more of “knowing anything”.

  3. I don’t understand why the women at the tomb is so often seen as a problem for the view that this story is fiction. It’s only a problem if the assumption is made that this story was created as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I don’t think this was on the mind of the author of the original story at all. It is most likely that this story was created under influnce of the author’s ‘failed discipleship’ theme as the women run away afraid without saying anything to anyone (Mark’s version is obviously closest to the original). The author has also created a nice contrast between the women running away from the tomb and the woman who anoints Jesus (Crossan). The story probably has nothing to do with providing evidence for the resurrection as the intended audience probably already accepted the resurrection of Jesus.

    1. Agree. If the author really wanted to provide readers with evidence for an historic event then surely we could expect that he would do so: names, details, sources, clear identities and relationships to the author’s sources, etc.

      I think many commentators and others know this deep down and that’s why we read of rationalizations to excuse the failure to give the evidence: fear of Roman authorities tracking down the witnesses (and those who passed on the narrative to the author) and throwing them to the lions; writing material was expensive so they had not enough space or ink to include those details; such information was passed along orally with the written works. . . .

      It’s a story.

      1. …and that’s why we read of rationalizations to excuse the failure to give the evidence…

        My new favorite is the laughable idea that a bilingual, nearsighted Mark couldn’t properly read those pesky (and imaginary) Aramaic wax tablets.

  4. Bill I think you’re ultimately right about the women not being an intended evidence anyway. I actually really like Richard Carrier’s treatment of the whole issue in Not The Impossible Faith. He not only debunks the idea that women were distrusted in court testimony, but supplies an (at least) plausible theory of symbolism for the identities of the women that visit the tomb.

    I don’t know for the life of me why anyone would doubt Markan priority anymore. Any alternative to Markan priority just has way to may ad hoc explanations to make, and the mythicist position is just as strong with Markan priority if we date Mark to 70 or beyond (which most do), so why nitpick about the order of the Gospels? I don’t see that bearing out a better case for mythicism or the ahistoricity of Jesus, no matter what sequence you end up with.

    As for the Nazareth business…I can’t believe I just noticed today for the first time that it’s only the Gospel of John that takes cheap shots at the town of Nazareth. In the synoptics, it’s sort of just an incidental detail. Matthew Mark and Luke can’t even agree on the spelling of the town or how it should be declined into the different koine cases. It’s a mess – looks very ad hoc, and looks to really be founded (in its intent and thrust) on that simple goal of prophecy fulfillment in Mt. 2:23. So I like your answer on this one Neil, and think you may be right that Matthew never saw any mention of Nazareth in Mark, and the otherwise incidental detail might have been added in later to Mark. Thanks again for tackling my questions. Fine work.

    1. Simple prophecy fulfillment isn’t so simple when no one has ever heard of the prophecy. Since Matthews prophecy doesn’t exist, I don’t think Jesus was born in Nazareth to fulfill the non existent prophecy.

      Neil, what a complicated explanation. I think this is a problem for the Jesus wasn’t born anywhere but heaven concept.I think the only reason any one would prefer your theory over, “Jesus was a guy from a small town called Nazareth” is if they can be sure Jesus did not exist.

      1. You seem to be obsessed with seeing mythicist arguments under every post. The question stands quite independently of any mythicist question.

        Matthew says such a prophecy did exist and he quoted it. Why should I believe you over him?

        1. It is sometimes argued that Matthew is here thinking of the Hebrew for branch, which is “netzer”, or “NZR” and is used in several of the major prophets. For example, we have Isaiah (Matthew’s most important source) writing in 11:1: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots (NZR) a Branch will bear fruit.” Matthew seems to know the MT in addition to the LXX, so maybe this is behind it. I don’t know, but perhaps Matthew is mixing his interpretation of the prophets with his awareness that some early Christians were known as the Nazoreans.

  5. On the subject of Nazareth/Nazorean, lately I’ve become more convinced that the direct reference to Nazareth (ναζαρετ) in Mark 1:9 is a later interpolation. I think Mark had originally written that Jesus either came from Galilee or from Capernaum (καφαρ-ναουμ –> Town of Comfort?). If that’s the case, then the first usage of the term Nazarene (which I believe in Mark always corresponds to a title, namely the Nazorean) would occur in 1:24, in which the demon(s) recognize who Jesus really is.

    I’ll attempt my own translation, since nearly all of the popular English NT translations can’t resist the urge to render “Jesus Nazarene” as “Jesus of Nazareth”. (Note: Both words — Ἰησοῦ and Ναζαρηνέ — are in the vocative case; this is a name followed by an appositive title, not a name followed by the genitive of place.)

    Mark 1:24 — “Saying, ‘What do you want to do with us, O Jesus the Nazarene? Have you come to kill us [destroy us utterly]? I perceive what you are: God’s Holy One!”

    After this initial recognition of Jesus’ true identity by a demon, the next time somebody uses the title is in Mark 10:47, when Blind Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus. Next, after the arrest a servant girl accuses Peter, “You were also with Jesus the Nazarene.” Finally, the young man at the tomb (the naked guy who had fled during the arrest?) says, “You seek Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.”

    Note that no disciple ever calls him “the Nazarene.” In Mark even the titulus omits “Nazarene.” All it has is the mocking term, “King of the Jews.” Hence I think we can assume Nazarene/Nazorean was a term Mark’s group knew of but tended not to use internally, preferring Christos or perhaps Son of God. But I do think Mark’s earliest audience understood it as a title and not a place name.

      1. Do Matt and Luke place Jesus in Nazareth?

        Matt 4:13 και καταλιπων την ναζαρα ελθων κατωκησεν εις καφαρναουμ την παραθαλασσιαν εν οριοις ζαβουλων και νεφθαλιμ

        Leaving Nazara, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali

        Luke 4:16 και ηλθεν εις ναζαρα ου ην τεθραμμενος και εισηλθεν κατα το ειωθος αυτω εν τη ημερα των σαββατων εις την συναγωγην και ανεστη αναγνωναι

        He went to Nazara, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read

        Like I wrote in another post, if Nazarene is thought to be a reference to a place where Jesus was from (like “New Yorker”), then the original would be something like Nazara. Just like Gerasene means someone from Gerasa (Mark 4.1). In other words, Matt and Luke are trying to figure out what to do with Mark’s Nazarene. That’s why there’s no consistent spelling of Jesus’ title in Matt and Luke; they are the first to place Jesus in Nazareth (or somewhere else besides Capernaum).

  6. Mike, I think your synopsis must be different from mine. No evidence that Luke knew Matthew? Wow, there is so much evidence that I don’t really know where to start. Oh well, lets just pick one. Where do you think Luke got the line “Who is it who smote you?” in Luke 22:64? It’s not in Mark’s parallel, but it is in Matthew’s. Those who speculate that there may be a shared source Q do not place this line in their (imaginary) reconstructed text. So what is your solution (seeing as you have apparently examined the texts in detail and come to the conclusion that there is absolutely no evidence that Luke knew Matthew)?

  7. Evan: what on earth makes you think Luke hadn’t read Matthew?

    Mike Wilson: I guess the complete lack of evidence for it.

    Does anyone else love Karl Pilkington on the Ricky Gervais Show? Doesn’t Mike often remind you of Karl when says things with confidence like that? Way to show ’em that you mean business, Mike! What’s 200 agreements against the unshakable resolve of Mike Wilson?

    And Bill, the ad hoc explanations are all those that push against the central tenets of textual criticism. If one account seems more clarified than another parallel account, it probably came later. If one account seems to contain more layers of complexity than a parallel account, it probably came later. Having spent literally years looking at the synoptic gospels in parallel, the simplest/least clarified/least complex gospel seems by far and away to be Mark. Yes, an author can attempt to simplify or summarize their source material into something less complex…that is not the general trend that we see in the overall findings of form and redaction criticism.

  8. Mr. Gantt,

    An ad hominem is an argument based on personal attack or insult. My comparison of Mike to Karl Pilkington was not an argument at all. His arrogant and flippant claim had already be soundly obliterated by robertb (in less than 20 words, believe it or not). So I didn’t need to argue anything, so my observation is better called an off-topic critique of Mike’s general demeanor. His interjections would be like Deepak Choprah barging into a conference of neuropsychologists and starting to pontificate about the spiritual connectivity of the universe. What would happen? They would immediately laugh and shame him out of the room. There is a place for such a practice, whether or not it offends your sensibilities. Of course Mike is free to disagree, or to fire back if he so pleases, but I think my observation was/is a rather accurate one.

    1. I haven’t seen the show, but I am thoroughly convinced by the arguments for Q, I won’t go into detail, there are enough books out there that do. My confidence is shared by a significant number of researchers, and those that conclude that Luke did not use Matthew are the majority, so while that doesn’t mean it must be true, I am not going off on a wild tangent here. If you have an argument beyond those presented by Goodacre and co., please let me know.

  9. Mike here is an argument.

    Q is regarded as not having a passion narrative in all the material I have seen on it. Therefore, agreement between the two on a point in the passion narrative that Mark does not have would have to come from awareness of Matthew on the part of Luke, since Q would have nothing to say on this topic.

    Matthew 26:67-8 says “Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, ‘Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?'”

    Luke 22:63-4 says “The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, ‘Prophesy! Who hit you?'”

    What explanation works better than that Luke had a copy of Matthew?

    1. Dr. Goodacre makes a cogent argument that Luke knew Matthew based on editorial fatique:

      The same phenomenon of editorial fatigue occurs also in double tradition material, where the evidence suggests that Luke is secondary to Matthew. In the Parable of the Talents / Pounds (Matt 25.14-30 // Luke 19.11-27), Luke, who loves the 10:1 ratio (Luke 15.8-10, Ten Coins, one lost; Luke 17.11-19, Ten Lepers, one thankful, etc.) begins with a typical change: ten servants, not three; and with one pound each (Luke 19.13). Yet as the story progresses, Luke appears to be drawn back to the plot of the Matthean parable, with three servants, “the first” (Luke 19.16), “the second” (Luke 19.18) and, remarkably, “the other” (Luke 19.20, ὁ ἕτερος). Moreover, the wording moves steadily closer to Matthew’s as the parable progresses, creating an internal contradiction when the master speaks of the first servant as “the one who has the ten pounds” (Luke 19.24), in parallel with Matthew 25.28. In Luke, he does not have ten pounds but eleven (Luke 19.16, contrast Matt. 25.20).


  10. The short answer is that the narrative only allows the women in the first place: the disciples, we’re told, fled as soon as Jesus was captured. Only the women were at the crucifixion, and hence, only the women could have known where the tomb was at all. In any case, it seems bizarre to think that the criteria of embarrassment applies here anyway; why think that the peculiarities of a court system have any impact whatever on what the average person would actually think? Do we even have reason to think that average persons were typically aware of this court prejudice? (Note: I won’t see any replies to this. Let me know at http://www.facebook.com/lyszandor7 if you respond to this!)

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