The Myth of Embarrassment over a Humble Hometown Like Nazareth

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by Neil Godfrey

It has become a mantra in almost any book that raises the question: Why did the evangelists insist Jesus was from Nazareth unless it happened to be an undeniable historical fact known to all? The mantric response: Because no-one would make up such a datum; no-one would make up the notion that the great and saving Jesus came from such a tin-pot village. The criterion of embarrassment screams against the very idea.

I have never jumped on board with that response because I have never encountered any evidence that demonstrates why it would be too embarrassing for anyone to imagine that the Lord who taught the overturning of the social order so that the last would be first and the first last, who taught that God will exalt the humble and bring low the mighty, — that it would be too embarrassing for anyone to write down for posterity such a detail unless it were historically true and widely known.

I have always considered that response to be ad hoc. It is a speculative opinion but nothing more — pending evidence to buttress its presuppositions.

Then yesterday I read in the work of an ancient historian about the humble birthplace of a Roman emperor, the humble birthplace of a man who was decreed to be a god. The detail is presumably factual. The historian said it was well-known so there was no point trying to hide it. But there’s a catch, a catch that overturns the premise of the above ad hoc and almost universal explanation among scholars for the reason the evangelists might not have fabricated Nazareth as the hometown of Jesus. Here is the passage from the Roman historian Suetonius:

[The Roman emperor] Vespasian was born in a little village in the Sabine land just beyond Reate, known as Falacrina. [Deified Vespasian, 2]

Was this historical record an embarrassment to Vespasian? It seems not, since

even when he was emperor, he would frequently visit his childhood home, where the house was kept just as it had been so that he would not miss the sight of any familiar object. And he so cherished the memory of his grandmother that on religious and festival days he would insist on drinking from a small silver cup which had belonged to her. [Deified Vespasian, 2]

But wait, there is more:

In other matters he was from the very beginning of his principate [emperorship] right up until his death unassuming and tolerant, never attempting to cover up his modest background and sometimes even flaunting it. Indeed, when some people attempted to trace the origins of the Flavian family back to the founders of Reate and a companion of Hercules, whose tomb stood by the Salarian Way,* he actually laughed at them. [Deified Vespasian, 12]

Humble beginnings of a person who rose to high status could well be interpreted as evidence of special divine favour.

Even the great Augustus, the one emperor Suetonius took the most seriously as a divinity, is noted for his humble place of birth. Not the slightest hint of embarrassment is evinced in Suetonius’s reporting of it:

Augustus was born a little before sunrise eight days before the Kalends of October in the consulship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius, at the Ox Heads in the Palatine district, on the spot where he now has a shrine, established shortly after he died. For, according to senate records, one Gaius Laetorius, a young man of patrician family, in an attempt to mitigate a penalty for adultery, which he claimed was too severe for one of his age and family, also drew to the attention of the senators the fact that he was the possessor and, as it were, guardian of the spot which the Deified Augustus first touched at his birth, and sought pardon for the sake of what he termed his own particular god. It was then decreed that this part of the house should be consecrated.  To this day his nursery is displayed in what was his grandfather’s country home near Velitrae. The room is very modest, like a pantry. [Deified Augustus, 5-6]

Suetonius introduces the above passage after having portrayed other indicators of Augustus’s humble early years and even detailing accusations of Augustus’s enemies about his origins:

In the first four chapters the biographer has compiled an account of the Octavii and the Atii, the gentes of Augustus’ natural parents, which sets out the comparative humbleness of his origins: the princeps’ own claim that his paternal line was an old equestrian family is juxtaposed with the claims of M. Antonius that it was tainted with the servile and banausic – a great-grandfather who was an ex-slave and a grandfather who was a money dealer. As to the maternal line, against the claims of senatorial imagines, Antonius alleges a potentially non-white ancestor and more of the banausic – a great-grandfather of African origin who moved into the baking business after running a perfume shop. This section of the life ends with an extract from a letter written by Cassius of Parma, assassin of Caesar and notorious victim of Augustan revenge, which combines both strands of Antonius’ attack and adds a sexual dimension:

. . . . Your mother’s meal came from the roughest bakery in Aricia; a money changer from Nerulum pawed her with his hands stained from filthy pennies. [Deified Augustus, 4.2]

Although Augustus’ ancestry was not the obvious stuff of gods, the next chapter, which begins the Life of Augustus proper, marks a transfer of focus: . . . .

[See the Suetonius passage above: Augustus was born a little before sunrise . . . .]

It begins by recording that Augustus (Suetonius deliberately uses the anachronistic name) was bom in a modest part of Rome, but then qualifies that by ubi nunc habet sacrarium, which begins a series of references to his divinity. (Wardle, 323-24)

Now we may accept the above accounts as likely historically true, but the point is our historian betrays not a hint of embarrassment. The tone suggests that there is nothing inappropriate about one destined to become a god should be born in humble or obscure circumstances.

I know, I know, there are a dozen spin-off questions relating to the above post. But I have chosen to focus on just one point.

Suetonius. 2008. Lives of the Caesars. Translated by Catharine Edwards. Reissue edition. Oxford etc.: OUP Oxford.

Wardle, D. 2012. “Suetonius on Augustus as God and Man.” The Classical Quarterly 62 (1): 307–26.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “The Myth of Embarrassment over a Humble Hometown Like Nazareth”

  1. I thought Carrier did a wonderful takedown of the Biblical scholar’s toolbox of criteria, including the criterion of embarrassment. You have done a wonderful extension by asking, is there any evidence of any divine being being embarrassed of humble beginnings and, lo and behold, none were and often the opposite was the case.

    Thank you.

  2. “The criterion of embarrassment screams against the very idea”…
    I have never been a big fan of “The criterion of embarrassment”. Although I think Jesus has a basis of being historic, from the fact (ok, I assume fact), that Paul’s writings seem to confirm there were indeed Jesus followers early, and being apocalyptic, must have said at one time that the temple will be destroyed (historic). Thus, post 70AD, the gospels were written by the remnant of his followers, trying to tie his prediction to fact. And the destruction was so traumatic, the small cult followers were joined by everyone wanting to get on the bandwagon.

    But, back to “The criterion of embarrassment”.
    If the authors of the gospels were embarrassed by a birth in Nazareth, and therefore THAT must be fact; why were they not embarrassed by a virgin birth, and a resurrection from the dead, which, I think, we can all agree, probably was not fact? I think the authors of the gospels were not embarrassed by much of anything they wrote, so why would today’s scholars place “the criterion of embarrassment” as something valid? Desperation? Maybe I’m missing something.

  3. a couple of probably obvious points, I once read they made Jesus a Nazarene just to satisfy one of the many sects and encourage their support of a unified religion. Also there is that other thing many point out, in mid-90s AD Nazareth does not appear on the Josephus map even though Josephus stayed for a time at Japha, which would have been literally in sight of Nazareth. That Nazareth was later built atop Japha’s city of the dead (cemetary) by early Christian bishops as part of a pilgrimage route

    1. Yes, I also think that the most economical explanation for the origin of the “of Nazareth” moniker attached to Jesus is the “sect of the Nazarenes (or Nazoreans?)”. Matthew was the first to try to hide this origin by linking it with the village with the same consonants. (Mark 1:9 has its own problems.)

      It makes no sense to me that Jesus would be hailed as “Jesus of a backwoods-town-nobody-ever-heard-of”. That’s not how prophetic or any sort of leader is labelled in public promotion. See Would the historical Jesus of Nazareth really have been named Jesus of Nazareth?

      1. Nazarenes (or Nazoreans?)

        Three different names need to be distinguished:
        • Nazorean
        • Nazarites
        • Natsarene

        There is reference to the “sect of the Nazoreans” (τῆς τῶν Ναζωραίων αἱρέσεως) in Acts 24:5 that raises the possibility of “Nazarene” originating as a sectarian name and the dual forms of Ναζαρηνός (characteristic of Mark) and Ναζωραῖος parallel the spelling variants Ἐσσηνος and Ἐσσαῖος for the Essenes.

        It is not until Epiphanius that we get the form Νασαραῖοι [Nasaraíoi (Nazarites)] which refers to a sect that Epiphanius wants to distinguish from the Ναζωραῖοι [Nazoraíoi (Nazarenes)]. According to Epiphanius in his Panarion (29.5.6), the 4th century Jewish-Christian Nazarenes (Ναζωραιοι) were originally Jewish converts of the Apostles.

        There is also a third sect, the pre-Christian Nasarenes, whose name is more intelligible in Aramaic or Hebrew as Natsarene. René Salm writes, “Like Epiphanius, we should also carefully observe a distinction: the Nazoreans were early Christians (cf. Mt 2:23; Acts 24:5), but the Nasarenes were pre-Christian . . . . I shall use the English spellings ‘Natsarene’ (rendering the Semitic tsade) and ‘Nazorean’.”

    2. Jesus was said to be assigned post-natally to dwell in Nazareth:

      Matthew 2:19-23 (YLT), especially v.23 with “that it might be fulfilled that was spoken through the prophets”, —

      19 And Herod having died, lo, a messenger of the Lord in a dream doth appear to Joseph in Egypt,

      20 saying, ‘Having risen, take the child and his mother, and be going to the land of Israel, for they have died — those seeking the life of the child.’

      21 And he, having risen, took the child and his mother, and came to the land of Israel,

      22 and having heard that Archelaus doth reign over Judea instead of Herod his father, he was afraid to go thither, and having been divinely warned in a dream, he withdrew to the parts of Galilee,

      23 and coming, he dwelt in a city named Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled that was spoken through the prophets, that `A Nazarene he shall be called.’

  4. The Hebrew word for carpenter is נַגָר, which is similar to the word for Nazarite נזיר. I think the yod zyin combination in the second word could be mistook for the gimel in the first or possibly the two words became confused by Greek speakers. The idea that Jesus was from the back woods town of Nazareth is no less absurd than the idea that he was a carpenter. Is there a connection, I don’t know, I’m not a Hebrew expert.

  5. Barrack Obama took two years to produce his birth certificate after it being insisted by those of us who doubted he was born in the US. Why ? Something fishy is going on and we may never know the truth. Same with the story of Jesus said to be of Nazareth. Those in control of the records (Roman church / US deep state) have the power to sway his-tory.

    1. Why did the black man refuse to “show his papers” when demanded by non-sherrifs, non-duly constituted authorities, to prove he was born in Hawaii? Perhaps because it was a frivolous and racist request.

      Obama’s birth in Hawaii was reported and published in contemporary newspapers in Honolulu at the time. The Hawaii secretary of state has confirmed the birth certificate is genuine. There never was valid reason to suspect he was born anywhere other than Hawaii, despite claims from the lunatic fringe.

      There is nothing fishy here other than why racism runs so deep that even after the birth certificate was published, 51% of Republican voters in the U.S. continue to believe it is either “definitely” or “probably” true that the African-American president was born in Kenya and not really an American, YouGov poll, Dec 2017. An earlier poll of NBC News in Aug 2016 reported that 72% of Republicans nationwide either believed Obama was born in Kenya or were unsure, with only 28% of Republicans believing Obama was born in the USA per publicly reported vital statistics. The current American president, Donald Trump, rose to national prominence on the specific issue of the “birther” issue.

      Trump did not originate the issue but publicized it. After, so to speak, throwing the black man up against the car and demanding that he show his papers, citizen Trump then said that the papers indeed were in order. But as recently as 2017, now president (thanks to votes from the 72%), it was reported that according to aides, “Mr. Trump has used closed-door conversations to question the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate”.

      The website “obamaconspiracy.org”, a blog which ran for eight years, has archives reporting and debunking every conceivable variation of “birther” theories in excruciating, exhaustive, scrupulously accurate detail. This is the prime source for investigative reporting on this subject. Astonishingly, the editor of that site (with whom I have a passing acquaintance) has soberly said that in the entire eight years of his daily publishing of that blog with wide readership, he was not aware of a single case in which any person committed to birtherism changed their mind as a result of being exposed to mere facts. Mr. Grullemans your post illustrates this phenomenon. There is nothing fishy going on with the vital statistics records of Obama’s birth.

      After a study of the effects of race and racial attitudes on birtherism, Philip Klinkner, political scientist, 2014, concluded that belief in birtherism “is almost completely resistant to factual correction and is strongly related [to] partisanship and attitudes about race.”

      1. Philip Klinkner, political scientist, 2014, concluded that belief in birtherism “is almost completely resistant to factual correction and is strongly related [to] partisanship and attitudes about race.”

        Gregory Doudna, congratulations on the publication of “Is Josephus’s John the Baptist Passage a Chronologically Dislocated Story of the Death of Hyrcanus II?”

        In the near future I suspect that in response to your article. We will be seeing that per belief in “X” there is almost complete resistance to factual correction. Which is strongly related to partisanship and attitudes about “Y”.

        X=Josephus’s John the Baptist Passage.

        1. Thanks db. Not sure I understand what you mean by “belief in Josephus’s John the Baptist passage” as X, or the smile as Y, though it sounds humorous.

          My article does not disbelieve Josephus’s John the Baptist passage was original to Antiquities–only proposes Josephus mislocated that story to the wrong Herod in keeping with some other chronological dislocations and doublets in Josephus.

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