Have you ever heard Jesus referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth” or “the Nazarene”? What does that mean?
Jesus grew up in a town called Nazareth. Thus, He has been called “Jesus of Nazareth” in the same way you might say “Bobby from New York” or “Cindy from London.” Especially since Jesus wasn’t an uncommon name in His time, adding “of Nazareth” helped people know who was being talked about.
However, Jesus being from Nazareth means a bit more than your cousin Bobby hailing from New York.
A Little Town Called Bethlehem
Though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, He wasn’t born there.
Jesus was born to a virgin, Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph. Luke 2 records that at that time there was a census, for which Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem in Judea because of his lineage from David. Mary, pregnant with Jesus at the time by the power of the Holy Spirit, came with him.
At some point, while they were in Bethlehem, Jesus was born. The Bible doesn’t say how long they were there before this happened, and it isn’t clear exactly how long they stayed afterward. Forty days after the birth of her son, a Jewish woman was to go to the temple for purification, which Luke records that Mary and Joseph did, after which they appear to have returned to Bethlehem. The wise men from the east came while Jesus was “a young child” and visited him at a house in Bethlehem, which was probably a year or two later.
The family left Bethlehem and fled to Egypt after Joseph was warned to leave in a dream. This was because King Herod decided to have all boys under two years old in and around Bethlehem killed. Herod had heard about the new “king of the Jews” from the wise men and was determined to eliminate the threat to his power. This, then, ended the family’s time in Bethlehem.
After Herod died, an angel told Joseph in a dream that it was safe to return to Israel. Depending on when scholars date events in the life of Jesus, the answer for how long they remained in Egypt will vary, but it was most likely less than two years. After the dream, Matthew 2:21-23 records:
So he [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Thus, Jesus, most likely around two to four years old, finally landed in the town in which he would grow up.
The Town of Nazareth
Nazareth is located in the modern country of Israel. In Jesus’ time, Nazareth was located in southern Galilee, which was north of Judea (where Bethlehem and Jerusalem were). Galilee was geographically somewhat separated from Judea by the non-Jewish territory of Samaria.
It’s important to realize that Jewish Judeans typically thoughtless of their northern Galilean brethren. Galileans were thought of as country “bumpkins,” and their accent was mocked by Judeans. During Jesus’ trial, Peter was suspected of being a follower of Jesus simply because of his Galilean accent (Luke 22:59).
Judeans also looked down on Galilee for its greater racial and religious mixing, where conservative Jews lived right next to pagans. Galileans were considered less sophisticated and corrupted by Gentile influence. Judeans tended to believe that Galileans were lax in following proper religious rituals. The fact that Galilee was so much farther from the temple and theological leadership in Jerusalem didn’t help matters.
Nazareth held an extra level of abhorrence for Jews: it housed a Roman garrison. Perhaps this is what led to the following conversation, recorded in John 1:45-46, between two soon-to-be disciples of Jesus:
Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Phillip.
Why Is Nazareth Significant?
Nazareth isn’t expressly mentioned in the Old Testament. However, Jesus coming from Nazareth did fulfill Old Testament prophecy. In Matthew 2:23, when Joseph went to Nazareth with Mary and Jesus, Matthew says, “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.”
Jesus being from Nazareth potentially fulfills prophecy in two different ways. First, predictions abound in the Old Testament of the coming Messiah being despised and rejected (e.g. Psalm 22, Isaiah 53). Nazareth fits that description.
Second, the prophecy of Isaiah 11:1 states, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” In this prophecy, understood to be about the coming Messiah, the word we translate as “branch” is “naser” or “netzer.” Notice the similarities of “naser” to Nazarene, or “netzer” to Nazareth. Some, including many early church leaders like Jerome, point to this as a play on words.
Jesus chose not to be born in a palace; we celebrate His lowly birth at Christmas. But He also didn’t choose to grow up in a religiously prestigious place like Jerusalem. He came from the “country-bumpkin,” religiously lacking land of Galilee, from the frowned-upon town of Nazareth.
He was doing something new, and it was all about God, not grandeur — forgiveness, not pharisaical laws. Our Savior’s humble childhood in Nazareth reminds us that He came for the Jews and the Gentiles, the rich and the poor, the respected and the maligned — for us all.
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Alyssa Roat is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. Her passions for Biblical study and creativity collide in her writing. More than a hundred of her works have been featured in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.