"Can anything good come from Nazareth?" …The Gospel of John 1:46
The Carpenter from Nazareth…
Within the gospels, Jesus bursts onto the scene. His origins are rarely mentioned and his past is covered in mystery. The evangelists' information about Jesus' life before his ministry is lacking and without these answers there are many questions begging to be answered. What was Jesus' family like? Where did he come from? How was he educated? Was he poor? What was his life like before he encountered John the Baptist and began his ministry?
To begin with, Jesus comes out of a peasant background.
In first-century, the social classes were really divided into two, upper and lower, in basic terms the rich were rich and the poor were poor. There was no class in-between them, no dividing middle class. However there were different ends of the spectrum, for example one would belong to the lower class and be better off then others in terms of education, wealth and status. All scholars agree that Jesus comes from the lower class; however there are disagreements as to how he belongs to it. Some think to call Jesus a peasant is to label him as a farmer — someone who works the land and raises livestock. This is not so, to label Jesus as apart of peasant society is to denote the hard conditions, the dependency on labour, lack of education and low ranking status within society.
Most people would instinctively call Jesus a carpenter, or name that as his line of work. The word is 'tekton' translates better as 'woodworker' rather than carpenter. Calling a Jesus a carpenter places him into a job that just deals with building and repairing things made of wood, however in the ancient world, the word 'tekton' covers a much wider range of occupations. Not just wood, but also stone, horn and even ivory, dealing with everything from housing to furniture.
Home Sweet Home…
I state that Nazareth was Jesus' hometown and most likely even his birth place. All throughout the gospels Jesus is called 'the Nazarene' and indicates his origin is from Nazareth. Note that Luke and Matthew only have his birth taking place in Bethlehem; they then work their way back to Nazareth. Nazareth was a small Jewish settlement in the hill country of southern Galilee, only six kilometres from the city of Sepphoris. It was remote from the trade route and had little political and economic importance. Most scholars argue its population was small and were primarily engaged in agriculture.
While most of the classical art works portray Jesus being an only child, our sources tell us he came from a large family that included his parents Joseph and Mary (e.g., Matt 1:16, 18-25; 2:13-23; 13:55; Lk 1:27; 2:16; 3:23; Jn 1:45; 6:42) as well as brothers named James, Joses (probably Joseph), Judas (or Jude) and Simon (Mk 6:3; Matt 13:55), even sisters are mentioned in the family, however they are never named. Businesses in ancient times were family-based and family tradition, so it is most likely that Jesus and his brothers learnt the trade from Joseph, indicating a family of tradesmen. To have a family so large, Mary and Joseph would have been married young, anywhere between thirteen to seventeen years-old was common practice at the time. (I do not wish to bring up the Virgin Birth nor the continuing virginity of Mary, as I know this is a tender issue among many Christians and Catholics. While I do find good amounts of history within the Birth Narratives, there is also an equal amount of theology and legend. Besides, I find it irrelevant to the study at hand.)
Languages and Lessons…
Jesus' native tongue would have been Aramaic however in my research I found good grounds to state Jesus might also have spoken Greek. Being from a trade-based family, learning Greek would have been a good practical and business investment made by the family, however we can't be sure either way. As a Jewish boy, Jesus would have learnt the traditions and beliefs of his ancestors at the synagogue. He would have been educated in the tales of Moses, David, Joshua, the prophets, and other important aspects of the Jewish identity. He would have been learnt the texts of the Hebrew Bible, learning the language as well. He would have memorized and recited current texts that were important to the Jewish faith as well ones that appealed to him on a personal level, accounting for his knowledge of the scriptures found all through the gospels.
In brief, we can know little about Jesus' upbringing however we can gain certain insights into his family, hometown and education. Although we do know that at the age of thirty or so, he chose to leave his family and trade behind and be baptized by a man known as John the Baptist.
'The Voice Crying in the Desert'…
John the Baptist is truly a unique and complex character to understand. John led another variety of Second-Temple Judaism, a movement based on repentance and purity on a personal and national level. Another interesting aspect about John is that he is clearly revered as a prophet bearing a fiery message of imminent and impeding judgement on Israel and the nations. He is also known for his wild appearance, wearing camel hair sackcloth. He is best known however for his practice of baptism, so much it attaches to his name. The Greek word for baptize, 'baptizo', has various meanings such as 'plunge', 'dip', 'splash', 'flood', 'drown' or 'immerse'. With so many different meanings, its difficult to know how John actually baptized someone but the meaning behind the act is very clear.
John was symbolically re-enacting what happened to the children of Israel when they came through the River Jordan to the Promised Land. Baptism was an Exodus symbol. John was invoking a new exodus upon the people. The call of baptism was the call to repent and be cleansed; an action that must be taken in order to prepare oneself for the coming Kingdom. To John, the Kingdom of YHWH was close at hand. Salvation and judgement were just around the corner and John, it seems, took it upon himself to prepare the way — to ready the people and warn the nation. As well as this, he spoke of the arrival of YHWH's Messiah being close at hand. While John was labelled a prophet by the crowds, if he thought of himself as one, it would have been a very minor one, for in relation to the coming Messiah he considered himself less then a slave in comparison.
The Baptist and the Baptised…
The fact that John baptised Jesus has always struck me as an interesting point to explore, as it is such a problem to the early church. In my opinion, the fact that Jesus was baptised by John marks out that Jesus accepted the veracity of John's predictions of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom. He counted himself as someone who needed to be baptised in order to prepare for it and also indicates John and Jesus shared a very personal relationship, perhaps something like a teacher and disciple. Before you scream heresy while you read this, let me make myself clear on a few points. Jesus' past is never revealed to us, and speculation on the matter is pointless. Perhaps he saw himself as particularly negligent or sinful to the Torah (the Law), perhaps he believed he needed to be in order to receive acceptance into the Kingdom, perhaps Jesus, like the crowds, wished to partake in John's new exodus and renewal of the covenant, perhaps the words of John struck a chord within him, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps? All of this is just pointless speculation.
The point is however to see what it means in relationship to Jesus and John. In seeking a baptism of repentance in the Jordan River by John, Jesus came to confess his sins and transgressions of the Law, repenting and placing himself with others who saw themselves in need of purification. Jesus would have listened to John's message, adhered to John's teachings and waited with John for the arrival of the Kingdom. I am not saying that Jesus was a slave to John's every word and action, but it is doubtless to say John left an impression on him. I would call Jesus a disciple of John in a very narrow sense; I wouldn't agree that Jesus practiced baptism or shared the complete mindset of John's eschatology however, Jesus being baptised by John indicates Jesus' acknowledgment of John's preaching.
Being baptised meant Jesus wished to break from the sinful ways of Israel who had turned away from YHWH and the covenant; he decided to dedicate his life to being a faithful Jew, he embraced John as an eschatological prophet and his message of an imminent judgment hanging over Israel as well as the hope of the coming Messiah. Jesus joined John in the hope of a redeemed Israel, a new exodus awaiting her and a Messiah to lead the way to restoration.
Did Jesus receive a 'Call?
In the Gospel Tradition, within his baptism, Jesus experiences something of the divine in which he sees the Heavens open and a voice declares him to be "the Son of God". I would argue that Jesus felt something in his baptism and time with John, preparing him for some kind of commission and vocation however it is not till John is arrested and executed that he understands the nature of his 'call'. Perhaps with John around he found it difficult to understand what it was YHWH was asking him to do, he might have even sought John's assistance on the matter, whatever the case maybe it seems that Jesus wished to work it out for himself, praying and fasting in the hope or expectation that YHWH would give him a sign.
If this is true, I believe that sign was John's arrest and death.
John believed that the Kingdom was close at hand and it was his duty to prepare the way. He warned, he preached, he taught and he baptised all in order to ready Israel for the arrival of the Messiah and the impeding judgement on her. Jesus listened and believed in John. Now John had been executed, the one preparing the way had been killed at the hands of those awaiting YHWH's judgment. John was the last warning; if the days of preparation were over, it meant that at long last, YHWH was becoming king.
Jesus then understood his vocation. If John's mission was to prepare the coming Kingdom, it was his task to announce the arrival of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.
The Kingdom fulfilled and at hand…
No ordinary Jew would agree that YHWH was governing Israel neither by appointing Caesar, Antipas or Pilate to govern them nor to safeguard the security of the Roman Empire. Remember, the Jewish mindset is that YHWH reigns in the heavens and there his kingdom is eternal. However in the future, hopefully the not-to-distant future, YHWH would once again act in history bringing the rule of mankind to an end and govern the world perfectly. When YHWH acted the covenant would be redeemed, the Temple restored, the pagans defeated and YHWH enthroned. However, it is clear that Jesus didn't do any of these things, so what did Jesus mean when he spoke about the Kingdom of Heaven?
Basically, his message must be consistent with his vocation.
If John's death was the final stage in the time before the Kingdom is finished, it meant that the time of the Kingdom has begun, however it is 'impending' and in a process of 'in-breaking' into the present. Jesus in announcing the Kingdom, declared that he is an agent of the coming Kingdom, he stresses though the Kingdom is not fully manifested, it is still present and in action. Jesus in announcing the Kingdom showed and taught the common people, the crowds and even his opponents, signs, sayings, parables and acts to show the coming Kingdom of Heaven in the present and in the coming future as well.
It should be to no surprise then that in the gospels Jesus is seen as a prophet by the Galilean crowds after such words and deeds.
'Is this not a Prophet?'
When a prophet comes into the public eye, there are certain questions are that follow him. What is he saying and why is he saying it plus what is he doing and why is he doing it? It is clear that Jesus became known, among other things, as someone who spoke with power and authority. The evangelists are not referring to his tone of voice when they say 'he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes' (Matt 7:28-29, Mark 1:21-28, Luke 4:31-37), rather they are implying something much deeper and more meaningful. Jesus was announcing a message — the word of Israel's covenant god — and this message was as sharp as it was fresh; relevant as it was dangerous.
Despite the claims and beliefs of many, while Jesus' message is still personal and considered universal, Jesus is not the teacher of timeless truths or good ethics, Jesus' did not lead a universal spiritual movement. His announcement and call of the Kingdom is best understood in the framework of a prophet of Israel. Elijah had stood alone against the prophets of Baal, and against the wickedness of King Ahab. Jeremiah had announced disaster and doom on the Temple and Israel in face of royalty, priests and official prophets. John the Baptist summoned the children of Israel to renew the covenant promises and denounced the ruling of Herod Antipas. Jesus proclaimed that the reign of YHWH, so long awaited, was at long last beginning. However his vision and definition of the Kingdom, was very a different concept to anything anyone at the time had imagined.
The basic concept of the Kingdom of Heaven was that Israel would be liberated and vindicated against her enemies, the pagans, and their gods would be defeated, the covenant would be restored and YHWH would be enthroned. It is impossible to think that Jesus used the Kingdom phrase without relating it back to those deeply rooted Jewish hopes, promises and aspirations. I argue that Jesus redefined what the Kingdom of Heaven was; what it looked like; and how it would relate to Israel and her people. I believe Jesus' message about the Kingdom did contain the redemption of Israel and enthronement of YHWH, but in a way his contemporaries and even followers had not expected.
Signs of a Prophet…
Interrupting Jesus' vision of the Kingdom can be made easier by looking at his actions and his contemporaries' reaction, and the following examples are perhaps the two most striking:
The first is Jesus' call and selection of 'the Twelve' later to be known as the 'Twelve Apostles'. The Twelve are depicted as being selected from common folk, Galilean Jews, and to them Jesus appoints them as what is best described as members of his 'inner circle', his closest disciples. However to any Jewish observer the meaning behind the appointment of a twelve-fold inner circle would have been very clear. Basically, the Twelve Tribes of Israel are being reformed, Jesus is restoring Israel. It was believed that with the coming of the Kingdom, the Twelve Tribes would be restored; it seems Jesus selected the Twelve to signify that hope.
Another great symbol used by Jesus was the practice of feasting and not only that but whom he was dining with. In many sayings and parables Jesus compared the coming Kingdom to a great feast (Matt 22:1-14, Luke 14:15-24), expressing his belief in an eschatological banquet in which all would sit at the same table as the great Patriarchs of Israel (Matt 8:11, Luke 14:15-24). Also his dining with so called 'sinners' declared their inclusion in the Kingdom as well. As Ian Elmer joked one day during class in explaining this practice, "it appears that Jesus and his motley crew never turned down an excuse to party". These practices earned him a reputation among his opponents as a 'glutton and a drunk' and 'friend of sinners and tax-collectors' (Luke 7:34).
What the Kingdom is Like and Not Like…
From our study it is clear; Jesus' movement carried no signs of being a violent Messianic Kingdom movement or being the type of movement that would have been favoured by the people. Yet Jesus summoned the people to be Israel, but not the way they wanted to but rather to fulfil and take up their proper roles in YHWH's kingdom and plan. He called the people to be the Israel YHWH had intended them to be — the chosen people, the people with a purpose, the people through whom YHWH would redeem the world. Like the prophets, his message about the Kingdom would challenge and disturb the current expectations of the people.
A great deal of the parables deal with this issue with Jesus explaining the Kingdom is like 'this' and it is 'not like' what they have expected or longed for. Jesus explains time and time again, in many different sayings and parables what the Kingdom of Heaven, the reign of YHWH on earth and the restored Israel is like. In these words and deeds, Jesus was making a summons to an immediate change of heart and new direction of life. An invitation to a new way of being Israel, the Israel her covenant god had planned her to be and she refused and rejected, judgement and catastrophe awaited her.
'Are you the One we've been expecting, or are we still waiting?'
This approach and message was radical and revolutionary, it is not surprising that many were shocked by Jesus' message. John had proclaimed that YHWH's impending retribution, the Coming One who would baptize with fire and who would cleanse Israel of her impurities. The Zealots had long awaited a Messiah would come with sword in hand, ready to fight and win the so called 'good fight' against the pagans. The Pharisees were seeking a prophet like Moses to divide the pure and impure, to lead the pure out of bondage and judge the impure for their sins. The common people waited in hope for the freedom and vindication of Israel, the liberation and the restoration of her people.
And what was Jesus doing?
Preaching? Healings? Miracles? Exorcisms? And what is his message of the kingdom? Beatitudes? Parables? Sayings? Where was the thunder of judgement? Where was the rebuke of the wicked? Why did Jesus consort with them in their feasting? Why did he not take up the sword and stand up to the tyrants? How could these words and deeds be prophetic? How could this man possibly be the Messiah? It is to these questions, next week's article will be focusing.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?