Lower Galilee was predominantly Jewish at the time of Jesus. It was punctuated with small farming villages—Nazareth, Cana, Nain and others. First-century Nazareth was situated on a rocky hillside. A house was likely built over and in front of a cave, with the cave serving as a back room or even a stable. A visitor today can visit the traditional sites of both the house of Joseph and the house of Mary.
Jews were not native to Galilee, but many had settled there about a hundred years earlier. The main exceptions to these peasant villages were Sepphoris and Tiberias—modestly sized with more affluent residents.
Nazareth is not even mentioned in the Old Testament—not once. Today it is a relatively modern, sprawling city. But back in the day, it was an impoverished, scarcely populated, insignificant place—hardly worth mention.
You get the picture. When someone was asked, “Where are you from?” The likely response was “I’m from Sepphoris.” After all, that was close enough and one didn’t have to explain further—it was a Roman city of particular note. Some figure that Joseph may have worked there and Jesus, as a boy, could have made the trek many times—only a 4-mile walk! An early tradition associates Mary and her family with the city.
I’ve caught myself doing much the same. The short answer is, “I’m from Nashville.” It doesn’t need further explanation. It carries at least the weight of recognition. Cross Plains, on the other hand, requires much more talk! Nobody knew about Nazareth either. So it’s not surprising to read John’s account of Nathanael’s pointed inquiry of Philip:
Now Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
It was common knowledge in Jewish circles that the Messiah would come not from any kind of Nazareth. It would be more like Jerusalem. He’d live in a house not a cave for goodness sakes! But before we are too quick to criticize, let’s admit that we all place a high premium on pedigree. We don’t elect too many presidents these days without Ivy-league educations, do we?
Most people, whatever their Nazareth is, don’t claim it. All of us at some level know what it is liked to be overlooked or looked down upon. If not from others, we do it to ourselves. Have you considered what your “Nazareth” might be?
How might we live in Nazareth? This ordinary place from which Jesus came may very well be emblematic of where you and I find ourselves today. What are the run of the mill things in our world that we don’t attend to or expect to see God in? Does the daily, non-descript routine of our lives prevent us from seeing God?