The worst thing, I thought, was the traffic. That and a sign we passed in our taxi announcing “Nazareth Baptist Church,” for these things loudly proclaimed that we were in a modern city, which like any modern city of my acquaintance had traffic jams and Baptist churches. Intellectually, of course, I knew this. The modern city of Nazareth itself had a population in 2009 of over 50,000, with greater Nazareth boasting a population of 210,000, so the traffic jams really came as no surprise. But whatever my head told me, my heart had come to find the Nazareth of the Bible, and in that rustic village, there were no traffic jams and no Baptist Church.
Indeed, the Nazareth of the Bible didn’t have much of anything. Its population in the time of Christ was about 500, and it was so small and insignificant that it was not even mentioned in the Old Testament. Even in Christ’s day, Nazareth’s neighbours didn’t seem to think much of the town. When Nathanael from nearby Cana heard that the Messiah had been found in Nazareth, he could scarcely believe it. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he scoffed (Jn. 1:46).
So, what’s the story with Matthew’s citation of the Messianic prophecy, “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Mt. 2:23)? Bible expositors have long puzzled about this, since they could find no such verse in their Bibles. Did Matthew maybe mean that Messiah was to be not a Nazarene, but a Nazirite, not a citizen of the town of Nazareth but someone pledged to holy continence such as mentioned in Numbers 6? Even this is pushing it a bit, since nothing in the Old Testament which mentions the laws for a Nazirite vow is the least bit Messianic.
It seems that Matthew was reading his Bible in a typically Jewish way, and looking at the Hebrew text itself for deeper significance. In Isaiah 11:1, the prophet refers to the Messiah as coming forth in humility from the ruined House of David, like a little twig growing out of a felled stump: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The word here translated “branch” is the Hebrew “nezer,” with the same consonants as the Hebrew word “Nazareth.” Matthew was making a verbal connection (a pun, if you will), linking the insignificance of the town to the fact that its name sounded like the word for a tiny little twig in Isaiah’s prophecy. The image of the future Messiah coming as a little branch or twig is found in other Old Testament prophecies too, such as Jer. 23:5 and Zech. 3:8 (though there the Hebrew word for “branch” is “semach”), and this would explain why Matthew refers to “prophecies” about Nazareth (in the plural). So, even in Matthew’s citation of the Old Testament, we find an emphasis on the insignificance of Jesus’ hometown.
As wonderful as I’m sure Nazareth Baptist Church is, I took the taxi to town to find only two sites: the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation and the Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel. Both were well worth the time squeezing through traffic.
In the Church of the Annunciation, one finds the so-called “Grotto of Mary,” the archaeological ruins of a house from the first century purporting to be the original home of the Virgin Mary. Like all sites supervised by the Franciscans, a “look but don’t touch” rule seems to be in effect, and one cannot actually go into the cave. If it was not the actual home of Mary, there is little doubt that earlier generations thought it was, for the Byzantines built a church there in the fifth century. And if not the actual home of Mary, certainly her home was close by, and must’ve looked rather like this one. In gazing into the cave at the archaeological labours of others, I seemed to be gazing back through the centuries at the place where the young girl lived whom God would call to become the most important mother in history.
Close by the Roman Catholic church is the Orthodox one, the Church of St. Gabriel. This church was not half so large and splendid as its Roman Catholic neighbour, and its iconography is a mixture of styles. But I did not linger long by the icon-screen. Instead I hurried through a rounded arch and down a corridor to a well. It was small, and adorned with many small icons of the Theotokos which people had propped up along its rim. Inside the well were coins and pieces of paper, doubtless containing prayer requests. It was this well, now largely dry and fed by a pipe, that once stood under the open sky in Nazareth and was used by Mary and the other women of her village.
I stood by the well and closed my eyes, and through an act of imagination and will pushed away modern Nazareth. I pushed away the traffic jams, the shops, the advertising. I pushed away the Byzantine church and the small corridor leading to well. I pushed away the roof and the walls, until I again stood under the open sky. I pushed away the thousands of people milling about the modern city and returned in imagination to the Nazareth of the Bible, a small rustic village where the women came every morning to this very place to draw water for their families. Long, long ago, in this very spot, Mariam of Nazareth, a young mother of about eighteen years of age, came to this place with her toddler, Yeshua. I thought that if I kept my eyes closed and listened very carefully I could almost hear their foot-steps, and the daily, domestic conversation between Mother and Son. Somewhere, just near here they must have stood with their water jar, two millennia ago… Then I opened my eyes and it all vanished, and I found myself standing at the end of a corridor, by an empty well. I had been warned that Nazareth would be a disappointment, but I did not find it so. Looking into the ruins of a house and standing by the remains of a well, I felt as if I had come to the greatest village in the world.