From the Shepherd’s Nook: From Nazareth

Advent season provokes a question: why didn’t Jesus stay in Bethlehem after he was born? It would have been smarter for him to be raised there. Bethlehem had some proud history. Bethlehem could boast of Boaz, Ruth, and Jesse. David was anointed king by the prophet Samuel in Bethlehem. Bethlehem looked good on the resume. Yet, Jesus grew up in the hill country, in Nazareth of Galilee. Not only does the town of Nazareth not get good marks in the New Testament—the townspeople revolted against Jesus’ first sermon and tried to throw him off a cliff—some scholars strongly suggest there was no Nazareth at all in Jesus’s time. He was from “nowhereville.”

How can these ideas about Jesus help us understand Advent/Christmas? 

In Mark 1, Mark contrasts two geographical areas from which people came to John the Baptist for baptism. In verse 5 we read of massive amounts of people coming north to the Jordan River area from Jerusalem and Judea. By contrast, in verse 9 we read of Jesus coming south from “Nazareth of Galilee” to meet and be baptized by his cousin John. Unless you know the social milieu, you will miss the tension in these seemingly insignificant geographical notations. A mass of people come from “the developed” areas, the closer-to-God areas, the areas of Zion, the area of the Temple, and the area where there were some very wealthy Jews. Jerusalem was Ivy League, double-shot, mocha-latte country, filled with PBS clientele. Decked-out BMWs were not uncommon.

Jesus, on the other hand, was from Hicksville. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was asked about Jesus’ town. Moonshine, perhaps. Jesus was raised in the equivalent of Appalachian “hollers.” A “holler”, a variant of “hollow,” is a small valley between hills in rural American South. Jesus was poor and from a poor family, a country bumpkin. Nazareth was hand-plow and ox country, cornbread and brown beans country. Jesus was dumb as a stump according to the “edgycated” ones in Jerusalem. Dangerously, demonically dumb according to some. People from Galilee had an accent, a northern drawl. Peter, Jesus’ disciple, was identified by it (Matthew 26:73). Peter probably said, “Ah tell ewe, ah jes’ don’t know such a feller as zat dare Jeezus, dagnabbit!”  Galilee was a region known to be disinterested in and ignorant of Torah (God’s holy Law). This was a sorry stereotype, of course, but it stuck to Jesus. He was considered a “no name” (see John 9:29) from across the tracks, perhaps, even born out of wedlock. He was conceived out of wedlock, for sure. One rabbi, Johanan ben Zakkai, once lamented, “Galilee, Galilee, you hate the Torah; your end will be seizure by Romans!” Not good.

Jerusalem. Judea. Nazareth. Galilee. The whole world seemed to converge at the Jordan River. But of all the ones that John the Baptist baptized in the Jordan, only one saw the heavens ripped open, saw the Spirit gently floating down on him like a dove, and only one heard a voice from heaven saying, “You are My Son, whom I chose. With you I am outrageously delighted.” Yep. It was the hick…from Nazareth…of Galilee. Corncob Holler.

So much for God favoring smart, cool, people who live in gated communities and suburbs and who drive Hummers and other SUVs to latte-making cafes; who read New Yorker and discuss Mozart. God seems to dig mule-and-wagon types with missing teeth and tobacco breath and who read the Sears catalogue and drink black Folgers from cracked cups and say things like “Jeet yet?,” which being interpreted means, “Did you eat, yet?” I imagine that Jesus would have liked country music that laments the loss of all that is precious…like the dog, the double-wide, the pick-‘em-up truck and the boot-scootin’ woman. Advent—literally a “down-to-earth” miracle for us to ponder this season.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Scott Gay

    North Bloomfield, Ohio here. We’re gated only by wetlands. Our high school graduated 18 last year( 90% rate). When I was camping in northern Quebec with my oldest son, there was only country music in French.
    For a take on why a person today didn’t stay in a city that looks good on a resume, I highly recommend reading “Leaving Washington”(October 9, 2012) by Patrick Deneen( a Notre Dame professor).

  • Rodney Reeves

    The film, “Lincoln,” came to mind as I read this post.

  • Tim Atwater

    There’s a good point here about the unexpected and regional stereotypes.
    I am guessing it is a bit hyperbolically over-stated here to make the point stand out.

    In real life perhaps Galilee was like Northern New England, where we listened to country and Mozart, drank the pretty good green mountain coffee (in every gas station convenience store now) and read some of the best county weeklies in the country… (don’t if the Barton Chronicle has a website but… if you’re ever in VT’s northeast kingdom pick it up…) More poets per capita than any state in the union… And some of them have been pulp wood cutters who drove old pickups… after dropping out from Union in NYC…
    (yes also a stereotype, even if true to life….)

    The really funny part is how can anyone who reads the gospels for any length of time still be surprised by God bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly?

  • phil_style

    It’s interesting to me that Matthew, seems to focus on the high elements of Jesus’ birth with his Bethlehem Origins (scarcely mentioning Nazareth) and the arrival of the Maji bearing Kingly gifts seems to contrast so much with Luke (and Mark) who focuse more on the lowly elements (shepherds instead of Maji, Nazareth as the place of origins with Bethlehem just thrown in for good measure)…

  • Jim

    Having lived in NE Tennessee for 15 years and raised in GA, I must say…that was GREAT…

    Wonder if they ever asked Jesus: “How’s your mama’nem?”

  • Tim Atwater

    Phil, I think Matthew is plenty ironic in depicting the Magi as well-meaning but clueless — inadvertently directing Herod to the proximity of the holy family… His stark depiction of the slaughter of the innocents drives the point home…
    And you’re right that this is how we often hear it — but probably we’re not that into the whole of Micah from whence the Bethlehem quote, with his bitter diatribal sermon series against the ruling elite of the city… cannibalizing the peasantry… Micah’s pastoral imagery is a masterpiece of social realism that still rings true for much of the world’s rural areas –and beautiful poetry to boot… (long before Wendell Berry, Michah WAS…)

  • TJJ

    Yes, Jesus did not go to Harvard, was not Episcapalian, not from the east coast. At best Galilee was fly over county, at worst Hazard Ky. But yet, Jesus could read, which most in Galilee or anywhere, but Galilee especially, could not. And if Jesus could also write, which is at least a possible inference from John 8:6, 8, if that manuscript tradition has historical grounding, then Jesus was in very rare and exclusive company indeed, for anywhere in the ancient world. That and his rhetorical skills and scriptural/theological depth and mastery to boot, does go far to explain why he was taken as serious as he was by the religious and political elite. He was not exactly a “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” guy. Who impacted things and people by sheer passion and determination despite his deficiancies. He was much more like the ultimate outsider, who commands attention and impact for the very reason that he comes out of nowhere but is a match

  • TJJ

    in every way with any and all insiders.

  • Jeff Y

    First, there is No Way Jesus would have liked Country Music. Just no way. ;)

    Second, the rest of the article is very good, of course, and the point and illustrations are exceptional and potent.

    Third, that said, as TJJ notes, Jesus was the outsider. Interestingly enough the “red-neck” mentality is its own form of “insider-ness.” It often has its own ‘chip on the shoulder’ mentality of pride. I know, I’ve lived in the south in many rural situations for several years. What many in the redneck south would say is, “Can anything good come out of a northern city?”

    This problem reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ great essay on the “Inner Ring” mentality – it plagues everyone – even supposed outsiders. This is illustrated so well in the disciples. They were “outsiders” – unappreciated and unaccepted by the religious elites. Yet, they also had their own version of being “insiders” (Who would be first? James & John rebuking a person who performed miracles but was not “one of them.”). Indeed, the “inner ring” mentality (or “insider-ness”) is a deep-seated plague on us all.


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