PEOPLE IN NAZARETH
Bible Study Resource
Nazareth was an insignificant village that would have passed from history without a single mention, were it not for the fact that it was Jesus’ home town, the place where his family lived and where he grew up.
As far as we can guess the people were ordinary villagers, living off their land and cattle and hoping to get through life without too much trouble.
They were Jewish, traditional, conservative.
They probably did not like the fact that nearby was Sepphoris, a sophisticated, wealthy city very much affected by Greek culture. It had statues, mosaics, an amphitheater, Greek-style buildings, and admiration for all things Greek.
People in Nazareth saw this as letting down the side – betraying the long history of Judaism and adopting foreign ways. They preferred the old ways -
- traditional Jewish stories rather than Greek myths
- their honest stone and brick housesrather than fancy Greco-Roman mansions,
- a God-fearing way of life rather than sophistication.
The little village had a population of about 400-600; estimates vary. But it was small enough for everyone to know everyone else. Mary and Joseph were friends since childhood. The village was probably dominated by two or three large extended families.
The people were physically strong, made robust by generations of hard work and simple food. They were probably mentally strong as well. Loyalty to one’s family was admired, and indeed expected.
The language they spoke was Aramaic. Jesus composed the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. If you have heard the Prayer said in its original language, you will hear a rhythmic poem rather than plain prose, as it is in English.
Of course there was no TV in ancient Nazareth, no books, no films. The only daily form of entertainment was story-telling – but not in the form of a straight narrative as you find in the Bible. Story-telling in ancient Nazareth involved acting, improvisation, singing and movement/dancing. Everyone was expected to take part. This was not a spectator sport.
So the people of Nazareth knew the ancient Jewish stories by heart and explored them in various ways.
Nazareth at the time of Jesus’ birth may have had a rudimentary synagogue – this form of worship was in its infancy. By the time he was an adult, there was a specially designated building where people went to read the Torah and discuss it.
Men could read, women probably did not. Young Jewish men were expected to be able to read the Torah. The Jewish queen Salome Alexandra had made it compulsory for all Jewish boys to learn reading, so that no man would be ignorant of the great Jewish stories.
This seems to exclude women, and it did. On the other hand, Jewish culture at this stage was largely oral, with long slabs of text memorised and recited. Women had their own stories and culture, which they passed on, orally, from generation to generation. This is how Mary of Nazareth knew the Torah – by heart. She was her son’s first teacher.
RICH OR POOR?
The people of Nazareth were not rich like some of the people in nearby Sepphoris, but neither were they abjectly poor.
The land in Galilee was rich agricultural country, and the diet was healthy.
They wove and sewed all their own clothes, and lived in simple houses which hardly altered from generation to generation.
Their main concern was probably fear of events in the outside world. Excavations at Nazareth have shown a concealed underground cavern probably built as a hidey-hole in the time leading up to the Jewish revolt. The people of Jesus’ village had much to fear from the Romans in the century when Jesus lived and died.