How could this not be the same for Jesus, the man from Nazareth in the region of Galilee? As Christians we tend to focus more on the Messianic figure who came to save us from our sins, and while that is certainly the most important part of His life we sometimes forget that He came to us as one of us, a man. He has a life story and while we may not be able to know as much about Him as we like there is enough information about life in the area where He grew up to give us some idea of the world in which He existed.
There are so many of us who wonder about his teen and young adult years and while that would be interesting to know there is certainly much more that we can explore. What was it like to be from such a small town? What was it like to come from a small family? How did it feel not to come from wealth and privilege? What was it like to hear stories of the dangers that your family faced prior to and right after your birth? What was it like to live in a nation that was occupied by a foreign power? How did it feel to be so different from those around you? Finally, how many of us also have a story for these same questions?
The last question is most important because we have all had that experience of having some kind of mentor in our lives, perhaps even a famous person that we have followed for years whose story is similar to ours. A person whose story is like our own and for that reason alone, we feel a deep connection to them. What if we found similar connections with the same man who was also the God of the universe? How much would that change our prayer life? How would that impact the way we receive the Eucharist? Could we ever pray specific Mysteries of the Rosary in the same way? In other words, could it draw us even closer to Jesus just based on the fact that we have found a deeper human connection with Him?
History, Geography & Culture
The scriptures tell us that Nazareth was the home of Mary (Luke 1:26) and the place where Jesus grew up (Matt 13:54, Luke 4:16, Luke 2:4 & Matt 2:23). It was seen as an insignificant agricultural village not far from the major trade route to Egypt known as the Via Maris. Right away, those of us from small towns can relate to Jesus' upbringing in the sense that we too have probably had been questioned as to why we would live in such an area or perhaps have been criticized for our simple lifestyle.
The fact that Jesus came from Nazareth led Nathanial to question His legitimacy with these words from John 1:46: Can anything good come from Nazareth? While many people may be quick to criticize those from a small town perhaps Nazareth was the perfect place for the Messiah to come from based on a Hebrew inscription found at Caesarea that lists Nazareth as one of the villages in which the priestly division resided after the Jewish revolt (see Luke 1:8-9). The influence of such priests is without a doubt due to the piety attributed to the people of Nazareth. This is best displayed in the fact that it is the only Jewish settlement where archaeologists have never discovered any pagan remains.
This little town in Galilee was never mentioned in the Old Testament but the pious presence within the community was perhaps the perfect setting for Mary and Joseph. The holiness that had to be a part of their daily lives certainly produced a piety that was necessary to raise their divine Son while also giving them the spiritual wisdom to receive specific messages from heaven. After all, this is the place where our Blessed Mother experienced the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) as well as the place where Joseph had his dream that encouraged him to take our Blessed Mother and Jesus into his home (Matthew 1:18-25). In other words, was there a better place during that time and place to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit?
These are things we can relate to for a number of reasons. Every town has its issues but not every town has the same values. Many people tend to notice that small towns have a greater sense of community. Aside from that, they also have less distractions so perhaps this is the best environment to live out one's faith. After all, is it not common for people from the big city to find places for retreats that provide some sense of quiet or distance from the metropolitan life?
We also see people judged more by where they are from rather than what they can do along with their values and principles. What did Nathanial mean when he questioned the possibility of anything good coming from Nazareth? Was there a natural assumption that the Messiah would come from Jerusalem simply because it was the location of the Temple? We tend to fall into the same way of thinking today, which is rather interesting since we now have a President-elect who is from the state of Delaware who defeated the incumbent from New York. The lesson here, look at the person for who they are and not where they are from.
Therefore, in terms of where Jesus came from, Nazareth was the perfect place.
The region of Galilee is in the northern territory where Jews began to settle in 164 BC following the Maccabean revolt. It is also the place where Jesus conducted a major part of His ministry. His upbringing and early ministry took place in Nazareth, which is in lower Galilee while most of His public ministry occurred in Capernaeum, which is located in the northwestern end of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew identified Capernaeum as Jesus' home (Matthew 9:1).
It is said that Judaism assumed its definitive form there as it produced the Mishnah, which is a colletion of Rabbinic laws that covered everything from agricultural tithes, public feasts, marriage, torts, sacrifices at the Temple and ritual purity. The region also produced the Palestinian Talmud, which is one of two long collections of Jewish religious literature.
In other words, Jesus came from a region that was had a strong sense of order, which He addressed when He spoke of fulfilling the Law in Matthew 5:17-18: Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.
Jesus could not speak of the true meaning of the Law if He wasn't familiar with the Law itself. Yes, there are those who would speak of His divine nature as part of the Godhead who delivered the Law to Moses but it is also rather interesting to see that He comes from a region where many scholars wrote extensively on the application of these laws.
Many of us experience such order in various places from taking classes with strict teachers, coaches with teams who followed specific guidelines to professions that require its employees to adhere to certain rules to not only increase production but to also protect the employee and the company from harm. In each case, the group can only work effectively if they not only follow the rules but buy into those rules.
Even if the focus was on Jesus being from the region of Galilee rather than the town of Nazareth it would still not spare Him from some type of suspicion. The Gospel of John (1:46 and 7:52) demonstrate this attitude of the Jews from Jerusalem and Judea towards those from Galilee.
In other words, like many of us, Jesus was judged based on where He was from. That would also include the way He looked and the way He lived. This is a challenging part of the human experience and something we can take to Jesus in prayer knowing that He knows this from firsthand experience.
Most of us might assume that Jesus' trade was similar to what carpenters do today but that was not the case. According to Isaiah 44:13-17, carpenters planted, tended to and cut down the trees with which they worked. That meant that they were responsible for more than gathering the necessary supplies to do their work as they had to provide it for themselves.
Carpenters followed in their father's footsteps as it was not a profession that was sought by educated men. It was certainly hard and laborious work as excavations have uncovered tools such as an axe, saw, chisel, hammer, drills and nails. Such tools were needed as carpenters built homes while also making and repairing stools, tables, benches, cabinets, doors, window frames, plows, yokes and many other essential items. Therefore, when we create artistic depictions of Jesus, while skin color seems to be a point of debate for some I think it is fair to say that the one thing we can all agree is that Jesus was probably quite muscular.
This is why many were surprised at Jesus the teacher as was displayed in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3. Such wisdom was not normally displayed by men of this trade so like many of us, Jesus was labeled based on what He did to make a living.
Many of us have been looked upon with suspicion based on our livelihoods or perhaps even our worldviews or affiliations. How many times were labels given to us by those who knew nothing more than what we did for a living? Yes, Jesus would know that same feeling and it had to hurt to receive such reactions since the wisdom He displayed was for the benefit of all, including those who treated Him in this way.
Trades and Professions
Hundreds of Galileans lived in small towns and villages scattered throughout the countryside. They lived in modest homes made of mud brick that were clustered together on the side of a hill. Local craftsmen included carpenters, potters, weavers, blacksmiths and shoemakers who had small one room shops. Most of these craftsmen were assisted by their son who also acted as their apprentice. Many of them were also farmers and shepherds with many Galileans rarely traveling more than a day's journey from home. They might visit the Holy City once a year in the same way that Joseph took his family for Passover (Luke 2:41).
Each of these workers had to know of the effort that each person put into their crafts. Since these small shops were usually at the edge of the marketplace they had the chance to not only admire each other's work but also see how everyone contributes to the communities that they lived in. Jesus was a part of such a community and therefore witnessed the progress these communities made through their collective efforts.
Aside from that, Jesus also used this experience when it came to teaching the crowds. Rebecca Sodergren tells us that "(many of) Jesus' parables sometimes focused on day laborers." When one reads through such parables we can see the detail that Jesus uses to make His point, which had to resonate more than what they might have heard from the more learned teachers of the Law who did not live the same lives as most of the people.
Sadly, there are still those who look at laborers with suspicion or with some form of elitism. In fact, young people at times base their future choices on both going to college and pursuing some reputable career that may not be the calling of their heart because of the status that they think it will bring. Meanwhile, we continue to fall short in seeing the contributions that these laborers make to our world based on what we have been taught in terms of who deserves to be treated with greater reverence.
Why is this so? How much do we really know about the plumber or electrician? They certainly went to school and are most likely literate. For all we know, they might spend a lot of their down time reading, watching the news, spending time helping their kids with homework....learning! All one has to do is sit down and have a conversation with such people to see what I am talking about. So how is it not possible that this carpenter from Nazareth might know what He is talking about when it comes to the Kingdom of God?
Religious Life, Education and Diet
The faith life of these people was also of great importance. After dinner the men gathered in local synagogues for evening services. There they would not only pray but also read and discuss the scriptures. During the day young boys went to school at the synagogues. Most of the boys learned ancient Hebrew even though Aramaic was the common language of the people.
Jesus most likely joined Joseph for evening prayer at the synagogue and one could only imagine the impact this had on the young man. After all, this is not only the same man who listened to the voice of the angel who told him to take Mary into his home but already had a fervor of faith in his heart that allowed him to trust that voice. Now this same man is raising the boy that Mary carried within her womb and was not only including him in this daily practice but also with the understanding of why it had to be done. Joseph knew who Jesus was and the responsibility he carried to help raise this young boy to become the man that God intended for Him to be.
We already discussed earlier the piety of the people from Nazareth...and this is where Jesus attended daily prayer services in synagogues, learning from priests who led a community that was never corrupted by the influence of paganism. Yet, there were those who questioned anything Jesus had to say simply because of where He was from? Amazing!
What impact would it have today for a father to take his son to church? For a son to see his father pray on a regular basis? Once again, we can look not only to the example Jesus set in His ministry but also the example that was given to Him by His earthly father.
Jesus' family were not a part of the Jewish aristocracy that lived well thanks to the appointments that were given out by their Roman rulers. Therefore, they most likely ate meat only on holidays, which was anything from roasted lamb or goat, small fowl such as pigeons, salted fish from the Sea of Galilee or boiled chicken from a local farm. Their regular diet included beans, lentils, cucumbers, leeks, onions, garlic, lettuces, figs, apricots, olives among many other things, which of course included bread most likely made from ground legumes along with grains.
Such a simple diet certainly suggests that time spent eating with one's family members had to be an important part of one's day. This is certainly something we can relate to, especially when we think of those moments of eating comfort food with our family members and friends, our daily lunches with our co-workers along with those important discussions we have over a meal. We would certainly be correct in thinking that Jesus had some of His most important discussions with His own disciples during a meal, which of course was best demonstrated at The Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-38 and John 13:1-30).
There is only one Messiah and such a person was going to be different from the rest of us. The pressure was enormous due to the expectations from the people alone without thinking about the purpose of such a mission. Then there would certainly be the threats that one would have to endure from those who would be threatened by this person's appearance.
The expectations from the people were based on themes and beliefs that originated in early Israelite religion along with ideas that came from extra biblical and/or apocryphal sources. Regardless of how messianic ideas developed it is clear that there were no consistent conceptions. Of course, there were many popular ideas such as the restoration of Israel and/or the establishment of an earthly paradise. Further, the Messiah himself was believed by many to be a pre-existent superhuman being who would come from heaven that will conqueror the nations and rule the earthly kingdom.
Then comes this humble carpenter from Nazareth.
For years theologians and Christians have speculated of the conversations Mary and Joseph had with Jesus about who He was along with His future mission. Of course, that would include stories from their past such as The Flight to Egypt in Matthew 2:13-15 when they had to endure the first of many threats that could come Jesus' way, which would serve as a preview of one of many struggles Jesus would face during His earthly ministry.
Jesus endured rejection (Luke 4:16-30) and abandonment (John 6:60-66) and then told His own followers that they too were to expect such things (Matthew 10:16-25). Did this sound anything like the Messianic expectations that had long been discussed by the Jewish people? No, but that is the difference between truth and belief. Still, Jesus had to endure the struggles that would come from not fulfilling the expectations of many.
Speaking of struggles, one could only wonder how much Jesus endured during the temptation in the desert. The Gospels tell us that He was hungry at the end of His fast (Matthew 4:2 and Luke 4:2). The Gospel of Matthew tells us that He fasted for forty days, which in biblical language means an adequate amount of time. Some may ask adequate for what and that is where I would suggest that He was out in the desert long enough to be vulnerable to Satan's temptations.
Is that not in fact something we also encounter in our lives? Take for example, the opportunity to steal money. In most cases, I would argue that most of us would not do such a thing or at least think more about why we shouldn't do it. But would that be the case if we were facing financial hardships? Would that not be a moment when we might try to find reasons to take money that doesn't belong to us since we can find a good use for it? Therefore, would Jesus find reasons to turn stone to bread if He was in fact hungry?
That is the nice thing about speculation is that we can do so by applying real life experiences to the discussion. It is even better when an artist does so in a way where we can highlight some specific circumstances that really make us think about why we might be prone to do certain things that are not in our character. Take for example the temptation scene from the film Jesus when our Lord was played by Jeremy Sisto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ova6mIIZPto
How does one not see this scene and not appreciate Jesus' commitment to God's will? Yes, we can remind ourselves that He was both God and man but He was still a man that endured the same struggles we encounter and showed us how to do things the right way.
I want share a story from my early days of teaching. It was Back to School Night and I recall a student telling me earlier in the day that his father would come in and most likely ask a ton of awkward questions. I laughed aloud when the student apologized to me beforehand. It didn't take long for me to discover who his father was as he walked into a class filled with parents and started with his inquiries. I could see the irritation from some parents as he never gave me a chance to start with my presentation. It got even worse when he asked me about a class that I was not teaching at the time: If this is a Catholic school, why do you have a class called World Religions? I simply told him that I am not in charge of curriculum and that he should go and speak to the teacher of that course, whose classroom was down the hallway.
He wasn't done. Okay then, what would you say if a student asked you what was so different about our religion compared to other religions? Oh man....really?! You had to ask this young twenty something year old teacher that question in a classroom full of parents? Now the irritated parents began to murmur as they too were intrigued by his question. That was when I took a look around the room and noticed the number of parents who were dressed in suits, scrubs and other professional attire; educated people who had obviously come from work to see their children's teachers. And now I had to prove to all of them that they were spending their money well on tuition and other fees.
Thank God for the influence of the Holy Spirit: Jesus never asked anything of His followers that He Himself did not do.
Yes, the parents commended me on my answer, including the father with all of the questions. For years I focused on the fact that Jesus not only told His followers to expect to be persecuted and killed for what they did for the Kingdom of God but also endured those harsh realities Himself. But as I reflected on this blog I realized that my answer was far more than that. Jesus had a family, had to learn various skills so He could work, had a specific diet based on what was available, lived in a world that was occupied by harsh rulers and so much more...before He would go out and endure all the trials and tribulations of His ministry.
So what does that really say about the fact that the God of the universe came to us as one of us? What does that say about the value of a human being? What does that say about us being able to relate to Him knowing that He knows that much about us and mind you, not just from His omniscience but from the fact that He also lived it?
He was not in some kind of parallel existence as He too lived in this broken world. He was right there with us, living the same struggles. Yes, we speak of Jesus being without sin but how many times have we all succeeded in doing the right thing? Yes, all of us have done it, which shows that it can be done, especially when we allow God's grace to empower us to do His will.
Jesus is always there to show us the way and if we look hard enough we can see that He did that long before He started His earthly ministry.
BA & MA in Religious Studies from Cal State Long Beach
Certified Through the Theology of the Body Institute
Co-Founder of Humana Corpus Dignitate
BA & MA in Religious Studies from Cal State Long Beach
Certified Through the Theology of the Body Institute
Co-Founder of Humana Corpus Dignitate
- Achtemeier, Paul J. (General Editor). Harper's Bible Dictionary. Harper San Francisco 1985 (pgs. 156-157, 320-330, 475-476, 642, 689 & 1016)
- McKenzie, John L. S. J. Dictionary of the Bible MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. New York 1965 (pgs. 123, 293-294, 571-572, 607-608)
- Wright, G. Ernest ) Principal Adviser and Editorial Consultant). Great People of the Bible and How They Lived. The Reader's Digest Association Inc. Pleasantville, NY 1974 (pgs. 309-312, 322-325, 331)