“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael wonders aloud in today’s passage, the timing of which once again proves to me God’s continued guidance of us through Scripture.
Just a few days ago, the president of the United States allegedly referred to certain countries as shitholes, implying that the people from said countries are, well, the shit that fills the holes. Both Nathanael’s question and the president’s reported statement have the same underlying factor: assumptions about an area and a people they do not know or understand.
Settlement in the area called Nazareth^ began during the Middle Bronze Age and continued through the Iron Age. Archaeology tells us this, as the great Jewish historian Josephus mentions nothing of Nazareth. It appears that the area was uninhabited after the Assyrians conquered the North in 722 BCE, but by the time of the Hasmonean Dynasty (c. second century BCE), there was a population of about five hundred souls.
Jesus lived in what St. Jerome terms a viculus, a Latin word that can describe both a small village or an alley. The Galilee—think of it as a province in which Nazareth is situated—was already looked upon with a bit of side-eye from those in Judea. Galilee was far from Jerusalem and was populated by persons who practiced Judaism in ways that were different from those in the South. Sadly, those customs have been lost to history, but we know enough to know that Nazareth was rarely used as a positive word. Where is he from? Nazareth? Oh, I see…
There is an irony to this text that can only be appreciated with the unfolding of time and a little insider knowledge.
Philip is the fourth disciple to be called, according to the Gospel of John. They are in the Galilean town of Bethsaida, and Philip goes looking for Nathanael, an apparent friend, and says to him: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.” This is curious phrasing. Andrew, just a few verses before today’s passage, tells his brother Simon, whom Jesus renames Cephas, or Rock, that the Messiah, the Anointed One, has been identified.
But that’s not what happens here. No, Philip makes an important, but bold claim: Jesus is the fulfillment of all prophecy from the Hebrew Bible. He cites no book, no chapter, no verse. This Jesus, Philip tells his friend, is the real deal.
Nathanael is uncertain, as we’ve discussed. He is simply reflecting the attitudes of his time. In just a few chapters, Nicodemus will be queried by the chief priests and Pharisees after asking that Jesus be extended equal justice: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”
Philip does not give Nathanael an explanation or a defense of Nazareth, he simply says, “Come and see.” But it is he who is seen by Jesus, who in John’s gospel is more God than man, even before Nathanael knows Jesus’ name. Nate responds by extending two more important Christological titles: Son of God and King of Israel. Can any good come out of Nazareth? How does Messiah, Son of God, King of Israel, and fulfiller of all prophecy grab ya’?
Above, I wrote that there is an irony to this text that can only be appreciated in the fullness of time and with some insider baseball. I submit to you that Nathanael’s call story largely is about needing to scratch beneath the surface. Don’t assume you know a place or its people if you are not from there; don’t rely on the prejudiced assumptions of others as a basis for your behavior. God sees you, the text says, from the most surprising of places.
For much of modern biblical studies, Nazareth in the first century has been considered a backwater burg. It was a place one left, not a place from which one came. But archaeology began to change that opinion in the late nineteenth century. A Neanderthal skull was discovered in 1934, dating human occupation to the Middle Bronze Age. Beneath the present-day Church of St. Joseph and the Church of the Annunciation are two caves that contain great marvels. The first, a painted plaster cross and a mosaicked floor with prayers to Jesus in Greek that likely date from before the time of Constantine (c. 4th century).
Even more telling, there is evidence of an original building constructed over the caves; the building was situated north-south, toward Jerusalem. It was likely a Jewish–Christian synagogue, again sparking heated debate regarding the split between Judaism and Christianity.
Also uncovered was a mikvah, a ritual Jewish bath, dating close to the second century. By the fifth century, the whole lot was buried as a church and monastery, likely a pilgrimage stop by the sixth century, was built and dedicated.
See what happens when we dig beneath the surface? See what comes up when we don’t regard a place as a crap–hole with people to match? We find magnificent things.
It is important to remember that Jesus was born on the periphery, that the circumstances of his life helped him to understand intimately the challenges and stumbling blocks that assumptions can produce.
It is also important to remember that Jesus tells us, what we do for the least of these among us we also do to Jesus. We do to God.
My own personal political feelings aside, the Revised Common Lectionary is leading millions of Christians to this story today. That can’t just be a coincidence. Whether or not we think the president actually said the horribly dismissive and presumptive words, as Christians we should be stopped short that this text has come up now.
If ever we wonder whether or not scripture is still relevant, moments like this, at least for me, banish all doubt. Christian denominations and individuals around the world are stepping up. They are saying, “We know that good comes out of Nazareth.
When Nathanael saw Jesus and understood him, Nathanael not only changed his opinion but also started speaking up. Yeah, this guy from Nazareth. I’m telling ya’. Not what you expected, huh? Me neither, but I think that says a lot about our limits and God’s expansiveness, no?
I also like to imagine that there was some pride among the inhabitants of Nazareth. Not all, as Jesus was rejected at home and abroad. But I like to think about the little kids who suddenly stood a little taller, felt a little more seen because someone was willing to challenge the notion that Nazareth, and her peoples, were worthless. May we all remember this before we assume things about others that could cause them pain, or to feel unseen, or before we shut our own hearts to the work that God so often does in unexpected places. Amen.
^I relied heavily on the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary entries for archaeological information regarding both Galilee and Nazareth. Any errors or incomplete assessment of the evidence are mine alone.