That Nazareth plays such a central role in the life of Jesus is a very strong pointer to the historicity of Jesus himself. Nazareth has, however, become the victim of various mythicist conspiracies because it is an element in the gospels that indicates the historicity of Jesus. The mythicist argues that there was no historical Jesus, so he has to explain away these elements. The focus of this article is on why Nazareth’s association with Jesus has been a challenge to the mythicist’s hypothesis.
Nazareth is an awkward detail in Jesus’ story. The gospels present what seems to have been a skepticism that the Galilean Messiah would come from Nazareth because of the belief, based on Micah 5:2 from the Old Testament, that he would instead come from Bethlehem. Such sentiments are expressed in the Gospel of John:
“When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” So there was a division in the crowd because of him” (7:40-43).
The gospels of Matthew and Luke find themselves in the unenviable position of having to work around this problem, so Luke gets Jesus awkwardly born in Bethlehem to fulfill a prophecy and the Gospel of Matthew also has Jesus born in Bethlehem but then awkwardly gets him re-settled in Nazareth (also to fulfill a prophecy).
But the way the Gospel of Luke gets Jesus born in Bethlehem is important in its dubious nature. According to Luke, Jesus is born in Bethlehem when his parents have to go there to register for a census: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (2:1). That Joseph was from the lineage of King David who came from Bethlehem and that everyone was required to return to the home of their ancestry to register for the census, Joseph had to return to Bethlehem. It is while Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem that Mary gave birth to Jesus, thus fulfilling prophecy. However, Luke’s mentioning of this census is dubious historically. Luke says that Jesus was born during the rule of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE, but then says that before Jesus was born Joseph had to go back to register in Bethlehem during a census under Quirinius. But the census took place 6 CE. So which is it? Was Jesus born in 4 BCE or 6 CE? Most scholars, except for conservative Christians, believe that this is an honest mistake on behalf of Luke’s author who got mixed up with dates. But there are other reasons why this census is historically dubious. It makes little sense to think that the Romans cared about one’s ancestors living a thousand years earlier. As such, it’s unlikely they would have wanted Joseph or anyone else to return to the home town of some remote ancestor who lived a millennium earlier to register for a census. Further, there was great motivation for Luke’s author to invent this census: he was trying to get Jesus, who he and most people knew came from Nazareth, born in Bethlehem so Jesus could fulfill prophecy as the Messiah. Either way, Luke gets Jesus born in Bethlehem.
How does Matthew’s gospel narrate the birth of Jesus? Matthew simply has Jesus born in Bethlehem during the time of Herod the Great (2:1) to fulfill the prophecy in Micah. We then read that Herod learns that the “King of the Jews” had just been born and so sends his men to kill the newborn Jesus (2:13). Fortunately, Jesus and his family escape to Egypt until Herod’s death after which they return and settle, not in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth (2:19-23). It could be argued that this story is not historical either. Most scholars agree that there are clear and deliberate parallels the author makes between Jesus and Moses, such as the stories of a tyrant trying to kill a child, the child escaping, and a return from Egypt. These details make those elements likely to be symbolic, presenting Jesus as a second Moses. Matthew then gets Jesus back to Nazareth so “that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’” (2:23). But this is likely an invention because no such prophecy can be found in any scriptures of the time and neither does Matthew’s author specify which “prophets” (more than one) supposedly said this. Nonetheless, Matthew has Jesus born in Bethlehem and gets him back to Nazareth. Why does he get him back to Nazareth? Because this was the home town everyone knew he came from (Mark 10:47; John 1:45). After all, Jesus is commonly referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth” for this very reason (Mark 1:24; Luke 18:27; John 1:45, 19:19).
These details surrounding Nazareth are certainly problematic for the mythicists. Why? Because both stories are working hard to counter the objection reflected in John 7:42, which seems to say that if Jesus is the Messiah he came from the wrong place (Nazareth). But the gospels retort that although Jesus may come from Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem as the true Messiah. The issue for the mythicist is this: if Jesus is a mythical figure conjured up in the minds of the gospel authors, why then include Nazareth in the story at all? The Nazareth element serves no theological purpose and, in fact, gets firmly in the way of the claim that Jesus was born as the Messiah because he is from the “wrong” place. Why not simply invent Jesus coming from Bethlehem and call him “Jesus of Bethlehem” and avoid the problem altogether? That is what we would expect if someone was inventing Jesus out of whole cloth. The best explanation is the standard historical one accepted by historians, which is that there really was a historical Jesus and he really did grow up in Nazareth.