The Return to Nazareth

Anthony Zimmerman
February 17, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead." And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a Nazarene" (Mt 2: 19-23).

A firm date in history is the death of Herod in the spring of 4 AD, which tells us that the reckoning of Dionysius Exiguus that set the date of Christ's birth is more than four years off (see e.g. The Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 67). Jesus was therefore born a bit more than four years earlier than the date that Dionysius set, and which we now follow. How long Jesus lived in Egypt we do not know from historical records, but we may surmise that it was for several years, and that by this time He had begun to walk and to speak. Now he would often laugh as two year babies do, and ask His mother and father what is this and what is that. Did He perhaps learn to speak Greek, besides Aramaic? The Jewish colonies in Egypt were at Heliopolis and Alexandria. Tourists today are shown a tree in Heliopolis under which Mary is said to have rested (see A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Nelson, No. 713 g).

History indicates that the angel had good reasons to direct Joseph away from Judea where Archelaus ruled, because he was indeed a failure as ruler. "His government was so unsatisfactory that he was deposed and exiled to Gaul in A.D. 6" (see The Jerome Biblical Commentary, NT, p. 67).

The Holy Family living in Nazareth

And how did the Holy Family live in Nazareth? The town had a population of perhaps 1600-2000 inhabitants at the time of Jesus. When touring the town some years ago, the guide took us to the spot where the Holy Family reputedly lived in their day. A present structure in the upper level of the town is said to be in the same place where the house of the Holy Family had once been located. That house had probably been built around an inner court yard, where relatives lived closely together as an extended family. Not far away was the Synagogue. Very likely the Holy Family attended the Synagogue services faithfully on the Sabbath, and also very likely, Jesus attended the Synod school to learn letters and the reading of the Bible. He shows Himself to be totally acquainted with services at the Synagogue in this passage of St. Luke's Gospel.

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" (Luke 4:16-22).

We get the picture that He had learned how to handle the scrolls very well, and that He had no trouble finding the passage that He wanted to read. This suggests that He had been a diligent student when in the school of the synagogue. It also suggests that He had learned to speak well and with a pleasant and attractive demeanor, reflecting surely the graciousness of His parents, and perhaps some training at the school. Mary's voice was melodious, the kind that made John the Baptist leap for joy in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, when Mary's voice sounded in his ears.

About a half mile away, down the hill in the lower part of Nazareth, is what is called "Mary's well" where she likely did her laundry, chatted with the town folks, and when finished, carried the laundry and a supply of drinking water back up the hill. She might have Jesus and His cousins of the extended family in tow, to whom she taught good manners, coaxed them to help with the work, and to whom she pointed out the interesting things of the town and of nature. Water for household use was probably rain water stored in a cistern.

Tour guides at Nazareth today point to a place across town from the ancient synagogue where the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is commemorated. It is a crypt in the lower floor of the Church of the Annunciation. Was this the location of the home of Mary and her family before she moved in with Joseph? And not far from there is an underground room, quite spacious, which is commemorated as the work shop of Joseph the Carpenter. It was probably above ground when Joseph worked there. We get the picture, then, of Mary keeping house, of Joseph working at his shop, and of Jesus being with one or the other during the daylight hours before the family joined for the evening meal. When we read in the Gospel how Jesus loved to point out the beauty of the lilies of the field, the signs at sunset and sunrise that predicted weather, the instinctive behavior of birds, the weeds mixed with wheat in the fields, we get the impression that Jesus had a very happy childhood, and that His parents loved home-life, and that they had a good relationship with the town folks.

The "brothers" of Jesus

We read about the "brothers of the Lord" in the Bible. They cannot have been blood brothers, as Matthew and Luke point out carefully. Following Jewish usage of the word "brothers," they were cousins and members of the extended family. Let us pause to have a look at these "brothers of the Lord" whom Mary and Joseph also nurtured to some extent. They must have been greatly attached to Mary, for we find them in her company when they attended one of the talks of Jesus during His Public Life:

While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Mt 12:46-50).

Mary must have had an extraordinary mother-like influence on the "brothers of Jesus" who would naturally be skeptical about the divinity of Christ, or would want Him to become an aggressive leader and warrior to found a kingdom in which they would have a prominent place.

Note that Jesus asks who His "brothers" are, then goes on to explain that "whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother." The extended family at Nazareth must have had not only boys but also girls, and Jesus grew up together with them. Despite the usual contestation of the rowdy boys and the "tattle tale" girls, of the extended family, the passage lets it shine through that he loved His "brothers and sisters" much as He loved His mother.

Immediately following the wedding feast at Cana, the "brothers of Jesus" spent some time with Mary, with Jesus, and the first disciples at Capernaum: "After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples; and there they stayed for a few days" (John 2:19). The brothers would be slower to believe in Him than the disciples, as John relates:

So his brothers said to him, "Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples may see the works you are doing. For no man works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world." For even his brothers did not believe in him. (John 7:3-4).

However, the "brothers" (does the word include "sisters"?) appeared again, and with Mary, after the Ascension, in the Upper Room: "All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers" (Acts 1:14). These brothers then received the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and at least some of them devoted their lives thereafter to the preaching of the Gospel, as we can gather from the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: "Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a sister believer, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?" (1 Cor 5:9). (My translation. Most modern English translations wrongly translate "sister believer" as wife, which is not correct.) Thanks largely to Mary, then, she kept the family in which Jesus had been formed at Nazareth as a close-knit group, some of whom became not only believers in Jesus, but also full time and celibate preachers of the Faith. She had been patient with them and had given them all the time they needed to find this faith, much as Jesus worked three years with the Apostles, although He sometimes scolded them for being so slow to catch on to the reality of His message. Happy the "brothers" and "sisters" of Jesus whom Mary kept in tow, who under her motherly influence became His disciples, and some of whom even became full-time missionaries in the new Church. One of the brothers was James, the first bishop of Jerusalem.