The Gospel according to Matthew is the oldest text of the New Testament translated directly from Aramaic (the language spoken in Galilee at the time of Jesus) to modern times.
The translation of the Septuagint (LXX) into Classical Greek, however, was the cause of one of the greatest misunderstandings in the history of Christianity, according to which the title “Jesus the Nazarene” has some reference to the city of Nazareth, instead of the vow to be a nazir (and that John the Baptist, his cousin and forerunner, had also made).
The term Nazarene (nazoraios in the original Greek text) does not mean “from the city of Nazareth”, but instead refers to a vow, the oldest reported by the Bible (Book of Numbers 6, 1-21 and Book of Judges 13, 1-14) and probably the first translators did not accept because it tied too much the Messiah of the nascent Christianity to the Jewish tradition.
In Christianity, the topic “being a Nazarene”, as represented by Mark and Luke, is based on a transliteration effect from the Aramaic to Greek (Ar. Nozorai – Gr. Nazoraios, Ebr. Nozri), through which an attempt was made to associate the title itself with the city of Nazareth in Galilee (whose existence in the 1st century is absolutely baseless).
The Hebrew expression for Nazareth is NZRT, which has been referred to as Nazrat or Nazeret, whereas the Greek expression “Iesous ò Nazoraios” derives from the Aramaic Nazorai which is the name of the vow and has nothing to do with Nazareth as a place.
The evangelical tradition states that Jesus grew up in the Galilee hills, in Nazareth, a village with a synagogue and artisan workshops, on top of a mountain, near a cliff, near the Lake of Tiberias and (according to some evangelical details that describe some of Jesus’ movements) to the east of the lake, in the Golan. But in Nazareth there are no ruins of a settlement and synagogue from the time of Christ, nor is it located on top of a mountain or near an edge of a cliff, and 35 km away from Lake Tiberias.
Moreover, Nazareth is never mentioned in any historical document before the IV century, not even in the writings of the commander of the Jewish forces during the revolt against the Romans (Flavius Josephus) who, towards the second half of the first century, wrote a very detailed topographical description of the whole Galilee, citing also the smallest villages since it was used to plan the military incursions. Therefore the archaeological, historical and literary survey on the city of Nazareth, shows concrete doubts about its existence during the I century.
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Nazir, Nazirite and Nazarene
One cannot assume that the two words are not the same if there is some knowledge of the Hebrew language and if the etymology of the word is analysed. The term נזיר certainly refers to the vote, and it means a man, or a woman “consecrated”, “separated” or “devoted”, Hebrew writing does not use vowels, and the transliteration of נזיר is N-Z-Y-R (Hebrew is read from right to left). The only possible translation for Nazir or Nazarene is the same, because they are the same word, but transliterated, so interpreted and reported in a foreign language in a different way. Jesus, just like his cousin John the Baptist was a Nazir, but unlike him Jesus was not “consecrated” from his birth, and therefore would interrupt the vow according to the duration of the vow (as clearly explained by the rules of this vow in the Bible) and thus explain why on certain occasions he could drink wine:
29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my FATHER’s Kingdom.
(Matthew 26, 29)
There is a place in Palestine that corresponds with extreme precision to the geographical requirements that the evangelical narratives attribute to the city of Nazareth, and it is the village of Gamla, or Gamala. Gamla also has another requirement, unpleasant to the Catholic image of the son of GOD, which makes it dramatically suitable to be considered the historical city of the Messiah, son of David, the King of the Jews who was executed by Pilate, was the homeland of the zealous rebels. The sect of Judah called Galileo, and of his men who fought for the restoration of David’s reign and YHWH’s sovereignty over Israel, and who were defeated by a siege by the legions of Vespasian in person, as irreducible Messianists (Christianoi in Greek) and dangerous for the stability of the dominant Empire.
The discovery of Gamala
During the so-called six-day war (1967), the state of Israel suddenly moved against some neighbouring Arab states and, in addition to occupying Sinai, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, invaded and occupied a large part of the region called Golan, until then belonging to Syria.
During military operations on the Golan Heights, someone noticed the presence of the ruins of an old human settlement on a hill surrounded by very steep escarpments, located a short distance from the north-eastern shore of Lake Kinneret (“Lake Genezaret” or “Sea of Tiberias” in Evangelical language). Immediately after the end of the war, the Israeli authorities sent some archaeologists to investigate the reported area, to clarify the nature of the remains. The Israeli government, although troubled by political problems and certainly not in rosy economic conditions, had a strong need, before the eyes of its people and the whole world, to justify the occupation of the Golan as a legitimate act of re-appropriation of a territory that belonged to the Jews for a natural and historical right. It was precisely for this reason that, since 1968, the area was examined and identified with the village called Gamla, or Gamala, whose traces had been completely lost and that Josephus Flavius described with abundance of detail, telling the story of a tragic defeat suffered by the Jews, at the hands of Vespasian himself, during the war that bloodied Palestine in the years 66 to 70 AD.
“From a high mountain stretches out a craggy spur which in the middle rises in a hump that from the top declines with the same slope both in front and behind, so much so as to resemble the profile of a camel, from which it takes its name, even if the villagers do not respect the exact pronunciation of the name. On the sides and in front it ends in impassable ravines while it is a little accessible from behind, where it is like hanging from the mountain”.
(Flavius Josephus, Jewish War)
In 1976, under the guidance of the archaeologist Shmarya Gutman, systematic excavations began that led to sensational discoveries, the first of which was the recognition that those remains concealed the city of Gamla.
Nazareth, which many Christian pilgrims know well, is located in the depression of some hills of Galilee, the country, which today has expanded to reach the top of the hills, was once located below, on the side of a hill. The whole Galilee is made up of plains or hills, without peaks or steep slopes. The Christian tradition has located the village of Joseph and Mary, and therefore of Jesus Christ, in the lower part of one of these hills, exactly in the position in which today stands the so-called Basilica of the Annunciation.
It is hard to believe that time has been able to erase the signs of such an important town, and instead preserve those of other key places in the NT including Capernaum, Korazim and Bet Zayda, to the north, on Lake Tiberias and Bethany, Bethlehem and Jericho, in Judea.
A total absence in the written testimonies in which no historian of the time has ever mentioned the village and, outside of the Gospel story, it appears only in Christian writings dating back a few centuries.
The two main historical sources that bear witness to Palestine in Jesus’ time are the writings of Josephus Flavius and Philon of Alexandria. Especially the first, who was commander of the Jewish troops right in Galilee, in his great works “The Jewish War” and “Jewish Antiquities”, has meticulously described the whole country naming every small town, but there is no trace of Nazareth, although a few steps from the village arose other centers, such as Sefforis and Iotapata, of which the historian spoke and of which today you can admire the remains.
In truth the Gospels indicate that when they mention the city of Jesus, they prefer to use deferred expressions such as “his homeland” and mention its name on very few occasions: the Gospel of Mark names it only once, at the opening, with words:
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
(Mark 1, 9)
After chapter 1 the name of the city is completely absent, and even the Gospel of John mentions the city on one occasion, always at the beginning. The place and frequency of the term Nazareth within the Gospel texts gives rise to a reasonable suspicion that it may be a matter of subsequent interpolation, and in history we know very well how common these were in the Gospel texts.
Moreover, the Gospels have never used the expression Jesus of Nazareth, they always speak of Jesus the Nazarene, and for this reason they use the Greek expression “Iesous ò Nazoraios”. The adjective Nazorean, as it is loudly claimed by many academics around the world, cannot mean “Nazareth” (inhabitant of Nazareth), and one cannot help but remember that there is also an ancient Gospel text, which the church calls apocryphal, which was composed in Semitic by a Judeo-Christian sect, We know it only through the quotations of some Fathers of the Church, who often criticize it (and therefore make us assume the reason for its extinction in the Christian sphere). From the words of Epiphany and Theodore we only know that the Nazarenes possessed the “Gospel according to Matthew, absolutely integral, in Hebrew… as it was originally written”, that they reject the teachings of St. Paul, that “they are Jews who honor Christ as a just man…”.
The Nazarenes were the members of a religious group whose original name is Nozrim in Hebrew and Nazorai in Aramaic (still today in Isaele the name Nazireo indicates a monk), with a clear reference to the Hebrew expression NZR, indicating a state of consecration and holiness, which we find in the Old Testament about the vow of Nazireato (the Nazis are those who leave their hair in tune and accept vows of purity).
Putting together all the archaeological, historical and literary observations, one understands that the title “Nazarene” does not mean a “citizen of Nazareth”, but is a religious title.
“…He went to Nazareth, where he had been raised, and entered the synagogue on the Sabbath according to his custom, and got up to read. He was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah; he opened it and found the passage where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; for this reason he anointed me and sent me to proclaim a happy message to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and to the blind, to set free the oppressed, and to preach a year of the Lord’s grace”. Then he rolled up the volume, handed it over to the orderly and sat down. Everyone’s eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say: – Today this Scripture has been fulfilled, which you have heard with your ears – … When they heard these things, everyone in the synagogue was filled with indignation; they rose up, drove him out of the city and led him to the edge of the mountain on which their city was situated, to cast him down from the precipice. But he passed among them, and went away…”
(Gospel according to Luke Chapter 4)
Looking at the evangelicha narrative it is clear that the place identified with Nazareth cannot be the same as today’s Church of the Annunciation, since many features that do not fit the city we know today. From the writings it also seems to be near a precipice otherwise people would not have been able to travel more than 30 km to throw the prisoner, but would have found a much quicker way to get rid of it. In the description there is neither a “mountain’s edge”, nor a “precipice”, nor a “synagogue”.
One reason why it might have been convenient for the first Judeo-Christians of the time to “move” the part of the Messiah from Gamala to Nazareth was to separate it definitively from the sphere of the Esseno-Zelot movements that represented the political and spiritual dissidence of the time. This operation could have taken place in order to represent Jesus as a savior who was far removed from the politics of the time, and Gamala was too tied to public controversies. Josephus Flavius states that this town on the Golan Heights was the home of the famous rebel, founder of the zealous movement, Judas “the etiquette”, called as well as all the members of his sect and, moreover, as the followers of Jesus. The city was the headquarters of the intransigent messianists, of the fundamentalist rebels who wanted to bring to fruition, at all costs, the messianic prophecies on the ransom of Israel and the reconstruction of the kingdom of David.
At the time when Herod the Great was a young man in career, hoping to reach the political heights that he later reached, he had to face in Galilee a “gang” of intransigent Yahwist fundamentalists, led by a certain Ezekian. Giuseppe Flavio describes him as a doctor (i.e. a rabbi) from the city of Gamala. Herod succeeded in killing the dangerous leader.
Later, on the death of Herod, the son of Ezekikia, Judas, also from Gamala, heir to the religious patriotic cause for which his father had died, and motivated by a personal hatred of the Herodian dynasty, came out with anti-Roman actions, which had significant military success. As Giuseppe Flavio tells us, he invented the sect of the zealots, which certainly had a great affinity with that of the essenes of the Dead Sea. Judas, called the galilee, raised another important revolt during the census of Palestine supervised by Quirino, at the time when Luca set his nativity. This time Judas left us the skin, and with him a great deal of zeal, which were crucified.
At a certain point the Romans realized that Gamala could not continue to exist. In the history of Roman rule over Palestine, it is a perfect parallel to what, a few years later, will be Masada. The mass suicide of the inhabitants of Gamala unequivocally recalls the same gesture made by the zealots barricaded in Masada, and creates a further connection between the city of Gamala and the messianic movements. The dramatic episode of the mass suicide of the inhabitants of the city was a typical zealous behavior, they “passed by the edge of the sword” or threw themselves from the precipice, in order not to end up prisoners in the hands of the unbelieving invaders.
The Romans were determined to eradicate this dangerous zealous headquarters and sent Vespasian, with his legions that after a long and painful siege, reduced Gamala in a pile of rubble and Vespasian got enough glory to become emperor.
Following the theological reform carried out by Paul of Tarsus, who had created the figure of a de-messianized savior, i.e. made alien to the political-religious struggle of the messianists, the editors of the Christian Gospel were strongly motivated to separate the figure of their savior from that of the aspiring Messiah of the Jews with an unequivocal essene-zelotic connotation.
Some of the most authoritative academics from all over the world agree that the expression “Jesus of Nazareth” has no relation to a city called Nazareth, but indicates a title (Nazarene).
“The apostles who were before us called him this: Jesus Nazarene Christ… “Nazara” is the “Truth”. So “Nazarene” is “That of truth”…”
(Gospel of Philip, paragraph 47)
“It is not unlikely that the first Christians were called Nazarenes in the sense of Nazis, rather than in that of originals of the city of Nazareth, etymology really unbelievable and that probably replaced the first only when the ancient origin from the essenate began to be forgotten”.
(Elia Benamozegh [Italy, 1823/1900, Jewish philosopher, member of the rabbinical college of Livorno], Gli Esseni e la Cabbala, 1979)
“The same tradition has established the domicile of the family of Jesus in Nazareth in order to explain the nickname of Nazorean, originally associated with the name of Jesus and which remained the name of Christians in rabbinical literature and in the countries of the East. Nazorean is certainly a sect name, not related to the city of Nazareth…”;
(Alfred Loisy [France, 1857/1940, Catholic priest, professor of Hebrew and sacred writing at the Catholic Institute of Paris, later removed from office], La Naissance du Christianisme)
“…no pagan or Jewish text mentions Nazareth: this name appears neither in the Bible, nor in the vast talmudic literature, nor in the detailed works of Josephus Flavius; only Eusebius speaks of it quoting Julius Africanus (between 170 and 240), a good connoisseur of the places. The perplexities, however, remain and are fuelled by the difficulty of connecting in the Aramaic language Nazarene, Nazorean, Nazoreno, three forms considered interchangeable in the Gospels, with Nazareth.
Some scholars have suggested that the original Aramaic meaning of the Nazarene attribute, difficult for Hellenized Christian followers to understand, has been lost and replaced with a simpler and more immediate geographical indication. Linguistic and philological considerations have led to the hypothesis that Nazarene could mean Saint of God, also in light of the fact that the faithful of Jesus, who continued in the land of origin to be called Nazarenes, were initially called on Greek soil the saints and only later prevailed the Christian name given them by the pagans of Antioch. Nazarenos and Nazoraios are therefore perhaps names linked to a Jewish linguistic root natzìr (in Aramaic natzirà) that connected them to the “separated” Nazis or the “consecrated”, a group that had made a special vow of consecration to God and that constituted a sect in itself…”.
(R. Calimani, Jesus Jew, Milan, 1990).
“The small town that bears this name [Nazareth], where naive pilgrims can visit Joseph’s workshop, was identified as the city of Christ only in the Middle Ages…”;
(Charles Guignebert [France, 1867/1939, professor of History of Christianity at the Sorbonne University in Paris], Manuel d’Histoire Ancienne du Christianisme);
“In fact, as far as Nazareth is concerned, historians could not find any trace of a city of that name until the fourth century AD; according to Jewish sources, it is even necessary to go down to the ninth century. In the Gospels we never find the expression Jesus of Nazareth but only Jesus the Nazorean, sometimes written also Nazoreno or Nazareno… now, none of these names, however much we have tried to force its etymology, can be traced back to a name like Nazareth… it is from these terms that the name of the city of Nazareth is derived, and not vice versa”.
(Ambrogio Donini [academic, specialized in Hebrew and Syriac at Harvard University, USA, was a university lecturer in Italy], Brief History of Religions, 1959);
“El-Nasirah is a village in Galilee, about four hundred meters above sea level, in which the Christian tradition recognizes the ancient Nazareth, home of Jesus. According to various scholars, however, Nazareth – better Natzrath or Notzereth – never existed and the name Nazarene that accompanies the name of Jesus in the New Testament writings does not indicate his country of origin at all…”.
(M. Craveri, [author of numerous essays on the history of Christianity, translated into many languages and published in Italy and abroad, and editor of a collection of apocryphal writings] The Life of Jesus, 1974);
“The forms Nazoraios, Nazarenos, Nazaraeus, Nazarene, all prove that the ecclesiastical scribes knew the origin of the word and were well aware that it was not derived from Nazareth… The historical name and geographical position of Christ’s hometown is Gamala… this is the homeland of the Nazorean… the mountain of Gamala is the ‘mountain’ of the evangelist Luke, the ‘mountain’ of all the Gospels, who speak of it incessantly, without even naming it…”;
(E.B.Szekely [Hungarian theologian who studied at the Vatican], The Essene Origins of Christianity, USA, 1980);
“…Jesus was not of Nazareth. An infinity of evidence indicates that Nazareth did not exist in biblical times. It is unlikely that the city was built before the third century. Jesus of Nazareth’, as many scholars of the Bible would be ready to confirm today, is a bad translation of the original Greek Jesus the Nazarene…”
(Baigent, Leigh, Lincoln [authors of some books on ancient Christianity and the manuscripts of the Dead Sea, including the international best seller “The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception”], L’Eredità Messianica, Tropea, Milan, 1996);
“Matthew was the first to generate the misunderstanding that the expression ‘Jesus the Nazorean’ should have some relationship with Nazareth, citing the prophecy “will be called Nazarene (Nazoraios)” which, at the conclusion of his account of the nativity, he associates with the passage “retiring to Galilee and going to live in a city called Nazareth”. This cannot be the derivation of the term, since even in Greek the spellings of Nazareth and Nazorean differ substantially”.
(R.H.Eisenman [Professor of Middle Eastern Religions and Archaeology, and Director of the Institute for the Study of Judeo-Christian Origins at the University of California – Los Angeles] James the Brother of Jesus, Penguin Books, 1997)
“I really think that Christians cannot say that the expression ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ means ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, in the same way that the expression ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ means ‘Leonardo of Vinci’. The Hebrew form for Nazareth is NZRT, which is late and has been referred to as Nazrat or Nazeret, whereas the Greek form ‘Iesous or Nazoraios’, derives from the Aramaic Nazorai… the root NZR (without T) happens in the Aramaic translation of Isaiah 26:2, in which the word ’emunim’ (=faith) comes from the root ’emeth’ (=truth), in this way it is clear why in Philip’s Gospel it could be said that ‘Nazarene’ means ‘of truth’…”
(Daniel E. Gershenson [archaeologist, teacher and researcher at the Department of Classical Studies of the University of Tel-Aviv] e-mail of 12/05/1998 addressed to David Donnini);