“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” asked Nathaniel? The place is not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament; indeed, outside of the New Testament there is no literary evidence it ever existed. But archaeological excavations have confirmed it did, and the recent discovery (2003) of a large Roman bath house there suggests that far from being a tiny village, it was a substantial settlement. Indeed, it may be that the building of the Roman fort and bath house provided the reason why the settlement existed in the first place; it would certainly have provided work for a small army of tektons (as the Scriptures call Joseph) – that is carpenters and builders.
In the Greek texts of the Gospels Jesus is not called ‘the Nazarene’ or ‘of Nazareth’, He is called ‘the Nazoraios’ – that is ‘the shoot’. ‘Nazer’ in Hebrew means the ‘shoot’ and is a reference to Isaiah 11:1 ‘A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.’ (I use the NRSV here as it is more accurate). St Matthew makes reference to this prophecy: ‘There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”’ A Nazorean was one sprung from the root of Jesses – that is one of Davidic descent – a point made by Matthew and Mark. It wouldn’t be at all surprising, if there were families of Davidic descent there, to have called the settlement ‘Nazareth’.
We are told little about Joseph, but we are told he was a ‘righteous’ man. Let us dwell on that for a moment. John the Baptist and Simeon at the Temple are also thus described, as is Joseph of Arimathea. What did it mean? It was a title of honour, bestowed on those who knew their Torah well and lived according to its precepts. We know from Jewish sources that craftsmen who worked on the Temple were sometimes described as ‘righteous’.
So, far from Jesus being brought up in some sort of isolated backwater, he was brought up in a place with Roman baths which had many stone houses, and his putative father was a man learned in the Torah who, in all probability, earned a good living as a skilled craftsman in a settlement where there were families of Davidic descent.
Much is made sometimes of the fact that there was no general census at the time of the birth of Jesus; as ever a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. We know from the Babatha archive that the Romans required Jewish landowners to be registered in person at the nearest record office. That is the most likely reason Joseph was travelling to Bethlehem (another Davidic city and possibly his hometown). If Mary also had property there, then she would have had to go in person. Indeed, it is hard to see any other reason why she would have had to travel when so heavily pregnant.
So, if we take on board the archaeological and historical evidence, we find not the poor son of a poor old carpenter barely able to scratch a living in a provincial backwater, but a background of some comfort where an education would have been available, and where, given the proximity of Romans and traders, both Latin and Greek would have been spoken daily. It was in this place, as part of an extended family with Rabbinic connections, that the young Jesus was nurtured and prepared for his mission.