Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark
A devotional commentary by Michael Spencer
Compiled and Edited by: Michael Bell
Table of Contents
About that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee…
Mark 1:9a – C.E.V.
We leave the interaction between Jesus and John the Baptist for a bit, to focus on an intriguing piece of information that Mark provides us: The location of Jesus’ childhood. In fact, this is the only thing that Mark tells us about Jesus’ childhood.
Did you realize that Mark does not tell us the names of Jesus’ parents? Mary and Joseph are not mentioned by name in Mark. You have to read Matthew or Luke to get that information. When a modern biographer writes about someone’s life, a lot of time is spent researching the parents and the childhood of the person in question. These are things that really influence what a person becomes. Mark is not interested in that. In fact, none of the Gospel writers are really very interested in Jesus’ childhood. There is only one story in the entire New Testament about Jesus as a child and that story is only recorded in Luke’s gospel.15 We do not know what kind of child Jesus was, what his favorite pastime was, who he played with, or if he went to school. We do not know anything about how Jesus looked. Was he tall or short? Was he muscular or heavy? Mark is silent about these matters.
It is fascinating that Mark, the first gospel writer, does not feel any need to tell us many of the things that we would like to know about Jesus. Mark gives us no information about Jesus’ family or ancestors because his purpose to identify Jesus as the Son of God overrides this sort of detail. The only thing Mark does want us to know, and does tell us about Jesus’ childhood, is that Jesus is from Nazareth in Galilee.
You get a better idea of what people thought about Nazareth from a comment in John’s Gospel.16 Philip, one of Jesus’ first disciples, is excitedly telling Nathanael about Jesus. “We found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael replies, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Obviously Nazareth was not held in high esteem.
For a long time archaeologists could not find the ancient village of Nazareth. Scholars also searched for it in ancient writings from both Jewish and non-Jewish sources. They could not find the name of the town in any writings prior to the third century. It was not until 2009 that the Israel Antiquities Authority announced that they believed that they found the evidence of human habitation in the Nazareth that existed when Jesus was alive. We do not know for sure the population at the time of Christ, only that it was a small village.
This does not mean Jesus grew up isolated, or in a cultural backwater. Nazareth was only four miles from Sepphoris, a large Roman town that served as the provincial capital. It was a Roman city rebuilt by King Herod Antipas. It had beautiful Roman architecture, an amphitheatre, and government buildings. Jesus likely would have worked there at some point in time.
Galilee itself was an area that had been controlled by the Assyrians in the later Old Testament era. It was known as the home of many non-Jewish inhabitants and was quite multicultural for first century Palestine. Greek, Roman and Jewish languages, culture and ideas were all part of Jesus’ world. Jesus would have likely spoken four languages. The common language of the time was Aramaic, and Mark leaves a few words of that in his gospel in different places. He would have had to speak and read some Greek because that was the language used in commerce and business. Jesus also would have had to speak a little Latin because the Romans were in charge of the country and that was the language of the Government. He was a Jew, and would have been able to speak and write Hebrew, as that was the language of the Jewish faith.
Galilee in the time of Jesus was also known as an area where the Zealots were based. The Zealots were fanatical anti-Romans who rebelled against Roman taxation and control and who wanted a war. The Romans, on the other hand, were demonstrating that they were in control, and so Jesus would have probably seen bloodshed growing up. He certainly would have heard people out in the streets inciting rebellion, and there would have been attempts to convince Jesus to join with their cause.
Nazareth was an agricultural community like so many other Jewish towns. The little bit of evidence we have about Nazareth shows us that the big industry there was viticulture: the raising of grapes in vineyards. Most people were farmers, but they were sharecroppers and did not own their own land. They raised their crops on someone else’s land and probably never got out of debt. We see this reflected in the parables of Jesus. He talked about people who owed money to kings, and workers who farmed land for other people.
There would have been a few people with a trade, and that is apparently the kind of family Jesus grew up in because he was called a tekton. Traditionally, this is a word, that has been translated carpenter, but it may also mean someone who worked with stone. Either way, Jesus had a craft. This meant that his family likely owned their own house and had enough to take care of themselves, but it was still a subsistence living.
Mark tells us in chapter six17 that Jesus had at least two sisters and four brothers, so he was the oldest of a big family. It is likely that Joseph had died prior to Jesus’ adult ministry as he is conspicuously absent during those latter years. Jesus probably stayed at home until he was an adult and helped provide for his mother and his family.
Jesus lived at the only time in the history of the Jewish people where they had temple Judaism and synagogue Judaism. In Jerusalem was the temple, the priests, and the sacrifices that Moses had described. In every little town there was a synagogue where Rabbis read the word of God and people studied the word of God together. Rabbis also would have gathered disciples together for teaching, so Jesus calling his own disciples together was not that unusual for that time and place. In Luke chapter four18 it says that on the Sabbath day Jesus “went into the synagogue, as was his custom.” Gathering with others for the purpose of worshipping God and learning about God was important to Jesus, and he did it his entire life. Even when Jesus became very aware that he disagreed very much with what people were doing and what some of those teachers were saying, he didn’t bail out. When Jesus knew that people would hate what he had to say, he still went to the synagogue. That is where he loved to be, where he loved to heal, where he loved to teach. That is where he got in a lot of trouble, but that’s who Jesus was. He did not stand outside and throw rocks, he stood inside with God’s people.
Jesus probably felt about a small town the same way a lot of us do. John Mellencamp sang in the 80s, “I want to live in a small town… I was born in one, want to die in one, want to raise my children in a small town…”19 We may have an idealized view of a small town, but a small town can have another side to it. Everybody knows everybody and calls everybody by name. They know your mother, your father, and your grandparents. They know what kind of people you come from. They know all the mistakes you made. They know what you were supposed to be and what you turned out to be like.
Later on in Mark’s gospel20 Jesus comes back to Nazareth and the people say, “We’ve heard about you, up in Capernaum. You have done good up there. What are you going to do here?” And guess what? Jesus really disappointed them. It said that Jesus did not do many miracles there because they didn’t believe in him, which is the ironic thing about the small town Jesus was from. They rejected Jesus. When they were confronted with who Jesus was, and what that would mean they said, “We don’t want that.” In fact in Luke chapter four it is recorded that they tried to throw him off a cliff and kill him.21 Some reception from the place where you grew up!
Sometimes when people grow up in small communities, change is very difficult to accept. People say, “this is how I was brought up, this is what I have always believed, this is the way I’ve always talked, the way I’ve always done business, and the way I have always treated people.” They find out that following Jesus means that you need to be different! You need to be loyal to, and changed by Jesus Christ, and not just be a product of where you are from.
Many of the things that I learned in my childhood community I now understand to be wrong. I learned a lot of racism growing up there. I was told that having a big house out in the suburbs and making lots of money is what life was all about. High school was all about getting drunk and having sex.
In contrast, if you want to ask me who I am today I will say, “Look at Jesus,” because Jesus is the one who has really made the difference in who I am and what I am. I am grateful for where I am from – all of us have a place where we live and where we can influence and help others – but the defining person in our life should be Jesus Christ. He should overrule and override anything that we grew up with, anything that we are, any mistakes that we’ve made, and any reputation that we have.
 A collection of childhood stories about Jesus were written in the 2nd or 3rd centuries in the falsely attributed Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas which is also not part of the accepted canon of scripture.) We have no way of verifying their accuracy.
 John 1:45-46
 Mark 6:3
 Luke 4:17
 John Mellencamp, “Small Town”. From the album “Scarecrow” – 1985.
 Mark 6:1-5
 Luke 4:29-30
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39 thoughts on “Reconsider Jesus – From Nazareth (Mark 1:9a)”
Sounds like the beginning of a Jeff Foxworthy skit…..
Other gospels of course add further details.
Oh Chaplain Mike went down that path some time ago! 😉
So, Abraham and Sarah were married, but half-siblings? That puts an interesting spin on the Fundy ideas about “Biblical marriage,” doesn’t it? Well, that and a man and his multiple wives and concubines, and. . .
Many thanks to both Dana and Mule for their humanizing explanations of the virginity of Mary, despite the existence of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. I now understand, at least, how someone could accept such a belief, not because the Bible says so, but because of the traditions surrounding the belief. I will definitely check out YouTube for John Behr and Jonathan Pageau. Both talks sound fascinating.
Ahh… the fine, gray area of half-truths. Probably as bad as full-truths, because they can be “excused away” easier.
As an interesting aside, when Abraham to Sarah to tell the Pharaoh that she was his sister, he wasn’t asking her to lie. She was in fact, his half-sister. (Genesis 20:12)
Thanks for the comments everyone! It has certainly been a learning experience for me!
Thanks Dana for laying this out. As a Catholic, I would also say the RC and EO perspectives line up very closely on this. We both rely theologically and are comforted by our sacred tradition concerning her perpetual virginity.
We can add to this the problematic (and potentially unfortunate) translation difficulties with the use of the words “brothers and sisters.” As well as what has been lost to us in the nuances of Jewish extended familial relationships. This, it is hoped, would at least allow us to be open to the potential of these persons being someone other than the younger full-blood siblings of our Lord.
You also mentioned very briefly the book, “Protoevangelium of James.” This book, while clearly recognized as non-canonical, has served the church since nearly the very beginning as a Marian biography of sorts. And, as I understand it, this book was utilized to some extent in early church preaching. It was also ultimately rejected as non-canonical – not due to its historical inaccuracy but because the principle protagonist of the story was Mary and not our Lord.
I think this is important to at least consider the historical place the Protoevangelium holds and how it aligns with the ancient sacred traditions of the RC and EO. And if we couple that with an openness to a broader familial translation of “brothers and sisters”, a plausible case certainly can be made for Jesus being the only child of Mary.
and FWIW …
Protoevangelium of James
I am staying with the Church’s tradition about Mary because it is the oldest, most widely accepted one among the Catholic and Orthodox. For me, the old beliefs of antiquity that were preserved and handed down hold some ties to the truth that carry more gravitas than the many modern ideas that have sprung up from men’s ‘interpretations’ of the Bible without the liturgical and structural and historical framework of ancient Church.
It’s a tradition, a belief.
And, even in the time of Henry VIII, when all icons Roman Catholic were being smashed, still something about the old teachings about Mary survived the smashing and trashing of her statues by the iconoclasts. Maybe it went deeper into the psyche of the people than they realized, but the Anglican Church still has an elevated view of Mary that is ‘respectful’ of her traditional standing from ancient days in the Church:
You know, I may be wrong, but I am wondering there is a REASON why today the attack on Mary’s special position in the Church has arisen anew again,
that there is a current attack on ‘SOCIAL JUSTICE’ politically in our land, and it is known among Christian people that one of the most strident voices ever to have been raised that reflect on justice for the poor came from Mary’s song, the ‘Magnificat’. So once again, Mater Dei is on the ‘chopping block’ and instead, what is being praised as ‘Christian’ are themes along a much different line of an uncontrolled, unrestricted capitalism, where ‘rules’ that protect and defend from the worst sort of abuses no longer apply, and the protected lands are opened to destruction, and the ‘rules’ that govern the professional permission for medications that are safe for the public are up for political pressure to be ‘fast forwarded’, and children once more await the coming of destruction from the ruling forces that demand the littles must attend schools in buildings even though they are at risk for the pandemic virus of our own strange time . . .
and Mary’s ‘sin’ to today’s conservative ‘christian’ political world? Is it her ‘Magnificat’????
take a look,
it’s in that ‘bible’ also, along with the other verses that modern men and women have adopted to an ‘alternate’ interpretation, in place of what was handed down from ancient days, take a look:
King James Version
“46 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
48 For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
49 For He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is His name.
50 And His mercy is on them that fear Him from generation to generation.
51 He hath shewed strength with His arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent empty away.
54 He hath helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy;
55 As He spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.”
Rescued from Mod.
Mine got thrown into mod. It still hasn’t found its way out, but you did an admirable job.
Especially this: The closer I came to Orthodoxy, the more I found it plausible – not because of Mary as some kind of cipher of “purity” or anything like that, but because she was becoming a real human person to me. And persons have a history; they don’t just pop up out of nowhere.
Amen. The Most Holy Mother of God is not a symbol or a placeholder for anything, nor a lynchpin for an ideology. She is, as her Son has given her to be.
First, if I understand correctly, there was no Hebrew (and possibly also Greek) vocabulary that described what we know as “step-brother or -sister” – or “niece/nephew”, for that matter. The children of any blended family of the time would have simply been known as “brothers and sisters”. We understand Elizabeth, Zacharias’ wife in Luke 2, as Mary’s “cousin”, but the word in Greek is simply “kinswoman”; she could have been an aunt or a cousin, close or distant in degree.
Secondly, in Orthodoxy we have a “backstory” about Mary and Joseph. Much of it is found in “The Protoevangelium of James”, but we don’t rely on that document for “documentation”. We rely on what has been handed down through the prayers and hymnody and hagiography of the Church, as Mule noted above; some of this information can be found in that document. (Hope you see the difference.)
Mary was the child of Joachim and Anna, pious Jews from a long line of faithful Jews, who, like Elizabeth and Zacharias, reached post-childbearing age without children. They prayed and God miraculously answered their prayer, giving them Mary. They dedicated her to God, and when she was weaned they took her to the temple to join the cohort of girls who wove the cloth decorations and ritual items used in the Temple services. Being elderly, they soon died, leaving Mary an orphan. The young female weavers lived in the Temple precincts and were well cared for; once they reached puberty they weren’t eligible to remain in the Temple, but they were very desirable as brides.
Joseph, meanwhile, had been married and raised a family and then was widowed The “brothers and sisters” of Jesus noted in the Gospel were these non-blood-related siblings in Joseph’s household, Joseph’s children from his earlier marriage. Joseph wanted another wife, and being a “righteous” man (faithful Jew) he went to the Temple for one of the weaving girls. From what we can deduce, it seems he did at first intend to have sexual relations with her, but he realized from his dealings with angels (!) and from his own piety that she was unique and wasn’t to be approached in that way, (and he already had children anyhow). She became his second wife, kept his house and possibly helped raise any younger children remaining at home, or his grandchildren. This arrangement benefited Joseph, but it also benefited Mary, who was protected and loved. She needed someone stalwart and kind, what with the stories that went around the village about how Jesus was conceived.
Now, either you find this story plausible, or you don’t. As a Protestant, I didn’t even know it, and Orthodoxy gives more details than the RC’s do, so I didn’t know as much of it growing up Catholic, either. The closer I came to Orthodoxy, the more I found it plausible – not because of Mary as some kind of cipher of “purity” or anything like that, but because she was becoming a real human person to me. And persons have a history; they don’t just pop up out of nowhere. In Orthodox theology as expressed in its worship, everything she is and does is bound tightly with who Jesus is and what he has done.
If you’re interested in the theological ramifications of Mary’s relationship to Jesus, Fr John Behr has some video talks on this; go to YouTube put “John Behr virgin mother” in the search box. Also, Jonathan Pageau, icon carver and student of symbolic representation, has a great presentation, “Feminine Symbolism in Christian Art – Seattle Talk”, also on YouTube; this is all about what Mary means in Orthodox iconography, which is extremely theological. He is a very engaging speaker; you won’t be bored.
This is long and took some time; hope I don’t get thrown into mod 🙂
Go here for a nice online resource –
Said Child Jesus calls to mind nothing so much as that old Twilight Zone episode where the little boy “wished people away.” And/or just turned them into a Jack-in-the-Box.
Defense of the Perpetual Virginity of the All-Holy Mother of God moderated.
The tradition concerning the family of the All-Holy Virgin Mary is really quite involved. Dana may be a better source for the details than I am, but apparently the Jews in the Herodian period, under the influence of Rome, had Vestal Virgins serving in the Temple until they came to womanhood, at which time they were married off.
Mary had, since earliest girlhood, a particular devotion to the God of Israel, and wanted to spend the rest of her days serving Him chastely in the temple. When she was told that this would be impossible, she requested that an older widower be selected as her husband and guardian. Joseph of Nazareth, a widower in his seventies or eighties was selected, who had several children by a previous marriage to a pious woman named Salome.
There is a lot more to it than that, and there is enough weirdness that the chattering critic that resides in all our brains has plenty to work with, but I particularly love the stories and am moved by their beauty. There are enough ugly stories that we are expected to believe – i.e. you’re just a particularly complex constellation of chemical reactions – because they’re supposedly TRVE that I take solace in believing some stories just for their beauty.
Stephen, is that the text in which the child Jesus kills a playmate because he’s angry at him, then brings him back to life? I have not read the entire book, only excerpts. Do you know where it’s available?
I appreciate that this is going to be Michael Spencer’s book; but, since it’s impossible to ask him questions, it will be good to be able to ask you what you think about any particular point.
So, how do the Orthodox explain the brothers and sisters of Jesus? Was Joseph a widower, old enough to have had six children by a previous marriage, or is the “tradition” of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary somehow wrong? As a good Jew, of course, Joseph would have to have been a VERY old man for Mary to have remained a virgin. It’s not something that either marriage partner would have been expecting.
Your last paragraph is one of those rare occasions on which you and I agree absolutely, Mule.
“what rough beast, its hour come round at last . . .
In the gospel accounts, there does seem to be an underlying theme/tension, represented particularly in Judas, of the Zealots pressuring Jesus to become what the Zealots wanted him to become, yes.
I look forward to this new angle, Mike!
Yes I agree everyone looks through their own lens. What historical critical method does is to help us understand what the folks who wrote these ancient texts had in mind. There will always be arguments over interpretation but it helps to know that they didn’t think the way we think and that tradition distorts as well as clarifies. Most of all it’s important not to read into these texts concerns and opinions that only came later.
I do not disparage tradition. Christianity is not a snapshot of “the way things were” in the middle of the First Century. It is the process that began in the First Century and continues to this day. (Ironically perhaps it was the Buddhists who taught me this.) Nevertheless it is necessary to understand what the writers of the NT meant in their own context. Historical critical method helps us do this which is why I vigorously defend it.
Magisteria are built into human experience. It’s unavoidable.
I remember back in the Elder Years when arguing against extreme antitraditionalists, they would quote Mark or Luke, and I would respond, oh, you mean Two, or Three, don’t you? Where on earth did you get the idea that Luke or Mark wrote those two documents? It’s not evident in the test,
Of course, even the order is traditional. The Bible is the greatest buzzing hive of Tradition in the Church’s repository. Language itself is Tradition. What does a man have that he has not received?
“I wonder (nothing to back this up with), if Matthew and Luke were written as responses, as both put Jesus’ family in much better light and tell the nativity story from the perspective of his Mary or Joseph.”
Well considering that Luke contains 50% of Mark verbatim and Matthew contains 80% of Mark verbatim and they both felt the freedom to adapt the text of Mark I think you’re correct. And there is alot about Mark both Matthew and Luke might have found troublesome. (For example the rather abrupt ending at 16:8 with no resurrection appearances.) It wouldn’t surprise me to find out both thought they were superseding Mark.
I have come to the understanding that everyone interprets scripture through the lens of their own tradition. Unlike others, the Catholic and the Orthodox acknowledge this.
I wonder something else altogether.
It appears that before born-againery arose in the fires of the Second Great Awakening, it was precisely these small communities; first kinship groups, then later tribes and principalities that were absorbed whole-cloth into Christendom. It’s hard to see if the radical democratic individualism of born-againery is hand or glove; cause or symptom of what was occurring in the secular realm at that time with Jeffersonian/Jacksonian democracy.
My wife’s entire family converted from Catholicism to Pentecostalism, and they are all fervent and convinced Pentecostals to this day. I was the only one in my family who converted from liberal Protestantism to Pentecostalism and I’ve been all over the map ever since, like Reuben, “unstable as water’, until I settled in Orthodoxy 13 years ago,
Loyalty to ‘Jesus Christ’ over and above your earthly loyalties He certainly requires in the Gospels, but the havoc wrought by the hyper-convinced whose absolute loyalty to a brain-phantom of their own manufacture that they call ‘Jesus Christ’ cannot be over-emphasized.
I don’t know about the Romans, but the ever-virgin Mother of God is woven throughout Orthodox liturgics and hymnody. It could not be extracted without doing damage to the whole warp and woof of what we sing and pray in church.
It’s not that we discount the canonical Gospels or ‘disbelieve’ them. It’s just that we interpret them according to the traditions that have been passed down from the very earliest ages. We aren’t chin-strokers. The asymptotic nature of both the historical-grammatical method and historical/literary criticism became repugnant to me somewhere around 2000, so I lost escape velocity and began falling in towards the Apostolic Churches.
“Oh, no, but how do you know it’s TROOOOO-OOOOO-OOOOO-oooo?”
If you’ve never read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas it’s a hoot and really worth seeking out. Jesus was a precocious child! One interesting historical factoid is that the Quran knew the IG of T well enough to refer to it when discussing Jesus.. Apparently the author did not know the canonical gospels but did know some of the heretical ones which provides clues as to the Christian groups active in the region in the 7th century.
I think Michael Spencer is going with the assumptions of:
1. Virgin Birth
2. A first marriage for both Mary and Joseph.
Admittedly Mark doesn’t talk about either.
I have decided that for each post I am going to engage more in the comment section.
The thoughts expressed in the post are those of Michael Spencer. I have carefully avoided adding my own thoughts to his. I have clarified some items in the footnotes, but I will use the comment section to add a few of my own thoughts each week.
In light of what is going on in the U.S.A. today, I wish Michael Spencer had said/written more about this.
A couple of my own thoughts here (I am after all not the author, but the compiler and editor of these posts.)
1. I found Mark’s approach to Jesus’ family fascinating and rather unexpected.
2. I wonder (nothing to back this up with), if Matthew and Luke were written as responses, as both put Jesus’ family in much better light and tell the nativity story from the perspective of his Mary or Joseph.
3. I wonder what our Catholic commentators the following aspects of Mark:
a) The downplaying of the importance of his family,
b) The size of his family. (We will have to see if Michael Spencer talks about this more when discussing Mark 6. It does raise questions about the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, doesn’t it? (Is this a fixed doctrine of the Catholic church?)
I think it goes beyond conservatism, to cultural blinders. Maybe the two are somewhat synonymous.
I think there is a factor of personality traits that go into that as well. For some people change is much more difficult than others. Do people find change difficult because they are conservative, or are they conservative because they find change difficult?
“Sometimes when people grow up in small communities, change is very difficult to accept. People say, “this is how I was brought up, this is what I have always believed, this is the way I’ve always talked, the way I’ve always done business, and the way I have always treated people.” They find out that following Jesus means that you need to be different! You need to be loyal to, and changed by Jesus Christ, and not just be a product of where you are from.”
The older I get, the more I think that “conservatism”, the attitude perhaps more than the political platform, is a downright impediment to understanding the Gospel.
“Jesus had at least two sisters and four brothers, so he was the oldest of a big family.”
Why do you think he was the oldest? Mark doesn’t say.