Nazareth Residents: Who Does Jesus Think He Is?

James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus Unrolls the Scroll in the Synagogue”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus Unrolls the Scroll in the Synagogue” (photo: Public Domain)

Jesus meets an incredulous group of people from his home town in this Wednesday’s Gospel reading (Mark 6:1-6).

It’s a fascinating text, and it has a surprising number of interesting details.

Let’s take a look . . .


What Happened?

First, here’s the text itself:

He went away from there and came to his own country; and his disciples followed him.

And on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.


Where is “his own country”?

This is presumably Nazareth, since his family is present (v. 3) and since the response he gets is very different than the one he received in Capernaum (Mark 1:21–37).


How do people react?

As Mark’s final statement (“and they took offense at him”) makes clear, people are incredulous when Jesus teaches in the synagogue. Their reaction is, “Who does Jesus think he is!”—that is, he is putting on airs and has gotten too big for himself.

The apparent wisdom of his teaching in the synagogue and the reports of spectacular miracles done elsewhere (e.g., the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, the raising of Jairus’s daughter) are too much to be credited to Jesus himself.

He is a fellow villager. He is “the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”


“The carpenter”?

The reference to Jesus (not Joseph) as “the carpenter” indicates that Jesus had learned the family trade.

The Greek word used here (tektōn) indicates a person who works with wood, metal, or stone and not specifically a person who builds houses.

The second-century Judean writer Justin Martyr, in fact, indicates that Jesus’ father Joseph made plows and yokes (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 88).


Why isn’t Joseph mentioned?

The omission of Joseph in the list of family members, coupled with the identification of Jesus as the son of Mary, may indicate that Joseph is dead and somewhat faded from the memories of the villagers, with Mary being Jesus’ more familiar parent.


“Brothers” and “sisters”?

The precise relationship of the “brothers” and “sisters” to Jesus is not clear. What is clear is that they are not biological children of Mary. This is known from a variety of sources, both inside and outside the New Testament.

Mary was already legally Joseph’s bride (thus Joseph’s plan to divorce her upon learning that she was pregnant [cf. Matt. 1:19]). Thus, her question to Gabriel of how she would become pregnant (literally from Greek, “How will this be, for I know not man”) would be unintelligible if she were planning on a normal marriage with sexual relations between her and Joseph (Luke 1:34). She would have assumed that Joseph would be the biological father of the child.

Similarly, Jesus entrusting Mary to the care of the beloved disciple at the cross (John 19:26–27) would have been unimaginable if Mary had had other children.

The earliest explanation of who the brothers and sisters were, found in the second-century document known as The Protoevangelium of James, is that they were stepbrothers through Joseph.

According to this document, Joseph was an elderly widower who agreed to become the guardian of Mary, a consecrated virgin. Being elderly and already having children, he was not seeking to raise a new family and so was an appropriate guardian for a virgin. This theory is consistent with Joseph’s apparent death before the ministry of Jesus.

It is the standard explanation in Eastern Christendom of who the brethren of Christ are.

Shortly before the year 400, St. Jerome began to popularize the view that the brethren of Christ were cousins, and this view became common in the West.

Other views are also possible. They could have been adopted children, or the terms brothers and sisters could be used merely to mean his kinsfolk without distinguishing any particular degree or form of kinship.


A prophet without honor

In any event, Jesus was too much of a known quantity to the people of Nazareth, and “they took offense at him.” Jesus responds by telling them: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

This principle applies even to people who are not prophets. Think of the common English saying “Familiarity breeds contempt” or the specifically British saying “No man is a hero to his valet.”

It is often difficult for those who are most familiar with someone to recognize his greatness or what God is doing through him.

Thus many find it difficult to evangelize their own families. Sibling rivalries and parental relationships often get in the way. For example, one can easily imagine a parent thinking, or even saying, “Who are you to tell me about God? I changed your diapers!”

As a result of their familiarity with Jesus, his own townspeople do not recognize his greatness, and “he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.”


“He could do no mighty work”?

A “mighty work” would be one of the extraordinary types of miracles we read about in the previous chapter—Mark 5. We saw there, in the case of Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood, that their faith saved them from their desperate circumstances.

If there were people in such desperate circumstances in Nazareth, they did not have faith in Jesus and so did not seek relief from him. He does, however, perform a few lesser miracles.

Notice that faith is not conceived of as a magical, miracle-working power on its own that Jesus could manipulate like a sorcerer.

His power came from God, not from others’ faith, and he thus had all the power he needed.

Instead, the people’s lack of faith resulted in their not seeking Jesus’ help, and that is why no mighty work was done at Nazareth.

Those who may have been in desperate straights didn’t ask.


Jesus marveled

Though he knew that prophets tended to lack honor among those most familiar with them, Jesus still “marveled because of their unbelief.”

The Greek word for “marveled” here (ethaumazen, a form of the verb thaumazō) can mean to be extraordinarily impressed or disturbed, and the sense is likely that Jesus was chagrined at the lack of faith the people displayed.

In any event, he does not allow this to stall his mission, and “he went about among the villages teaching.”


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