Nazareth, Capernaum, and Tabor

The issue of Jesus’ hometown in early Christian literature is revealing. In the Gospel of Marcion (Mcn) the hometown of Jesus is Capernaum, as it is also in the Gospel of Mark. “Nazara” is only briefly mentioned in Mcn (corresponding to Lk 4:16–30). But the place does not really fit Marcion’s gospel, which locates Jesus in Capernaum both before and after a brief ‘visit’ to Nazara.

capernaum-sign-2Now, we know from the Gospel of Philip (Nag Hammadi) that in gnostic tradition Nazara meant “truth” (GPh 62). This interpretation fits the earlier spirit-Jesus christology, but not the new theios aner Jesus of Marcion, for which Jesus also requires a physical ‘hometown.’ Marcion’s gospel thus was apparently trying to fuse two different christologies and did so only imperfectly: Jesus is from Capernaum and briefly visits Nazara—as if to receive the ‘stamp of approval’ from the older Nazarene tradition.

GMk does not even know of Nazara (“Nazaret” at 1:9 being a later interpolation), but only knows Jesus the Nazarene (i.e., “the Savior of Truth”) who hails from Capernaum. It will be Matthew who clumsily fabricates the place Nazareth for the first time—his ineptitude is revealed in the saying from Jewish scripture that doesn’t exist (2:23). Then Matthew has Jesus’ family move to Capernaum (4:13). Strangely, however, the savior is still known as “Jesus of [the perfectly unknown town of] Nazareth.” This is all transparently artificial. It can be explained by realizing that the Nazara/Nazarene component derives from the earliest stratum and was integral to the pre-existing Christian tradition. The Catholics merely redefined it: they changed the abstract provenance “truth” (Nazara) into a geographical place with a vaguely similar name: Nazareth.

Placing Nazareth on the map

For a long time the church didn’t know where Nazareth was located. Origen didn’t know, though he lived in Caesarea, while Julius Africanus seemed to locate it in Judea. It was Eusebius who first provided a location in Lower Galilee in the early fourth century:

Nazareth, from which the Christ is called Nazorean and we, who are now called Christians, were of old called Nazarenes. Today it is still located in the Galilee opposite Legio about fifteen milestones to the east near Mt. Tabor. (Onomastikon 138.24–140.2; cf. The Myth of Nazareth p. 293.)

mt-taborIt is questionable from this, however, whether even Eusebius knew exactly where Nazareth was. This can be suspected because, first of all, the route from Legio (at the foot of Mt. Megiddo) was paved by the Romans towards the turn of the era and led to the major town of Diocaesarea (Sepphoris)—not to Mt. Tabor. Diocaesarea is only a couple of miles from Nazareth and one would think that Eusebius would surely signal “Nazareth close to Diocaesarea.” Secondly, Nazareth is located a full five miles away from Mt. Tabor.

Locating Nazareth with reference to Mt. Tabor, however, is interesting theologically. Mt. Tabor was—in early traditions—the site of the Transfiguration (e.g. Origen). The canonical gospels, however, portray that event as having occurred on a mountain near Caesarea Philippi (i.e., Mt. Hermon) farther to the north. Despite the explicit canonical tradition, the stronger non-canonical tradition has won the day in favor of Mt. Tabor, which has always been the acknowledged site of the Transfiguration.

The Transfiguration is one instance when God calls Jesus “my beloved son” (Mk 9:7). The other time is at the baptism of Jesus. The main theological difference between the two events is that in the Transfiguration Jesus was metamorphosed (metêmorphwthê, Mk 9:2). Eastern Orthodox and mystical Christian traditions consider that Jesus was deified at that time, and some also suppose that the Christian can be similarly deified—i.e., can become like Jesus. Such universalism is a hallmark of the earliest Christian stratum—the pre-Jesus of Nazareth stratum wherein Jesus is a cosmic spirit that indwells the saint. In short, when Eusebius links “Nazareth” with Mt. Tabor, he may be attempting to link the Jesus story with a strong and enduring tradition that viewed Mt. Tabor as the critical event in the career of Jesus:

[In the Eastern Church] the monk is called to become conscious of the actual presence of Jesus in the interior of his own being, a presence given full and existential reality by the life of the sacraments, without any images. The luminous vision that may then be experienced will not be a mere symbol or an effect of imagination, but a theophany as true as that on Mount Tabor since it is a manifestation of the same deified Body of Christ.
     That is why the spiritual life of the monks of the desert is so closely bound up with the theology of deification that we find in the Greek Fathers. (J. Meyendorff: St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality, 1971:38.)

The Transfiguration of Jesus.

The Transfiguration of Jesus

Now are things seen that are beyond the eyes of man—an earthly body radiating the divine splendor, a mortal body pouring forth the glory of the godhead. For the Word is made flesh and flesh is made Word; though neither departs from its wonderful nature. O wonder exceeding all thought! Glory did not come to this body from without but from within, by the Word of God uniting it hypostatically to His own supreme deity in a manner past all telling… [T]he things that are united are one… through the immutable incarnation of the Word and the incomprehensible and unchanging deification of the mortal flesh. (John of Damascus [early VIII CE], Festal Homily c. 2, cited in J. McGuckin: The Transfiguration of Christ in Scripture and Tradition, 1986:118.)

How much of this later mysticism was in existence already when Eusebius was writing is uncertain. The Catholic Church would set its face adamantly against the theology of deification. Indeed, this appears to be the main struggle of the second century, when the christology of Jesus changed from that of cosmic spirit (available to all) to divine man. The older christology, however, seems to have survived in Eastern Orthodoxy and in frankly heretical movements from the Manichaeans to the Bogomils to the Cathars. But even if, according to the Roman Church, we cannot become “Christs,” Jesus was himself transfigured at Mt. Tabor. Eusebius reflects this unique transfiguration in his vague siting of Nazareth. It was left to the Empress Helena, Constantine’s mother, to specifically locate the actual hometown of Jesus in the early fourth century. This she apparently did—about five miles to the west of Mt. Tabor.

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


Nazareth, Capernaum, and Tabor — 6 Comments

  1. Hi Rene, So was the naming of the current town of Nazareth as “Nazareth” done by Empress Helena, in AD 327 or so? Or is there evidence that the town was called that earlier than that?

    • Hi Coel–As far as I’ve been able to find, Eusebius’ note in his Onomastikon is the very first literary attestation locating Nazareth in Lower Galilee. I’ve been researching Nazareth for a long time now, and strongly suspect that it must indeed have been Helena–c. 327 as you write–who ‘fixed’ the location of Nazareth where the tradition knows it.

      Archeologically, the settlement was by then of some size–perhaps a couple of hundred people. I don’t know what the ‘name’ of it would have been. But it was new (founded c. 100 CE) and still small. If the Empress herself took an interest in it, it would have been the simplest thing for a renaming to have taken place. No one there would have been literate, in all likelihood. Maybe this satellite of Sepphoris didn’t even have a name.

      Epiphanius (Panarion 30) reports that Joseph of Tiberias built a simple ‘church’ in Nazareth (as well as in other places). This would have been within a few years of Helena’s visit. I write about this in THE MYTH OF NAZARETH (278 f). Joan Taylor, an archeologist who has studied the actual remains, detected what “seems to be the structure built by Joseph (c. 335), and nothing would suggest that the area was venerated prior to this time” (citation at MoN 285).

  2. It’s interesting that Capernaum is right on the edge of the land of Genesareth, which means “garden of the prince” and is described in detail by Josephus. It was a very fertile plain on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee. Can we speculate that the land of Genesareth may have been the actual home of Jesus and the source of the names “Nazareth” and “Nazarene”?

    • Well, being a mythicist, I don’t think Jesus had an “actual” home. . . T. K. Cheyne in the Encyclopaedia Biblica (c. 1900 but still generally correct) noted that Capernaum “is not mentioned before the NT and this, coupled with the fact that KFR [“Village of” Nahum] prevails in the composition only of comparatively late names…” Archeologically, Capernaum appears to be even more compromised than Nazareth. I haven’t studied it systematically because there are only so many years to a person’s life. There’s much more written on Capernaum than on Nazareth, and the Catholics have *heavily* changed and even obliterated the evidence. Even James Strange noted that one priest, unhappy with the evidence at a certain critical place, simply had a foot-thick concrete floor laid covering everything up. I don’t have any more time for such nonsense. I’m pretty convinced, however, that Capernaum was not yet a town at the turn of the era. The synagogue is from IV CE and “often misdated in reports before the 1970s as being from the second or even first century CE” (Dict. of Judaism, ed. Neusner).

      Josephus’ witness is uncertain. In his VITA 72 he writes of a “Kapharnomon” (changed in some mss. to Kapharnokon). In WARS (3:519-20) he writes of a spring (not a town) named “Kapharnoum.” Zindler (“Where Jesus Never Walked”) thinks the two places are not identical and that neither corresponds with the town of the gospels. I find the WARS passage (III.10.8 in Whiston) most unusual. Josephus writes: “The country also that lies over against this lake has the same name of Gennesareth. . . besides the good temperature of the air, it is also watered by a most fertile fountain. The people of the country call it Capharnaum. Some have thought it to be a vein of the Nile, because it produces the Coracin fish as well as that lake does which is near Alexandria.” His link with the Nile, and specifically with Lake Mareotis (the lake “near Alexandria”) is simply astounding. We recall that was the very lake on which the Therapeutae of Philo had their residence. Now, Epiphanius thought the Therapeutae were early Christians. . . At this point, I’m treating the fishy connection (pun intended) as a very bizzarre coincidence. Then, too, the “Coracin” fish sounds to me like the place frequented by Jesus known as Corazin. Better cue the Twilight Zone music. . . But Detering, Einhorn, myself, and a many others are convinced that the evangelists got a lot of their information for the gospels from Josephus. Such details just seem to confirm it.

      As for “Gennesareth” –> “Nazareth.” this has been mooted in the literature. But in semitic one name has the samekh, the other tsade, so they’re not lingistically compatible. Nasar (nun-samekh-resh) means “he sawed” and thus immediately brings to mind “carpenter.” Thus Gennasaret would be “Valley [or Garden] of Carpenters” and it’s possible that the NT got Joseph’s/Jesus’ trade from that. Thus, M. Avi-Yonah: “Nazareth was apparently a town of carpenters. Joseph ha-Levi thought that the name Nazareth was akin to the Hebrew nesoret (sawdust), and that Gennesaret literally meant the Valley of Sawyers.” (World Hst. of the Jewish People, I, vol. 7:188). Who knows?

      I haven’t heard the interpretation “Gennesareth” = “Garden of the Prince.” I think you’re referring to ge + nasi which, however, has shin and no resh.

  3. Paragraph 3 about the a quotation from scripture that doesn’t exist – was Matthew not using/misusing Judges 13:5?

    • Judg 13:5 seems a stretch to me. Elsewhere Mt quotes verbatim. Why not here? The Judges verse has “nazir” while Mt has “Nazwraios.” Why didn’t Mt just write ναζιρ in Greek? One can argue that Mt was using the Alexandrian version of the Septuagint, which says at Judges 13:5 “he shall be a nazeiraion to God from the womb.” That’s closer, but still is not what Mt writes: “And he shall be called a nazwraios.” The long omega in nazwraios is distinctive and very different from anything else. My personal library only has one commentary on Matthew (Fenton, 1963). On this, it says: “The source of this prophecy is not known, but Isa. 11:1 has been suggested: ‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (netser) shall grew out of his roots.'” But that seems quite a stretch, too. I mean, Mt’s quoting.

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