Between Nazareth and Bethlehem: Jesus’ origins in the Gospel

David Neuhaus, SJ

 David Neuhaus, SJ / Church Thought / 29 January 2019

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The complex presentation of the origins of Jesus in the books of the Gospel embodies a tension between continuity and rupture, old and new, expectation and surprise in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Two places, Nazareth and Bethlehem, characterize this tension that is fundamental to the relationship between the two covenants, whose unity forms the basis of the Christian Bible.

The perspective of Mark

Mark, the first of the Gospel accounts to be written, informs his readers right from the first verse who Jesus actually is: “the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). However, the author first introduces Jesus in the narrative account as coming to the Jordan for baptism from Nazareth. The informed reader is aware of the scandal involved in this presentation of Jesus: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mark 1:9). Nazareth itself is never mentioned in the Scriptures of Israel. Therefore Nazareth “ought not” to be the place from which the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God emerges. Nazareth in Mark’s narrative is equivalent to “nowhere,” a place that does not resound with any echoes whatsoever of the great story of salvation and is utterly unconnected to the hope for the appearance of a Davidic Messiah.

While Jerusalem and Bethlehem embody the center of a sacred geography in the midst of which salvation history unfolds – recognizable for its heritage, and pregnant with promise – Nazareth is like a barren wilderness, evoking no expectation at all. However, Nazareth, a word which appears nowhere in the Old Testament, plays an important role as it, as the place of origin, prepares the reader for the finality of the narrative, another word that never appears in the Old Testament: the Cross.

Nazareth marks Jesus’ point of departure as he sets off for the Jordan. It is on the banks of the Jordan that Jesus will give evidence for the first time that he has come to “empty himself.” It is Paul, Mark’s great teacher, who poetically reports the reality of Christ’s self-emptying: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).

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