One of the places we visited during our trip to Israel was the Mount of the Precipice – the traditional site for the event described in Luke 4: 28 – 30 after Jesus has delivered his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him up to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” (NIV)
As our bus approached the city of Nazareth, going up the steep slope, I remembered reading that not everyone is convinced of the historical or geographical accuracy of this story. Some scholars tell us that there was no steep cliff in Nazareth from which the townspeople could throw Jesus; some are not convinced that Nazareth even existed in first century Palestine.
Neither Flavius Josephus nor the Talmud mentions the city of Nazareth. This argument from silence (which isn’t exactly airtight conclusive) might be more convincing if we didn’t already suspect that Nazareth was something of an unimportant backwater burg. “Nazareth! Can anything good com from there?” asked one of Jesus’ early followers (John 1:46). Why would such an unimportant place be mentioned?
But historical evidence for a 1st century Nazareth is not altogether absent. In 1962 archaeologists found an inscription in Caesarea Maritime listing the priestly families and where they settled following the Jewish war against Rome – including some who relocated to Nazareth. [i] So it does appear that there was a Nazareth in Jesus’ day, but whether or not there was a cliff there is another matter.
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John P. Meier – whose A Marginal Jew series on the historical Jesus I have found very helpful – says this: “The ending of Luke’s story…suffers from a historical difficulty. Luke says that the angry Nazarenes dragged Jesus ‘to the edge of the cliff [literally, the brow of the mountain] on which the city was built, to throw him down the precipice.’ (Luke 4:29). Actually, Nazareth lies in a sloping basin on the side of a hill; there are a number of higher elevations around it.” (Meier, 303) [ii]
Robert J. Miller has said, “Luke generally seems poorly informed about Palestinian geography. Aspects of his geography may therefore be fictive.” [iii]
As I stood on the traditional site (always taken with a large grain of salt) of the Mount of the Precipice, I wondered about that. Modern day Nazareth (sometimes known as the “Arab capital of Israel” – roughly 2/3 Muslim 1/3 Christian) surrounds the traditional site on the north to the southwest. (The modern Jewish city, Nazareth Iliit, is further to the north and east.) It does, as Meier said, rest in a sort of natural bowl on the side of the hill. There are no steep cliffs there.
But the traditional site isn’t so far removed (it’s about 2.5 miles) as to make it completely impossible is it? Luke does say that they “drove him out of town….”
(Photo #1 looking down from the traditional site of the Mount of the Precipice. Photo #2 Looking West towards Nazareth from the Precipice.)
[ii] Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew- Rethinking the Historical Jesus – Vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person Doubleday, New York, NY.