Life of Jesus Before He Was Famous

The origin story of Jesus of Nazareth begins in Bethlehem, a humble town known for its significant history accentuated with Isreal’s “greatest king,” David.

But Jesus did not grow up there, but in a small community of Nazareth, in Galilee.

Where Jesus likely learned carpentry from his father, Joseph, in the tight-knit community.

For a man who is known around the world, it is a very humble beginning.

But what do we know about Nazareth, carpentry and Jesus’ family?

Where Did Jesus Live?

Nazareth is a small town in Galilee, located in the northern region of Israel.

It’s possible it gets its name from the Hebrew word “Netzer,” which means “branch,” possibly referring to its location on a hill surrounded by branches.

Either way, it was a fairly insignificant community; neither Josephus nor the Talmud, when listing communities of Galilee, mention it. Highlighting its insignificance.

However, recent archaeological digs in the Galilee region have located roughly 50 house foundations on the side of the hill. Roughly covering an area of 4 acres, with a population of roughly 300, at a max 400 people.

Village Market

Small enough that the Jewish townspeople would know his background.

Isn’t this the carpenter?

NIV Mark 6:3a

I say Jewish because recent digs have unearthed traditional pottery that met Levitical ceremonial requirements.

It is located 5 km east of Sephoris, being rebuilt by Herod Antipas during Jesus’ lifetime. Having been destroyed during a rebellion after Herod the Great’s death, his father.

Despite its close proximity, Sephoris was much more a “Greek” or gentile city. Both in population and design.

But Nazareth, located far from any major roadways, drew little attention or visitors.

Jesus’ Religious Community

It appears that the Jewish religion played a big role in Jesus’ life. What type of Jewish faith is a little harder to determine with a limited record prior to his baptism, and even after, it can be complicated which Jewish sect he most closely aligned with.

Of the four philosophies, as Josephus calls them, Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees (War 2:119–166; Ant. 13:171–173; 18:11–22) and Zealots (Ant. 18:23).

Jesus most likely shared the most with the Pharisees, along with the Essenes. Despite his frequently recorded arguments with the Pharisees and the Essenes never being mentioned in the New Testament. Many of his beliefs and practises, such as participating in Jewish synagogue communities, are pharisaical practices.

We know less about the Essenes as they withdrew from the larger Jewish society, but with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is rapidly changing. But practises like baptism and messianic beliefs like the teacher of righteousness, etc. Jesus seemed to have shared similar beliefs.

But prior to his public ministry, living in a small community of Nazareth, it is most likely his faith practice more reflected this community than any larger official sects.

religious meeting

We are told that Jesus did visit a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth after his baptism ((Matt.13:54; Lk.4:16).

Some scholars like Bart Ehrman believe there is insufficient evidence of a synagogue in Nazareth.

However, the requirement of only 10+ Jewish males over the age of 13 to form a synagogue for public worship. In a community of 300 people, even if we assume large families of 8 kids, there should be at least 30 males in Nazareth. More than three times the minimum requirement, leaving us little reason to doubt the gospel accounts.

The level of Jesus’ participation is a little harder to determine.

Luke tells us that it was Jesus’ habit to attend the local synagogue on the Sabbath.

“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, ”

Luke 4:16

Probably safe to assume that he is not just referring to after Jesus’ was baptized but that this had long been his practice.

Traditionally, any adult males in attendance could participate in public worship by reading the scriptures if literate, teaching, or praying.

We see this in Luke with the scrolls being handed to Jesus to read, which he expands on.

The interesting note is the responds of the crowd.

“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.”

Luke 4:22

Placed later in the narrative, but Matthew has a similar response.

” Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked.”

Matt.13:54

Fitting well with Luke’s story about the boy Jesus, twelve years of age discussing religion with the teachers in the temple.

“Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

NIV Luke 2:47 

The puzzle is if Jesus had such keen insight at 12 years of age, why if for the next 22 years, participating in the synagogue in Nazareth, did the people not become accustomed?

Why the shock and questioning, who is this that knows so much?

Well, you know, it’s Jesus. Our local star, who ever since Joseph sat proudly, watching as his son, stood up for the first time to read and share. Amazing everyone in attendance ever since.

We don’t know the answer, but we can speculate.

Either Luke was exaggerating the boyhood wisdom of Jesus.

Josephus does something similar, claiming when he was only 14, that the High Priests and Jerusalem Leadership sought his counsel (Life 1:9).

It is possible that Jesus was a little withdrawn before his baptism at the synagogue meetings. Keeping to himself, along with his thoughts and keen understanding of the scriptures. Thus, when he returned and finally spoke up, they were all amazed.

How did we not know?

It is also possible that after his baptism and wilderness experience and possible mentoring from John the Baptist returned with greater courage to speak out.

It is even possible that the change in his thinking after interacting with John the Baptist, shocked the locals who knew him from youth.

Perplexing his old friends with the sudden change of beliefs and teaching.

He always had a keen faith and understanding, but now it was drastically different than what he used to share.

Regardless of the why.

It is safe to assume that Jesus belonged to his local synagogue but did not make much of an impact till after his baptism. When he quickly started to rise in fame and influence.

Unfortunately, his reception in Nazareth was less positive (Matt.13:58).

Luke goes as far as an attempt on his life (Lk.4:2,29).

Matthew simply tells us that he moved to Capernaum shortly after returning from the Jordan region (Matt.4:13).

But we still regularly read of Jesus visiting synagogues as he travelled and taught around Galilee (Matt.4:23, 9:35, Mk.1:39, Lk.12:11, 13:10, Jn.18:20) and even Judea (Lk.4:44), but that could have just been Lukes shorthand for the larger Jewish region.

What did Jesus do for a living?

But Jesus, growing up in close proximity to a huge construction project, the rebuilding of Sephoris could have been advantageous to Joseph and him.

Wood Shop

 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph,[a] Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.” 

Mark 6:3 NIV

Creating a high demand for “tektōn,” which is often translated as carpenter but could describe any skilled construction worker.

This also translated into slightly better wages.

“Carpenters were artisans, not peasants, and many assign them to the upper ten percent of non aristocratic Galilean society”

Craig S. Keener

So much so that a carpenter at the time could make up to 50 denarii a month, twice as much as a shepherd or other “unskilled” labourers.

Jesus was no aristocrat, but still, for his time, he lived well.

It appears that Jesus was so fortunate to learn a trade because of Joseph.

Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 

Matthew 13:55 NIV

A common practice at the time was the sons would be apprenticed by their fathers. Learning a skill at a young age that they could soon help provide for the family and, in time, their own family.

The location of Nazareth increased the value and potential of Jesus learning the trade of his father.

It has been discovered that between Nazareth and Sephoris there was a large rock quarry.

Jesus was ideally located for work in construction.

Who did Jesus Live With?

There is some debate about birth order and relations.

The official stance of the Roman Catholics is Jesus had older step-brothers. Sons of Joseph from a previous marriage.

The Orthodox go even further with Jesus’ “brothers” to be better understood as his cousins.

But most historians and protestants accept a simpler definition. Jesus was the oldest of a large family of 4 brothers and at least 2 sisters. Whose father and mother were Joseph and Mary.

Sharing a Family Meal

Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?”

Mark 6:3

Later, after Jesus’ death, James, in particular, would play a key role in the “Christian” movement that he started. But at that time, it would be one of many sects within Judaism.

James led the Jerusalem church and was highly respected as a righteous man by his peers.

Unfortunately for Jesus, we have no mention of his father after he was 12 years old (Lk.2:41-52). Most conclude that Joseph must have passed away before Jesus’ baptism.

We have his mother, Mary, and brothers seeking out Jesus during his ministry but never Joseph (Matt.12, Mk.3, Lk.8, Jn.2).

It appears that Jesus must have played some role in the provision or care for his family. As the gospel of John records, Jesus directed one of his disciples to take care of his mother.

“When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

NIV John 19:26,27

We do not know what happened with their mother during his public ministry; maybe that is what raised concern from his family during his ministry.

Interestingly, it does not appear that Jesus had a wife or children.

Except for the Essenes, was very uncommon among second-temple Jews who took the promise of God to Abraham as a personal responsibility.

“I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed,”

NIV Genesis 26:4

If Abraham was to have numerous descendants, they must do their part, with Jewish males at the time often marrying around 20. The Talmud (Slightly later Jewish writing) recommends 18.

There were exceptions, and it appears Jesus was one of them. Who by 30 years of age had not “settled down” yet (Lk.3:23).

It is possible that Jesus always held to his teaching about marriage.

“For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

NIV Luke 19:12

Choosing not to marry for the “sake of the kingdom.”

Or as in the words of Paul, “that the time is short” (1 Cor.7:29). Jesus, as an apocalyptic prophet, possibly did not see the value of a wife or children because God’s kingdom was coming soon. Marriage was not part of the coming kingdom or age, so why bother now? (Matt.22:30, Mk.12:25, Lk.20:35).

But all this hinges on the belief that Jesus’ beliefs did not change. Even as a young man becoming aware of the opposite gender, deciding that marriage was not for him. Choosing to remain single even years before his public ministry.

There are later texts that suggest Jesus had a love interest or a wife.

Mary Magdalene is often the focus.

But more reliable sources give no such suggestion.

Leaving it is safer to assume historically that he never did marry.

Conclusion

Meeting Jesus at 28 may leave you feeling that there was nothing special about him. Besides of his miracleous birth if, the stories of Matthew and Luke were already in circulation.

He lived a fairly normal small-town life.

Worked in the same industry as his father, lived with his family, and belonged to but played no significant part in his local religious community.

Yep, this famous carpenter-turned-preacher did not stand out of the crowd. Till that day when he rocketed to fame.

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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