August 25, 2009

The Nazareth Synagogue - 5

Jesus' first trip home to Nazareth (in Luke 4) took place in mid to late summer of 29 AD. His return trip (in Mark 6 & Matthew 13) came roughly a year later, before the second harvest of 30 AD. At the first homecoming he showed up alone and almost got thrown off a cliff. At the second homecoming, Jesus brought his disciples and nobody touched him. That alone should prove these are two separate incidents, but there are many more valuable distinctions worth noting, especially for the sake of reconstructing events.

The information we get from Mark and Matthew about this occasion is nearly the same. Mark gives a little more detail, and sounds as if Jesus might have come in a day or two early before teaching on the Sabbath. Matthew does not suggest a time frame at all, but both writers quickly establish that the central focus of the passage is going to be about teaching and learning, which was of course the main activity for the Synagogue community each Saturday.

In his first homecoming, Jesus read scripture and spoke words of grace, both of which amazed the Nazarenes, who asked, "Isn't this Joseph's son?" That earlier question sounds especially personal when compared with the somewhat similar question(s?) at his second homecoming, which focused on his vocation. (Mk: "Is not this the carpenter?" Mt: "Is not this the carpenter's son?") This time, the Nazarenes were specifically astonished by his teaching and healing abilities, as if the only skills they’d ever seen him master were in carpentry.

Both passages seem to emphasize the teachings more than the miracles, which took up much less of his time that day. It is also notable that the Synagogue and its teaching programs had long been part of Jesus' life, whereas the miracles were new. John’s Gospel tells us that miraculous powers came to Jesus only after the spirit descended upon him, so the Nazarenes being astonished about his miracles makes perfect sense. Even though they’d heard reports, they’d not seen his power first hand until now. In contrast, the Nazarenes being astonished at Jesus' teaching ability should give us pause, because Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus had been able to engage in rabbinic dialogue very impressively since age 12.

For that matter, we need to consider what exactly Jesus might have been “teaching” in Nazareth. Mark’s Gospel is not highly demonstrative about Jesus' teaching sessions, but parables and scripture were often involved. Matthew's Gospel is much more helpful, giving us the entire “Sermon on the Mount” - during which Jesus reinterprets the Law and describes a better approach to pleasing God and after which the crowds were astonished [exeplessonto] in the same way as the Nazarene Jews. Whether in parables or rabbinic style discourse, Jesus was no doubt explaining his revolutionary view of God and the Law.

Matthew tells us clearly (7:29) that Jesus' teaching was strikingly different from the typical Synagogue fare, and so we must conclude that if Jesus had ever discoursed in Nazareth in that way, even once in the past three decades, the Nazarenes would have been astonished at that time, instead of during this homecoming event. This is more specific than (and yet already contained within) our conclusion about his first homecoming. If Jesus had never spoken publicly in a memorable way, then that includes teaching like we are now considering. But we have gone this far with the question of his teaching in order to go a bit further.

The central question of the Nazarene Jews still stands for us today, and it begins with what must be the single most surprising word in both texts, from a historical perspective. More than once, they asked themselves, “Where…?” At first glance, we might take this merely as a rhetorical term, until we remember that Jesus has been away and traveling for the better part of two years, since his baptism. In that light, “Where…?” comes across as a definitively geographical question. Now it is our turn to be astonished. Somehow, the Nazarenes did not believe Jesus could have gained such understanding during his three decades of life right there, among themselves.

If the Jews of the Nazarene Synagogue did not know where he got his astonishing education, then where did he get it? Or, if he learned "these things" in Nazareth, why were they so astonished to think that he could have? Why did it shock them to think he had so fully mastered the Law? Why did they think he was merely a carpenter?

To be continued...

Series Update: The Nazareth Synagogue
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

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