Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune’s senior religion writer, Peggy Fletcher Stack, is on assignment in the Middle East. Besides her deeper reporting, she is sharing shorter daily dispatches. This one is from Nazareth.
Nazareth • Let’s talk distances.
It took us about two hours to drive the 91 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem, mostly on a smoothly paved highway. Walking between the two cities would have taken days in the biblical era. If, as the Gospel of John in the New Testament asserts, Jesus made the trek numerous times, that’s a lot of hiking.
On top of that, just moving between the towns of Cana (where the wedding feast took place) and Capernaum (where Jesus began preaching) is about 16 miles. It may have been a smallish trek but still likely took hours.
However, the place Catholics identify as the site where Angel Gabriel told Mary she was carrying God’s son (the Basilica of the Annunciation) and what is thought to be Christ’s childhood home in Nazareth are mere steps away (underneath what is now the Sisters of Nazareth convent).
Also nearby is an ancient synagogue that, according to tradition, was built on top of the ruins of the sacred place where Jesus studied and prayed.
Unlike the grandeur surrounding the grotto (thought to be the remains of Mary’s childhood home) — which sits inside a modern Catholic church of limestone and marble, decorated with mosaics, paintings and sculptures from many nations — the simple synagogue is tucked away in a corner of a covered marketplace.
It was easy to picture the boy Jesus standing in front of his elders in this small space and reading verses of scripture.
I also could imagine the adult Jesus returning there after 40 days in the wilderness.
“Members of the synagogue immediately recognized him as simply Joseph’s son. They must have had personal memories of Jesus as a child,” Latter-day Saint researcher James McConkie says in a forthcoming volume about the New Testament. “So he was evidently welcomed and then invited to come forward to the raised platform, or bimah, at the center of the synagogue to read text from the scroll prescribed for that Sabbath.”
Jesus read from the scroll, which included the 61st chapter of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
The Book of Luke says the future Christian Savior then declared, “The scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day.”
And thus did Jesus announce his ministry.
“It is worthy of note that from the vantage point of a 21st-century Christian, it seems odd that he did not introduce himself and his ministry by speaking about faith, repentance and baptism. But he did not,” McConkie writes. “… Rather, he began his ministry by speaking about his concern for the poor and destitute.”
As we wound our way back from the little synagogue, merchants selling everything from headscarves to pomegranates and sandals sat mostly idle as few tourists were there to buy their goods. The pandemic, they said, has been tough for them.
Today, Jesus’ hometown has the largest Arab population in the country, sometimes referred to as the “Arab capital of Israel.”
What was once a tiny agricultural village has grown to be a religiously diverse city of around 80,000.
Yet it is still largely known worldwide for its connection to Jesus Christ, whose message about care for the poor continues to resonate.
And by the many pilgrims who try to walk in his footsteps, no matter the distance.