Did Jesus live in Nazareth according to the Sermon on the Mount?

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere, is very hard for anyone to live up to. I certainly don’t do so myself, although I do make it my aim.

This is so hard that some Christians teach that the Sermon was never intended to be lived up to, but only to provide an unattainable standard of excellence to show us humans how sinful we are. This is the Unconditional Divine Will View or the Repentance View, numbers 10 and 11 of the 12 interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount listed in this Wikipedia article. The implication of these views, and indeed of several of the other views in this list, including the dispensationalist view, is that the Sermon should not be understood as practical instructions for Christians living normal lives in this world.

This view is challenged by the implications of what I read today at Bill Heroman’s NT/History Blog. In the latest instalment of his long series on Jesus’ life in Nazareth, Bill writes:

In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus tells us that God rewards those who fast secretly, who put oil on their heads and wash their face, so that no one will know they are fasting. If rewarding such behavior means God likes that behavior, then Matthew must be implying this behavior was characteristic of Jesus before his baptism. …

If this is not valid, we would have to assume that Matthew thought Jesus was inventing new strategies for fasting which he’d never practiced himself. That certainly doesn’t seem to fit Matthew’s high opinion of Jesus and would actually place him closer to the showy hypocrites just decried in the same series of statements. …

Therefore, if we take the original passage as an historical teaching of Jesus, according to Matthew, then we may also take the inversion of it as a historical aspect of Jesus’ life in Nazareth.

If Bill’s line of argument is valid, then Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere must be based on his own practice.

There is a step which I don’t think Bill has actually proved, that Jesus’ teaching reflects his practice before he began his public ministry, and not just during this ministry. But the alternative would have to be that his baptism marked a radical change not just in his way of life but also in his basic attitudes. This would be inconsistent with the Christian teaching that Jesus was the sinless Son of God not just from his baptism but also from his birth. Also in this case, given that the Sermon on the Mount occurs early in Jesus’ ministry and doubtless some of his hearers near Capernaum would have known him from his time in Nazareth, one would expect some references more like “Don’t do as I used to do” alongside those of “Don’t do what the hypocrites do”.

The implication of this is that during the “hidden years” of his life at Nazareth, working as a carpenter (Mark 6:3) in Joseph’s workshop and living with his mother, brothers and sisters, he was leading his life according to the standards which he later taught in the Sermon on the Mount. This further implies that it is possible to live according to these standards, not only while living apart from the world but also while living a normal family live and doing a normal job.

I note also that at this time Jesus was not filled with the Holy Spirit in the same way that he was after his baptism. So it is hard to argue that being filled with the Holy Spirit is a prerequisite for living according to the Sermon on the Mount. Anyway, this is no excuse for Christians, who are already filled with the Holy Spirit even if this is not always evident in their lives.

So why are so many of us Christians quick to find reasons why we don’t have to obey Jesus’ teaching? Could it be just a little bit too uncomfortable and demanding? Does living according to the Sermon on the Mount sound a little too likely to lead us to rejection and even death, as eventually it did for Jesus? But isn’t that what we are called to as Christians? Isn’t that what Jesus meant with these words?:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

Matthew 16:24-25 (TNIV)

0 thoughts on “Did Jesus live in Nazareth according to the Sermon on the Mount?

  1. Matthew 5:14 “A city on a hill cannot be hidden” Within easy sight of Nazareth is/was the hilltop Roman citadel of Sepphoris, which would have been visible even at night. Given Jesus’ tendency to use things around him and things from everyday life, I see this as confirmation that the Sermon on the Mount reflects Jesus’s residence in Nazareth, either during the “hidden years” or during his actaul ministry.

  2. Peter, thanks very much for your help once again. I am leaving the question of what *we* “have to” do about it up to others. I certainly don’t live up to the SOTM. I do think that anyone who tries will fall on their face before the Lord, which may indeed be half the point. However, as you say very well, I also happen to think Jesus DID live up to it.

    If we struggle to believe that he lived that way, it may only mean we do not understand the relationship he had with God.

  3. Tim G, I’m not positive but I think Nazareth sat on the east side of the ridge from Sepphoris. If that’s true, it might have taken a short walk to get visibility but your point is still very intriguing.

    Of course, Sepphoris, Jerusalem and most Greek cities were preferably located on some kind of high ground. But Nazareth itself was in a valley and yet very uphill from the plains below. It was surrounded by hills, but not quite on all sides. Almost hidden, but not quite.

    No conclusions here yet, but I’ll definitely think about this some more. Thanks. 🙂

  4. Bill, I agree that “anyone who tries [to live up to the Sermon] will fall on their face before the Lord”, hopefully in prayer and not from exhaustion!

    As for Nazareth, why the “was”? It is still there, expanded but the core of the town is probably on the original site.

    Tim, sadly a quick look at Google Earth disproves your point. Sepphoris (Tsippori) is not on a large hill. At 258m altitude it is higher than the low ground to the north and west but lower than the historic centre of Nazareth (362m) and even lower than the ridge which separates the two (over 450m).

    I wonder if you are confusing Sepphoris with Safed/Tsefat. I have heard this suggested before as the original city on the hill. Safed is on a very high hill at nearly 800m and clearly visible from the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount, 11km away, which at 81 m BELOW sea level must be the lowest “mount” in the world! The problem with any theory that Safed was the city on a hill is that, as suggested by Wikipedia, it was apparently not an important place in the time of Jesus.

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