The Folks of Nazareth: Bi-Polar or Nah?

Quick Note for Monday, December 22 (’14)

Jesus’ first recorded public engagement in the Gospel of Luke comes in 4:16-29, where he speaks in the synagogue of Nazareth, his hometown. Go ahead and read it; I’ll wait. If you read the account in the English Standard Version, it sounds as the though the people of the synagogue do a complete 180° in their attitude toward Jesus: from hearing him enthusiastically, to wanting to kill him. Is that what really happened?

After the first bit of his sermon, they all “spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming out of his mouth” (v. 22, per ESV), but less than ten verses later, they’re making a concerted effort to toss him down the cliff (v. 29). The NASB and NKJV give us this same sense, and it’s owing entirely to the way verse 22 is translated. The translators may have this wrong.  So, while realizing that it’s probably unwise to call out three highly regarded, conservative, and literal translations for being misleading, I want to register an objection.

I don’t think verse 22 has the people of Nazareth receiving Jesus well, only to flip right into a murderous rage. I think they were negative toward Jesus from the beginning.  I have two reasons:

1) The Greek language of 4:22 is sufficiently ambiguous to allow a more negative interpretation.

2) The context seems to demand the negative interpretation.

First, what’s the Greek Say?

The Greek term behind “spoke well of” is the single Greek verb martyreo (ἐμαρτύρουν), which has as its basic meaning “to testify” or “bear witness to.”  What is being testified to is determined by the context. The word does not mean “to speak well of,” even though many times when it’s being used, what is being testified to is someone’s good character (e.g., Cornelius, Acts 10:22; David, Acts 13:22). So the question in Luke 4:22 is, to what are the people testifying? It would appear to be the fact that they knew Jesus’ background and who he was — “Is this not Joseph’s son?” It’s a question asked also in Matthew 13:55, and there it does not appear to be a compliment.

Moreover, “gracious words” is more literally “words of grace.”  The people of Nazareth were not marveling at Jesus gracious words, as though he was such a nice guy or eloquent speaker. They were marveling at the words of grace — the announcement he had just made in vs. 18-21 that the year of the Lord’s favor was upon them.¹

interlocking-puzzle-piecesSo putting these things together, what we have is this: Jesus reads the prophecy of Isaiah about the year of the Lord’s favor, puts the scroll down, and says the words are fulfilled “this day in your hearing”.

The people testify — while marveling at this word of grace — that this guy speaking to them is someone they know. It’s just Jesus, the carpenter’s son! How could he be the fulfillment of God’s exalted promises from centuries ago?  Jesus claims to be the fulfillment of God’s promises, but the people, “with their eyes fixed on him,” don’t see it that way.

Second, This Fits the Context

This understanding makes better sense to me contextually because it does not demand that the townspeople have a sudden mood swing. They are feeling suspicious and negative of Jesus from the beginning. That’s why, when they “testify”, Jesus immediately starts rebuking them, about how no prophet (himself) is welcome in his hometown. They weren’t speaking well of him, they were mocking his pedigree — or in their minds, his lack of one.

How about it, translation committees?

¹One heavy-weight commentator on Luke, Darrell Bock, notes that “testify” may have the sense of “testify against,” in agreement with what I’m proposing here, but dismisses the possibility on the grounds that “gracious words” seems to be a positive statement. That objection is unpersuasive if we recognize that “words of grace” is not speaking of the character of Jesus’ words, but the content of his words, which is v.21, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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