Did Nazareth exist during the life of Jesus? How can we know? What does the evidence say? These are questions that Christians are asked to answer more frequently by professed “skeptics” in our world today. It is curious that the first-century historicity of Jesus should be the subject of such contention, since this matter was effectively laid to rest long ago.
There are several reasons often given for doubting the first-century historicity of Nazareth, and these reasons are largely built around arguments from silence. For one thing, Nazareth is never mentioned in the writings of Josephus, nor is it mentioned in any other first-century writings. Critics also contend that the biblical geography is in error, as there is no cliff near the synagogue to which Jesus was allegedly taken, as recounted in Luke 4:24–30.
Generally speaking, arguments from silence are weak. We must ask just how much one would expect the contemporary writers to mention the town of Nazareth. Nazareth was a small and insignificant village, and Josephus had no real reason to mention it. The town’s insignificance is evident in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, when Nathaniel asks, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46).
Laying aside the problems with the argument from silence, we should also note that the claim that there is no first-century evidence for Nazareth is not entirely correct. In AD 70, at the end of the Jewish war with the Romans, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and this meant that Jewish priests and their families had to be redeployed. An inscription was discovered in 1962 in Caesarea Maritima that documents that the priests of the order of Elkalir came to live in Nazareth. This has only been confirmed by later discoveries. For example, in 2009, the first Nazarene home to date from Jesus’ era was excavated by archaeologists. The house was a simple structure, consisting of two small rooms and a courtyard.
The claim of incorrect geography carries a bit more weight than the argument from silence. The closest cliff to Nazareth to which Jesus might have been taken is roughly 2.5 miles away from the synagogue; however, there is no reason why Jesus could not have been taken that far.
In conclusion, the claim that there is no historical evidence for the existence of the town of Nazareth in the first century stands refuted by the archaeological data, and many of the more informed atheist critics, even among those who deny the historicity of Jesus, have advised caution with using this argument.