Facts: Located in a high valley with a mild climate. Name may derive from natzerat, watchtower” or netzer, “branch.” Not mentioned in the Old Testament or anywhere outside of the New Testament until the second century A.D.
Then: Known for its independent views. Though it had a small population of perhaps some 200 people in New Testament times, it was not a “hick town.” It was within walking distance of one of the capitals of Galilee and was also located near a trade route. Greek may have been a common spoken language.
Today: Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel, with a population of some 80,000.1 Tourism is the biggest industry. The Church of the Annunciation commemorates the tradition that the divine announcement to Mary recorded in Luke 1 took place here.
Jesus’ Words:“Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” And He did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. (Matthew 13:54-58; see also Mark 6:1-6)
Facts: The name in Hebrew means “house of bread.” There were two towns called Bethlehem: one in the area of the tribe of Zebulun (mentioned in Joshua 19:15) and the more famous one, King David’s hometown, also called Bethelehem Ephrathah. The comments below are in regard to this second Bethlehem.
Then: This was the birthplace of Jesus, in fulfillment of Micah 5:2 (see Matthew 2:1-6.) In the second century A.D., the Roman emperor Hadrian expelled all Jews from Bethlehem. By then there was a local tradition that Jesus had been born in a cave in Bethlehem; Hadrian turned the cave into a shrine for the god Adonis in order to counter Christianity.
Today: Today Bethlehem is called Bayt Lahm and is predominantly Arabic. It lies in the West Bank, part of a district of 140,000 Palestinians and 8,500 Jewish settlers; Bethlehem proper has 22,000 people.2 The Church of the Nativity is located there, by tradition marking the birthplace of Jesus.
Angel’s and Shepherd’s Words: “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’…When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:8-15).
Facts: The city, in previous forms, dates back to the third millennium B.C. It is located in the high hills of Judah, surrounded by valleys on three sides. The name means “foundation of peace.” However, since the name dates back before the time of Israel, it may have originally meant the “foundation of the god Shalem” when used among pagan peoples; the Jewish people then gave the name a “makeover” referring to peace. It is called the “city of holiness” in Isaiah 52:1, since God’s Temple was located there.
Then: Jerusalem was a small mountain stronghold ruled by the Jebusites until King David captured it. It became Israel’s capital and the site where Solomon built the Temple. The city and the Temple have quite a history: captured by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C. and destroyed in 586 B.C.; rebuilt by the returnees under Persian rule; enlarged by King Herod into the magnificent structure it was in New Testament times; captured and destroyed by Rome in the First Jewish Revolt of 66–70 A.D. After the Second Jewish Revolt in 132 A.D., Jerusalem was rebuilt as a pagan city, dedicated to the god Jupiter Capitolinus. All Jews were excluded, unable to return until Constantine’s rule in the 4th century A.D.
Today: The capital of modern Israel. After the 1948 war it was divided into East and West Jerusalem, but was reunified under Israel’s control after the 1967 Six-Day War. East Jerusalem is largely Arab, West Jerusalem largely Jewish. The population has varied enormously over the centuries; as of 2008 it stood at 763,000, which includes 268,600 Arabs.3 Jerusalem is home to the largest concentration of Orthodox Jews in Israel. The Old City especially has become a tourist destination.
Jesus’ Words: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:34-35; see also Matthew 23:37-38).
Facts: Name means “village of Nahum.” Located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, it is not mentioned before New Testament times.
Then: Inhabited 2nd century B.C.–11th century A.D. as a fishing village. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 746 A.D. and rebuilt to the northeast of the old spot, then finally abandoned at about the 11th century. The modern world discovered the ancient site in 1838.4 Rabbinic and other literature suggests that Capernaum was largely inhabited by Jewish believers in Jesus till the 4th century.
Today: Capernaum has been described as an “archaeological park.”5 The site was utterly abandoned until the Franciscans bought land there in the nineteenth century. Today a church marks what tradition considers the place where Peter’s house was located. There is also one synagogue there, but it is not a “living” city as the cities above are.
Jesus’ Words: “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:23-24).
Facts: Established by Herod Antipas about 17-20 A.D. as a capital of Galilee. It is located on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee and was named after Tiberius Caesar.
Then: In New Testament times it was a leading center for the Zealot movement. Built on a former cemetery, it was considered unclean by pious Jews. Largely Gentile in the days of Jesus, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. it became the leading center for Jewish scholarship. The Mishnah, the foundational document of rabbinic Judaism, was compiled in Tiberias around 200 A.D.
Today: Tiberias is a thriving modern city of 40,000, a vacation and tourist spot, and home to a vibrant fishing industry.6
Incident at Tiberias: Afterward, Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Tiberias. It happened this way:
Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish… . This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead (John 21:1-6, 14).
In addition to the footnotes, the above information can be found in the New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed.(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996) and the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992) under the articles on the various cities.
- Website of Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association.
Choshen, Maya and Michal Korach. Jerusalem: Facts and Trends 2009/2010 (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. 2010), p. 9.