‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:46). If one of Jesus’s future disciples, Nathanael, had such a low opinion of Jesus’s home town, we may ask whether its inhabitants thought any better of it. Could anything wonderful emerge from the place? If so, what would it possibly look like?
While the word Mark uses for miracle in this passage is simply the common Greek word for ‘power’ (dunamis), our own word ‘miracle’ in its original Latin sense (miraculum) conjures up better the issue that Mark wishes to confront in his account of this incident: that recognizing significance is partly dependent on prior attitude, a readiness to respond to individuals and events at the very least with surprise, or in more spectacular cases with awe and wonder (the root meaning of the Latin word).
Nathan Coley’s light-and-text installation was first placed on the outskirts of the city of Stirling in central Scotland. Whether its citizens read the notice as no more than an endorsement of the unsurprising reality in which they lived or felt summoned to challenge Coley’s ambiguous message, I do not know. For some, perhaps, the work had the air of some kind of sad leftover from a carnival or fairground. An empty structure that might once have supported or witnessed something marvellous but was now abandoned.
Thanks to its subsequent central placement on the approach to a modern art gallery, visitors now find themselves encouraged to question the nature of modern and contemporary art in light of its statement. Such art often makes its mark through provocation and the unexpected. By this measure, Jesus’s whole life as recounted in the Gospels can also be likened to a work of art; he too provokes and surprises, challenging his audiences to discover more than what they believe they already know. But, whether it is the modern art gallery or Jesus that we face, our own expectations come under scrutiny too. Are we expecting too much or too little—from either?
In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas from which the story of the clay birds is derived, Joseph is represented as repeatedly attempting to deter Jesus from his miraculous deeds—unlike in other apocryphal infancy gospels (such as Pseudo-Matthew) which have Jesus’s parents in perpetual awe at the child’s behaviour. In this episode, he is joined by a Jewish neighbour in objecting to Jesus’s making clay birds on the sabbath. The illustration diverges from its text in not foregrounding Joseph: the conical Jewish hat and absence of halo suggest that the figure objecting to Jesus’s actions is a generically representative ‘Jew’. But whether in the form of parents or other adults, authority figures are shown (by text and image) not always to be right. In an expansion of those described by the Gospels as opposing Jesus to include neighbours and even family, there is an open invitation to us to think again about our assumptions.
James Tissot was fond of representing the miraculous (over thirty examples are to be found in the collection of watercolours in Brooklyn), so it is perhaps not altogether surprising that he makes the events of Jesus’s return to Nazareth something of a miracle too, with ‘the brow of the hill’ transformed into a vast gorge. While the Lukan narrative may foreground the wrath of the people of Nazareth, Tissot focuses instead on their puzzlement: how could Jesus have successfully escaped their clutches? Wonder at the mystery of the man has thus become of central importance in this composition.
Some of his friends doubted the sincerity of Tissot’s conversion. But if genuine, as seems plausible, we may see in it an openness that successfully reverses the pattern set by Mark. For the Evangelist those surrounding us in formative years can inhibit new perceptions. Tissot—despite his somewhat wild adult life—seems to have remained at least open to the ideas he had learned in his youth (his mother had been a devout Roman Catholic). Parents may not always be right, but maybe sometimes they are.
All three artworks may therefore challenge us to read the text, not principally as a condemnation of the narrowness of the people of Jesus’s home town, but rather as an encouragement—addressed also to us—to be open to the unexpected, to be ready to revise our expectations, and to find the wondrous still at work and, maybe, near at hand.
A similar challenge may face today’s Church. New interpretations of where revelation is pointing it continue to emerge, even when, like the people of Jesus’s Nazareth, the Christian community is tempted to think it has all the answers.
Elliott, J. K. (ed.). 1996. The Apocryphal Jesus: Legends of the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp.19–30
6 And on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4 And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” 5 And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. 6 And he marveled because of their unbelief.
And he went about among the villages teaching.
53 And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, 54 and coming to his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.” 58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; 17and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
20 And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Caperʹna-um, do here also in your own country.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. 25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Eliʹjah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; 26 and Eliʹjah was sent to none of them but only to Zarʹephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Eliʹsha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naʹaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. 30 But passing through the midst of them he went away.