Did the author of Luke make a geographical blunder in Luke 4:29?
Let’s just say that Jesus’ first sermon in his home city of Nazareth did not go over big. Reading out of Isaiah 61, Jesus announces that he’s the long-awaited Messiah that the prophet predicted. Rather than becoming a hometown hero, this offended the people who watched Jesus grow up to no end. Jesus then irritated them further, pointing to two different scenarios in the Books of Kings where rejected prophets healed and helped Gentile sinners before helping their fellow Israelites. (Luke 4:16–31)
Luke tells us that this was the result:
“And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.”
But critics say that Luke was spinning some yarn here. This story couldn’t have happened as he detailed it. Why? Well, no cliff exists near Nazareth within a few miles, and the town wasn’t “built on” a cliff. Did the author of Luke have limited knowledge about the geography of the area? Did he make a blunder?
THEOLOGICAL GEOGRAPHY? CUNNINGLY DEVISED FABLES?
Some commentators say that Luke is just trying to make a theological point. Here’s Robert Stein:
“It is difficult to know exactly what Luke meant in that Nazareth is built on a slope and no clear “brow” or cliff is nearby. He may have been less concerned here with the topography than with a desire to allude specifically to the martyrdom of Stephen and possibly James or in general the customary practice of throwing a person down from a height before stoning.”
New American Commentary Series
More straight to the point, here’s biblical critic Michael Wolter:
“The place to which Jesus is led and from which he is to be thrown down is not topographically verifiable and ancient Nazareth was not located on a mountain but in a high valley. The details regarding this are pure fiction.”
The Gospel According to Luke: Volume I
Pure fiction? Ouch. So what’s going on here? It sounds like these critics are assuming that the scene of the event was Mount Precipice, which is indeed about two miles outside of the town. The Roman Catholic church does recognize this as the site that Luke is referring to.
The problem with this view is that the Mount of Precipitation is about two miles away from the city. That would be quite a trek for an angry mob. Not only that, but while Nazareth is a much larger town today than it was 2,000 years ago, the city spread still hasn’t reached Mount Precipice. There is still no town built on this hill.
IF NOT MT PRECIPICE, WHERE?
But before we jump to conclusions, let’s see what others have said. The Pulpit Commentary has some apt remarks:
“The place now shown as the scene of the act of violence of the fanatics of Nazareth, known as the Mount of Precipitation, is some two miles from the town. It must be remembered that this happened on a sabbath day; this would, therefore, be beyond the limits of a sabbath day’s journey. There is, however, close to Nazareth a cliff about forty feet high.”
Here’s another commentator:
“The rim of hills around Nazareth is generally bare, rocky, and treeless, in this contrasting strongly with Northern Galilee. Nazareth has been filled by monastic inventions with holy places, such as the Virgin’s House, and others equally unhistorical. But there is one special incident of our Lord’s life at Nazareth which points to a definite locality, and that is ‘the brow of the hill whereon their city was built,’ down which the infuriated men of Nazareth sought to cast headlong Him whose teaching had offended them. This has been transferred by the monks to the so-called ‘Mount of Precipitation,’ half an hour south-east of the town, a site contradicted by the history. There are several precipitous cliffs in Nazareth itself.
So steep is the place generally, that in many parts there are only houses on one side of the street, the other being simply a wall of rocks, whence building material has been quarried. But while the extension of the modern town is towards the valley, the traces of the older village are rather higher up. There is almost a semicircle of steep cliffs, though now concealed, for the most part, by a luxuriant growth of prickly pear; and in excavating the upper platform, there have recently been found many traces of ancient buildings, situated above the amphitheater which forms the modern town.”
Bible Places: Or, The Topography of the Holy Land (London: 1884), p. 253–54
Now we’re finding out that there could be several locations that fit the bill. Let’s look at just one more commentary and see if we can do better:
…the brow of the hill whereon their city was built] The ‘whereon’ refers to the hill not to the brow. Nazareth nestles under the southern slopes of the hill. The cliff down which they wished to hurl Him (because this was regarded as a form of ‘stoning,’ the legal punishment for blasphemy) was certainly not the so-called ‘Mount of Precipitation’ which is two miles distant, and therefore more than a sabbath day’s journey, but one of the rocky escarpments of the hill, and possibly that above the Maronite Church, which is about 40 feet high. This form of punishment is only mentioned in 2 Chronicles 25:12; but in Phocis it was the punishment for sacrilege. (Philo.)
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Interesting. So the reading in the Greek could easily mean that Nazareth wasn’t built on the “brow of a hill” but whereon could refer to the fact the town was built on a hill itself. Modern-day Nazareth is nestled in a natural bowl which reaches from 1/5th of a mile above sea level to the crest of the hills about 1/3rd of a mile. This Maronite convent the author is referring to exists today in the southwest corner of the town of Nazareth. And there is a cliff that overhangs it. Here, take a look. This is just from a simple search on Google maps:
While a thousand-foot drop will end someone pretty quick, a 40 to 50-foot drop could hurt someone pretty badly as well. In fact, the median lethal distance for falls is four stories or 48 feet, according to the reference book Trauma Anesthesia. In other words, this means that 50% of patients who fall four stories will die. The enraged crowd could have intended to push Jesus down the cliff and stone him to finish the job, if necessary. The King James Version and Young’s Literal translation but say the mob intended to cast him down headlong, meaning head first.
It seems like critics are too quick to assume that Luke didn’t know what he was talking about, but this objection is based on their own dubious geography. It’s almost like the ancients were more aware of the topography they wrote about than we are.