Was Matthew Mistaken in the “Nazarene” Prophecy?
“In Matthew 2:23 it was said of Jesus: ‘. . . and he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene.’ But there is no Old Testament prophecy of this nature. How does one explain this difficulty?”
First, it is necessary to point out that a genuine textual problem only exists if one has exhausted every possibility of interpretation, and there simply is no reasonable explanation that resolves the difficulty. That is not the case in this instance. While we may not have a definitive explanation to which we can point with absolute confidence, there are several viable possibilities.
The English “Nazarene” actually renders two kindred Greek terms, nazarenos and nazoraios. The latter form is found in Matthew 2:23, and is identified with the town “Nazareth.” The two words are said to be “simply two morphologically variant forms of the same word with the same meaning,” i.e., one who is from Nazareth (Horst Balz & Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981, 2.455). The key question is — how is the expression used in Matthew 2:23?
A common prophetic saying?
Matthew says that Jesus was called a “Nazarene” that there might be a fulfillment of that which was “spoken” by the prophets. Though the term “spoken” can allude to a written document (cf. Mt. 3:3), it is also possible that it refers to a saying that was literally spoken, though not necessarily written in the record of the prophets. Should such be the case, Matthew may have been rehearsing a verbal prophetic saying, rather than something that had been written in an Old Testament text.
Consider, for example, that Paul once quoted the words of Jesus, who had said “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). These words are nowhere recorded in the four Gospel accounts; the apostle is obviously alluding to a well-known oral saying, or else he alludes to a written record that the Holy Spirit did not see fit to preserve. This probably is not the most-likely explanation, but it cannot be ruled out absolutely as a possibility.
A play on words?
Some scholars have identified nazoraios with the term neser_, rendered “Branch” in Isaiah 11:1. It is thus suggested that Nazareth may have derived its name from the root form of that word (_nasar). It is alleged, then, that a “word play” may here be employed (a common devise in both Jewish and Greek literature) that implied a connection between the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah, and the appellation applied to Jesus. Supposedly, “Branch” would suggest an insignificant beginning, which would correspond with the humble environs of Nazareth in which the Lord grew up. This view, while possible, is not widely accepted.
The theme of multiple prophetic references?
The most likely explanation for this puzzling passage is to be found in the term “prophets.” The plural form would appear to suggest that no single Old Testament reference is in view, but rather the point being made rests upon a general “theme” reflected in numerous prophecies of Hebrew literature. Let us develop this thought somewhat.
First, it is readily acknowledged that the term “Nazareth” was used in a derogatory sense in the first century. When Nathanael heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, he asked: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46).
Some have suggested that the question hints that the town had a bad reputation, while others contend that Nathanael probably viewed the community merely as insignificant. The city is not mentioned in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the Talmud, nor by Josephus. One scholar notes that the geographical location of the city, overlooking the plain of Esdraelon, generated a certain disposition of “aloofness” which invited the scorn of the neighboring communities (J.W. Charley, Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Places, John Bimson, Ed., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995, p. 224).
Too, Nazareth was the community which housed the Roman garrison for the northern regions of Galilee, and that circumstance may have “tainted” the city (Louis Barbieri, Jr., “Matthew,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary — New Testament, Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983, p. 23). In the book of Acts, “Nazarenes” is used as a slur-expression for Christians (Acts 24:5).
Second, there were a number of Old Testament prophecies that foretold that the Messiah would be a despised person, rejected by many of his contemporaries (see: Psa. 22:6-8,13; 69:8,20-21; Isa. 11:1; 49:7; 53:2-3,8; Dan. 9:26). It thus well may be the case that the epithet “Nazarene,” in addition to suggesting the place where Jesus grew up, takes on a pejorative, figurative sense (a specific term being used for the general theme), i.e., a person disdained by his peers. This sense would be entirely consistent with the Old Testament prophecies cited above.
As an interesting footnote, the Lord himself, in his conversation with Saul on the road to Damascus, identified himself as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 22:8).
In view of these various possibilities, it is not a reflection of scholastic integrity to dogmatically charge Matthew with a mistake in his statement of 2:23.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.