“He Shall Be Called a Nazarene”
By Kyle Pope
he Gospel of Matthew records an important prophecy Jesus
fulfilled by Jesus, which poses a number of interesting challenges to the
student of Scripture. The text reads, “And he came and dwelt in a city
called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets,
‘He shall be called a Nazarene’” (Matthew 2:23, NKJV). The puzzling issue
is that we do not have a specific Old Testament text which uses this exact
wording. To what prophecy is Matthew referring?
Luke’s gospel indicates that
Nazareth was Joseph’s home before the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:4). Apparently
Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem for a time after Jesus’ birth (cf.
2:10,16). After their time in Egypt, Jesus’ family returned to Nazareth (cf.
Luke 2:39). Matthew tells us that this happened that prophecy “might be
fulfilled.” It is common for Matthew to point out when Jesus’ life
fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, but in this text his wording is different. He
declares that Jesus’ return to Nazareth was something “which was spoken by
the prophets.” Matthew’s use of the plural “prophets” here is significant
in the fact that he does not quote a specific Old Testament Scripture, but
refers to a general prophecy revealed in Scripture that “He shall be called
a Nazarene.” There is much debate regarding to what prophecies Matthew is
referring. Some have suggested that this reflects an oral prophecy not recorded
in Scripture. Yet, Meyer notes that, “always, where in the New Testament the prophets
are quoted, those in the completed canon are meant” (98).
In the context it is clear that
Matthew uses the Gr. nazoraios of one who dwells in Nazareth, however,
there is good evidence that nazoraios carried an extended meaning. The
third century religious writer Tertullian, in his work Against Marcion,
refers to this text and uses the Lat. Nazarenos as synonymous with the
“Nazirites” of Lamentations 4:7 (4.8). The Heb. verb nazar referred to
something which was consecrated or set apart. It was a near synonym of the more
common Heb. qadash of the same meaning. This can be seen in Leviticus
22:2 where Aaron and his sons are commanded to “separate” (nazar) from
the things which they “dedicate” (qadash) to the Lord. There was a
special application of nazar in the Old Testament, to those who took the
Nazirite vow of special consecration unto the Lord (Num. 6:1-20). In reference
to Samson as a Nazirite the Greek Old Testament (LXX) in some cases
transliterated the Heb. nazar with the Gr. nazir or naziraios
(Judg. 16:17) and in some cases with the Gr. hagios the more common word
for one who is set apart or holy (which the NT uses of “saints”). If Matthew
had in mind this use of nazoraios, to indicate that the Messiah would be
a Holy One, set apart unto God, we find this idea running throughout the Old
Testament (cf. Ps. 16:10; Is. 10:17 and in the NT Mark 1:24; Acts 2:27; 3:14).
The fourth century Latin scholar Jerome, in his commentary on Matthew writes:
If he was intending to show a fixed
Scripture, he would not have said, “that which was spoken through the
prophets,” but simply, “that which was spoken through the prophet.” However, as
it is, speaking of “prophets” plural, he shows that he is not choosing the
words of Scripture, but the sense. Nazarene is interpreted “holy.” That
the Lord would be holy, all Scripture relates (2:23, Pope).
Jerome goes on to suggest that natser “branch” could
be the connection between nazoraios in Matthew and Isaiah 11:1. Yet, his
first argument seems more plausible and was accepted by later commentators such
as Erasmus, Calvin, and Beza. The objection that is some times offered to this
interpretation is that Jesus never took a Nazirite vow nor lived such a
lifestyle. However, it is clear that the noun nazir is not only applied
to those who have taken the vow, but to separation in general (cf. Gen. 49:26;
Deut. 33:16, see Lightfoot 2.44). The verb nazar can have very broad
application (cf. Lev. 15:31; 22:2; Num. 6:2; Ezek. 14:7; Hos. 9:10). The
Messiah would be “set apart” to God in the ultimate sense.
If Matthew is speaking of the
Messiah as one whom prophecy had named a “Holy One” who was “set apart” how
does this relate to the city of Nazareth? The etymology of the name of the
city of Nazareth is uncertain. Scholars acknowledge that either nazar “separate”
or netser “branch” could be the source (McNeile 21). If
Nazareth drew its name from the Heb. nazar with the sense “a place set
apart,” Matthew may draw on the deeper meaning of the name in application to
the prophecies that Jesus would be called a Nazerene (i.e. “a Holy One of
God”). If not, he may simply use a word play which might have been recognized
by his Jewish audience. Whatever the case, we are blessed to learn from the
Gospel of Matthew yet another way in which the life of Jesus fulfilled what the
Old Testament promised regarding the Messiah.
Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica: Matthew -
First Corinthians. Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 1859.
Alan Hugh. The Gospel According to Matthew. New York: St. Martin’s
August Wilhem. Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament:
Matthew. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1880.