Jesus’ Birth: The Nazarene prophecy

This post is part of a larger series on Jesus’ birth. This particular post evaluates the relationship between the birth story of Jesus and the prophecy that Jesus would be called a Nazarene.

What do we know?nativity

The prophecy fulfillment is claimed in Matthew 2:23

2:19 After Herod had died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 2:20 saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 2:21 So he got up and took the child and his mother and returned to the land of Israel. 2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. After being warned in a dream, he went to the regions of Galilee. 2:23 He came to a town called Nazareth (Ναζαρέτ) and lived there. Then what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled, that Jesus would be called a Nazarene (Ναζωραῖος).

First, note that the NET’s use of “Jesus” instead of “He” at the end of verse 23 is the result of the translator’s decision to clarify the subject – the original text does not imply that Jesus was named in the prophecies.

The source of this prophecy is unknown. There are no linguistic parallels in the Old Testament. The primary candidate is Isaiah 11:1, where the Hebrew word “netser” is used for “bud” or “branch” in claiming that the Messiah will come from the line of David:

” 11:1 A shoot will grow out of Jesse’s root stock, a bud will sprout from his roots. 11:2 The Lord’s spirit will rest on him – a spirit that gives extraordinary wisdom, a spirit that provides the ability to execute plans, a spirit that produces absolute loyalty to the Lord. 11:3 He will take delight in obeying the Lord. He will not judge by mere appearances, or make decisions on the basis of hearsay. 11:4 He will treat the poor fairly, and make right decisions for the downtrodden of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and order the wicked to be executed. 11:5 Justice will be like a belt around his waist, integrity will be like a belt around his hips.”

Note that the Septuagint translated the Hebrew netser into the Greek rhabdos, so this only works if the author is referring to the Hebrew text. The word used in Matthew is Nazoraios (Strong’s 3480).

Another candidate is Judges 13:5, where Samson is identified as being set apart (Hebrew word nazir, often translated as “Nazirite”):

” 13:2 There was a man named Manoah from Zorah, from the Danite tribe. His wife was infertile and childless. 13:3 The Lord’s angelic messenger appeared to the woman and said to her, “You are infertile and childless, but you will conceive and have a son. 13:4 Now be careful! Do not drink wine or beer, and do not eat any food that will make you ritually unclean. 13:5 Look, you will conceive and have a son. You must never cut his hair, for the child will be dedicated [nazir] to God from birth. He will begin to deliver Israel from the power of the Philistines.””

Another key point is to note that the passage refers to “prophets” (plural), potentially indicating that this is a reference to either multiple prophecies, or more likely to a prophetic theme or idea. Lastly, note that this claim to fulfillment comes at the end of a series of claimed fulfillments in the first two chapters wherein all of the other claims refer to specific known passages in the Tanakh. The distinction again, however, is that those prior claims all refer to a single prophet rather than multiple prophets.

There are two primary difficulties with the passage in Matthew:

  1. The most obvious issue is that there aren’t any clear prophecies in the Old Testament to which the statement in Matthew can be tied.
  2. The accounts in Matthew and Luke that place Jesus in Nazareth are very different – the former placing him there only the result of an evasive maneuver, the latter placing his parents there prior to his birth and then returning thereafter. This was largely already addressed in the Bethlehem post, so I won’t rehash that here.

What is the Christian interpretation of the data?

From what I can tell there is little consensus as to how Christians feel that this should be interpreted. Most accounts suggest that the Judges passage is the least likely and the passage in Isaiah is often given as the most likely. A variation on the theory that this is derived from the Judges passage simply recalls the root word nazir () and the concept of being set apart. This then draws upon messianic prophecies which identify the messiah as a uniquely holy, or set apart, figure.

There is also another option that I have encountered which I personally think is the most viable of the Christian views. This essentially works from the idea that “Nazarene” is known to be derogatory term at the time of the writing and then keys on the plural use of “prophets” to recall multiple passages in the Old Testament which identify the messiah as rejected and despised. You can read the full explanation here.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?

For the naturalist view I would like to build upon the commentary in the out of Egypt post. In that post, I suggested that a naturalist might view the fulfillment claim as being due to Nazarene authorship (or more likely, redaction), where the author is arguing for his view over the view of traditional Jews and other Jewish-Christian sects (e.g., the Ebionites). In the case of the Nazarene prophecy, one can’t help but suspect the same thing. One possibility here is that the author, considering himself to be a member of the Nazarene sect, is simply boldly proclaiming that Jesus was also a member of his group and that this was somehow backed by prophecy. It seems possible, if not likely, that some precursor of the Nazarene sect was present before Jesus’ ministry (perhaps including a group Jews who established Nazareth in pursuit of purity). If that were true then the naturalist would hold that the best explanation for this text is that the author is referring to prophets or traditions from within the sect which claim that the messiah would hail from their sect. Another option is that the author wanted so badly to associate Jesus with the Nazarenes, instead of other early Christian sects, that he decided to make the claim of prophetic fulfillment despite having no clear scriptural references to use. Under a naturalist view, such human behavior is not at all unexpected.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

To be perfectly honest, none of the explanations are very compelling. One of the interesting aspects of this passage in Matthew is the fact that the fulfillment of the alleged prophecies is accomplished simply by acquiring a title from having grown up in Nazareth. There’s no implied symbolism – it seems to suggest that Nazarene simply means “one from Nazareth”. We also have no other biblical references to any form of prophecy regarding Nazareth. One might suppose that the author assumed his readers would be familiar with the prophecies he referenced but, if there were well known prophecies linking the messiah to Nazareth, and everybody knew that Jesus was from Nazareth, why didn’t anybody else mention this? The proposals from the Christian perspective seem to rely on obscure inferences and the naturalist view is sensible, though still speculative. As such, I am assigning the probabilities as follows:

Christianity
30%
Naturalism
70%

If you want to pursue this further then I recommend the following resources, which present good data without making any clear conclusions:

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