And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. – Matthew 2:23
Have you ever wondered what the Old Testament background is for Matthew 2:23, “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene” (ESV)? Most reference Bible’s don’t give a reference, and the NET study note glosses it as a reference to the theme of the Messiah being despised.1 Other commentators trace it back to the Hebrew word נצר (ntsr) or branch and various prophecies about Jesus being the branch of Jesse (e.g., Isa 11:1).2
I have not been satisfied with these answers and have spent many years wrestling with this quote. I am partially convinced by the connection to Samson via “Nazir,” translated “Nazirite.”3 Still, I am not convinced that is the sole or primary reference Matthew has in mind (why would he quote “the prophets” if it were directly from Judges, cf. Matt 2:6, 2:15, 2:17)? I recently preached on this passage. In my preparation, I think I have finally come to a conclusion I am satisfied with (listen to the sermon here).
Read Matthew 2:19-23 carefully. If you follow the flow of the passage, who does “he” in “he would be called a Nazarene” naturally refer to? Joseph is the grammatical subject throughout chapter 2. The passage is undoubtedly about Jesus, but Matthew is teaching us something about Jesus by focusing on Joseph (just as “the virgin shall conceive” tell us something about Jesus by looking at Mary, Matt 1:22-23). Notice how Jesus and Mary are referred to as “the child and his mother” throughout verses 2:11-22. Perhaps to ensure that we are focused on Joseph, “the child and his mother” are not even mentioned in verse 23. Thus, by naming Joseph, Matthew draws our attention to him.4
Once we have clued in that we should look at Joseph, several other details jump out. We find a Joseph in Egypt and repeated references to dreams—sound familiar? So, what is Matthew teaching us about Jesus by getting us to look at Joseph?
Turn to Genesis 49. This chapter recounts Jacob’s blessings on his children. The poetic nature of these blessings highlights their significance for the Pentateuch’s narrative. Indeed, they are part of a significant messianic theme running through the Pentateuch.5 The high point of these blessings as they relate to the messianic theme is Judah’s blessing. However, given Joseph’s prominence in Genesis thus far, we shouldn’t be surprised to find something about the messiah there.
Look at Genesis 49:22-26. First, consider the way Jacob speaks of Joseph being sold by his brothers and then ascending to power in Egypt. The blessings will be upon “the head of Joseph, on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers” (49:26, ESV). “Set apart” actually translates a noun, “נָזִיר” [Nazir], translated elsewhere as “Nazirite.” There are obvious similarities between nazir and Nazareth and between the Greek words for Nazarene (Nazōraios) and Nazirite (Naziraios). Many early church fathers make this connection. It may be correct to trace the etymology of Nazareth to נצר (ntsr), but students of the Bible will be all too aware that the Biblical authors and characters in the Bible often follow pop-etymology (the contemporary associations of names with words) rather than “actual” etymology (whatever that might mean). Consider Abigail’s claim about her husband in 1 Samuel 25:25: his parents certainly didn’t mean to name him “fool,” but someone aware of his character could hardly miss the association. Nazareth could easily be associated with Nazir or its cognates, roughly meaning, “set apart.” Indeed, this makes great sense in the context of the disdain poured upon it; it is physically set apart from Judea, in Galilee of the Gentiles, and set apart with disdain from the rest of the Biblical world—”Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). So, “Joseph” accompanied by the echoes of Genesis through the word “Egypt” and the motif of “dream” brings us to Genesis 49:26, where Joseph is a nazir. It is thus well within the bounds of Biblical typology to claim that Moses said Joseph would be called a Naziraios/Nazoraios, drawing on the similarities of the names. Theologically and geographically, both Josephs were set apart. Such a typological use of “fulfilled” certainly fits with the other two uses in this chapter (Matt 2:15, 2:17).
So, why does Matthew want us to look at Genesis 49: what does this Joseph-typology teach us about Jesus. Look at 49:24, “yet his bow remained unmoved; his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel).” “From there” refers to all of God’s providential actions to preserve Joseph. Thus, though the Messiah would come from Judah (49:10), God uses Joseph to preserve Israel; from this preserving work would come “the Shepherd, the stone of Israel.” Both titles will feature prominently in messianic passages throughout the OT. So, God worked through the first Joseph to save his son Israel through Egypt; from his work in Joseph’s life would come God’s Messiah. Later, God worked through the second Joseph to save his Son Jesus through Egypt; from his work in Joseph’s life would come God’s Messiah.
I think the connection between Joseph and Nazareth receives confirmation in John 1:45. Philip makes the connection: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Notice how he mentions Joseph. What would be the point unless he thinks that the combination of Joseph and Nazareth justifies his earlier claim about Moses in the Law?
Finally, this reading can nicely accommodate the Samson typology—explaining why Matthew speaks of “prophets” (cf. Judges 13). Both are set apart, Samson was a Nazirite (Naziraios) and Jesus a Nazarene (Nazoraios); both have supernatural births; the birth of both involves angels and dreams; and both are filled with the Holy Spirit to deliver their people, though only Jesus will deliver his people from their sins. Indeed, if Nazir implies “set apart,” not always with sacral meanings (i.e. a Nazirite, cf. Numb 6:1-8), then Nazir typology can also extend to all the prophecies about the Messiah being despised (perhaps also Lam 4:7). Thus, from its humble beginnings in Genesis 49, we find a rich typology of the Messiah coming from God’s work in the “set apart” Joseph, the Messiah himself being “set apart” like Samson and others. How fitting that Jesus the Christ is born to a man from Nazareth, which sounds like set apart—a Nazarene, which sounds like Nazirite—and is thus, himself, a set apart one. This also fits nicely into the exile typology established by the earlier quotes from Hosea and Jeremiah. As I concluded in my sermon, Matthew paints a portrait of a saviour born into exile who came to save us from exile.
Now, someone may object—as is often done—that an allusion to Genesis 49 is out of the question, for the LXX doesn’t transliterate nazir but uses a completely unrelated word. However, there are clear instances in the NT where the authors have translated the Hebrew text themselves (Matt 2:18 being a probable instance). Moreover, the early church clearly involved teachers in the reading and explanation of Scripture (see 1 – 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians 4:1-16); it would not take much effort for someone who knew Hebrew to offer a translation of Genesis 49 that made the connection clear or simply to explain it to the Greek readers of Matthew’s Gospel. If we presuppose that Matthew intended his Gospel to be read by autonomous Greek readers with no teachers or resources available to them, then they would certainly miss this connection. However, only a little bit of teaching would be necessary to make the connection; this does not seem unreasonable.
- Carson’s Matthew commentary takes a similar route
- cf. TDNT s.v. Ναζαρηνός [Nazarēnos = Nazarene]; Ulrich Luz’s Matthew Commentary, Hermenia
- James A. Sanders, “Nazōraios in Matt 2:23”; Martinus J. J. Menken, “The Sources of the Old Testament Quotation in Matthew 2:23.”
- This follows the general pattern of name usage in narrative poetics
- Cf. John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative.