This entry is part 27 of 102 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
‘[Joseph] came to a town called Nazareth and lived there. Then what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled, that Jesus would be called a Nazarene.‘
Where does it say in the prophets ‘that Jesus would be called a Nazarene’?
This wording is not to be found in any of the prophets. In fact, Nazareth is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament. Bethlehem, on the other hand, had a higher status as the ‘city of David’.
Some have thought that Matthew is using word-play. Back in the 5th century AD Jerome connected Mt 2:23 with the messianic prophecy found in Isa 11:1, where the word for ‘branch’ is ‘Neser‘. Now, this same word is the Hebrew form of the name ‘Nazareth’. Matthew’s sense would be that the lowly off-shoot will come from the lowly ‘off-shoot’ town of Nazareth. This interpretation is supported by Wright. However, it seems rather stretched, although it is supported by a number of modern commentators.
One clue is that Matthew says that it was written in the ‘prophets’ (plural). Therefore, we might suppose that Matthew is giving the overall sense of the prophets, rather than any specific prophecy.
Another possible clue is that, rather than using the participle ‘saying’ Matthew uses the conjunction hoti, suggesting that this is an indirect quotation.
France (TNTC) thinks that this is not intended to be a specific quotation, but rather a summary of prophetic expectation. Accordingly, it is possible that Matthew ‘saw in the obscurity of Nazareth the fulfilment of Old Testament indications of a humble and rejected Messiah; for Jesus to be known by the derogatory epithet Nazōraios (cf. John 1:46) was not compatible with the expected royal dignity of the Messiah, and thus fulfilled such passages as Psalm 22; Isaiah 53; Zechariah 11:4–14.
‘First-century Christian readers of Matthew, who had tasted their share of scorn, would have quickly caught Matthew’s point. He is not saying that a particular OT prophet foretold that the Messiah would live in Nazareth; he is saying that the OT prophets foretold that the Messiah would be despised (cf. Pss. 22:6-8, 13; 69:8, 20-21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2-3, 8; Da 9:26). The theme is repeatedly picked up by Matthew (e.g., Mt 8:20; 11:16-19; 15:7-8; see Turner). In other words Matthew gives us the substance of several OT passages, not a direct quotation.’ (Carson, EBC, 2nd ed.)
‘For Jesus to be known by the derogatory epithet Nazoraios (cf Jn 1:46) was not compatible with the expected royal dignity of the Messiah.’ (France)
Morris: ‘It appears that Matthew is drawing attention to the thrust of Old Testament prophecy about the Christ rather than to any one passage. Jesus went to Galilee so that what was written about him in the prophets would be fulfilled, and we see this in his being called a Nazarene, a citizen of an obscure and unimportant town. Had he been known as “Jesus of Bethlehem” he would have had the aura of one who came from the royal city; there would have been overtones of messianic majesty. But “Jesus the Nazarene” carried with it overtones of contempt.71 We are to understand the prophets as pointing to one who would be despised and rejected, and Jesus as fulfilling this by his connection with obscure Nazareth.’
The sense is that, just as someone who came from Nazareth would have been regarded as contemptible (see Jn 1:46; 7:52; Acts 24:5), so the prophets had said that the Messiah would be despised, Psa 22:6–8, 13; 69:8, 20–21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2–3, 8; Dan 9:26; Zec 11:4-14.
In conclusion, Matthew knows, and his readers know, that Jesus came from Bethlehem. That was a place with a ring to it, for it was the birth-place of King David. Matthew knows, and his readers know, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem precisely because Joseph (and therefore Jesus, by law) was a descendant of King David.
But the family settled, not in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth. And there was no ring to that place-name. There was no kudos in being a Nazarene. In fact, to same that someone came from Nazareth was to say that they were of no importance.
No prophet so much as mentions Nazareth. But what they do say is that the Messiah would be ‘despised’ and of no account. He would be ‘called a Nazarene’.
And this is borne out by the rest of the New Testament. The Saviour is known, not as ‘Jesus of Bethlehem’, but, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.
Peter Mead helpfully sets out the New Testament witness to this appellation, beginning with Matthew:
Matthew mentions Nazareth three more times. After a passing reference in Mt 4:13-16, then comes Mt 21:11. Jesus’ triumphal entry so stirred Jerusalem that the locals asked the crowds who he was. The visiting Galilean crowds replied that this was the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth. Probably not what the locals wanted to hear!
Finally, in 26:71, Peter was in the courtyard of Annas’ house when he was identified as an accomplice of Jesus of Nazareth. Was there venom in that label? Probably, since Peter was again confronted due to his Galilean accent. To be from Nazareth was not a positive thing in Judea. In fact, it was not a good thing, even in Galilee!
What about the rest of the New Testament?
Jesus was a very common name at that time, so he needed an identifier. Who was his Dad? That was complicated. What was his job? Again, not easy. So where was he from? Nazareth became the label typically appended to his name.
We see Nazareth mentioned in Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:51); as he called His disciples (John 1:45-46) – remember Nathanael’s sarcastic question: ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’; as the location of choice for launching his preaching ministry (Luke 4:16).
His subsequent visit to a synagogue in Capernaum sees him identified as Jesus of Nazareth by an unclean spirit, who also acknowledges that he is the Holy One of God. Jesus accepts the label, but silences the spirit once his heavenly identity is declared (Mark 1:24-25; Luke 4:34-35).
As Jesus headed toward Jerusalem, blind Bartimaeus recognizes the Nazareth label (Mark 10:47; Luke 18:37-38); then it is used in His arrest, (John 18:5); during Jesus’ trial it is used disparagingly of Peter (see also Mark 14:67); and even in his death, Pilate’s inscription reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
After his resurrection the two disconsolate disciples on the road to Emmaus refer to Jesus as being ‘of Nazareth’ (Luke 24:19). Fair enough, their hopes had been dashed.
But even the angel in the tomb used the label! Surely an angel sent from God could come up with something better!? (Mark 16:6)
Even after his ascension Jesus continues to bear the lowly label ‘of Nazareth.’ Peter’s Pentecost sermon climaxes with Jesus as Lord and Christ, but it launches with Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22).
The lame man is healed, not in the name of the risen and ascended Christ, but in the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:6; 4:10). Stephen’s accusers use the label (Acts 6:14). Peter tells Gentiles that God anointed and was with the Nazarene (Acts 10:38).
Then we discover that Jesus used the label of himself when He appeared to Paul at His conversion (Acts 22:8)! This had been the name opposed by Paul in his days of Christian persecution (Acts 26:9), and indeed even Jesus’ followers bore the disparaging label (Acts 24:5).
Peter Mead concludes:
God was with this Jesus of Nazareth. And in his willingness to carry this label in ministry up north and down south, in his arrest, his crucifixion, his resurrection and even in his ascension, this Jesus of Nazareth was most assuredly ‘with us.’
Immanuel, God with us. Not just near us, in some nice palace somewhere. But with us, like ‘in Nazareth’ with us. Jesus of Nowhere, Galilee. He came to be with us, so that he could be for us. And he is forever with us, for he still carries the lowliest of labels. It was all part of God’s plan, that He should be called a Nazarene.