Matthew 2:23: And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

This is not a direct quotation from the Old Testament but is more likely to be an example to the 1st Century Jewish practice of seeking allegorical meaning in Old Testament verses. The problem however is that it is a word play which only works in Hebrew (or Aramaic), which indicates that it was current among the first Christians before Matthew wrote his Gospel in Greek.

There are two possible explanations:

1.  Green shoot, branch

If the modern Israeli spelling of Nazareth is correct (there is no archeological evidence from before the New Testament to verify this) then the use of the Hebrew letter tsade, “Natsareth”, suggests an Old Testament root with consonants N-TS-R, in which case Matthew’s reference is probably Isaiah 11:

Isaiah 11:1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

The word branch, or green shoot,  in 11:1 is נצר (netser), so Matthew is probably indulging in a word-play. If so, then Matthew’s reference can only be to Isaiah 11:1 not the other ‘Branch’ prophecy in Zechariah 3:8 since in Zechariah the text uses an unrelated Hebrew word for “branch” (צמח tsemach).

The evidence that the modern Israeli spelling of Nazareth is correct is reasonably strong. Nazareth is mentioned in Rabbinical Texts from the 4th Century, such as Midrash Qoheleth , with the spelling N-TS-R which would confirm that Matthew’s reference is to Isaiah.  A Hebrew inscription found at Caesarea in 1962 [1] also confirms the spelling N-TS-R. Although the Caesarea inscription dates from c.300 CE it documents the assignation of a priestly family to Nazareth c.150 CE which suggests that the spelling is older still.

2. Nazirite

If the modern Israeli spelling of Nazareth is incorrect (again there is no pre-Christian archeological evidence either way) then the New Testament spelling of Nazareth using the Greek letter ‘Z’ (ζ  zeta) may reflect Hebrew zayin, “Nadzareth”, rather than Greek ‘S’ (σ  sigma) which usually refects Hebrew tsade, “Natsareth”.

There is some ground for this. For example the name Neziah (Neh.7:56  נציח  ) same root as nezer, branch, is transliterated Nisia (Νισια)  in the Greek Old Testament, not Nizia (Νιζια).

So Matthew’s Greek spelling possibly suggests that the original Hebrew spelling of Nazareth at the time of Jesus could have been  “Nadzareth” (Greek Z may suggest Hebrew N-DZ-R not the traditional N-TS-R found in rabbinical texts). If this is the case, and if the rabbinical and modern Israeli spellings are wrong, then it is possible that Matt.2:23 refers to Jesus being a Nazirite  (the Hebrew word נ זיר naziyr , consecrated thing, separated person). If so, then there’s also the implication that Jesus (being of the tribe of Judah) could take on some Levitical functions by the Nazirite vow.

Conclusion

The “Nazirite” interpretation of Matt.2:23 has receded since the discovery of the Caesarea inscription in 1962. It is also not definite that the Greek ‘Z’ (ζ  zeta)  used by Matthew must always consistently stand for Hebrew “DZ” zayin not “TS” tsade.  It is also complicated by the fact that the original word play which circulated among Jewish Christians may well have circulated in Aramaic not Hebrew, where Hebrew netser ‘green shoot’, ‘branch’, is nazûrâ in Aramaic – possibly nearer to an Aramaic pronunciation of Nazareth.

Given the uncertainty over the TS or DZ, perhaps a better approach is to simply look at Matthew’s Gospel and see which reading makes more sense given Matthew’s other references.

  • A significant problem with the Nazarite idea is that it applies better to John the Baptist (Matt.3:4), who did not drink wine wheras Jesus did (Matt.11:18, Luke 7:33), and in the Greek Old Testament Nazirite is not translated as a name (as in English) but simply “consecrated” — so if this is Matthew’s word-play then it would still be no easier for his Greek readers than a reference to “branch” in Isaiah 11.
  • Despite Matthew himself being of the tribe of Levi, it is more in keeping with Matthew’s other concerns (for example his use of the Immanuel prophecy in Matt.1:23) to be interested in establishing Christ’s title as the “green shoot” from the stump of Jesse. If the reference is to a Davidic prophecy, rather than the Law of Moses, then Christ moving from Bethlehem to Nazareth is another way of connecting Christ to the promises God made to his ancestor David.
  • Finally, Matthew clearly says “the prophets” – which makes more sense referring to Isaiah 11 and Zechariah 3 than to the Nazarite Law, which comes in the books of Moses, not in the prophets.
Footnotes
  1. Michael. Avi-Yonah, “A List of Priestly Courses from Caesarea.” Israel Exploration Journal 12 (1962):137-139.
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  • Ninos Oshaana

    Matthew is alluding to Judges 13:5.

    There are striking parallels between the foretold birth and destiny of Samson and that of the birth and salvific work of Christ. Both delivered by an Angel of the Lord.

    “For, lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb: and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines. “

    • Jon Morgan

      As is stated in the answer, I’m not sure that Jesus was a Nazarite, because we know of him drinking wine, and we don’t know of any reference to him being covered with hair. Certainly he was to save Israel like Samson did, but that was true of most of the people God sent to save Israel, and I’m not sure that there is enough of a similarity to make him a Nazirite.

      • Ninos Oshaana

        For a closer approximation of the original Aramaic of Matthew, the Peshitta has ‘Nazrat” with a sadeh and “Nazraya.” Also, the syntax suggest that Matthew is picking up on an oral tradition about the Messiah that may or may not have been influenced in part by Judges 13:5. 
        Wa-ata amar b-mdinta d-matgrya Nazrat aikh d-natemla medm d-atamar b-nweya d-Nasraya natgra.

        And he came and dwelled in the city that is called Nazrat so that it might be fulfilled the thing which was spoken by the prophet that a Nasraya he will be called. 

        The Greek does not have “the thing” but simply the article τὸ  (“to rithen” – that having been spoken). I think the use of the word “medm” (the thing) in the Aramaic indicates a certain vagueness regarding the OT prophecy which Matthew is alluding to. It seems to point more to the prophecy being fulfilled by Joseph and Mary moving to the town rather than him actually being a Nazarite – although that he lived an ascetical life influenced by the Nazarine tradition can also not be entirely ruled out. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/jakob.stahl.3 Jakob Stahl

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