Reading Time: 9 minutes / Laszlo Honti
Reading Time: 9 minutes

I recently wrote an article about the Matthean prophecy, a prophecy that looks like this (Matt 2):

Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, 23 and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

This tells us two things:

  1. Nazarene means someone from Nazareth, given the causal language involved with moving to Nazareth to fulfil a prophecy.
  2. That someone from Nazareth being the Messiah is a fulfilment of the prophecy “He shall be called a Nazarene”.

I showed in my piece that (an analysis of the language and the OT prophecy) that:

  1. Nazarene does not mean someone from Nazareth – there is confusion over whether it means someone from Nazareth, someone of the Nazirite religious sect, or from the Hebrew word meaning branch; the latter seems the most probable.
  2. This prophecy is absent from the OT unless it does, indeed, refer to the branch meaning.

This, then, looks like Matthew is somewhat wrong.

David Armstrong, a Catholic blogger here at Patheos, took umbrage with my piece. We have crossed swords before. So, let’s debate.

What does Nazōraíos mean?

He claims that Nazarene does, indeed, refer to someone from Nazareth. He provides a theological dictionary definition to support his claim:

Nazarēnós [of Nazareth]. Nazōraíos [Nazarene]

Jesus is called Nazarēnós in Mk. 1:24; 10:47; Lk. 4:34, and Nazōraíos in Mt. 2:23; 26:69; Lk. 18:37. . . . A connection with Nazareth is presupposed in Mark, Luke, and John (also Nazarét and Nazará; cf. Mt. 4:13; Lk. 4:16). Comparison of Mt. 26:69 and 26:71 shows that Nazōraíos and Galilaíos mean much the same thing (cf. Acts 1:11). . . .

One may conclude that the term Nazōraíos derives from the city of Nazareth as the hometown of Jesus. Neither linguistic nor material objections to this view are convincing. (p. 625)

He provides no balance to this in the context of the analysis I provided other than to invoke JP Holding (I will refrain from giving my true opinion of invoking Holding here) and not dealing with the original extract, which was this:

But why did the Christians believe that he lived in Nazareth? The answer is quite simple. The early Greek speaking Christians did not know what the word “Nazarene” meant. The earliest Greek form of this word is “Nazoraios,” which is derived from “Natzoriya,” the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew “Notzri.” (Recall that “Yeishu ha-Notzri” is the original Hebrew for “Jesus the Nazarene.”) The early Christians conjectured that “Nazarene” meant a person from Nazareth and so it was assumed that Jesus lived in Nazareth. Even today, Christians blithely confuse the Hebrew words “Notzri” (NazareneChristian), “Natzrati” (Nazarethite) and “nazir” (nazarite), all of which have completely different meanings.

He merely, using Holding, asserts that he doesn’t know the author of this, and that Gerhard Kittle, the author of his theological definition (of course, without biases of his own) is a much better authority. A sort of argument from authority rather than dealing with the actual content.

I went to Raymond Brown, the famous Catholic exegete whom I highly rate (all quotes from The Birth of the Messiah, 1977, London: Geoffrey Chapman). However, in this instance, I find Brown’s exegesis somewhat interesting… Brown actually advocates that all the meanings are possibly true. Matthew meant them all – religious sect member, branch, and person from Nazareth! See Brown p. 208-213.

But here’s the key: Raymond Brown argues that this is what Matthew intended, not necessarily what the word should mean or whether he was right to intend that. In other words, that Matthew, despite his linguistic intentions, could have still got it wrong. He also accepts that no mention of Nazareth exists in pre-Christian writings (p. 207) and so it would be odd for a place that seems not to have existed yet to fits coherently into an OT prophecy. This also coheres with Rene Salm’s thesis in The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus, according to archaeological analysis, and not until at least 70 CE.

On Brown’s point, there is confusion within the Gospels themselves because it appears 12 times, but with different spellings hinting at the occasional difference in source, thus leaning into Q as a source for the Nazara spelling (this is just an interesting aside).

That said, Brown, in the magisterial The Birth of the Messiah, does give an in-depth analysis of the different theories of the meaning of the word used – Nazōraíos (p. 208-213).

Brown does admit that this word “has its clearest analogy in adjectives referring to sects of parties, e.g., Saddoukaios and Pharisaios.” (p. 209) In other words, the clearest interpretation is that it refers to the MEssiah as being of a Nazirite persuasion, such as Samson was. He also talks of further evidence (though disputed by conservatives) in later writing as to the use of the term nāsorayyā [I haven’t formatted the accent on the s], a group of John the Baptist “observants”, and Nasaraioi, a pre-Christian group mentioned by later Church Fathers. So the definition of “Nazarene/Nazōraíos seems to point to the Messiah being of a religious sect and not coming from Nazareth, After mentioning this, he goes onto say that this doesn’t matter because some influential conservative Christian scholars such as Albright think it derives from Nazareth (p. 209-10).

Brown is usually very good but here he is weak, in my opinion, deferring to conservative authority and then saying it doesn’t really matter anyway because Matthew meant all three. It is rendered in the non-Nazareth form or “remembered precisely in the form Nazōraíos (not Nazarēnos) because of that secondary association.” So, Matthew really wanted to refer also to branch and Nazirite, as well as Nazareth, so he bastardised the spelling to catch all three. This is essentially Brown’s thesis. Even though Jesus wasn’t a Nazirite (religious sect member) because Matthew, as Brown thinks, might be tipping his hat to the Samson story because Samson was (p. 210-211).

Whether the latter is true or not is irrelevant since I am arguing as to whether he meant merely (i.e., at least) that Nazōraíos meant someone from Nazareth. Brown does at least deal with arguments both for and against a reading of all three, and in this case Nazareth (as discussed above). This is by no means an easy or closed case.

Brown does give a very in-depth analysis of all three options but thew largest section (p. 2112-213) is devoted to it meaning “branch” as derived from nēser, such that it holds a lot of scholarly backing, and this fits in with my conclusion later that the prophecy is best explained by “branch”. Either way, Matthew’s use must at least mean someone from Nazareth because that is the causal language used.

What’s the conclusion from all of this? Since the scholarly conclusions are not QED on either side, it doesn’t matter; the skeptic will find the ones supporting their conclusion (that Nazōraíos does not mean someone from Nazareth) of more value and Armstrong and other Christians will confirm their own biases by affording the conclusions that it does mean someone from Nazareth more value. It’s how the game works.

Here, though I believe the former, I think I have a better case than the Christian since I am also taking into account the OT prophecy itself, and since Nazareth didn’t appear to exist at the time, you can bet that the OT prophecy was not referring to the place. If you take into account Salm’s whole thesis (which you don’t have to go that far), it didn’t even exist at the time of Jesus (work that wasn’t available to Brown in his life, and was followed up in 2015 with NazarethGate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus).  I also genuinely find some of the arguments more forceful (such as quoted from Brown above).

I almost forgot to talk about what Armstrong believes? It turns out, whatever JP Holding tells him to, or whatever source better confirms his position – in this case, the theological dictionary he uses. Out of interest, I doubt there is a single theological dictionary that seriously critically analyses or concludes to positions that cast doubt on the historical claims of the Gospels, but there you go. I, at least, have worked hard to look at a religious scholar whom I think is the best in the field and one of the fairest.

But this is all contingent upon there actually being an OT prophecy that can and does refer to Nazareth and Nazōraíos being used to refer to the place.

Nazōraíos in an OT prophecy?

Where I say this is a terminal problem for the Nazareth place prophecy interpretation, Armstrong states:

It’s far less of a problem for Catholics (my own affiliation), who (like Judaism) accept the notion of authoritative oral traditions.

Or, no, you can’t find it in the OT but people could have said it… I do congratulate him for at least admitting this:

The Catholic Encyclopedia (“Nazarene”: 1911) casually states regarding Matthew 2:23: “No explicit prediction to this effect is found in the recorded Old Testament prophecies, and various theories have been advanced to explain the reference. . . . but these interpretations seem far-fetched, to say nothing of other difficulties.”

Something fairly honest. I’d take that.

He then continues:

All of these instances show that the New Testament doesn’t always cite the known Old Testament [Protestant 39 or Catholic 46] books as authoritative and/or scriptural and/or “prophecies.” Matthew 2:23 could simply be another instance of this.

Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin offers yet another intriguing, and quite plausible possibility, in his article, “Did Matthew Invent A Prophecy About Jesus?” (National Catholic Register, 10-24-12)

We know that there were many prophets in ancient Israel who genuinely spoke for God, even though their prophecies are not recorded in the Old Testament.  . . . 

Could it be that some of this material was passed down in the form of oral tradition, and this is what Matthew was referring to?…

In any event, given this data, we need not conclude that Matthew was incorrect in his citation of a known prophecy, or that he simply made one up, after the fact, out of whole cloth.

Jonathan seems to not be aware of either of these two plausible explanations: oral tradition or a written source (one of a sort that the Old Testament refers to several times) that no longer exists. But I believe they adequately explain our difficulty in interpreting Matthew 2:23. Whatever he was citing from “prophets” was simply saying that the Messiah would hail from the town of Nazareth.

I am aware, I just don’t find it particularly satisfying and nor would I, had I been a Christian. Brown is aware of this, too, but has this to say (p. 208):

…the canon of the Jewish Scriptures had not been completely fixed in NT times…; yet the ambiguity about books was chiefly in relation to the Writings, the third section of the Jewish Scriptures, coming after the Law and the Prophets. Matthew refers to “the prophets,” a relatively fixed part of the canon…. The main objection to this explanation [Armstrong’s] is that all other times Matthew mentions a prophet in his fulfillment formulas, he is citing known OT books.

This means, as Brown concludes, “The citation given by Matthew is not a verbatim form or even a clear adaptation of any known OT passage” (p. 208). Whilst the canon wasn’t set, it pretty much was for the prophets, whom Matthew was quoting. And, even then, Matthew each and every time he does quote the prophets elsewhere, it is from the OT. Armstrong has a big inductive uphill battle.

Which leads us right back round to what it could mean since there is no OT prophecy that mentions Nazareth. That much is indisputable. Armstrong goes off-piste here to assert that Matthew must be using an OT prophecy that is noncanonical (though he doesn’t do this elsewhere and this is problematic for [prophets prophecies that were canonical) and referring to Nazareth even though it is highly unlikely Nazareth existed in OT times (since it is a real squeeze to even get archaeology that supports it existing in Jesus’ time).  So to my original most plausible thesis: that it is a misinterpretation of the branch “prophecy” by misinterpreting nēser (plus the accent on the s, again) to not mean branch but someone from Nazareth. This OT prophet citation that does exist reads:

And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots shall bear fruit. (Isaiah 11:1)

So the Messiah, in OT times from an OT prophet, is declared to come from the ancestral line of Jesse. This makes so much more sense than coming from Nazareth whilst also supposedly having to come from Bethlehem. You know, like riding on a colt and a donkey.

More importantly, in the OT, who was the blossom from the root of Jesse? Emmanuel. Certainly makes more sense to use it thusly rather than for Nazareth.

Incidentally, as a grammatical aside, this prophecy also changes the subject of the sentence, as Brown admits (p.209):

Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, 23 and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

If the prophecy is correct, it should be referring to the first “he”, who is Joseph. As Brown states (p. 209):

This is another instance of awkwardness arising from Matthean editing: if 22-23 constitute a Matthean addition to a pre-Matthean narrative, the citation is, in a sense, an addition to an addition.

Problems on top of problems. Interpolation? Bad editing? By Matthew? By third parties?


We believe what we want to believe and I need to be equally as aware of my biases as Armstrong should be of his. We have access to the same data but believe different conclusions, affording different scholars greater value for their conclusions.

However, I have used the most famous Catholic exegete, who himself uses the best Christian scholars of his time, to derive my conclusions. Though I don’t quite go the whole hog as Brown, I explain why – I think he is looking too much at what he thinks Matthew is trying to say, rather than whether Matthew was wrong in his interpretation. But Brown does present compelling arguments both ways, at least. Something you won’t see in a theological dictionary.

I am also taking into account other arguments (concerning the historical and archaeological analysis of Nazareth) but also seeing it in the incoherent context in which it is set: that the Messiah must apparently come from both Bethlehem and Nazareth. I see this as a result of Luke and Matthew trawling the Hebrew Bible for nuggets here and there to achieve theological validation and ends and sometimes this gets them in a twist; here being one occasion.

I think Armstrong is wrong, but this won’t convince him.

[Please grab a copy of my book on the Nativity (The Nativity: A Critical Examination) [UK].]


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...