Matthew's Old Testament Passages in the Christmas Story: Jesus as a Nazarene

The last couple of posts have sought to explain how Matthew uses references to Hosea 12 and Jeremiah 31 in the infancy story of Jesus in Matthew 2. There is one final place in the chapter in which Matthew says that something about Jesus’s early life “fulfills” what was spoken of by Old Testament prophets -- Matthew 2:23 in which Matthew says that Jesus was a “Nazarene.” We’ll conclude this series on the fulfillment passages in Matthew by examining this reference that I think is the most perplexing of all the references in Matthew 2.

The Passage in Matthew

In Matthew 2:19-20 we learn of a dream that Joseph has when an angel appears and tells him that Herod had died. Since they had fled to Egypt because Herod was seeking to kill Jesus, it would seem that it is now safe to return to the land of Israel. Joseph brings his family back to Israel (2:21) but because Herod’s son, Archaelus, is the one ruling over the region of Judea at this time, Joseph does not bring his family into the Judean region (he is warned about this in another dream in 2:22). This leads him to settle his family in the region known as Galilee and the town of Nazareth (we know from Luke 1:26 and 2:4 that this is where Mary and Joseph originally were from, but Matthew did not tell us that is where the story started in Matthew 1). Matthew then concludes this part of the story, and really in the account of the story of Jesus’s birth and early life, by saying, “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” (2:23). 

The Passage in the Old Testament

A problem seems to emerge when you try to look up the verse Matthew is referencing from the Old Testament prophets, as there is not a verse that says this exactly. While it takes some study to figure out how Hosea 12:2 and Jeremiah 31:15 relate to Jesus, it takes some work to even figure out what is being talked about here. The difficulty in finding the exact reference is not something that was recently noted by scholars, but something Christians have long noted, and there are three major views on what Matthew is referencing here. 

One view is that Jesus is being described as a Nazrite, a holy person that you read about in Numbers 6:1-21. This person took certain vows and abstained from many things. In the book of Judges, Samson is said to be a Nazirite and has a miraculous birth and promises to deliver the people of Israel (see Judges 13), but then Samson does not stay faithful to his call in a variety of ways (see Judges 13-16). Therefore, Samson could be viewed as a forerunner of Jesus; like David, we look to one who is greater than Samson, who remains faithful and does what Samson was supposed to do. There are some problems with this view of the reference to Jesus being a “Nazarene”, however. One is that it is not clear one would connect Nazareth with Nazirite. Second, while there might be some typology between Jesus and Samson, it does not seem overly strong in other places. Finally, Jesus does not seem to model what one would expect from a Nazirite -- while Jesus fasted (see Matthew 4), he was not known for that (see Matthew 9:11-13) and, in fact, was accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard” because he hung out with tax collectors and sinners (see Matthew 11:19). John the Baptist is more likely to be viewed as a Nazirite than Jesus (see Luke 1:15). 

A second possibility makes sense if you understand the Hebrew language. Isaiah 11:1 speaks about a “branch” from David, with this figure the messianic king to come. In Hebrew, the word is “nezer,” which is close to “Nazareth.” Some think that Nazareth thus had an association with this figure -- that it was “Branchville” or “Branchtown.” The branch metaphor also appears in Old Testament passages like Jeremiah 23:5 and 33:15 and Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12, but these passages use different Hebrew words. We also need to remember that Matthew is writing in Greek, not Hebrew, and thus it is not clear if Greek readers would pick up on the connection (though it seems many were multilingual); word plays like this make the most sense in the same language.

The third possibility is that this refers to the fact that Nazareth was an insignificant town. There is not much known about Nazareth -- it is not referred to in the Old Testament and really is unknown before the time of Jesus. Even in the New Testament, we see that people did not think highly of it, as Nathanel says in John 1:46, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” We read in Isaiah 53:2-3 that God’s servant who would come to suffer would be despised and rejected, that he had no beauty or majesty. This would be fitting of a person from a place like Nazareth. A potential challenge to this view, though, is that it is not a specific reference and that there are other places in which the expectation seemed to focus on the origins of the Messiah from Bethlehem, the city of David (see John 7:41-42).

Some argue for one of these views, while others argue that two or three of them may likely be in mind. I find the last view (that Nazareth refers back to the insignificant origins of the Messiah) to be most likely, with the second view the next most likeliest. However, it should also be noted that this reference to a fulfillment of prophecy is a bit different from the others in the Gospel of Matthew; it does not say “prophet” as if it is referring to a single prophecy (like the verses we have looked at in the last three posts), but rather “prophets.” This may mean that a single reference is not in mind, but rather that there might be multiple references or that Jesus might be looking at the overall storyline of the Bible. It might not just be particular words that point to Jesus, but the overall themes and trajectory that one finds throughout the prophets and the Old Testament as a whole.

Some Applicational Thoughts

I used to be bothered by these verses in the Bible that I think I can understand and explain, but do so with less confidence than in other places. However, many years ago I read something written by the church leader from long ago named Augustine who noted that mysterious verses should not push us away from reading the Bible but draw us deeper, as we want to understand them. Why do we expect to get all our questions answered when we are finite beings and not omniscient? May the mysterious lead me to having more trust in God, not my own understanding.

In addition, this passage also affects how I read the Bible. In a couple of different places, Jesus tells people that all of Scripture points to him (John 5:39, 46) and shows how this is true from the laws, prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44-49). This does not mean that every verse is a prediction that Jesus is going to come, but there is a sense that the entire Old Testament is pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises and hope for the world. For example, when God calls Israel, it is not because they are the strongest or best, but because He chooses to use the weak to bring forth His saving work -- which we see on great display in Jesus coming from Nazareth. Therefore, when we read the Old Testament, we should always ask the question, “How does this point to Jesus coming?” 

A final thought that emerges from the passage itself is the reminder that God orchestrated all the details of Jesus’s life; where he lived and came from was God’s design. Not only that, but Jesus, our Savior, did not come as a king but rather lived a life in obscurity. We often think we need to be famous to serve God, but the location of Jesus’s childhood is a reminder that it is not our location or prominence that is most important, as God uses those who are faithful and often works through those that the world least expects. Let the Christmas story be a reminder that God is working and that His ways and methods are often surprising and unexpected, but exactly what we need and exactly what He has planned.

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