He Shall be Called a Nazarene

In the continuing study of how the New Testament (NT) uses the Old Testament (OT), several mysteries remain. Sometimes a writer will quote a text we don’t seem to have, such as when Paul calls on the Law as grounds for the silence of women in the church assembly (1 Cor 14.34). There is no clear text that seems to say exactly what Paul has in mind.

The text that has caught my attention today, however, is Matt 2:23:

There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.(NRSV)

καὶ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς πόλιν λεγομένην Ναζαρέτ· ὅπως πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν ὅτι Ναζωραῖος κληθήσεται. (GNT-T)

On the surface, Matthew is connecting the name “Nazorean” (spelled variously by the translations) and the name of the city where Jesus will grow up. Additionally, the author notes that what is fulfilled here was spoken through the prophets (plural) and may not be intended as an exact quote but a summary of what several prophets had said.

Scholars have attempted to make sense of this text in about three ways. First the word “Nazorean” sounds something like the word for “stump” (נצר ; netzer, as in Isa 11:1). While I think the earliest Christians would have no trouble connecting Jesus with the stump of Jesse, this does not seem be the text that influenced Jesus being named after his hometown.

Second, perhaps Matthew wants to connect Jesus with the Nazorite vow. This word is very close in sound to the word translated “stump.” But Nizer (נזר) comes from root that means dedicated or consecrated. And while Jesus is certainly dedicated and consecrated, he is not a Nazorite nor, based on the information we have in the Gospels and elsewhere, did he ever take on a temporary Nazorite vow. Two predominant features of the vow was the vow-keepers could not cut their hair nor partake of anything produced from the grape while under the vow (see Numbers 6 for the particulars on this tradition). The Bible says nothing about how Jesus wore his hair or about ever having it cut. Yes, Virginia, Jesus could have had short hair. However, we do know of some of Jesus’s drinking habits and Jesus himself claims that he came eating and drinking while John the Baptist did neither (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). John the Baptist, then, looked far more like a Nazarite than Jesus did. Therefore, it is very unlikely that Jesus saw himself as a Nazarite and even less likely that Matthew was attempting to make the connection.

However, before leaving this point, the spelling in the Greek LXX for Nazarite is much closer to the language used by Matthew.

LXX  – ναζιραιος

GNT – ναζωραῖος

Incidentally, the Torah in the Greek LXX does not use the word in Numbers 6 which describes the vow and how to keep it. Rather the translation of this word in Number 6 is a circumlocution: ὃς ἐὰν μεγάλως εὔξηται εὐχὴν ἀφαγνίσασθαι ἁγνείαν κυρίῳ; “whoever greatly wants to pray the prayer the prayer of purity to be pure to the Lord”). In the Greek OT the word for Nazarite occurs only at Judg 13:5, 7; 16:17; 1 Mac 3:49; and Lam 4:7. The reference to 1 Maccabees shows that Nazarite vows were still taken as later as ca. 185 BCE. (Paul’s vow in Acts [Acts 18:18] and the four men [21:23] may have been a Nazorite vow because of the reference to hair being cut when finished).

As interesting as all of this background is, we still have not found a text that might have been Matthew’s inspiration for designating Jesus a ναζωραῖος. Since Matthew makes use of the LXX and the first references to ναζιραιος occur in three verse in Judges (and not really any where else in the “prophets,” except for Lamantations), I would like to suggest that Matthew gets his insight from a selective (typological) reading of the Nazarite texts related to Samson in Judges 13:2-7:

“There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” Then the woman came and told her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name; but he said to me, ‘You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death”

Here are the intertextual connections that I found in reading this story and comparing to Matthew’s nativity story:

  1. Both involve miraculous births (though on opposite ends of the life cycle of the women involved).
  2. The angel of the Lord appears in each; in the first to Hannah; in Matt, to Joesph.
  3. The language of “conceive and bear a son” is common to each.
  4. As Samson would deliver Israel from their enemy so Jesus would deliver “his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).
  5. In each story, the husband was the last to find out their wives were to have babies.
  6. And finally, though Samson was to be a life-long Nazarite, a similar calling was on Jesus “from birth to the day of his death.”

What other prophets Matthew may have had in mind, I’m convinced these verses from Judges (which belongs to that part of the Bible the Hebrews would have called “the Prophets”) had something to do with Matthew calling Jesus a “Nazorean.” That Jesus was to live in Nazereth, from Matthew’s way of reading the OT, made the fit too perfect.



Filed under Bible Translation, Intertextuality

4 responses to “He Shall be Called a Nazarene

  1. I think you make it more complicated than necessary. Jesus was called a Notzarim (I know, tons of different spellings). Paul was called a ringleader of this sect. (Note that “branch” of Is. 1:11 is similar in concept to sect.) This sect continued to be well known even in Jerome’s time. The term continues to refer to Christianity (in general) in the Hebrew language to this day. But per early history, the term referred to Jews who continued to be wholly Jewish and Torah observant, and, for this term, not so directly to Gentile Christians. This is why Paul could honestly claim to still be a Pharisee while being called a ringleader of the Netzarim, and go the extra step to prove it with a Nazarite vow. I think the problem is when people put too much emphasis on the LXX to explain a Hebrew/Jewish concept and not enough on study of contemporaneous Jewish statements, including in the Talmud.

  2. snhelton

    Decentralist, I would push back that you are making it simpler than it really is. First, it is Matthew himself that invites an investigation for the LXX as background for understanding who Jesus is. Matthew’s interpretation of the “virgin” in Isa 7:14 is not sustainable in the Hebrew. Secondly, in Jesus being call a Ναζωραῖος, Matthew says it fulfilled what was spoken by the prophets. Therefore, Matthew is rooting Jesus’ designation as a Ναζωραῖος in OT scripture. I believe I have pointed to all the places that might be background for this text and chose one as my favorite because Matthew is reading all of his texts typologically in which some details of the original text do not apply to Jesus (cf. Hos. 11:1 in Matt 2:15).

    Every other text using the term Ναζωραῖος can be explained as an identification of Jesus with his hometown, thus, Jesus of Nazareth. The use in Acts relative to Paul is the first indication that we have subgroup in Christianity that has taken on the name. However, I would remind you that it is James’ idea that Paul keeps this vow and that in fact it does not work to protect Paul from the accusation that he is not true to Torah.

    So much for biblical usage. In church history, the name is retained by the Christians of Syria, Armenia, and Arabia. And Jews continued to use the same to identify Christians. While you may be right that it refers to a group of Torah-observant (Jewish?) Christians, it was also used to refer to Gentile Christians by Jews (see Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.8). Eusebius notes that Christians were formerly called Nazarenoi. And of course Epiphanius will see the group as heretical (Pan 29) and Jerome will say that the group wants to be both Jewish and Christian but in fact are neither (Ep 112.13)

    BTW, Epiphanius and Jerome are clearest historical record for the exclusion of Nosrim and Minim from the synagogue but they are uncertain as to whether this refers to all Christians or just Jewish Christians.

    Finally, you mentioned the Talmud. Are you aware of any Jewish sources that would clarify this subject?

    I believe that Stephen Goranson, in his article in ABD, is right when he says, “To define Nazarene, one must take into account the time, place, language, and religious perspective of the speaker, as well as the meanings of other available religious group names. The development of these names merits further study.”

    • Your last paragraph is very true and important, and I’m mainly interested in 3 perspectives of the 1st & 2nd century. The non-Nazarene Jews used the Hebrew term for anyone who accepted Jesus. The Jewish Christians referred to themselves with the term, Gentile Christians used the term for Jewish Christians.

      I’m familiar with all the early Church source commentary you list, and it doesn’t disagree with this. That Gentile Christianity became anti-Jewish in the 2nd century, especially in the West (I’m including Greeks in West, with Aramaic speakers as East) is generally understood with multiple reasons, Gentile scholarship of Hebrew, Tanak, and Talmud henceforth decreased. Aramaic speaking Christians retained Sabbath observance for centuries longer, and so the line between Aramean Gentile and Jewish Christians might have been lessened.

      As a result, when Western Christianity tried to restore Hebrew scholarship, it was inevitably done through the aid of Jewish scholars, who did not share their internal evidence pointing to Jesus as Messiah. It is important to see a post Council of Jamnia reactionary shift in Judaism. The Wisdom of Solomon prophesy of Ch.2 was too difficult and had to be decanonized. So the LXX as canon witness, as well as parts of Judaism and Talmud that retained pre-Jamnia perspective such as seen in Philo, Book of Enoch, and even the Zohar, which accurately references the Book of Enoch despite Enoch being lost at the time, are all important

      So your statement on Isaiah 7:14 shows a post-Jamnia Jewish perspective. And yes, there are proofs even from the Talmud that counter such. Here are some articles from a modern Messianic/Nazarene scholar with references


      • snhelton

        Carlton, You are right that Gentile Christianity did become anti-Jewish in the 2nd century. In fact, depending on when you date the Epistle of Barnabas, it could’ve been even earlier. However, in Alexandria and Caesarea, Gentile scholarship of the Hebrew was rekindled in Origen. Origen’s love for the original Hebrew text came through the teacher he merely calls “the Hebrew.” Interestingly, the evidence is clear that this Hebrew was a Christian. Nonetheless, Origen later maintained cordial relationships with the synagogues in Caesarea.

        My comment on Isaiah 7:14 is based solely on the fact that Matthew uses the Septuagint and not the Hebrew text. Furthermore, I believe you give too much credit for what happened at Jamnia. But I’m willing to take another look. Furthermore, I’m not sure that the Wisdom of Solomon was ever granted canonical status by 1st century Jews.

        Anyway, thanks for the dialogue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s