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