This quotation presents the hardest challenge because no passage in the Old Testament says the Messiah will be called a Nazarene. Instead Matthew is summarizing an idea taught in the prophets. We need both grammar and historical background to understand him.
Matthew made the point that Jesus is the Christ. He is that one descendant of Abraham and descendant of David who will fulfill the promises given to them.
God caused Mary, a virgin, to miraculously conceive a son. Then God acted to protect that child by speaking to her fiancée, Joseph. Assuming Mary was unfaithful, Joseph planned to quietly divorce her, but God speaks to Joseph in a dream. God tells Joseph Mary has not been unfaithful and that her son is the promised Messiah who will save his people from sins. Joseph obediently takes Mary as his wife and accepts Jesus as his own son, making Jesus his legal heir and putting Jesus legally in the line of David.
The wise men from Babylon go to Herold seeking the child who has been born the king of the Jews. Herod asks them to tell him where the child is after they find the child. God warns the magi in a dream not to return to Herod, so they leave via another route.
Since the wise men did not return, Herod now has no way of knowing where the child is, so he devises an evil plan to get rid of the child. He has all the boys born in Bethlehem aged 2 and under killed.
After the wise men leave, God warns Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt. He immediately takes Mary and the child and flees to Egypt, remaining there until after Herod’s death.
19But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23And 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. – Matthew 2:19-23
The problem with Matthew 2:23 is no passage in the Old Testament says “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
I want to start by giving you one of the more popular options but one that fails to persuade me.
Option 1 – Judges 13:1-5
One popular theory is that Matthew is quoting Judges 13 which deals with the birth of Samson. Samson’s mother is barren. An angel comes to her to tell her that she will give birth to a son, Samson.
1And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years. 2There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. And his wife was barren and had no children. 3And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. 4Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, 5for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” – Judges 13:1-5
- Matthew uses a form of the word that means “from Nazareth” (Nazarion G3480). This word refers to geography.
- Judges 13:5 uses a word which means “one who is separated or consecrated” or “one who consecrates himself by taking a vow (Naw seer H5139).”
- Matthew says he will be called a “nazarion” highlighting what people will call him while Judges says he will be “Nazirite”, indicating that he will practice this Nazirite lifestyle.
- Judges is not a book by a prophet, but it is in the section of the Old Testament referred to as the prophets.
- Matthew could be saying: ‘Samson, one of the judges of Israel, was a Nazirite and practiced certain religious disciplines. By growing up in Nazareth, Jesus was a kind of nazirite. By a type of pun or play on words we can think of Jesus as the ultimate Samson, the ultimate judge of Israel who will deliver his people from their oppressors. He is the one who truly consecrates himself to God and truly delivers his people. ‘
I prefer a different line of thinking. You’ll find this one in the commentaries too.
Option 2 – Despised
- Matthew gives us 2 clues that he is not quoting a particular Old Testament verse, but rather is summarizing a concept found in the Old Testament.
- First, he uses the plural word for “prophets” in 2:23 while the other 3 fulfillment passages (1:22; 2:15; 2:17) use the singular “prophet”.
- Second, he introduces the first 3 passages with the participle λεγοντος, which means “saying.” Many English translation omit “saying” and use quotation marks instead.
- 2:23 does not use the participle “saying” rather Matthew introduces the phrase with “that.” This is similar to saying: “My doctor said that everything is fine.” She spoke medical terminology; I am summarizing the content of what she meant.
- IF this understanding is correct, rather than looking for a specific verse with these exact words of Matthew 2:23, we are looking for a combination of passages that would indicate this idea that the Messiah would be from Nazareth.
- Neither the word Nazarene nor the word Nazareth appear in the Old Testament. (The town of Nazareth did not exist in Old Testament times.)
- Suppose that the Bible was set in the American Wild West and Matthew wrote, the prophets said he would be a cowboy. But we look all through the Old Western Scriptures and the word cowboy is never used. However, we see a prediction that he would wear spurs, ride a horse and wear a Stetson hat.
- It’s fair summarize the prophets as saying he would be a cowboy even though they never used the word.
To be called a Nazarene
Now we’re looking for OT passages that could be captured by the idea of being called a Nazarene, similar to my analogy he will be a cowboy.
- That fact that Jesus is from Nazareth is related to the fact the he is from Galilee.
- Isaiah tells us the Messiah will come from Galilee (Isaiah 9:1-7). Isaiah tells us from this despised region of Galilee, which has known great sorrow, will come the great light of the Messiah.
- We know that Nazareth was looked down on at the time of Jesus (John 1:45-46; Acts 24:5).
- To refer to Jesus as Jesus of Nazareth is like saying Jesus from podunkville. It’s an insult.
- We find the idea that the Messiah will be despised, rejected and dismissed as no one from nowhere in the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 49:6-7; Isaiah 53:1-3).
- The prophets tell us the Messiah will come from Galilee and he will be despised.
- Matthew could easily summarize this idea that Messiah will be despised by saying he will be called a Nazarene. His audience would understand that to be called a Nazarene is not just a geographical reference, it is a dismissive slight and carries with it the idea that he is despised and rejected.
We can speculate on why God might do things this way.
Our relationship with the Lord and His Messiah is based on a choice. Each of us must decide whether we believe Jesus or not. That choice would be easy, almost inevitable, if Jesus fit our Hollywood stereotype of the charismatic royal ruler. We all want to align ourselves with the obvious winner if he appeared to us as a superhero.
But Jesus does not seek our approval based on how impressive he is from a worldly perspective. He attracts us by his wisdom. He attracts us by diagnosing our true problem and offering the solution to that problem. He attracts us by the salvation he offers.