Most believers today have heard of the town of Nazareth where Jesus grew up. However, the name of the Galilean village in which the young Jesus lived was relatively unknown during His youth. The village was home to only 100–150 people. Matthew records in his Gospel that the dwelling of Jesus’ family in Nazareth was more than mere coincidence. He says it was “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’” (Matt. 2:23).
When Matthew penned his Gospel, he quoted from a variety of prophets, showing how in every case Jesus fulfilled the predictions about Him. Yet we can hunt all over the Hebrew Bible, but fail to come up with a source in the prophets for this “Nazarene” prediction. Some liberals scoff at those who take the Bible as God’s Word, saying Matthew simply made this up. Conservatives sometimes err in attempting to force vague prophetic references to fit this.
So how do we explain it? Where in the Bible do we find the word “Nazarene”? One false trail has been to think that the passage in Matthew refers to Jesus as a Nazirite. The Hebrew word nazir, from which we derive the word “Nazirite” (sometimes misspelled “Nazarite”) has been suggested by some people to be a related term for Nazarene in the Old Testament. The words are close in pronunciation.
However, there are three clear objections to this connection.
First, there is nothing in the teaching concerning the Nazirite that was prophetic of the Coming One (see Num. 6:1–21).
Second, this would mean that Jesus would have to have been a nazir (a Nazirite), having taken Nazirite vows. According to Numbers, a nazir could be either a man or a woman who vowed to refrain from any contact with wine, from taking ordinary care of one’s hair and from contact with the dead. These practices set one apart to God in a special way for a time. Jesus could not have been a nazir, like a “jungle man” in personal hygiene and appearance. If so, He would have repelled the women and children who surrounded His ministry. We also read that He came “eating and drinking” unlike His Nazirite cousin, John the Baptist.
Third, the context of Matthew’s prophecy speaks of living in a certain town, not taking on a particular vow to God.
A Little Letter. My first clue to solving this problem came when I saw the Hebrew name of the city on a road sign as I approached Nazareth a few years ago. It appeared in three languages. In English, the spelling was as we are used to seeing it. But in both Arabic and Hebrew, the “s” was a “ts”—leading me to make the association with the word “netser,” meaning “branch.”
It helps, then, if we understand the difference between Nazareth and Natsareth.
In Hebrew, three different letters serve as equivalents to the English letter “s,” as well as one letter that is a “z.” In Hebrew, the letter appearing in the word in question is sade, the one that makes a “ts” sound. The Greek language does not have a letter corresponding to the sade, so in rendering the Hebrew name into Greek letters, the writers of the New Testament decided to use the Greek letter zeta. This is what led to the spelling in English of Nazareth (with the “z”). Since the Hebrew alphabet has a “z” of its own (zayin), the common assumption we make is that the Hebrew word was spelled similarly to the Greek one. But this assumption leads us nowhere; there simply is no word “Nazarene” or “Nazareth” in the Hebrew Bible.
My discovery of a different letter for this word led me to a book by Bargil Pixner which informed me that the oldest attested Jewish spelling of the town was discovered on a marble plaque in Caesarea in excavations in 1962. In this A.D. 3rd to 4th century inscription, a family is recorded as coming from Nazareth, but the word is spelled with the Hebrew letter sade. So when we read in the English that Matthew says of Jesus, “He shall be called a Nazarene,” we should understand that he is probably really saying, “He will be called Natsarene” or “the Branch.” In fact, some of the church fathers, including Jerome, wrote that that we should see the promise of the Netser as the promise of the Branch.
The Beautiful Branch. The term “branch” leads us to Isaiah, who spoke of the Coming One as the Branch in three significant texts. The most well-known is in Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” A second is in Isaiah 4:2 which speaks of the coming of the Beautiful Branch. The third, much less well known, is in Isaiah 6:13, which speaks of a shoot that will come from the roots of the stump of a felled tree.
Here is how we may put these texts together. When we cut down a large tree, we leave a stump. Where the stump remains, roots can continue to grow. Isaiah paints such a picture, saying that the holy seed is in the stump (Isa. 6:13). In this passage Isaiah predicts that God will cut down the royal house of David like a felled tree. But the root is the “root of Jesse” (Jesse was David’s father). The stump is the house of David. There is still life in the stump; that life will lead to a shoot or a beautiful Branch. And the Beautiful Branch will overwhelm the stump. In other words, Messiah—the holy seed—will one day be greater than the house of David!
The Rest of the Story. Excavations of the old city of Nazareth lead us to conclude that the site remained uninhabited from the time of the Assyrian conquest of Galilee (733 B.C.) through the second century B.C. About 100 B.C., a small clan of newly returned Jews from Babylon settled there and gave it their family name, Natsara. These were the Natsoreans, a Judean family that proudly identified its Davidic lineage and spoke of itself as “the Branch Clan,” apparently in strong identification with prophecy. The people in this town had the idea that Messiah, the Branch, would be born from among them. Meanwhile, those who knew them often scoffed. To other Jewish people in larger, older cities, the Natsoreans must have seemed silly in their assumed self-importance. Their little town could not have seemed more distant from the glories of the Davidic Kingdom in ancient days. Nathanael, upon hearing from his brother that he had found the Christ (John 1:46), asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael, who was from the village of Cana, itself no great town, likely reflected the attitudes of his own town against the pretensions of the small group who claimed Messianic connections.
Jesus was to be the Branch from Jesse, the family of David. And this great prophecy is that to which Matthew points: The name “Nazareth” (better “Natsareth”) and the title “Nazarene” (better “Natsarene”) tell us that Jesus was from “Branch-town.” Thus, He would be called Natsarene, “Branch-man,” for He was indeed the one born to be the Branch from the stem of Jesse. This is simply wonderful. However, we may have to learn to spell the name a bit differently from how we have spelled it in the past!
Ron Allen served as Old Testament editor for the New King James Version, from which all references here are taken. He is currently professor of Bible Exposition at DTS and has authored numerous books including his latest, And I Will Praise Him.
About the Contributors
In addition to his teaching responsibilities at DTS, Dr. Allen preaches in churches across the country, speaks at Bible conferences, regularly leads study tours in Israel, Turkey, and Greece, and has been a biblical and theological consultant for Maranatha! Music. He has written a dozen books; was on of the senior editors for The New King James Version; Old Testament; and was the Old Testament editor for both The Nelson Study Bible (also known as The New King James Study Bible) and The Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary. Aside from his academic pursuits, Dr. Allen loves to ride his bicycle—the one that fits into his suitcase—and is licensed as both, a massage therapist and instructor.