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No. 13: He Shall Be Called A Nazarene

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 13
May, 1990
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons

Matthew 2:13-23 has a tripartite structure, reporting briefly three events of the early years of Jesus’ life. Matthew ends his narrative of each event with a "fulfillment formula." Jesus’ flight to Egypt and His Exodus back into Israel was a fulfillment of Hosea’s words, "Out of Egypt I call my Son" (Mt. 2:15, cf. Hos. 11:1). The slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem was the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy about Rachel weeping over her children (Mt. 2:18; cf. Jer. 31:15). Both of these fulfillments strike the modern reader as somewhat forced, but explainable. The underlying assumption about the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy is that Jesus was the true Israel, and that He "recapitulated" and reversed the history of God’s people. Similarly, the parallels between Jeremiah’s prophecy and the slaughter of the innocents are evident, though the event in Rachel’s life to which Jeremiah (and Matthew) referred is obscure, if indeed a reference to a particular event in Rachel’s life was even intended.

The problems with the third fulfillment formula are more acute. The most obvious problem is that there is no Old Testament reference to Nazareth, or to the Messiah being a resident of that town. As commentators have pointed out, however, Matthew’s language suggests that he is pointing to a prophetic theme, rather than a particular prophecy; he says that Jesus’ residence in Nazareth fulfills "what was spoken through the prophets," not "what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet," as in 2:15. That is, the plural "prophets" used in verse 23 indicates that Matthew was not claiming to provide a quotation from a particular prophecy.

Even if we are correct that Matthew was referring not to a single prophecy, but to a prophetic theme, we are still confronted with the question of where this theme appears. Since Nazareth is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament, it evidently represents something else. But what?

Commentators have given a variety of answers to this question. R. T. France points out that the title "Nazarene" is sometimes a title of contempt in the New Testament, and the fact that Jesus was from Nazareth of Galilee was treated by the Jews as definitive proof that Jesus was not the Messiah (cf. Jn. 1:46; 7:41-43, 52). Thus, to say that Jesus was a Nazarene is to say that He was a suffering and rejected Messiah, in fulfillment of such Old Testament prophecies as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.

Similarly, H. N. Ridderbos suggests an alternative translation of hoti in 2:23: it does not introduce the content of the prophecy, but rather should be translated "for." Thus, the verse does not imply that the prophets foretold that Jesus would be a resident of Nazareth, but rather implies that Jesus’ residency in Nazareth fulfilled something that the prophets foretold. Like France, Ridderbos suggests that "Nazarene" is a "badge of inferiority" that fulfills the meaning, though not the letter, of the prophecies about the humble status of the Messiah.

Barclay connects Matthew 2:23 with Isaiah 11:1, where the Messiah is called a branch (nezer) from Jesse. He suggests the possibility that Matthew was making a pun on the Hebrew word for branch, but admits that no one really knows which prophecy Matthew had in mind. France dismisses this interpretation because the pun works only in Hebrew, but not in Greek. But if, as is commonly supposed, Matthew’s original audience was Jewish, Barclay’s interpretation cannot be so readily dismissed. More serious is the objection that it is not clear what a "nezer from Jesse" has to do with residence in Nazareth, apart from the (vague) verbal similarity.

Others have suggested that Matthew was referring to the institution of the Nazirite. There is no direct reference to the Messiah as a Nazirite, but the Greek word in Matthew 2:23 (Nazoraios) differs by only slightly from the LXX description of Samson the Nazirite in Judges 13:5 (some texts of LXX have Nazeiraios; others have Nazir). Moreover, one might argue that Matthew needs no direct Old Testament quotation to affirm that all the Old Testament types are fulfilled in Jesus. Against this interpretation, the objection has been raised that it seems, like the reference to the branch, to have little to do with the historical event that Matthew is describing.

Is it plausible to argue that Matthew believed that Jesus fulfilled certain Old Testament types only because He lived in places that had a verbal similarity to Old Testament types? If Matthew is simply using the "charades" method of Old Testament exegesis ("A sounds like B, therefore A fulfills B"), what implications would this carry for Matthew’s concept of fulfillment?

I believe that a way can be found out of this dilemma by recognizing the partial truth of the various interpretations described above. I believe that France and Ridderbos are correct that Jesus’ residence in Nazareth fulfilled prophecies about the Messiah’s humility, and His people’s contempt for Him (cf. Jn. 1:11). This interpretation anchors the fulfillment formula of 2:23 firmly to the historical event described in the previous verses. France and Ridderbos err, I believe, in not recognizing that 2:23 points at the same time to Jesus as the Greater Nazirite. In other words, there is an "inner connection" between the humiliation of living in Nazareth and Jesus fulfillment of the type of the Nazirite. In order to understand this "inner connection" we need to understanding something of the character of the Nazirite vow.

The word nazir means separation, and in particular the nazir was separated to a particular task. Often this task involved the prosecution of holy war. Thus, the Nazirite was a temporary priest consecrated to carry on holy war. The Nazirite’s uncut hair points to his special consecration to the Lord (Nu. 6:5). The Nazirite’s abstinence from alcohol should also be seen in this context. Wine has a sabbatical-eschatological character; the Nazirite was forbidden to drink wine, to rest from his labors and to enjoy their fruits, until his task was complete, until the holy war was won. (For a fuller discussion of the Nazirite vow, see James B. Jordan, Judges: God’s War Against Humanism, pp. 221-28).

There is, of course, much more to the Nazirite vow, but these few details shed light on Matthew 2:23. As France and Ridderbos indicate, Jesus’ residence in Nazareth was a part of His humiliation. Jesus’ fulfillment of the Nazirite institution points in the same direction: As the True Nazirite, the True Separated One, Jesus Christ took up the task set before Him on behalf of His people. Nazareth is a sign of self-denial, of kenosis; so also, the True Nazirite denied Himself the joy that He had had with the Father from eternity, and took on the form of a servant. Jesus Christ was willing to empty Himself of glory, to become a Nazarene, so that He could, as the True Nazirite, prosecute the holy war against Satan. As both Nazarene and Nazirite, He was a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief. As both Nazarene and Nazirite, He endured the cross for the joy set before Him, the eschatological feast that He would enter upon the completion of His task, where He could sit to eat and drink among His people.

This interpretation may seem directly to contradict those passages of the gospels in which Jesus is called a drunkard (cf. Mt. 11:19). There is no reason to believe that the rumors about Jesus’ drinking were fabrications (though, of course, the rumors of drunkenness were false); Jesus, after all, did not defend Himself against these rumors by denying that He drank wine. But if Jesus was known to drink wine, how can He have been a Nazirite?

There are two answers to this question. First, though Jesus drank wine throughout His life, He was still "spiritually" a Nazirite because He fulfilled the meaning of the Nazirite vow: total consecration to the Lord in holy war.

Second, it seems that Jesus took a literal Nazirite vow at a specific moment in His ministry on earth. At the Last Supper with His disciples, Jesus said that He would not drink of the fruit of the vine "from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom" (Mt. 26:29; cf. Lk. 22:18). When He was offered wine mixed with gall before His crucifixion, He refused it (Mt. 27:34; Mk. 15:23). On the cross, it was only when He knew that "all things had already been accomplished" that Jesus accepted a drink of sour wine (Jn. 19:28-30). It makes sense to see all this from the perspective of the Nazirite vow. Facing the culminating battle of His holy war against Satan, Jesus took His Nazirite vow to abstain from the fruit of the vine. And He was faithful to that vow until He was victorious. Following His faithful fulfillment of "all things," He accepted wine and gave up the ghost. Now He enjoys it with His disciples in His kingdom.

On this interpretation, we might reconstruct Matthew’s thinking as follows: Jesus lived in Nazareth of Galilee, a place held in contempt by the Jews; this fulfilled Old Testament prophecies about the suffering Messiah; and the suffering Messiah is the consecrated Nazirite who denies Himself until His task is done. Jesus was from Nazareth, and hence was a Nazarene; the fact that He was a Nazarene indicates further that He faithfully carried out His Nazirite vow to deliver His people (cf. Jud. 13:5), though it cost Him His life.