"Jesus would be Called a Nazarene"--N.T./O.T. Contradiction?
Some time ago, we received an unusual offer in the mail. It came from a skeptic who offered us a $1,000 reward. His letter said simply: “$1,000 reward. Produce the prophecy refered [sic] to in Matthew 2:23, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’ ” Intriguing offer, to be sure. How did we handle it? And did we win the $1,000?
This is not the first such “reward” offer we (or others) have received, and in all likelihood it will not be the last. Financial gain aside, this particular question on the part of the skeptic provides an excellent teaching opportunity.
First, it is important to note that alleged Bible discrepancies fall into various categories of difficulty, so far as ease of response is concerned. Certain charges against God’s Word are explained effortlessly. For example, one infidel suggested that he had discovered a “contradiction” in the Bible. He noted that since Noah’s ark (described in Genesis 6) was 300 cubits long (about 450 feet) and would have weighed several tons when fully loaded, it was preposterous to believe that the priests could have carried it across the Jordan River as described in Joshua 3! The critic’s inability to distinguish between the ark of Noah and the ark of the covenant made answering his argument a simple matter for even the most elementary Bible student. However, not all alleged discrepancies are answered as easily. Some require extensive research to explain. Entire books have been written to discuss these so-called discrepancies (see, for example: Archer, 1982; Arndt, 1932, 1955; Haley, 1951). It is a simple matter for the atheist, agnostic, freethinker, or skeptic to charge that God’s Word contains contradictions or discrepancies; it is not always a simple matter for the Bible believer to respond to such a claim.
Second, on occasion it is the case that the charge being made against the Bible is itself seriously flawed. In other words, we need to be admonished never to react to a charge leveled against a certain passage of Scripture based on what the passage is “supposed” to say according to the Bible critic, or on what the Bible critic thinks it says. Prior to making any response, we should open our Bibles, turn to the passage in question, and read it for ourselves. For example, in the letter we received, the skeptic “quoted” Matthew 2:23 as stating, “He shall be called a Nazarene,” and then challenged us to find an Old Testament prophecy that said exactly that. The skeptic no doubt intended for us to conclude—based on the limited information he gave us—that Matthew erred, and that the Bible contains a blatant error on the part of an inspired writer, thereby negating its claim of inspiration.
Upon closer examination, however, it becomes evident that the passage does not say what the skeptic wants us to think it says. The “quote” actually was only the latter half of the verse. In the context (which begins earlier in verse 22), here is what the passage actually says:
But when he [Joseph—BT] heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither; and being warned of God in a dream, he withdrew into the parts of Galilee, and came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, for he should be called a Nazarene.
An examination of the actual facts that come to bear on this passage reveals the following information. It is true, as various Bible commentators have noted, that nowhere in the Old Testament did any of the prophets say: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (see Lenski, 1943, p. 87). However, while at first glance the verse might be construed to suggest that some “prophets” (the plural in the Greek text is significant; see comments below) suggested that Christ “should be called a Nazarene,” further study shows that this is not the actual intent of the passage at all. In discussing the grammatical construction of the passage in the original Greek, R.C.W. Lenski (a highly-respected Greek scholar in his own right) stated:
But the plural “through the prophets” is important. It cannot refer to one prophet speaking for all. This plural evidently refers either to the prophetic books in general or to the entire Old Testament. It also shows that no quotation is to follow which will introduce some word that was uttered by several prophets (1943, p. 87, emp. in orig.).
With great care, Lenski then went on to show that the structure of the Greek involved in the passage under consideration “is not...like our quotation marks, pointing to a direct quotation.” Then, after remarking on the original words, the form in which they occur, and their careful use by Matthew within the passage under consideration, Lenski noted that such construction in the Greek “shuts out not only a direct quotation but also an indirect prophetic utterance” (1943, p. 87).
What, then, is Matthew’s meaning? The text is saying simply this: Jesus lived in Nazareth not because the prophets had said that He would live in that specific city, but in order to fulfill additional specific things that the prophets had said about Him. Lenski has done an excellent job of explaining this point:
Jesus lived in Nazareth in order to fulfill the prophets; and the evidential reason by which we ourselves can see that his living in Nazareth fulfilled the prophets, is that afterward, due to his having lived there, he was called “the Nazarene.” We may add that even his followers were called “Nazarenes.” Matthew writes nothing occult or difficult. A Nazarene is one who hails from Nazareth. Matthew counts on the ordinary intelligence of his readers, who will certainly know that the enemies of Jesus branded him the “Nazarene,” that this was the name that marked his Jewish rejection and would continue to do so among the Jews. They put into it all the hate and odium possible, extending it, as stated, to his followers. And this is “what was spoken through the prophets.” One and all told how the Jews would despise the Messiah, Ps. 22:6; Isa. 49:7; 53:3; Dan. 9:26; every prophecy of the suffering Messiah, and every reference to those who would not hear him, like Deut. 18:18. The Talmud calls Jesus Yeshu Hannotzri (the Nazarene); Jerome reports the synagogue prayer in which the Christians are cursed as Nazarenes.... Compare Acts 24:5, “sect of the Nazarene,” and Paul’s characterization. If Jesus had been reared in Jerusalem, he could not have been vilified as the Nazarene. It was God who let him grow up in Nazareth and thus furnished the title of reproach to the Jews in fulfillment of all the reproach God had prophesied for the Messiah through the prophets (1943, pp. 88-89).
Albert Barnes made the same assessment of this passage in his commentary on Matthew when he wrote:
Some have supposed that he refers to some prophecy which was not recorded, but handed down by tradition. But these suppositions are not satisfactory. It is much more probable that Matthew refers not to any particular place, but to the leading characteristics of the prophecies respecting him.... When Matthew says, therefore, that the prophecies were “fulfilled,” his meaning is that the predictions of the prophets that he would be of a low and despised condition, and would be rejected, were fully accomplished in his being an inhabitant of Nazareth, and despised as such (1972b, p. 21, emp. in orig.).
So in the end, the skeptic’s $1,000 reward remained safely in his own pocket. His offer turned out to be vacuous, due to the fact that it rested on a completely incorrect interpretation of the passage in the first place. With time and study, the unfounded charge which suggested that Matthew had erred and that the Bible contains contradictions evaporated like an early morning fog hit by the hot noon Sun. God: 1; skeptics: 0.
Archer, Gleason L. (1982), Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Arndt, William (1932), Bible Difficulties (St. Louis, MO: Concordia).
Arndt, William (1955), Does the Bible Contradict Itself? (St. Louis, MO: Concordia).
Barnes, Albert (1972b reprint), Barnes’ Notes on the Old and New Testaments: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Haley, John W. (1951 reprint), Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
Lenski, R.C.H. (1943), The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).