Where Was Jesus Called a Nazarene?
In addition to the unfounded criticism surrounding Nazareth’s existence early in the first century, skeptics are also fond of denying the fulfilled prophecy of Jesus being called a Nazarene. At the close of Matthew chapter two, the inspired tax collector recorded that Jesus’ family “came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’” (2:23, emp. added). The fact of the matter is, however, the words “He shall be called a Nazarene” are nowhere found in the Old Testament, nor is Jesus ever called “a Nazarene” in the New Testament apart from Matthew 2:23. For these reasons, Bible critics often include Matthew 2:23 in lists of Bible “contradictions” or “inconsistencies” that supposedly disprove the inspiration of the Bible (cf. McKinsey, 1995, pp. 167,293; Morgan, 2010).
So what are Christians to do with Matthew 2:23? Do we concede it as a contradiction, or is there a reasonable response? How could Matthew truthfully write that Jesus’ family moved to Nazareth “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’”?
First, Bible students must keep in mind that quotation marks were foreign to the Bible writers, as well as all authors of antiquity. As Wayne Jackson noted: “[A]ncient writers did not use the same literary devices employed today. Quotation marks, colons, ellipsis marks, brackets, etc., were unknown to them. In view of this, we may not always know just how they were utilizing the language of the former Scriptures” (1988). Could it be that Matthew did not intend for His readers to understand this statement as a direct quotation from the Old Testament, but rather a more generalized truth?
What underlying truth could Matthew possibly have been trying to convey by the statement, “He shall be called a Nazarene”? Before answering this question, consider how the names of cities have occasionally been used to represent a particular idea. From a negative standpoint, a homosexual may be referred to as a sodomite (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10, NKJV, RSV). In the first century, the inhabitants of Corinth were so sexually immoral that the verb korinthiazo (“to Corinthianize” or “act like Corinthians”) meant to commit sexual immorality (Foster, 1974, pp. 6-7). In regards to Nazareth, the city had a reputation of being rather insignificant. It was in a partially Gentile-settled region (Galilee) that the Pharisees looked down upon, as is evident by their erroneous assertion that “no prophet has arisen out of Galilee” (John 7:52). [NOTE: Jonah was from Gath Hepher in the southern part of Galilee (2 Kings 14:25).] What’s more, recall that when Philip informed Nathanael that he had found the Messiah, “Jesus of Nazareth” (John 1:45), Nathanael responded: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (vs. 46). “To come from Nazareth, therefore, or to be a Nazarene, was the same as to be despised, or to be esteemed of low birth” (Barnes, 1997). The fact is, the Old Testament prophets foretold that the Messiah would be a “despised...root out of dry ground” with “no form or comeliness” (Isaiah 53:2-3; cf. Psalm 22:6-7). Similar to how cities such as Sodom and Corinth have been used to describe a particular activity (albeit wicked), Matthew likely assigned the term Nazarene to Jesus to adequately express the prophets’ predictions of His lowly, despised origins (cf. Acts 24:5).
Still, some might wonder why Jesus was never actually “called” a Nazarene anywhere in the New Testament (outside of Matthew 2:23). The answer is quite simple (though perhaps foreign to many in the 21st century): in Scripture, to “be called” often meant the same as “shall be” (see Lyons, 2010). When God said that Eve would “be called woman,” He did not mean that “woman” would be her name, but that by nature she was a woman (Genesis 2:23; 3:20). When Matthew quoted the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 and testified that the people “shall call His name Immanuel” (Matthew 1:23), he meant that by nature the son of Mary was Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (whereas the literal name He wore was “Jesus”—1:1:25; Luke 1:30-35; cf. Isaiah 9:6). Likewise, when Matthew used the word “Nazarene” one chapter later, he was most likely describing the lowliness of Jesus’ life (i.e., He “made Himself of no reputation”—Philippians 2:7).
Barnes, Albert (1997), Barnes’ Notes (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Foster, Henry (1974), The Preacher’s Complete Homiletic Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Jackson, Wayne (1988), “Principles of Bible Prophecy,” Reason & Revelation, 8:27-30, July, http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2001.
Lyons, Eric (2010), “Why Did Mary and Joseph Not Call Jesus Immanuel?” http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/240434.
McKinsey, Dennis (1995), The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).
Morgan, Donald (2010), “Bible Inconsistencies: Bible Contradictions,” http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/donald_morgan/inconsistencies.html.