In Matthew 2:23 the gospel writer makes a confusing claim. He suggests that Yeshua’s going to live in Nazareth was a fulfillment of an Old Covenant prophecy:
[Joseph] went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that [Yeshua] would be called a Nazarene. (Matt. 2:23)
Anti-Messianics have sought to use this verse to confuse young Jewish believers, by claiming that the New Testament is false. After all, there is no prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures that claims that Yeshua would be called a Nazarene… Or is there?
First of all, what is a Nazarene? In the context of the Matthew verse it would be someone who lives in Nazareth. However, one must look deeper to see the wordplay—something that was very common in Hebrew literature.
The word for Nazarene that is used in the Hebrew New Testament is natsri (נַצְרִי). The root of this word is natsar (נַצַר). From this root we get the Hebrew word netser (נֵצֵר). And a nester is a branch.
With this information, let’s see if there is anything regarding a Branch and the Messiah in the Hebrew prophets:
In that day the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel. (Is. 4:2)
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.” (Jer. 23:5)
“In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land.” (Jer. 33:15)
“Listen, High Priest Joshua, you and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch.” (Zech. 3:8)
“Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord.’” (Zech. 6:12)
Ok problem solved, right? Not exactly, you see in all these verses the Hebrew word for branch is tsemach (צֶמַח), not netser. In Modern Hebrew tsemach means plant, but since virtually every English translation of the Bible uses the word branch for tsemach, we can be quite sure that branch is the proper meaning in the Old Covenant. So despite being two different words with the same meaning, it could still be a clever wordplay between the name of the city and the Messianic prophecies:
- Yeshua is from Nazareth,
- So he is a Nazarene (natsri),
- Which is the same as netzer (branch),
- And the prophets spoke of a tsemach (branch) coming forth to be the Messiah and King.
Well, that is is proof enough for me to see that Matthew was referring to these prophetic passages when he said that Yeshua would be called a Nazarene according to the prophets, but probably not good enough for those who oppose Yeshua. Isn’t there even one verse that uses the same word netser for branch and refers to the Messiah? Yes!
One of the most famous Messianic prophesies of all is in Isaiah 11:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch (netser/נֵצֵר) will bear fruit. (Is. 11:1)
So if we had any doubts about Matthew’s use of the word natzri meaning branch, they should be definitely be put to rest. And most scholars believe that Matthew had the deepest knowledge of Old Covenant prophecies of all the gospel writers. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology states, “Matthew has a special fondness for the Messianic prophecies in Isaiah and other prophets.” It is noteworthy that they point out Isaiah from all the prophets—the book where we find the branch/netser verse.
Scholars agree Matthew was writing to Jews. He uses prophecy from the Old Covenant 62 times. It makes no sense to add the verse about the Nazarene, if it wasn’t clear to his Jewish readers what he meant. If he is making it up to hoodwink his readers, he has no need with 61 other prophecies. It would only cut at his credibility. Clearly he was referring to Isaiah 11:1 and possibly the other verses that we mentioned as well.
An interesting footnote is that the same root is used in the verb l’natser (לְנֵצר) which means to guard, to keep, to maintain. Yeshua was the only human that was able to l’natser the Law of Moses completely. So not only is Matthew not mistaken, who quotes Yeshua as saying that He “came not to destroy the Law of Moses, but fulfill it” (Matt. 5:17), he also comes across as brilliant in his ability to write masterfully in such a way that was very common for the top writers of his day.
Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lamoix/ changes were made.