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Nazarenes, Rednecks, and Other Well-meaning Slurs

redneck hate pic sxc hu smallI love puzzles, always have. Growing up, I saw puzzles of all kinds as a natural exercise of my desire to be a detective someday, tracing out subtle clues to help me zero in on bad guys.

Becoming a biblical scholar, then, has always seemed right on target for my childhood dreams. I AM a type of a detective, tracing out subtle clues to help me zero in on bad interpretations, sniffing out the truth like a road-weary gumshoe, solving millennia long mysteries in multiple languages from foreign lands. Well, at least this is what I tell the kids at church so they’ll think I’m cool.

One of the puzzles I’ve enjoyed trying to solve is part of the strange “fulfillment” collection of texts from the gospel of Matthew, Matthew 2:19-23. Matthew seems to suggest that Joseph’s avoidance of Herod’s son by moving to the Galilean town of Nazareth “fulfills” what was said by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (KJV) The problem is that there is no such quote, anywhere.

One of the great hindrances to solving this mystery was doubt concerning the proper Hebrew rendering of the name Nazareth. Is the name built off of the Hebrew word נזר NZR or the word נצר NTSR?

Thus, for much of Christian history people have proposed that Matthew’s reference was tied to Samson in Judges 13:5, focusing on the statement, “for the child shall be a Nazirite.” Not a perfect match, but not too shabby if the term Nazareth actually comes from נזר NZR Nazarite. (Numbers 6:2ff)

The notion that an historical prediction of Samson’s birth, should prove predictive of the hometown of the Messiah, has its issues, of course, but a discovery of the name Nazareth in Hebrew nixes any need to consider it here. In 1962, a Hebrew inscription in marble was found in a synagogue in Caesarea Maritima[1] that lists the name of Nazareth as נצרת which helps settle at least one part of the mystery.

Thus far in Matthew’s text, he has made four references to fulfillment. In the three previous, his reference is singular: Prophet (Matt 1:22), prophet (Matt 2:15), prophet Jeremiah (Matt 2:17). In our passage, however, Matthew references that which was spoken by the prophets (Matt 2:23) suggesting that what Matthew has in mind is a recurring theme in the prophets and not an actual quote.

Once we get past the need to find a quote, the next piece of the puzzle concerns the exact sense of the Hebrew term נצר NTSR whether its importance to Matthew is 1. Religious 2. Historical or 3. Geographical or 4. Some combination of these options.

It’s potential religious significance concerns the 1st potential meaning in the Hebrew root נצר NTSR allowing “Watchful, Devout.” This certainly has potential in the sense that Jesus was no doubt pious and devout… the only perfect keeper of the Law. This reference, however, seems rather vague in terms of “Prophecy” and more than a tad distant from Matthew’s connection with the city of Nazareth.

I am not opposed to the idea of a fanciful “Haggadah,”[2] but the use of the Hebrew root נצר NTSR in connection with its meaning “Branch” as in Messianic Son of David (Isaiah 11:1) or “Remnant Messianic Community” (Isaiah 60:21ff) seems a little more to the point. Oddly enough, the “Branch” sense plays upon both the historical and geographical links with נצר NTSR.

Centuries after its abandonment in the wake of the Northern Kingdom’s 722 BC devastation, the town was re-established and renamed BRANCH by remnants of the Davidite clan after the Jews returned from EXILE. This made it a natural place to settle when the Davidites, Joseph and Mary, slip into the region to escape notice. Connected to messianic prophecies is the notion that Messiah will arise from Galilee. (Isaiah 9:1-2)

During Jesus’ Day, however, the term NAZARENE did not merely designate a person from Nazareth, but was a slur for a Galilean… i.e. a backwoods reject, a person of questionable upbringing. To the Jews of Jerusalem, it was equivalent to our slur REDNECK, or HILLBILLIE. It was virtually a curse word in the mouth of Nathaniel. (John 1:46).[3]

In prophecies like Isaiah 9:1-12 and Isaiah 53:1-6 we find a combination of ideas tied to the use of the term Nazarene in Jesus’ day. While Matthew has already quoted prophecy declaring the Messiah to emerge from Bethlehem, (Matthew 2:5-6; Micah 5:2) Messiah is also declared to rise from Galilee. As a Messianic figure, a fruitful branch from the root of Jesse, (Isaiah 11:1) he emerges from the Davidite community in Galilee, despised and hated (Isaiah 53:2-4) though the whole hope of Israel rests on him. (Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 53:5-6) Thus, the prophets have declared in a variety of ways that Messiah shall indeed be a Nazarene.


[1] http://www.mythicistpapers.com/2013/06/13/nazareth-the-caesarea-inscription-and-the-hand-of-god-pt-1/

[2] This is method of using Scripture in a playful way to make a serious point. The interpretation is meant to be amusing in order to cause the un-amusing message to stick in the mind. This was common among the 1st century Rabbis.

[3] Daniel Wallace writes, “In the name “Nazarene,” the Jews, who opposed and rejected Christ, poured out all the vials of their antagonism, and the word became a Jewish heritage of bitterness. …it signifies unadulterated scorn (Mat_26:71; Mar_14:67). Even in His death, the bitter hatred of the priests caused this name to accompany Jesus, for it was at their dictation written above His cross by Pilate (Joh_19:19). The entire Christian community was called by the leaders of the Jewish people at Jerusalem, “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Act_24:5). …it represented the bitter and undying hatred of His enemies.” ISBE “Nazareth”

[4] Media pic is from sxc.hu

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