He shall be called a Nazarene

When I was a boy, every year we would go to a boy scout camp called Chin-Be-Gota, near Wausau, Wisconsin. One year our leaders decided to take us to Church on Sunday, and so we went looking for the small Mormon branch up there. They got lost, and asked a local policeman for assistance. He said he knew right where it was, and offered to lead us there. He promptly drove us to the Church of the Nazarene. We boys thought that was hilarious, and we laughed and laughed. But whenever I think of that story, my mind is called to one of the great mysteries of the Bible.

In KJV Matthew 2:23 we read:

And he 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.

This is what I wrote about this in Footnotes:

The reference is uncertain. The GR nazwraiov nazoraios could be derived from Nazareth, from HEB נזיר  nazir (referring to one under a Nazarite vow, as described in Num. 6:1-21), or from HEB נצר  netser (“branch,” used as a messianic title, as in Is. 11:1).

The problem, of course, is that there is no clear OT scripture saying “He shall be called a Nazarene,” so we don’t really know for sure to what Matthew was alluding in this formula citation. Although there is no way to know for sure, here are the three most likely possibilities:

1. Isaiah 4:3:

Following an allusion to the “branch of the LORD” in 4:2, v. 3 reads in part: “And it shall come to pass, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remaineth in Jerusalem, shall be called holy….” The connection is not clear in English, but Septuagint sometimes instead of transliterating HEB nazir would translate it with GR hagios “holy.” So here we have an allusion to both the Branch and, possibly, to the concept of a Nazir (or one consecrated to God).

2. Judges 16:17:

Samson is recorded as saying “I have been a Nazarite unto God from my mother’s womb.” When the Septuagint transliterates HEB nazir, it usually uses naziraios, a form very close to the nazoraios of Matthew. Indeed, alternate spellings, including even nazoraios itself, are attested in variant LXX mss.

3. 1 Samuel 1:22:

This last one is really the motivation for this post, because I just learned of it yesterday and found it interesting. The KJV reads:

But Hannah went not up; for she said unto her husband, I will not go up until the child be weaned, and then I will bring him, that he may appear before the LORD, and there abide for ever.

4QSam(a), which dates from the middle of the first century BCE (the scholarly notation indicates that this is the first of three Samuel manuscripts recovered from Qumran Cave IV among the Dead Sea Scrolls) reflects an additional line, which has not been preserved in either MT or LXX: “He will be a Nazir forever” or “I will (dedicate) him as a Nazirite forever.” Professor Eugene Ulrich of Notre Dame has suggested that this may be the passage Matthew was thinking of in his creative (mis?)reading of OT scripture, and that even if it is not, it highlights the very real possibility that whatever he was referencing has simply become a lost portion of the text.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I should have known better than to try to use Greek and Hebrew Word fonts. It looked ok in WordPress when I sent it, but garbled in transmission. Sorry about that.

  2. It’s my understanding that Matthew was making a rather obvious Hebrew play on words. It seems lame to us since we’ve been raised on Greek argumentation, but to Jews at the time, it would have been a valid connection.

    Incidentally I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene. I would always pull that verse on my other Christian friends to show how the Bible even said my church was better. As I grew older and figured out how legalistic my up-bringing had been, I stopped holding that verse up so much. Galatians soon replaced it.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Dando, that’s why I put a question mark after my parenthetical “mis.” By modern standards none of these verses was a prophecy about someone being from Nazareth. But the ancients drew these kinds of folk etymological connections all the time.