In Matthew 2:23 we learn that Jesus’ family settled in the small town of Nazareth, “in order that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, that he should be called a Nazarene.” This prophecy, however, appears nowhere in the Hebrew Bible.

Is Matthew guilty of inventing a messianic text? Absolutely not – he is simply employing a Jewish hermeneutical technique called “Midrash.” The key to interpreting this statement lies in recognizing a wordplay between “Nazareth” Ναζαρέτ (nazaret) and “Nazarene” Ναζωραίος (nazoraios).

The wordplay is based on Isaiah 11:1 and the Hebrew word נצר (netzer) meaning, “branch” or “shoot.” The word occurs only here, but its messianic significance is well attested to in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 4Q161, the pesher commentary on Isaiah 11:1-5, we encounter a reference to the Davidic branch whom God will raise up in the last days to deliver the faithful and rule over the nations: “[Interpreted, this concerns the Branch] of David who shall arise at the end [of days] …”

But what does “Nazareth” or “Nazarene” have to with נצר (netzer) – “the branch”?  Although the name seems so familiar to us, “Nazareth” should actually be spelled “Natzeret.” The English spelling is a transliteration of the Greek word Ναζαρέτ (nazaret), which is itself a transliteration of the Hebrew word נצרת (natzeret). The Greek alphabet does not have a letter which would correspond to Hebrew letter צ – Tzadeh and uses the letter called Zeta –  ζ  or “z”, instead.

This small detail has resulted in centuries of confusion about the town’s name as well as Matthew’s prophecy!

After the exile, descendants from the House of David established the town and named it Natzeret to assert that God had preserved the royal line of Messiah – “the branch”. Matthew picks up on this fact and confirms that Jesus is the נצר (netzer) of Isaiah 11:1, the Messianic Branch of David.

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28 COMMENTS

  1. While not fluent in Hebrew, I have heard that NeTseR is a root word for sprout or branch, and also a root word for Nazareth. Chiefly, this has been considered a play on words, especially because of difficulties in translation into the Greek. Isn’t the same used elsewhere in Isaiah and in Daniel 11:7. Matthew was a book that was appealing to the Jews rather strongly so such ‘plays on words’ were in context. There can be other reasons for Jesus being raised in Nazareth because of the nature of that village in those times. Oops, out of words

    • In Daniel 11:7 the root or branch spoken of is that of the daughter of the king of the south who will rise up and conquer the king of the north in the end times. It is not about the Messiah. I think this article is specfically about the term used as a Messianic prophecy. But you are correct, “the BRANCH of her roots” uses the term NATSER.

  2. The image of a stump with a shoot and a branch from the roots (suffering) is very different from the image of wolf and a lamb in a perfect loving world. If all of this prophecy was fulfilled I need to reread the entire thing in Hebrew!

    • “The New Testament in Hebrew and English” the Society for Distributing Hebrew Scriptures, Joseph House, 1 Bury Mead Road, Hitchin, Hertfordshire SG5 1RT, England Look it up by title. Several places sell it.

      • These people saw it in nature? I have experienced something similar. All branches come from roots so why did this branch stand out? In my case, I saw both death (a tree gave way to the storm) and life (two limbs now pointing up would became trees). The limbs had no roots, the fallen log had roots. God preserves.

    • I think we always need to reread the Hebrew : – ) ! Seriously, however, the symbol of the Branch is not one, I think, of suffering but rather Hope. Despite the ravages of judgement and exile God preserved a remnant of his people and restored them to the Land of Covenant Promise.

  3. Amazing explanation, I pray that the Jews eyes and heart will be enlightened to the truth about Jesus Christ the Messiah

  4. IS it possible that Matthews gospel 2.23 was not written by a Hebrew and was altered by the Council of Nicea: an addition, as the word could refer to the root ” nazir” meaning consecrated / separated, not that he was from the town of Nazareth, as the prophecy doesn’t appear in the Hebrew Bible ; those who are consecrated, ie Samson (judges 13) ,Samuel ( Kings ) and John the Baptist are Nazir. Thus known as a Nazarite. Not Nazarene! Yeshua would have been Nazir/ Nazarite. Also not netzer but Nazir.

    • Hi Jane. Interesting suggestion but I think the Samson/Judges/Consecrated suggestion leads us down the wrong path. I’ll try to unpack that a bit more in my comments to Father Christopher. There is no evidence whatsoever that Yeshua was a Nazarite. At the very least, of course, we know he drank wine. Netzer is indeed the key to this passage.

  5. It’s pretty clear that “Netzeret’ ” was a “Judean Settlement” in the Galilee. It may well trace to the movement from about the time of the Maccabees to “re-colonize” the northern districts formerly inhabited by the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Clues given in the Gospel suggest that a group possibly from Beth-Lehem, or at least of David’s line, were a core of this group of “settlers.” Hence the name. It may not have amounted to much in the First Century of our era (St John 1:46), but all of St John’s first readers would catch the irony there!

    • Hi Father Christopher, Thanks for your responses. Well said – A very possible reconstruction of historical events. However, I think one can also argue that these Judeans may have established this small settlement much earlier. Either scenario, fits perfectly with the Netzer/Isaiah 11:1 interpretation I suggest above.

  6. The text from the OT actually cited is from Judges 13:5, & 7, in reference originally to Samson! — a “Strong Man” who “wasted his love” on unworthy figures. The Gospel of St Matthew has numerous allusions & parallels to Samson, in fact. For Christ JESUS, the “Heavenly Strong Man” (if you will) also “wasted His Love” on unworthy figures, like ourselves, “while we were yet sinners!” Like Samson, He “carried off the gates” of Hell for us, that they could never be sealed against us again. Samson carrying the gates, & Christ with the Cross… worth contemplating.

    • Well, it certainly preaches : – ) but I think you’re a tad too dogmatic here. There is actually no concrete evidence that Matthew has Judges 13 in mind. Moreover, all of Matthew’s remaining “fulfillment quotations” (10 to 14 in total, depending on how you calculate them) all revolve around the deuteronomic theme of Sin, Exile and Restoration (Deut 28-30). And that theme connects to Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as one who has come to inaugurate the eschatological restoration of Israel. A Samson/Nazirite theme just doesn’t sync with the other quotations.

  7. The Book of Judges, in the Hebrew Bible, is accounted among the “Former Prophets” — the Historians.

  8. Interesting article and timely with my studies on Nazareth. From what I can tell the “small town of Nazareth” may not have existed prior or during Jesus time but was instead the name of an Essene community. I’m curious how it was concluded that it was town established by the descendants of David?

  9. Thank you for this. Very interesting. I have also heard the explanation of the possibility that Jesus took a Nazirite vow and that was also a part of this confirmation. As such, under many church holiness movements, this is why some churches prohibit the drinking of alcohol. Numbers 6:1-21. Clearly the instruction is for a voluntary set time of abstention and not always a lifetime ban. Strange however that the rest of the detail is often ignored on this chapter other than the abstention.

    • John the Baptizer, a Nazarite maybe, but Jesus? No! They called him a wine-bibber and a glutton. I too immediately assumed Nazarite when I asked the Holy Spirit to illuminate the context. But having someone who understands the intricacy of the Hebrew/Aramaic really puts my guesses to shame. The more I learn about the Bible, and the archaeology, and the semantics, the more I realize Hashem is perfectly true to His Word. To me the greater context of the Bible seems to confirm The Branch connection.

  10. It would be interesting to find out WHAT line of David Jesus came, as the royal family of King Zerubbabel was exterminated, and the Northern tribes were distributed and lost forever.

  11. Wow! This is fantastic! Yet another reason to believe that the book of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.

  12. this is very interesting, yet raises curiosity in me that Matthew could have erred or made assumptions, the connection of Samson and Jesus by the Right Father Christopher is remarkable and indeed makes more sense in the line of preaching, yet I am warmed up with Dr. Noel’s analytic writing. the use of words inter-changeably…”he is simply employing a Jewish hermeneutical technique called “Midrash.” I am hooked to read more.

    • Shalom Bishop, Thanks for your kind words. I am excited that your “hooked”! I hope you’ll join the Forum and be a regular part of the discussion.

  13. I have speculated that if we took the phrase “He shall be called a Nazarene”, translated it to Hebrew, then back to English, it could maybe come out as “His name is the branch”, which would be a huge prophecy fulfillment.

    • Interesting : – ) but certainly speculation. Matthew, after all, was written in Greek, not Hebrew and English sheds no light on the text’s actual meaning.

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