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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