According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus “went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: ‘He will be called a Nazarene’” (Matt 2:23). Here’s the problem: nowhere do the Prophets say that the Messiah (or anyone else) “will be called a Nazarene” – the statement simply does not appear in Israel’s Scriptures. Is Matthew mistaken? Are Gospel readers being misled? Or can we offer a better answer to this apparent inconsistency?
Far from being biblically ignorant or willfully deceptive, Matthew refers to Jesus as a “Nazarene” in order to make a Greek allusion to a Hebrew word found in the Prophets. Specifically, Isaiah speaks of a royal figure emerging from David’s line: “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (Isa 11:1-2). The word that Isaiah uses for “branch” is נצר (netser) – an agricultural metaphor that, by Matthew’s day, was understood as a reference to the coming Messiah (cf. Dead Sea Scrolls 4Q161; 4Q285).
The words “Nazareth” and “Nazarene” are related phonetically – that is, they have a similar sound – to Isaiah’s term for “branch” (נצר; netser). In the Greek of the First Gospel, “Nazareth” (Ναζαρέτ) is pronounced Natsaret. Matthew makes a wordplay between “Nazareth” (natsaret) and “netser” in order to equate Jesus the “Nazarene” with Isaiah’s messianic “branch.” By living in Nazareth, Jesus spends his formative years in what we might call the “Netserhood,” or “Branchville”! Thus, while the phrase “he shall be called a Nazarene” does not appear explicitly in Israel’s Scriptures, Matthew refers to Jesus’ hometown in order to make an ingeniously inter-linguistic connection between his Messiah and the “branch” of Isaiah’s prophecy.