Is there a prophecy of Jesus’s hometown?

by K.W. Leslie, 12 December

Matthew 2.23.

From the third century BC onward, Judeans began to move to the land where northern Israel’s tribes used to live before the Assyrians deported them. Namely in the galíl/“circle” of northern gentile cities—or as 1 Maccabees called it, “the Galilee of the gentiles.” 1Mc 5.15 They wanted to reclaim that land for Israel.

Nazareth was one of the towns they founded. So are all the other towns whose names you don’t find in the Old Testament. Likely Joseph and Mary’s grandparents were among the first settlers of that village. It wasn’t that old a settlement. Didn’t exist in Old Testament times. Wasn’t a town any prophet could point to, and say “That’s where Messiah is gonna grow up.” Though Micah did identify Messiah’s birthplace.

However, Christians are pretty sure one of the prophets did identify Jesus’s hometown, ’cause it says so in the bible!

Matthew 2.22-23 KWL
22 Hearing Archelaus Herod was made Judea’s king after his father Antipater Herod, Joseph feared to go there.
After negotiating in a dream, he went back to a part of the Galilee.
23 Joseph came to settle in a city called Nazareth.
This may fulfill the saying through the prophet: “He’ll be called ‘Nazarene.’ ”

And that is how Jesus became Jesus the Nazarene: His parents moved back to Nazareth and raised him there, far away from the murderous Herods. (Well, till Antipas Herod got made king of the Galilee, but that’s not for another year or so.)

Okay, so the prophet declared Jesus “will be called ‘Nazarene’ ” Great! Which prophet?

Here’s where Christians get stymied. This is not a quote of any bible verse we know about. Certain bibles like to put the addresses of Old Testament quotes in the footnotes, but you’ll notice many bibles don’t even bother. ’Cause it’s not found in the scriptures. At all. Not even in the books the Orthodox and Catholics include in their Old Testaments. It’s nowhere.

Some Christians are gonna insist it is so in the bible—it’s gotta be!—and stretch various Old Testament verses like crazy in order to make them fit. Probably the most popular stretch is to point to when the prophets talked about Messiah being an offshoot (KJV “branch”). This, they claim, really meant Nazareth—because nechér/“offshoot” sounds a little like Nadzarét/“Nazareth.” Some of ’em claim “offshoot” is what the town’s name means in the first place: As a Judean settlement, it’s meant to be an offshoot of that province.

The verse they like to point to most is in Isaiah, where it speaks of Messiah, the offshoot/descendant of Jesse ben Ovéd, father of the great King David.

Isaiah 11.1-5 KWL
1 A sprout goes out from Jesse’s stem; an offshoot of his roots produces fruit.
2 The LORD’s Spirit rests on him, a Spirit of wisdom and knowledge,
a Spirit of firmness and strength, a Spirit of cleverness and respect for the LORD.
3 He enlarges people’s respect for the LORD.
He doesn’t judge by how his eyes see them, or correct by how his ears hear them.
4 He righteously judges the poor. He plainly corrects the land’s meek.
He smites the land with his mouth’s scepter. He kills the wicked with his lips’ breath.
5 Rightness belts his waist. Steadiness belts his loins.

This prophecy can of course describe David himself… but seeing as Isaiah lived four centuries later, it’s not David. Nor the king of Jerusalem at the time, Hezekiah ben Ahaz. It’s a future king, a future messiah; it’s Jesus of course.

But as I said, it takes a really big stretch of vocabulary to claim this reference to a nechér means Messiah is gonna be called a Nazarene. Not that Christians don’t try to stretch it just that far.

Wordplay and fulfillment.

I remind you fulfillment in the bible doesn’t refer to when something foretold finally happens. It refers to how history repeats itself, a sign of God’s sovereign control over history. When a current event is like an ancient event, and you can easily play connect-the-dots between the events, the ancients figured God was therefore involved. Chaos and unpredictability implies he’s not.

So Matthew and the apostles, writing to Greco-Roman gentiles and Pharisees who believed in this idea, pointed to “fulfillments” all the time. They considered them meaningful. Problem is, our culture has had centuries to adopt a more scientific worldview: Coincidences mean nothing. Cause and effect does. When something is like something else, it’s interesting, but that’s all. Now, when God blatantly says something will happen, and it does, that’s what we care about. We prefer prophecy.

And many Christians insist “fulfillment” means prophecy. Because Jesus is so important, he has to have been the subject of prophecy. Hundreds of prophecies! In fact it’s what Christians regularly claim: There are hundreds of prophecies in the bible which foretell Jesus! But the reality is there are only dozens. Which is still mighty impressive, but a little disappointing to those people who believe more is always better.

Anyway y’notice Matthew states Jesus’s circumstances plirothí/“may fulfill” the prophet’s message. Not does fulfill; may fulfill. Matthew used a subjunctive verb, which means something could happen, not something does happen. He left it loose… and therefore open for debate. Literalists hate this idea, and insist the bible never, ever leaves anything open for debate; everything’s black and white. Plenty of things are indeed black and white, but the bible was written for the wise, and wisdom means sometimes we gotta use our brains and figure things out for ourselves. Do you think “Nazarene” fulfills what the prophets wrote? Matthew did. As for me—well I already said it’s a stretch.

When it comes to fulfillment, you’re gonna find the writers of the bible were frequently willing to settle for wordplay. Ideally “fulfillment” consists of a past event which resembles a present one. But often they were fine if words resembled one another. In the western culture, where we’re taught to strive for factual accuracy, this mindset can be irritating: It’s not close enough! But remember, to ancients it didn’t have to be. Fulfillment isn’t about Jesus achieving what’s foretold; it’s about similarities. Including long-shot similarities.

So maybe Matthew stretched Isaiah’s reference to a nechér into “He’ll be called ‘Nazarene.’ ”

There is one other theory I’ve heard, and kinda like, but of course it’s only held by a minority of Christians: Some unknown prophet—some guy we know nothing about, who legitimately heard from the Holy Spirit, but whose prophecies never made it into the bible—claimed Messiah would be called a Nazarene, and that’s what Matthew meant. After all, Matthew didn’t write, “As it’s written,” but referred to the rithén/“saying”—possibly a saying this unknown prophet had spoken aloud, and the saying was passed around verbally, but never put to papyrus. So of course we can’t find it anywhere. Only problem with this theory is Matthew wrote about fulfillment, not achievement—so the original saying wouldn’t have been a literal prophecy. Oh well.

And finally there’s the theory Matthew meant Jesus will be called a Nazirite, a person bound by religious oath to specially follow God, Nu 6.2 like Samson, Samuel, Elijah, and John the baptist. Nazirites, as part of their devotion, weren’t allowed to shave, couldn’t touch anything dead (not even family members), and couldn’t touch anything made of grapes, including wine. Nu 6.2-8 I don’t know whether or how often Jesus shaved, but be definitely drank wine, and definitely touched dead people (if only to bring ’em to life). So he was clearly no Nazirite. He was Nazarene.