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No. 84 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program November 1999


by John F. McCarthy

        1. The text and context of Matt 2:23.  The second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew ends with the return of the Holy Family to Nazareth. Matthew records that, after King Herod had died, an angel instructed St. Joseph to return with Mary and the Child Jesus to the land of Israel, and this Joseph did. But, when he heard that Archelaus was ruling in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to settle in Judea, "And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled that he would be called a Nazorean" (Matt 2:23). Some English versions, such as the Revised Standard Version or the New American Bible, render the final words of this verse as a direct quotation: e.g., "that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He shall be called a Nazarene,'" basing this translation upon the fact that in classical Greek the word hoti is often used (pleonastically) to set off a direct citation. But the same Greek word is equally used to introduce an indirect citation, as a glance at any classical Greek dictionary will show, and that is what seems to be the case here, because Matthew is not citing, as in other verses, "the prophet," but rather "the prophets," which does not appear to be referring to any particular one.

        2. A doubt about Matthew's inerrancy.  Some have doubted the inerrancy of Matthew's claim that a prophecy had here been fulfilled, namely, that Jesus would be called a Nazorean (Nazarene), on the ground that no such word as Nazareth, Nazarene, or Nazorean, appears anywhere in the canonical books of the Old Testament, leading them to conclude that no bona fide prophet ever predicted this. Now, granted that the name Nazareth, either in itself or in its adjectival forms, does not appear in the Old Testament, it is, nevertheless, our contention that a more complete analysis will indicate that true prophecy was fulfilled, and it is my purpose in the present article to indicate how.

        3. The word 'Nazorean.'  Two Greek words used in the New Testament have often been translated into English by the one word 'Nazarene.' The word Nazoraios (Nazorean) appears exactly thirteen times in Matthew, John, Luke, and Acts, while its counterpart Nazarenos (Nazarene) appears six times in Mark and Luke. The two designations do seem to have been used interchangeably, at least on the level of popular parlance. Thus, in Matt 26:71, a maidservant of the high priest is quoted as saying: "This (man) was with Jesus the Nazorean (Nazoraios)," while, in Mark 14:67, the same maidservant in the same incident is quoted as saying to Peter: "You also were with Jesus the Nazarene (Nazarenos)." Now, it is obvious that in that one historical statement she used one word or the other, and that, in doing so, she was using it as a place-name for the town of Nazareth, because she went on to say, "for your accent gives you away," and, therefore, we must assume that the two words were used equivalently, at least on a popular level, to refer to being from Nazareth. 1 Hence, I shall not argue that the designation Nazoraios has a special meaning in itself that Nazarenos does not have, but rather that it may have a special meaning from the context in which it is presented in Matt 2:23.

        4. What prophets foretold that Jesus would be a Nazorean?  Speculation on this question has gone in two principal directions: either it was literally prophesied in one or more statements that do not appear in the canonical books of the Old Testament, or it is figuratively implied in one or more Old Testament statements taken as a whole. The first of these two possibilities was never greatly investigated, but the second was taken up by the Fathers of the Church and is succinctly epitomized by Thomas Aquinas where he says: "'that he will be called a Nazaraean (Nazaraeus).' This is not found written, but it can be said that it is gathered from many places. Nazarene, therefore, is translated 'holy': and, since Christ is called holy in Dan 9:24, 'that the holy one be anointed,' therefore, it is expressly said by a prophet. Or it can be said that by Nazarene is meant 'flowering': and this occurs in Isa 11:1, 'there shall go forth a branch from the root of Jesse, and a flower will ascend from his root ....' And this fits in with what is said in Cant 2:1, 'I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys.'" 2 To the objection that Jesus should have been named from his birthplace (Bethlehem), Aquinas replies that Nazareth means "a flower," and Jesus preferred to be named from the place where his virtuous manners flowered than from the place where he was physically born. 3 What St. Thomas is stressing here is the presence of a meaning based metaphorically upon the etymology, that is, the possible root or roots, of the words Nazarene and Nazorean. And in his approach he is using a mental framework in which a distinct metaphorical sense is understood to be present in the verse, whether by intent of the human author, or, at least, by intent of the Holy Spirit, the divine Author of the text. And Matthew is challenging his readers to search for that sense. Since our neo-Patristic approach accepts the framework of Aquinas, we will keep ever in mind the distinction between the literal and the spiritual sense as we proceed with this study, allowing also for the possibility that the spiritual meaning is the literal sense, as sometimes occurs in Sacred Scripture.

        5. The origin of the name Nazareth.  As noted in the previous paragraph, Thomas Aquinas, following the speculations of the Fathers of the Church, considers two possible origins of the name Nazareth. One possibility is that it comes from the Hebrew root nzr in the form of the noun nazir, meaning someone "set apart," "consecrated," and, therefore, "holy," or in the form of the noun nezer, meaning "crown." A second possibility is that it comes from the Hebrew noun netser, meaning "branch" or "flower." And it is not clear which of the two is the original etymon or even which of the two is intended by the divine Author as the spiritual sense of the text. As Cornelius a Lapide pointed out more than three centuries ago, while the Greek text of Matthew seems to have been translated from a Hebrew or Aramaic original, the Greek words Nazoraios and Nazarenos do not indicate the answer, since the Greek consonant zeta (pronounced like the dz in adze) would be the same for both nazir (with zayin) and netser (with tsade). And William Albright, in his penetrating research into the possible origin of the name Nazareth, concluded that, in view of the linguistic phenomenon of "consonant shift," either word could be the root of Nazareth. Albright, in fact, favored the root netser and thought that the original name of Nazareth was probably Notseret. 4 Bargil Pixner maintains that the Greek word nazoraios in Matt 2:23 "certainly" comes from netser, because a Hebrew inscription found in Caesarea in 1962 and dating back to the third or fourth century A.D., spells Nazareth with tsade and not with zayin. And this discovery, he says, "eliminates the supposition that the appellation Natzoraios/Nazarene was linked to the name Nazirite. 5 But this conclusion ignores the linguistic phenomenon of "consonant shift" as well as the possibility that the spelling of the name Nazareth may have been ambiguous back in the first century A.D. Pixner claims also that the title "Natzorean/Nazarene" denotes especially the royal status of Jesus as a descendant of King David, basing this assumption on the supposition that a "Davidic clan" resettled the deserted area of Nazareth around 100 B.C. and the conjecture that they then became known as "Natzoreans," that is, as a kinship planted by God. 6 However, this last conjecture is weakly based and is challenged by the remark of Nathanael in John 1:46. 7 Moreover, Pixner does not seem to distinguish clearly enough between the literal and the spiritual meanings of the word as it is used in Matt 2:23.

        6. Behold a virgin shall conceive.  That the reader is being challenged to find the spiritual meaning of the prophecy about the Nazorean in Matt 2:23 can be seen by the way in which the four preceding prophecies are quoted in these two chapters. Matthew first quotes Isa 7:14, where he says: "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which is translated 'God with us.'" Matt 1:23 says that this prophecy in Isaiah has been literally fulfilled in the conception and birth of Jesus. It says that Jesus was miraculously conceived in that he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit without any male intercourse (Matt 1:20). But, in addition to this miracle in nature, Matthew is conveying a spiritual message: Jesus, in not having been generated from the male seed of David, has been "set apart" from the political and cultural milieu of the House of David. Spiritually, the Virgin Mary has become the new "House of David." Jesus will be called, that is, He will be "God-with-us." In the conception and birth of Jesus, God is with us in a new and greater way: not insofar as a distant God has helped his people to win battles, to occupy lands, to gain prosperity, but by actually taking flesh in this man, Jesus. Matthew is saying that the fact of this incarnation is confirmed by the miracle of the Virginal Conception, and that the Virginal Conception is confirmed by its prediction in Isaiah 7:14.

        7. And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you shall come a leader who shall rule my people Israel  (Micah [Micheas] 5:2, as quoted in Matt 2:6). Matthew is affirming that this prophecy of Micah was literally fulfilled by the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. As Matthew will show in the course of his Gospel, Jesus was not called to be a political or a military leader of Israel, but rather a spiritual leader in a new and better way, that is, of a spiritually constituted people, of the Kingdom of God on earth and in Heaven, of the new Israel established in his blood and conceptually distinguished from the Israelite race and society as such. Matthew is developing a different idea of holiness, centered in and around the holiness of Jesus.

        8. Out of Egypt I have called my son  (Hosea [Osee] 11:1, as quoted in Matt 2:15). Thomas Aquinas and many others have seen this statement in Hosea as a prophecy de praeterito, that is, as an affirmation about the past that refers literally to the Exodus of the Chosen People out of Egypt under Moses. 8 The fuller quotation is as follows: when Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning incense to idols (Hosea 11:1-2). Hence, the statement refers literally to the people of Israel who went out from Egypt in the Exodus and then did not live up to their vocation. But Matthew takes the Exodus as a figure of the return of Jesus from Egypt to Palestine, applying to Jesus the calling from Egypt, but not the idolatry of the Israelites. We note in particular that Matthew sees the prophecy fulfilled, not in a literal, but in a figurative way, based upon the understanding that the original Israel (Jacob) was himself a prototype of Jesus and that the promise of God to Israel and to his seed was fulfilled literally in Jesus (cf. Gal 3:16).

        9. Rachel bewailing her children.  Matthew's fourth citation is taken from Jeremiah, whom he quotes as follows: A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation: Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted, because they are not (Jeremiah 31:15, as quoted in Matt 2:18). Many have agreed with Thomas Aquinas in seeing this description also as a prophecy de praeterito, referring directly and literally to some misfortune of the tribe of Benjamin prior to the proclamation of Jeremiah, such as the slaughter of the Benjaminites recorded in Judges 20, when twenty-five thousand men of the tribe were slain and only six hundred survived. For Rachel was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Or in seeing this as being literally a prophecy regarding the Babylonian captivity of Benjamin and all the other tribes of Israel. But Aquinas goes on to show that Matthew interprets the prophecy as prefiguring the slaughter of the Innocents by Herod. The Hebrew word ramah means "height," and thus, in the prophecy the affirmation that "a voice was heard in Ramah" means figuratively that "a voice was heard on high," that is, by God in Heaven. The prophecy mentions Rachel as weeping in Ramah, that is, weeping from the place of her burial, but the expression is metaphorical, because it is not saying that the sound of loud weeping was sensibly heard from her grave. And so, even literally, Rachel is taken symbolically as the mother of all of the tribes of Israel, inasmuch as she was the principal and predilect wife of Jacob. Now, Bethlehem is in the territory of Judah about one or two miles from the border with Benjamin, and the soldiers of Herod killed the male infants "that were in Bethlehem and in all the borders thereof" (Matt 2:16), so that they probably killed some infants also in the territory of Benjamin. In any case, all of the mothers of the infants slain were figuratively "little Rachels," and thus, in my opinion, the prophecy of Jeremiah was literally fulfilled in their weeping. But the prophecy was to be spiritually fulfilled, since it goes on to say: Thus says the Lord: 'Let your voice cease from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work,' says the Lord; 'and they shall return out of the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your last end,' says the Lord, 'and your children shall return to their own borders.' As a race, as a people, the Benjaminites and other Israelites did return from Babylon to their own borders, but the slain individuals would never again literally walk on this earth, and yet the Holy Innocents would return to life within the Church in Heaven. Hence, figuratively, Rachel weeping represents the Church weeping for her slain children but comforted by hope in their future resurrection. Jeremiah, further in the same chapter, states the basis of this hope: a woman shall encompass a man (Jer 31:22), that is, the Virgin Mary shall conceive the God-man without the use of male seed, and He will bring the grace of justification and of eternal resurrection. 9 Rachel is also a figure of Mary, Mother of the Church, who once wept on this earth for the slain children of Bethlehem and who is now comforted by the knowledge of their future resurrection and their eternal happiness in Heaven. Let us note, finally, that Ramah, in this prophecy of Jeremiah, is a place-name having also the obvious metaphorical meaning of "on high," and this may be another clue to the existence of a metaphorical meaning in the names Nazareth and Nazorean.

        10. that he would be called a Nazorean.  Matthew's four preceding citations from the Old Testament are taken in a different spirit of fulfillment than was understood in the Old Testament as such. Jesus is "God-with-us" in the sense of a physical incarnation of God in this man, and Jesus thus becomes the supreme example of holiness in a man. The fact of the Incarnation is confirmed by the prophecy in Isaiah and by the miracle of the Virginal Conception. The Virgin Mary is presented as the second greatest example of Christian holiness. The prophecy in Micah of the birth of the Savior at Bethlehem is interpreted in Matthew's Gospel as the birth of an other-worldly King who had come to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. The prophecy in Hosea is interpreted as referring to Jesus, who came back from Egypt to dwell in Israel and then to establish the Kingdom of God. The prophecy in Jeremiah of Rachel weeping has the same other-worldly sense: Rachel, representing literally the mothers of the Holy Innocents and figuratively the Church and the Blessed Virgin Mary, weeps at the slaughter of these children but is consoled by the fact that they will rise again in glory, not in this world, but in the next.

        11. The allegory in Matt 2:23.  Now, this spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies in Matt 1-2 gives some indication as to how the prophecy about Jesus the Nazorean is to be interpreted. If Jesus is the supreme example of holiness, then He is the Nazirite, the "holy man," par excellence, with the result that the Nazirites of the Old Testament were only faint reflections of what perfect holiness really is. It is true that Jesus would not abstain from drinking wine, as the Nazirites did, but his humanity was consecrated from his mother's womb in a higher and holier way than was Samson or John the Baptist. And the Virgin Mary is also a high-level Nazirite in the sense of a person "consecrated to the Lord" (cf. Num 6:2). She too was consecrated to the Lord from her mother's womb, and both she and her divine Son were "set apart" from all the other descendants of Adam and Eve in that they were conceived free from Original Sin. Jesus will be the King of Heaven and of the New Israel, while Mary will be the Queen Mother. Both were called out of Egypt to lead lives of perfect sanctity in the land of Israel. Mary, Mother of the Church, weeps for the injustice of the slaughter of the Innocents, but Jesus will console her by raising them again in glory. Behind this whole infancy narrative is the Allegory of Christ and of his Church, an extended metaphor which is not a fictitious analogy but is rather another dimension that has been instilled into the history of the events and the meaning of the prophecies. This allegorical pattern lies also behind the prophecy that Jesus would be called a Nazorean, that is, an inhabitant of Nazareth who exemplifies and fulfills the etymological meaning of the name. Jesus is a Nazirite, because He is "set apart" from this world in his divine origin, in his virginal conception, in his hypostatic union, in his heavenward vocation, in his supreme holiness. And Jesus is "from the root," because He is divinely from God the Father, because he was conceived of the Holy Spirit, the source of all holiness, because he was conceived virginally from the holiest of all pure creatures. To find how these qualities of Jesus are reflected in the words nazir and netser in the Old Testament is to recognize the spiritual sense of the prophecy in Matt 2:23. And this spiritual sense may also be the literal sense, but we shall now consider briefly whether or not there might be something more implied on the level of history, even though the inerrancy of the text does not depend upon this further speculation.

        12. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth.  Historical critics tend to believe that the final versions of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke depend at least in part upon an earlier story that was common to both, even though developed differently. But historical critics also tend to conclude that both infancy narratives are fictional and that all of the episodes are imaginary. 10 Neo-Patristic interpreters, on the other hand, recognize the common antecedent to the two infancy narratives to consist in the real history that lies behind them, probably in two different antecedent reports regarding that real history. A question, then, that occurs here is: Did Matthew add the reference to the prophets in Matt 2:23, or is he saying rather that Joseph went to Nazareth because Joseph saw the reference to the prophets? Matthew's narrative tells us that Joseph, in coming back from Egypt, had the intention of settling in Judea, but hearing that Archelaus reigned in Judea in the place of Herod his father, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee (Matt 2:22). And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled .... Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary had come from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Why, then, was Joseph intending to settle in Judea? It seems that it was to fulfill the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be from Bethlehem. but, after being warned about Archelaus and having learned of the continuing danger to the life of the Infant in Judea, he thought about the prophecies regarding Nazareth. And in this reflection he was probably aided by the Virgin Mary, who had herself reflected much on the same subject. In fact, Mary may have been the original interpreter of these prophecies, since she was used to meditating upon prophecies and events and to seeing their spiritual implications (Luke 2:19, 51).

        13. A possible connection with the Annunciation to Mary.  Just before the Incarnation of Jesus, Mary asked the angel: 'How shall this be done, because I know not man?' And the angel, answering, said to her: 'the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. And, therefore, the Holy to be engendered will be called Son of God' (Luke 1:34-35). The Greek word used here for "Holy" is hagion; what was the Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent used by the Angel Gabriel in speaking to the Virgin Mary? If the word was nazir or some derivative of nazir, then we have here the prophecy referred to in Matt 2:23, given literally and historically by the angel and contained figuratively in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. And if the word spoken by the angel to Mary was something else, such as qadosh ("holy" or "set apart"), it would still relate conceptually to nazir for prophetic purposes. And so in either case the literal meaning of Matt 2:23 may well be that Joseph went and settled in Nazareth, not simply because this was where he and Mary had been living earlier, but especially because he was convinced that it had been prophesied that Jesus would be a Nazorean, that is, a greater and holier Nazirite than all of the others, or a Natsorean, that is, a mystical "branch" or "blossom" of royal Davidic descent.

        14. What was the source of Matthew's infancy narrative?  It is my opinion that the one ultimate source of the infancy narratives both in Matthew and in Luke is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was an eye-witness or immediate ear-witness to all of the events narrated. Some critics say that Mary could not be the source of the infancy narrative in Matthew, inasmuch as the story is centered around the figure of Joseph, but this objection does not hold. Mary could have deliberately told the story as highlighting Joseph both as a function of her own humility and for the following historical reason. It is very likely that Mary narrated two separate accounts of the infancy of Jesus. The one related to events that could be told safely within her family milieu; the other contained events that were never divulged to anyone until after the death of Jesus, because He would have been in immediate danger of arrest and execution by the political authorities had they known about these events. Mary could easily have recounted these dramatic events either directly to Matthew in answer to his questions, or he could have learned about them indirectly from other sources. And Mary could have shown at any time after the Resurrection the scroll of the genealogy in Matthew which she very likely had kept hidden for the reason that it could well have been the genealogy with which Joseph had registered himself and Jesus in the census at Bethlehem. On the other hand, the genealogy in Luke seems to have been the genealogy of Mary, artfully adjusted by Joseph in returning from Egypt in order to be able to conceal his own genealogy and yet have some ancestry to show, to which he would also have had legal claim if he was the adopted son of Mary's father, as Urban Holzmeister has suggested. 11 This may be fanciful, but the adjustment could have happened in this way. Joseph changed the name of Mary's father Joakim to its equivalent Eliakim (cf. 2 Kg [4 Kg] 23:34; 2 Chron 36:4) and then shortened it to Eli, while leaving the rest of the names in Mary's ancestry unchanged. Joseph, to use a modern term, traveled with two "passports" in the form of two genealogies. 12

        15. The figurative application of nazir to Jesus.  It has been indicated above that three possible figurative antecedents of the name Nazareth in Matt 2:23 are the Hebrew words nazir, nezer, and netser. A selection of texts that could provide a wider background of the figurative meaning of these three words is as follows. With regard to the figurative dimension of nazir, in the sense of someone "set apart," "consecrated from the womb" or "holy," as prophetically intended for Jesus by the Holy Spirit in either the literal or the allegorical sense of the text, I suggest the following related possibilities.13

        Where the word nazir itself is used:

        Gen 49:26: ... may they (the blessings of Heaven) be on the head of Joseph and on the brow of the separated one (nazir) among his brothers.
        Judg 13:7: For the child (spoken literally of Samson) will be a Nazirite to God from the womb until the day of his death.
        Judg 16:17: For I (Samson) am someone consecrated [nazir] to God from my mother's womb.

        Where the idea of being "set apart," consecrated from the womb," or "holy" may be figuratively related to Jesus:

        Deut 4:39: Know, therefore, this day and take it to your heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath, and there is no other. (Jesus is the same God as the God of the Hebrews.)
        Ps. 39 (40):8-9: Then said I, 'Behold, I come. In the roll of the book it is written of me that I should desire to do your will, my God, and your law is in my heart. (The Divine Word became incarnate to do the will of the Father.)
        Ps. 109 (110):3: From the womb before the day star I begot you. (The Person of Jesus was begotten from the Father from all eternity.)
        Isa 11:2: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. (The humanity of Jesus was saturated with the holiness of the Holy Spirit.)
        Isa 12:6: For great is he that is in the midst of you, the Holy One [qadosh] of Israel. (The all-holy God came into our midst in Jesus.)
        Isa 47:4: Our redeemer, the Lord of hosts is his name, the Holy One of Israel. (Jesus, our Redeemer, is the Lord of Hosts.)
        Isa 54:5: And your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, shall be called the God of all the earth. (Jesus, our Redeemer, is the God of all the earth.)
        Jer 1:5 (spoken literally to Jeremiah): Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came forth out of the womb I consecrated you and made you a prophet to the nations. (Jesus was consecrated in the womb and made the supreme prophet to the nations.)
        Jer 23:6: In those days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell confidently, and this is the name that they will call him: the Lord our justice (cf. Jer 33:16). (The word "justice" here means "holiness," and Jesus is the source of all of our holiness.)
        Ezek 37:28: And the nations will know that I am the Lord, the sanctifier of Israel, when my sanctuary will be in the midst of them forever. (The body of Jesus is the sanctuary of God.)
        Dan 9:24: Seventy weeks are shortened upon your people and upon your holy city, that transgression may be finished, and sin may have an end, and iniquity may be abolished, and everlasting justice may be brought, and vision and prophecy may be fulfilled, and the Saint of saints may be anointed. (Jesus is the Saint of saints.)

        16. The figurative application of nezer to Jesus.  The noun nezer ("crown") is seen by some as having a figurative relation to the name Nazareth in its use as a priestly crown or a royal crown:

        Ex 29:6: And you shall put the miter on his head, and you shall put the holy crown (nezer) on the miter.
        Ex 39:30: And they made the plate of the holy crown (nezer) of pure gold and wrote upon it an inscription, like the engraving of a signet: "Holy to the Lord."
        Lev 8:9: And he set the miter upon his head, and on the miter over the brow he set the golden plate, the holy crown (nezer), as the Lord commanded Moses."
        Lev 21:10-12: The priest who is highest among his brethren, upon whose head the anointing oil is poured ... ... nor shall he pollute the sanctuary of his God , for the crown (nezer) of oil, the anointing of his God is upon him.
        Ps. 131 (132):17-18: There will I make a horn sprout to David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed. His enemies I will clothe with shame, but his crown (nezer) shall flourish.

        17. The figurative application of netser to Jesus.  We know that Jesus is "the root and the offspring of David" (Apoc 22:16). It has been indicated above (no. 5) that a second possible root of the name Nazareth in Matt 2:23 is the Hebrew noun netser. With regard to the figurative dimension of netser in the sense of "blossom," "flower," "branch," or "from the root," as prophetically intended for Jesus by the Holy Spirit in either the literal or the allegorical sense of the text of the Old Testament, I suggest the following related possibilities. Where the word netser itself is used:

        Isa 11:1-2a: And there shall come forth a shoot from the stock of Jesse, and a branch (netser) shall grow out of his root. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.

        Where the idea of "flower," "branch," or "from the root" may be figuratively related to Jesus:

        Gen 1:9: And the Lord God brought forth from the ground all sorts of trees, fair to behold, and pleasant to eat of, the tree of life also in the midst of Paradise .... (Jesus is the "tree" of supernatural life, which represents his Mystical Body [cf. Jn 15:5])
        Ps 84 (85):12: Truth will sprout from the ground, and holiness will look down from the sky. (Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life" [Jn 14:6]: his humanity "sprouted" from the ground of Mary's womb by the power of the Holy Spirit looking down from Heaven.)
        Cant 2:1: I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys. (Jesus, in his humanity, is the greatest flower and the supreme beauty of all creation.)
        Isa 11:10: On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him will the nations seek and his resting place will be glorious. (Jesus crucified is the ensign to all the nations, and He rests in the glory of Heaven.)
        Isa 45:8: Drop down dew, you heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down justice; let the earth be opened and sprout forth salvation and let justice spring up together: I the Lord have created it. (By the new creation of God, the earth of the Virgin Mary's womb was opened and Jesus came forth to bring salvation and holiness to all mankind.)
        Isa 61:11: For as the earth brings forth its bud and as the garden causes its seed to shoot forth, so shall the Lord God germinate justice and praise before all the nations. (The Lord germinated holiness and praise first in Jesus, and through Jesus to the elect of all the nations.)
        Jer 23:5-6: Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, and I will raise up to David a just branch, and he will reign as king and be wise and will carry out judgment and justice on the earth. In those days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely, and this is the name that they will call him: the Lord our justice. (The humanity of Jesus is the off-shoot of David who has brought holiness to all the elect.)
        Jer 33:14-15: Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, and I will fulfill the good word that I have spoken to the House of Israel and to the House of Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a bud of justice to David, and he will carry out judgment and justice on the earth. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: the Lord our justice. (Jesus, the descendant of Jacob, of Judah, and of David, will judge by his word in this life and by his power in the next.)
        Ezek 29:21: On that day I will cause a horn to sprout forth to the House of Israel .... (Mary and Joseph, both descendants of Jacob, represent the House of Israel.)
        Ezek 34:23, 29: And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he will feed them, my servant David: he will feed them, and he will be their shepherd. ... And I will raise up for them a bud of renown, and they shall be no more consumed with famine in the land, nor shall they bear any more the reproach of the Gentiles. (Jesus is the "bud of renown.") 14
        Hosea 14:6-7: I will be as the dew for Israel. He will sprout as the lily and put down his roots like Lebanon. His branches will spread out and his glory will be as of the olive tree and his fragrance like that of Lebanon. (The patriarch Jacob was only a prefigurement of Jesus, who is the true vine whose branches spread out to all of the justified.)

        18. An abbreviated neo-Patristic interpretation of Matt 2:23. The literal sense.  The neo-Patristic method uses the framework of the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture. Since no text of the Old Testament says literally "He will be called a Nazorean (or Natsorean)," and since the name Nazareth does not appear at all in the Old Testament, it is reasonable to suppose that Matt 2:23 is appealing to a figurative relationship of one or more texts of the Old Testament to the root-meaning of the word Nazareth. This appeal may have originated from the insight of Matthew into the figurative sense of one or more Old Testament verses (what some scholars refer to as the sensus plenior), but Matthew could also be recounting the insight of Joseph himself, who had thought of resettling in Judea because of the prophecies regarding the Messiah (e.g., Micah 5:2), but saw afterwards this prophetic relationship to Nazareth. In either case, if the name Nazareth was seen to derive from the root nzr by way of nazir ("consecrated") or nezer ("crown"), then the emphasis of the verse is either upon the supreme holiness of Jesus the Nazorean or upon his priestly and royal status. Relative to this message, among others, are the Old Testament prophecies: may they (the blessings of Heaven) be on the head of Joseph and on the brow of the separated one (nazir) among his brothers; the idea that the Saint of saints may be anointed (Dan 9:24), and the prophecy that his crown (nezer) shall flourish (Ps 131 [132]:18). But even more pertinent may be the New Testament prophecy of the Angel Gabriel in Luke 1:35: He will be called Holy, especially if the word used for "holy" was nazir. But if the name Nazareth was seen to derive from the root ntsr ("branch" or "flower"), then the emphasis of the verse is on the humanity of Jesus the Natsorean as having sprung forth and flowered from the root of Jesse and the royal lineage of David, as in Isa 11:1: and a branch (netser) shall grow out of his root. These two possible derivations tend to merge in concept, so that it is entirely possible that both meanings are intended in the message of Matt 2:23.

        19. The allegorical sense of Matt 2:23.  Behind the literal sense is to be sought in figurative fashion the Allegory of Christ and his Church. The humanity of Christ is reflected in Jesus the Nazorean (nazir and nezer). The idea of consecration to God (nazir) even from the womb in the Nazirites of the Old Testament is fulfilled and elevated in Jesus, as is the very notion of personal holiness. We take for example, limiting ourselves to some of the Old Testament texts that have been quoted above, how the humanity of Jesus brings to completion such ideas as: consecration to the will of the Father (cf. Ps 39[40]:8-9, saturation with the grace of the Holy Spirit (cf. Isa 11:2), hypostatic union (cf. Isa 47:4; 54:5), and being the sanctuary of God on earth (cf. Ezek 37:28). Furthermore, the humanity of Jesus elevates and fulfills the priestly and royal character implied in the word nezer, for instance as presented in Ex 29:6; 39:30; Lev. 8:9; 21:10-12; Ps. 131 (132):17-18. And the humanity of Christ is reflected in Jesus the Natsorean (netser). Jesus is "the root and offspring of David" (Apoc 22:16). Jesus is in a metaphorical way, which is also a higher and more real way, the "tree of life" (cf. Gen 1:9; Jn 15:5); He is the "flower of the field" (cf. Cant 2:1; Isa 61:11; Jer 33:14-15; Hosea 14:6-7), having sprung like a flower from the virginal womb of Mary to become the choicest "flower" of all creation (cf. Ps 84 [85]:12; Isa 45:8; Ezek 29:21); He is the "just branch" of David, of Jesse, of Jacob, of Abraham, of Adam (cf. Jer 23:5-6). The Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ, shares in this fulfillment as reflected also in the figurative character of the name Israel. 15 Thus, for instance, in the prophecy that, when the "just branch" of David shall reign, Israel will dwell securely (Jer 23:5-7), the word "Israel" refers figuratively to the Church of Christ.

        20. The anagogical sense of Matt 2:23.  In the anagogy of the Most Holy Trinity, the holiness of the body and soul of Jesus (nazir) is seen to have arisen from the sanctifying presence of God the Holy Spirit, just as the supreme flowering (netser) of virtue in the life of Jesus stems from the saturation of his human nature with the plenitude of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Many references to God and to the Son of God in the Old Testament refer literally or figuratively to Jesus: on the lower allegorical level to Jesus the God-man as the Son of God, and on the higher allegorical level to Jesus, the Word of God, as the eternal Son of the eternal Father. Thus, e.g., the words "before the day star I begot you" of Ps. 109 (110):3 refer literally to the divine Person of Jesus, eternally begotten of the Father and eternally willed to become incarnate. Again, the words "Behold, I come" of Ps. 39 (40):8 refer to the Incarnation. Similarly, in Isa 12:6, the "Holy One" who is "in the midst of you" is, on the higher level, the Triune God, and, on the lower level, God incarnate in Jesus. In Ps.84 (85):12, the words "truth will sprout from the ground" refer to the truth of the Eternal Word which will sprout from the sacred womb of the Virgin Mary, while the following words "and holiness will look down from the sky" refer to the action of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the miraculous production of the incarnation of the Eternal Word in Jesus.

        21. In the anagogy of the Four Last Things  one can see the fruition of the prophecy in Matt 2:23. In Gen 49:26, the blessings of Heaven are pronounced by the patriarch Jacob upon the head of the patriarch Joseph "and on the brow of the separated one (nazir) among his brothers." The patriarch Joseph was separated geographically from his brothers in the literal sense of this blessing, but Jesus was separated in a fuller and more real way in the spiritual sense of this verse. By assuming the nature of Adam, the Divine Word entered into solidarity with his fellow Adamites, but he remained "separated" above all in being both God and man. He reigns now and forever as the King of Heaven and the Head of his Mystical Body. All of the blessed in Heaven are "consecrated" forever to God and "separated" from natural life on earth and from the damned in Hell. Literally, in the beatific vision, they see "God in Heaven above," while He is perpetually embraced in their hearts as in "the earth below" (Deut 4:39). They also see and embrace God in Jesus. "The Spirit of the Lord" (Isa 11:2) rests upon them and warms their hearts for all eternity. The Holy Spirit is the "sanctuary" that "will be in the midst of them forever (Ezek 37:28). This is the "everlasting justice" (Dan 9:24) that was brought to them by Jesus and is now being fulfilled in Heaven.

        22. The tropological sense of Matt 2:23.  The tropology represents the appropriation of the allegory to the soul of the sanctified believer. In the case of Matt 2:23, it is the appropriation of the truth and holiness of Jesus the Nazorean/Natsorean to the minds and hearts of his followers. The "blessings of Heaven" (Gen 49:26) are extended by Jesus through Baptism and all the other sacraments of the New Covenant as well as by every other act of sanctification. The "Holy One of Israel" is "in their midst" (cf. Isa 12:6) in that Jesus is in the midst of the members of the Church and dynamically present to make them holy (nazir) in the sanctifying grace that lives in their hearts. The Cross of Jesus is "an ensign to the peoples" (Isa 11:10), and his sepulchre is glorious, because He has risen from the dead, and now reigns forever in Heaven as the King of Glory. Tropologically, his followers carry their crosses after Him on their way to heavenly glory. The figure of the flower (netser) appears tropologically in the supernatural virtues that spring up in the souls of the baptized (cf. Isa 45:8; 61:11; Hosea 14:6-7). There is also the special tropology of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is, after Jesus and in total dependence upon his grace, a "holy person" (nazir) in the highest and fullest sense of term. She is the offspring of David, and, in the fertility of her virginal soul, the fullness of virtue sprang forth, so that she both physically and spiritually gave birth to the Savior of mankind. And she is the Mother of the Church who spiritually gives birth to all those who enter Heaven through the portal of the humanity of Jesus. To the extent that these things reflect the personal sanctity of Mary, constituted by the grace of God within her, they represent also the special tropology of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


1. It follows that versions of the Bible such as the Douay Rheims and the Revised Standard Version, which always render the Greek words Nazoraios and Nazarenos as 'Nazarene' or 'of Nazareth,' are not incorrect, but they may not be reflecting some more subtle differences of the two designations.

2. T. Aquinas, Super evangelium S. Matthaei, at Matt 2:23.

3. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 35, art. 7, ad 2.

4. Cf. W.F. Albright, "The names 'Nazareth' and 'Nazoraean,'" in the Journal of Biblical Literature 65 (1946), pp. 399-400. Cf. also J.F. McCarthy in Living Tradition, no. 42, p. 12, under the spiritual sense of Jn 1:46.

5. B. Pixner, Eng. trans., With Jesus through Galilee according to the Fifth Gospel [the biblical landscape] (Corazin: Rosh Pina, Israel, 1992), p. 15.

6. B. Pixner, ibid., pp. 14, 16, 17.

7. Cf. my neo-Patristic analysis of Jn 1:46 in Living Tradition no. 42 (July 1992), p. 8.

8. Cf. Aquinas, Super evangelium S. Matthaei, at Matt 2:15.

9. That this verse of Jeremiah is a prophecy referring literally to the Virginal Conception of Jesus is amply discussed and defended by Cornelius a Lapide in his Great Commentary on the Bible (Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram, Paris, 1874-1876) at Jer 31:22. A Lapide bases this interpretation upon the common opinion of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and in particular upon the teaching of Jerome, Cyprian, Augustine, Nicholas of Lyra, Rabanus Maurus, Hugo of St.Victor, and Thomas Aquinas. In a footnote at this place (vol 12, p. 230), Joseph Peronne, the editor of the volume, observes that this has been the constant opinion of the Fathers of the Church and of Catholic exegetes, and he cites the words of St. Jerome: "The Lord has created a new thing upon the earth: without the seed of man, without that coitus and conception, a woman will encompass a man in the bosom of her womb ...."

10. Historical critics would not agree with the interpretation that I am presenting here, and it is characteristic of the neo-Patristic method critically to examine their critical theories and objections. However, in order to avoid overly long digressions, I have postponed this treatment to a subsequent article.

11. Cf. U. Holzmeister, "Genealogia S Lucae," in Verbum Domini (1943), pp. 15-18.

12. Cf. my article, "New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus," in Living Tradition, no. 11 (May 1987), pp. 6-7. In this article I have presented five different solutions to the problem of the historical truth of Matthew and Luke with regard to the two seemingly conflicting genealogies. The idea of the "two passports of Joseph" is just a conjecture, but to me a better conjecture than those offered by historical critics in their endeavors to go back beyond the letter of the inspired text.

13. I am not here presenting texts that refer more directly to the Mystical Body of Christ.

14. As the Challoner edition of the Douay-Rheims Bible introduces chapter 34 of Jeremiah: "Christ the true pastor shall come, and gather together his flock from all parts of the earth, and preserve it for ever." It is obvious that the complete fulfillment of this prophecy is reserved for eternal beatitude in Heaven.

15. In this article I have not cited for the most part Old Testament texts that refer to the Church as the New Israel.

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