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LESSON 13: JESUS THE NAZOREAN (Matthew 2:23)
by John F. McCarthy
86. The text of Matthew 2:23. The text of Matt 2:23 reads as follows: "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." Joseph went and dwelt in Nazareth because it had been prophesied that Jesus would be called a Nazorean. Some have questioned the inerrancy of this verse on the ground that no such prophecy was fulfilled, seeing that nowhere is the Old Testament is it stated that Jesus would be called a Nazarene, that, in fact, the name Nazareth does not appear at all. It is our contention that a prophecy was, indeed, fulfilled.
87. The spiritual sense of Matt 2:23. In the New Testament the word "Nazorean" (Nazoraios), as used in Matt 2:23, appears thirteen times, while the word "Nazarene" (Nazarenos) appears six times, but never in Matthew. In popular parlance, these two Greek words seem to have been used interchangeably, meaning simply "from Nazareth." And so there does not seem to be any special literal meaning in this choice of a word, but there does seem to be a special meaning in the spiritual context of the word, as many Fathers and Doctors of the Church have maintained. St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes their teaching succinctly as he explains (with a slightly different spelling of the word):
"'that he will be called a Nazaraean'. This is not found written, but it can be said that it is gathered from many places. Thus, Nazarene is translated as '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'." 1
88. The figurative sense of the word "Nazorean." What St. Thomas is bringing out in the passage just quoted is a probable figurative meaning in the root or roots of the word "Nazorean." And he is using a mental framework which enables a figurative meaning of the word to be perceived. The two most likely sources of the word Nazorean (or Natsorean) are the Hebrew roots nzr and nsr, and the translation into the Greek of our basic text does not enable us to tell with certainty which of the two roots was used.
89. A neo-Patristic interpretation of Matt 2:23. To the unskilled observer the alleged prophecy in Matt 2:23 may appear to be an error of fact on the part of the Evangelist, seeing that the names Nazareth and Nazarene are not to be found anywhere in the Old Testament. But a more careful study, using the neo-Patristic framework of the Four Senses, can lead to the discovery that, not only did the Evangelist not make an error of fact, but also he actually sewed a deeper factual meaning into the wording of his text.
- From the root nzr: the name Nazorean could relate figuratively either to the Hebrew noun nazir, meaning someone "set apart," "consecrated," and, therefore, "holy," or to the Hebrew noun nezer, meaning "crown." In the Old Testament, a Nazir was a person "separated" from the ordinary run of people and "consecrated" to God even from the mother's womb (cf. Judg 13:7 and 16:17), thus becoming, in some sense, a "holy" person. Now Jesus was and is the Nazir par excellence, inasmuch as his human body and soul were consecrated to God in the greatest way from the moment of his virginal conception, to the extent that the Nazirim of the Old Testament possessed no more than a shadow of the holiness that is in Jesus of Nazareth. Or the word Nazorean could relate figuratively to the Hebrew noun nezer, with reference to the high priesthood and royal status of Jesus. Thus, in 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. Again, for instance, in 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.
- From the root nsr: the name Natsorean could relate figuratively to the Hebrew noun netser ("branch" or "flower"). Thus in Isa 11:1-2a: "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." Jesus was a descendant of Jesse through David and David's descendant, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus sprang by virginal conception like a flower from the branch of Mary. And the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus in the highest prophetical sense (cf. Luke 4:16-30, esp. verses 16 and 18). And there are many other places in the Old Testament which expand the scope of this prophecy. 2
- The literal meaning of Matt 2:23. It is not clear from the text of this verse whether Matthew has added the element of prophetic fulfillment on his own or he is saying that Joseph went to Nazareth because Joseph saw this to be a fulfillment of prophecy. If the latter be the case, then the literal and historical sense of the verse is the affirmation that Joseph had this reason for going to Nazareth and settling there. But the style of Matthew earlier in his infancy narrative leaves the impression that he himself may have added this reference or at least approved of its historical truth. The expression "spoken by the prophets" in this verse is a clue to the possibility that Matthew is not referring to the words of one specific prophet but is rather referring to a more general fact contained implicitly in the wording of several prophecies. The root-meanings of names often have an important function in the meaning of biblical prophecies. The word Nazorean used in this verse has at least three possible Hebrew roots. Etymologically, that is, in terms of the word-root, a Nazorean could be someone who is consecrated and holy, someone who wears the crown of high priesthood or of kingship, or someone who has come forth from the root as a branch or flower. If any one or any combination of these root-meanings constitutes the prophetic fulfillment understood by the sacred writer, then this single or multiple meaning would also be the literal sense of the text, and, consequently, the verse will be literally and historically true, if the root-meaning has a real fundament in the wording of the Old Testament. Consider these possibilities. If the name Nazorean was seen to derive from the Hebrew root meaning "consecrated," then the literal emphasis of the verse is upon the supreme holiness of Jesus. If the name Nazorean was seen to derive from the Hebrew root meaning "crown," then the literal emphasis of the verse is upon the high-priestly and royal status of Jesus. But, if the name Natsorean was seen to derive from the Hebrew root meaning "branch" or "flower," then the literal emphasis of the verse is upon the humanity of Jesus as having sprung forth and flowered from the root of Jesse, the father of King David.
- The allegorical meaning of Matt 2:23. As the spiritual and prophetic fulfillment of the Nazir, the "holy person" of the Old Testament, Jesus was consecrated in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the first moment of his conception, consecrated by the miraculous overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, who saturated his body and soul with the grace of the Most Holy Trinity. As the exalted branch and flower of the Old Testament prophecies, Jesus is "the root and offspring of David" (Apoc 22:16), that is, He has sprung from the root of David; Jesus is the "flower of the field" (Cant 2:1, etc.), having sprung without male seed from the virginal womb of Mary (Isa 7:14, etc.). Jesus is thus the "just branch" (cf. Jer 23:5-6), that is, the "holy branch" on the tree leading back through David and Jesse, and through Jacob and Abraham, to Adam and Eve. And the Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ, shares in the fulfillment of this prophecy.
- The anagogical meaning of Matt 2:23. The hallmark of the Most Blessed Trinity is impressed upon the allegorical sense of this verse. Jesus is the supreme Nazir, since his human nature is united hypostatically to his divine nature in such a way that the one and only Person of Jesus is the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. And Jesus is "from the root" in the most absolute sense, because He is the only-begotten eternal Son of God the Father, who is the absolute root of all existence. The body and soul of Jesus were, from the first moment of his conception, saturated with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Thus, in the prophecy in Ps 84 (85):12, Truth will sprout from the ground, and holiness will look down from the sky, the fulfillment was that the truth of the Eternal Word of God, of the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, sprouted from the ground of Mary's sacred womb, and the Trinity of Persons looked down from Heaven to produce the incarnation of God in Jesus. On the level of the Four Last Things, while Jesus is a biological "brother" of all of the descendants of Adam and Eve, mere biological relationship will be of no avail when Jesus comes at the Last Judgment to judge the living and the dead. Jesus, the God-Man, is by his divinity "separated" from all of his brothers (cf. Gen 49:26), and he will effect a great separation of all mankind at the end of the world, when the good will be gathered within the borders of Heaven and the evil will be banished forever to the depths of Hell.
- The tropological meaning of Matt 2:23. The followers of Jesus begin to become holy men and women (Nazirim) when they are received through Baptism into the Kingdom of God on earth. The Holy Spirit then becomes dynamically present in their hearts through the sanctifying grace merited for them by Our Lord. With the infusion of sanctifying grace the supernatural virtues spring up in the souls of the sanctified, and the sanctified become branches on the vine that is Jesus Christ. The justified followers of Jesus become, one might say, "Nazoreans of the Holy Spirit." But in a special way the tropology applies to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She, too, is a Nazir (cf. Num 6:2); what is more, she is the holiest of all pure creatures. Furthermore, she is a direct physical descendant of King David, and she conceived and gave birth to the Savior of Mankind, both physically in her body and spiritually in her soul. In her virginal soul, from the first moment of her immaculate conception, sprang up the fullness of supernatural virtue. She is the Mother of the Church and the Queen of Heaven. Jesus, then, is "from Nazareth" also because he is from Mary. It has been remarked, not without significance, that the name Nazareth has a feminine ending.
1. Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, at Matt 2:23.
2. Many of the things said in this lesson are explained more at length in Living Tradition no. 84, "Called by the Prophets a Nazorean." Various quotations from the Old Testament are given in that article which illustrate the background of this prophecy.
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