The (Strange) Use of Scripture in Matthew 2:23

In Matthew 1:23, the narrator views Isaiah 7:14 typologically. In Matthew 2:6, he views Micah 5:2 as a direct verbal prophecy. In Matthew 2:15, he views Hosea 11:1 typologically. And in Matthew 2:18, he seems to be using Jeremiah 31:15 typologically as well.

But Matthew 2:23 puts interpreters in an unexpected predicament. Matthew reports that Joseph took Mary and Jesus and went to live in Nazareth so that what was spoken might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” The problem is twofold. First, the Old Testament nowhere has the phrase “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Second, Nazareth isn’t even mentioned in the Old Testament.

What should we make of Matthew’s use of Scripture? I think five affirmations can point us to a very plausible solution:

  1. Since “He shall be called a Nazarene” isn’t in the Old Testament, and since Matthew would’ve known that it wasn’t, he isn’t seeking to represent a certain verse but rather a composite notion. This use of Scripture is different from what we find in the previous citations in Matthew 1-2 (1:23, 2:6, 2:15, and 2:18), where each quote is actually found in the Old Testament.
  2. Since Matthew uses a fulfillment formula referring to “what was spoken by the prophets,” he has in mind multiple Old Testament passages that speak to the notion he’s putting forth. Earlier in Matthew 1 and 2, his Old Testament quotes referred to a prophet (singular!). See 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17. In Matthew 2:23, the plural prophets suggests a different way of referring to the Old Testament.
  3. The notion Matthew may be advocating is probably connected to the connotations of Nazareth in his own day. Nazareth (a village of 500 or less) evoked lowliness and obscurity. In John 1:46, Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (See also John 7:41-42, 52.)
  4. Several Old Testament passages held out that God’s ruler would be characterized by lowliness, humility, obscurity, and that he would be met with rejection and scorn (Pss 22:6-8, 13; 69:8, 20-21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2-3, 8).
  5. Perhaps the literary device of paronomasia (a play on words) also helps explain Matthew’s language because “Nazareth” or “Nazarene” sounds similar to the Hebrew word for “branch,” which multiple Old Testament passages foretold would come from the line of David (see, e.g., Isa 11:1; for synonymous “branch” prophecies, see Jer 23:5; 33:15; Zech 3:8; 6:12). Matthew has already labored to connect Jesus to David’s line (Matt 1:1-25), so a play on the “branch” theme would fit with the Davidic emphasis.

The words “He shall be called a Nazarene” fulfills a pattern of lowliness and humility and scorn that would characterize the Branch from David’s line. No one was expecting anything amazing from Nazareth, much less the Savior of the world! After Joseph moved the family to that village, Jesus grew up in obscurity.

Imagine a sketch artist who needed information for his task. And imagine that multiple witnesses turn up, but no one offers a complete description, just partial clues. After pulling together the details, the sketch artist is able to say “Here he is,” based on what multiple testimonies described.

Matthew has listened to multiple Old Testament texts. Who conforms perfectly to the portrait they’re describing? Matthew knows Jesus does, and an important motif of lowliness, humility, and scorn must be taken up by God’s ruler and fulfilled. Seemingly from out of nowhere, Jesus arrives on the public scene around age 30 and proclaims God’s Kingdom at hand. The Branch from David’s line will meet rejection, suffering, and death. The statement “He shall be called a Nazarene” is Matthew’s way of recognizing that God is bringing to pass what the prophets projected.

The Seed of the woman, the Curse-bearer, the Word-made-flesh–he was a Nazarene.

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