Translations differ considerably in where they use the word ‘Nazarene’ (thus the NKJV uses Nazarene twice whilst the NET Bible uses Nazarene nineteen times). This stems from the use of two similar Greek words1. There appears to be a fair consensus that one of these, Nazar?nós, indicates ‘of Nazareth’ as a place of origin, however they understand the other, Naz?raíos, less well. Naz?raíos is the one that Matthew uses and which is most often translated Nazarene.
Academics have advanced a number of theories for the origin of the term Nazarene. Perhaps the simplest is that it arose as a geographical epithet, i.e. an alternative way of saying ‘of Nazareth’. A slightly more complex variant of this derives Nazarene from a regional name, either the (hypothetical) place name that gave rise to Gennesaret (i.e. Vale of Nesar) or the old name for that district (Nazara). According to that hypothesis, Nazarene effectively means Galilean2. Either geographical solution might work for Jesus, implying that he was ‘Jesus the Galilean’. However, the ‘sect of the Nazarenes’ extended well beyond Galilee (Acts 24:5).
Some have pointed to Nathaniel’s statement, ‘Can any good thing come from Nazareth’ (John 1:44-51), and suggested that ‘Nazarene’ was therefore a derogatory term derived from ‘of Nazareth’. However, this seems unlikely, given that we find Nazarene on the lips of an angel announcing Jesus resurrection (Mark 16:6), Peter introducing Jesus to the Pentecost crowd (Acts 2:22), and Jesus introducing himself to Saul (Acts 22:8).
Another popular theory suggests that Nazarene and Nazarite (N?zir) share a common root. Thus, Nazarene alluded to a set-apart lifestyle3. The Nazarite shunned wine and even the produce of grapes, they were prohibited contact with dead bodies and they had to let their hair grow (Num 6:1-8). Yet, whilst John the Baptist might appear a model ‘set-apart’ Nazarene, Jesus was criticised for being quite his opposite (Matt 11:18-19) and was not timid about drinking wine or approaching dead bodies (Luke 7:14, 34, cf. Acts 20:9). Whilst the words may indeed share a common root, it seems unlikely that being set apart under gird its meaning.
A further hypothesis suggests that Nazarene arose from the promised of a ‘Branch’ (netse), ‘from the stump of Jesse’ mentioned in Isaiah 114. Although there is no obvious reference to Nazareth in the prophecies that relate to the ‘Branch’ (e.g. Jer 23:5, Zech 3:8, 6:12), Archaeological evidence suggests that its principal growth was during the second century B.C.E.5 and that there had been migration to the city from the area around Bethlehem6. Thus, one might infer that Nazareth’s name derives from its status as a northern branch of the tribe of David. Jesus likened the disciples to the branches of a vine (John 15:5). Furthermore, although a Benjamite, like Paul, or a Greek member of the sect would not have been a branch from the stump of Jesse in the true sense, Paul portrayed then as wild olive branches grafted into the olive tree that was Israel (Rom 11:16-18). Therefore, in the absence of further evidence, e.g. as presented in Chapter 18, the theory that the ‘Branch’ lent its name to both Nazareth and the Nazarenes remains a strong one.
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1 Nazar?nós in Luke 4:23 & 24:19 and Mark 1:24, 10:47, 14:67 & 16:6, Naz?raíos in Luke 18:37, Acts 2:22, 3:6, 4:10, 6:14, 22:8, 24:5 & 26:9, John 18:5, 18:7 & 19:19 and Matthew 2:23, 26:69 & 26:71
2 D. H. Wallace “Nazarene,” ISBE, (3:500)..
3 M. O. Wise, “Nazarene,” DJG (572).
4 Matthew George Easton, “Nazarene,” Easton's Bible Dictionary, (Oak Harbor, Mass.: Logos Research Systems, 1996).
5 James M. Efird, “Nazarene,” Harper's Bible dictionary, 689.
6 Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary, 51.