Nature of a Nazarene
To Jesus’ roles, of Messiah like Adam, Seed of the Woman like Abraham and High Priest like David, the movements of his family added Prophet like Moses. However, in the text that follows, Matthew moves on to establish precisely what sort of prophet Jesus was.
With the death of King Herod, the way lay open for Joseph and his family to return from Egypt. However, the discovery that Archelaus was ruling over Judea prompted the change of plan that saw them return to Galilee instead. They were right to exercise such caution, for the historian Josephus records how Archelaus, not wanting to appear unlike his father Herod, ‘began his reign with the murder of three thousand citizens.’ (J.W., 2:89).
Warned in a dream, Joseph headed to Nazareth, a small hillside village whose population may have been of the order of 200 inhabitants1. Whilst it was either too insignificant for mention in contemporary records2, or masqueraded under another name, it had excellent access to the outside world for a major trade route passed nearby3. The city of Sepphoris, a place of similar size and import to Jerusalem4, lay only about an hours walk to the northwest5. In 55 B.C.E., it had become the administrative centre for the Roman province of Galilee and later it served as a northern capital for Herod the Great and a base for Herod Antipas6. Nazareth may have been obscure, but it was not a backwater.
Jesus’ move to Nazareth prompted Matthew to make another of his typically enigmatic claims. This one concerned the fulfilment of the prophecy, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’ (Matt 2:23, KJV). During Jesus’ years of ministry, people certainly knew him as ‘the Nazarene’. Moreover, it was official enough for Pilate to use it on the sign attached to Jesus’ cross (John 19:19-20). However, whilst it clearly meant something to those who saw the sign (why else use Latin, Greek and Hebrew), the term ‘Nazarene’ presents us with a mystery. It occurs in neither the Hebrew Bible, nor any of the other scriptures that have survived from Jesus’ day. Yet, tease out the nature of a Nazarene and not only does it clarify why Matthew attributes this prediction to ‘the prophets’, but also the significance of Jesus being a Nazarene.
Pondering on theories
Translators grapple with two very similar Greek words when deciding whether to use ‘of Nazareth’ or ‘the Nazarene’, but fortunately this distinction is not critical for our purposes. Parallel passages in different Gospels use them interchangeably and, as Matthew’s observation suggests, being a Nazarene and coming from Nazareth had similar connotations7.
Scholars, whilst conceding uncertainty, commonly advance one of several popular theories for the etymology of the epithet ‘Nazarene’ (see Appendix J). These include suggestions that it was a geographical term, a derogatory title, a description of a lifestyle, or a designation related to Isaiah’s predicted ‘branch’ (Isa 11:1), all of which, to my mind, have their problems. However, there is one popular theory for the derivation of the name of Nazareth that I have yet to find applied to the term Nazarene. This theory derives Nazareth from the Hebrew for one who is guarding or watching (notserah) and it finds support in the Arab use of the term en-Nasrahfor a watchtower8.
A city on a hill
Nazareth was certainly the sort of place that might have been associated with a lookout. The site of the ancient city of lay higher than its modern counterpart and on the flank of the prominent hill from which, tradition has it, its occupants attempted to fling Jesus (Luke 4:29). Its sheer southern escarpment flanks the Vale of Jezreel and provides a spectacular view across that broad valley to the distant Judean hills. Moreover, under its gaze ran the main overland route around the Fertile Crescent from Mesopotamia to Egypt, the Way of the Sea9. Furthermore, with various forms of beacon signals already in use by the Romans10, Nazareth may have played its part in emergency communication across the Vale of Jezreel, e.g. between Jerusalem and Sepphoris.
The possibility that a watchtower gave rise to the name Nazareth suggests that a Nazarene might therefore be some form of watchman. In ancient cultures, such watchmen were a vital source of intelligence about what was going on and an early warning system for trouble that was brewing. They were usually the one to see things first and they understood how to interpret the small details that they saw. Whether a messenger or an army, the watchman would see them when still far off, then he would look intently, straining to make out the truth through the Judean haze. Having identified what they were seeing, the watchman then had one further task to perform, report what they had seen and report it accurately.
Luke repeatedly uses the words Nazareth and Nazarene as context specific vocabulary11 in passages relating to vision, looking intently and accurate reporting. Not only does this support the idea that a Nazarene was some kind of watchman, it does so in a way that develops a specific theme. The occurrences of Nazareth and Nazarene in Luke, most of which I intend to analyse, repeatedly contrast the outcomes for those who ‘see’ events through the lens of the prophet’s words and those who fail to do so. In other words, the outcomes for those who listen to prophets like Moses and those who remain deaf to their words.
Comparing the pious with the possessed
Luke introduces his Nazareth/Nazarene-driven theme by contrasting the attitudes of two visitors to the temple, Simeon and Jesus’ parents (Luke 2:39-50). The Spirit led Simeon, who had been longing for the time that the prophets predicted, to the temple where he found Jesus. However, Jesus’ parents, who, had they paid attention to the prophets, should have known he would be in the temple, spent three anxious days searching before they found him. Both passage contain the emphasis on vision. Thus, Simeon was looking and God had promised that he would see. When he encountered Jesus, he claimed to have seen the Lord’s salvation and challenged Jesus’ parents to behold the purpose God had for their child. Then, the elderly prophetess Anna provided a second witness to those who were looking for the redemption of Israel. When Jesus parents found the child, their response was the antithesis of Simeon’s. To emphasise this, the text again follows the pattern first look, then see and finally behold. Joseph and Mary are looking for Jesus (i.e. for the redemption of Israel). They see him in the temple and are concerned only that he should behold their anxiety.
Luke’s next references to Nazareth/Nazarene provide a similar contrast through the outcomes of two occasions on which Jesus went to a synagogue on the Sabbath and taught (Luke 4:16-36). In the Synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus deliberately stopped reading half way through the prophet Isaiah’s poetic couplet (Isa 61:1-2). He was testing whether his audience would grasp Isaiah’s message, thereby understanding that it was time for apostate Judah to feel God’s recompense. All those present looked intently at the prophet before them. However, being more interested in experiencing miraculous blessings than the words of Isaiah, they misinterpret Jesus’ statement as gracious. All they saw was a carpenter’s son rehearsing familiar platitudes, when they should have seen a prophet delivering a divine rebuke. Jesus, anticipating their query concerning his miracles in Capernaum, reminded them how, when leaders refused to hear God’s prophets, God sent the prophets to the unclean, Gentile, nations. The people, finally understanding his point, were so enraged that they tried to murder him. By contrast, in Capernaum, the crowd recognised that Jesus teaching had authority (i.e. they paid attention to what he said). Even an unclean spirit acknowledged who this ‘Jesus the Nazarene’ was, before Jesus promptly exorcised it.
Walking with the Nazarene
The account of the blind beggar Bartimaeus(Luke 18:31-43) once again sees an emphasis on sight juxtaposed with use of Nazarene/Nazareth and paying attention to the prophets. Immediately preceding thehealing, asked his disciples to see all that was going on and to understand it as the fulfilment of the prophet’s words. As they refused to accept these things, so the truth remained hidden from them (i.e. they remained blind to it). However, Bartimaeusneeded only to hear that Jesus the Nazarene was passing, to understand that Jesus was the Son of David and that his mercy could restore his sight (insights which suggest that he had been listening to the prophet Isaiah’s words12).
Luke’s description of the Emmaus road encounter (Luke 24:13-32) once again draw together the three elements of Nazarene, sight and prophets. As the disciples discussed the execution of the mighty prophet Jesus the Nazarene, they were struggling to understand the reports of an empty tomb. Then a stranger came alongside them and rebuked them for their unwillingness to believe the prophets. Initially they were unable to see who the stranger was. However, as he explained how the scriptures related to Jesus’ death, they became attentive to the prophet’s words. Wanting to hear more, they asked the stranger to stay, whereupon the blindness departed from their spiritual eyes and they recognised Jesus.
Confused crowds and leaping lame
In the Book of Acts, Luke continues to mention Nazarene/Nazareth in similar contexts, but he also moves on to cast Jesus’ disciples in the role of prophets. Thus, during the outpouring of the day of Pentecost, Peter realised that the Jewish crowd were seeing and hearing unprecedented things and that events needed some interpretation (Acts 2:14-47, Nazareth at 2:22). He reminded them to consider the prophet Joel’s words and spoke about Jesus the Nazarene whom they had put to death but whom God had raised. He also explained how David, being a prophet, had looked ahead and seen this resurrection.
Following Peter’s speech, we find, neatly bound together by the healing of a lame man, two more scenarios that hinge on people’s attitudes to the prophets (Acts 3:1-4:19). The contrast is emphasised by the way the apostles look at the lame man and speak but the officials look at the healed man and fall silent. The familiar elements are all there. The Apostles, the beggar, the crowd and the officials all do a lot of looking, even looking intently (e.g. Acts 3:4-5, 9, 12, 4:13-14). Peter delivers an appeal to pay attention to the prophets. The crowds gazed at Peter and John and believed their words, whilst the officials look at the disciples and refuse to hear what they have to say (by forbidding them to speak).
The account of Stephen’s martyrdom revisits the theme yet again (Acts 6:8-7:60). As Stephen stood on trial because of his witness to Jesus the Nazarene (Acts 6:14), his accusers fixed their gaze on him, saw the face of an angel, but were angered when, having reminded them that Moses’ promised a prophet like him (Acts 7:37), accused them of ignoring and murdering God’s prophets. Stephen fixed his gazed on heaven, saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, then chose to forgive his accusers as they murdered him.
The Nazarene again surfaces in Peter’s meeting with Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48, the reference to Nazarene is found at Acts 10:38). Cornelius fixed his gaze on a supernatural messenger, acted without hesitation on the messenger’s instruction and received the blessing of the Spirit. Peter, fixed his gaze on the sheet (cf. Acts 11:6), objected to the heavenly command and received a divine rebuke.
In the book of Acts, the final occurrences of Nazarene and Nazareth fall within retellings of the account of Paul’s conversion, first before the Jews (Acts 22:6-16 Nazarene at v8) and then before King Agrippa (Acts 26:6-18 Nazareth at v9). Paul recounts how he felt hostile toward Jesus of Nazareth’ (Acts 26:9) until Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus road and declared himself ‘the Nazarene’ (Acts 22:8) Once again both sight and prophets are an issue. Paul approved the murder of the prophet Stephen, so looking up at Jesus he is rendered blind. When he then pays attention to Jesus, not only is his sight restored, but as he looked up at Ananias, the prophet revealed that God had appointed Paul to see and hear the righteous one.
The Nazarene/Nazareth passages in Acts continue the vision and prophesy related themes of Luke’s Gospel, but within them another focus surfaces. Peter & John refused to stop reporting what they have seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20), Stephen accurately reported what he had seen even though it cost him his life (Acts 7:56-60) and Paul emphasised his commission to report what he saw and what God showed him 9 Acts 26:16-19). All insisted on testifying to what they had seen.
The nature of a Nazarene
Thanks to Luke’s consistent use of Nazarene and Nazareth in contexts that evoke the language of the watchman, it seems safe to conclude that Nazareth took its name from the watchtower on its hill and that a Nazarene was the sort of watchman that manned that tower. Such a man saw everything, understood its true significance and reported it accurately. However, Luke adds an extra dimension to a Nazarene by forging a link between being one and the correct interpretation of prophecy. Nazarenes were therefore watchmen who, having looked intently at events around them, correctly interpreted them in the light of what the prophets said. Thus, they understood what God was doing in their day and, by accurately reporting what they had seen, they became prophets in their own right.
The idea of a Nazarene being a watchman with a spiritual edge feels very comfortable, for God clearly appointed spiritual watchmen (cf. Isa 62:6). Furthermore, the roles of spiritual watchman and prophet often go hand in hand. Within the Hebrew Bible, the best-known example of this dual role is the prophet Ezekiel, the ‘Son of Man’ to whom God gave strict instructions concerning a watchman’s liability (Ezek 3:7, 33:7). However, Habakkuk, when he asks a question of the Lord, gives us another glimpse of a prophet acting as a watchman, when he likens his attentive attitude to that of a watchman waiting to see the Lord’s response (Hab 2:1).
The metaphorical fig
If, as I have suggested, ‘Nazarene’ was a title for a prophet and Nazareth the abode of respected watchmen, then what should we make of Nathaniel’s statement (John 1:44-51) ‘Can any good thing come from Nazareth?’ Some have suggested that this comment indicates that Nazareth had a reputation as a place of little import. Yet, the gospel’s practice of referring to it as a city, suggests it had a significance that outweighed its size. Look closer and this passage contains the same emphasis on sight that we found in Luke’s writing. Philip invited Nathaniel to come and seeif any good thing could come out of Nazareth. Jesus convinced Nathaniel that he was something good simply by telling him that he had seenhim beneath a fig tree. Christ then promised that Nathaniel would seeheaven opened and angels ascending and descending.
When Jesus saw Nathaniel beneath a fig tree, he knew the significance that the prophets gave to the fig. Adam and Eve had concealed their shame with fig leaves (Gen 3:7-10). The prophets had later declared people who acknowledge their nation’s shame to be like the good fruit of the fig (cf. Jer 24:1-1013). Nathaniel, as he sat beneath the tree, had become a metaphorical fig. That Jesus had not only noticed him, but recognised the significance of his behaviour, was enough to convince Nathaniel that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, a Nazarene from whom nothing was hidden, who looked intently at the words of the prophets, understood what he saw, and reported it accurately.
John’s passage involves the same ‘watchman’ context found in Luke, so any interpretation of Nathaniel’s words should be in that light. For many years, the news from the watchmen of Nazareth must have been of Roman troop movements, failed uprisings and the downtrodden poor. Such news consistently revealed the apostasy of the nation. For years, everything from Nazareth had been bad, but now a saviour had come from Nazareth. Such good news was that ‘good thing’ which Nathaniel had not expected.
Seeing heaven opened
With the understanding that both Nazarene and Nazareth related to watchmen, the significance of Matthew’s words becomes clearer. When Jesus went to Nazareth (site of a watchtower), it fulfilled the prophet’s predictions that he would be called a Nazarene (a type of prophetic watchman). However, the puzzle of which prophets Matthew had in mind remains. In practice, he gives his reader’s a clue. However, only by paying attention to the prophets will they see it. Fortunately, another look at Jesus dialogue with Nathaniel will help us develop our observational skills.
Whilst talking to Nathaniel, Jesus touched on another theme that links several of the Nazarene/Nazareth related passages. A glimpse into Heaven had been enough to convince Jacob to commit his way to God (Gen. 28:12). Jesus chose to allude to that experience when he promised that Nathaniel would see “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51, NKJV). theme, of Heaven being open to men so that they may gain insight into spiritual truths, recurs amongst the Nazareth/Nazarene passages. We met it when the opening of Heaven preceded Peter’s visit to Cornelius (Acts 10:11). Similarly, Stephen declared, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56, NKJV, cf. Acts 1:10).Heaven also opened when Joseph came from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the Glory of the Lord that shone around the Shepherds left them seeing Jesus (Luke 2:9, 13). Luke later records the inverse of that scenario as, on the road to Damascus, Heaven opened so that the Glory of the Lord shone around disobedient Saul and left him seeing no one (Acts 90:3,7).
Stephen’s experience was like that of the prophets Micah and Daniel, both of whom saw into the throne room of Heaven and related the truths they discovered there (2 Chr 18:18, Dan 7:9). The apostle John would recount a very similar experience as he saw a door opened into heaven and received his revelation (Rev 4:1). Furthermore, Elisha was only able to inherit the prophetic mantel of Elijah because he too saw into the heavenly realm (2 Kgs 2:10-12). Seeing what was going on in Heaven was the key to these individuals’ prophetic ministry. Likewise, Moses’ prophetic insights are probably traceable to meeting with God ‘face to face’, i.e. being welcome in the throne room of Heaven (Exod 33:11, Deut 34:10).
Seeing Heaven opened was a certain sign of a man’s prophetic credibility. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Matthew records how, following his baptism, Jesus saw Heaven opened and the Spirit of God came upon him (Matt 3:16). The form in which the Spirit revealed itself need not concern us at this point, however the timing of this incident, the coming of the Spirit and the name by which Matthew chose to describe Jesus provide us with our clue.
Looking for the lookout
In describing Jesus’ baptism, Matthew gives him the title ‘Son of Man’ and then describes how, at the very outset of his prophetic ministry, this ‘Son of Man’ saw Heaven opened and received the Spirit of God. To Matthew’s learned Jewish readers his description would have recalled the opening sections of Ezekiel. Therein, the ‘Son of Man’ sees the heavens opened in readiness for him to see spiritual truths (Ezek 1:1). Through this heavenly portal, Ezekiel saw the Glory of God. Then, in an experience with echoes of Moses and the 70 elders coming before the lord at Sinai, he saw the Lord upon his throne (Ezek 1:22-28, cf. Exod 24:9-10). Finally, there at the start of his prophetic ministry the Holy Spirit came upon him (Ezekiel 2:2).
At the very outset of their ministries, the experiences of Jesus and those of Ezekiel ran in parallel. Furthermore, when Matthew attributes to ‘the prophets’ the statement that ‘he shall be called a Nazarene’, The Greek word he uses for ‘called’ carries a nuanced meaning that can imply the assignment of a vocation (e.g. as in Rom 8:30)14, just as one might today speak of a person being called to politics or called to teach. When, in Ezekiel, God says that he has given the Son of Man as a watchman (Ezek 3:17, 33:7), the word ‘given’ carries that same nuance.
When Matthew speaks of ‘prophets’, Ezekiel was one whom he almost certainly had in mind. As a watchman, Ezekiel the Son of Man was responsible for bringing the spiritual warnings that would preserve life. He was also the prophet who encountered God’s glory even in exile. In the first century, God was sending the sword of Rome to overturn an Eden15 and Matthew portrays Jesus as the appointed watchman who had seen it coming (Ezek l 33:1-4) and will minister to a people in exile.
However, Matthew probably also had Isaiah in mind, for Isaiah speaks of God appointing watchmen for the walls of Jerusalem (Isa 62:6), i.e. prophetic watchmen who would continually monitor the spiritual health of the city and warn of what they saw.
At last we see
At the start of this chapter, we faced a confusing fog of opinion on the nature of a Nazarene. As we then looked intently at the writings of Luke, we began to penetrate the haze and interpret what we saw. A picture of a Nazarene came into focus, a watchman, a man of spiritual understanding and a prophet.
Matthew, having made his case that Jesus was like Moses, now substantiates Christ’s prophetic credentials by introducing us to Jesus the Nazarene. Yet, even as he does so, the scriptures are laying down a challenge to his readers and that means you and me. God has called us, like Jesus and his disciples, to pick up the mantle of a Nazarene, look at what we see around us, gaze intently into the words of the prophets, interpret the meaning of events and report accurately what we see.
Return to outline
of The Emmaus View book
1 R. Riesner,“Archaeology and Geography,” DJG, 34-46, in particular 36.
2 A. B. du Toit, The New Testament Milieu(Logos Electronic ed.; House: Orion, 1998), 2.8.3.
3 R. Riesner,“Archaeology and Geography,” DJG, 34-46, in particular 36.
4 Marcus J. Borg, "The Palestinian Background for a Life of Jesus," in BAS The Search for Jesus (Electronic ed.; ed. Hershel Shanks; Biblical Archaeology Society, 2002).
5 J. F. Strange, “Galilee,” Dictionary of New Testament background, (electronic ed.), n.p.
6 J. F. Strange, “Galilee,” Dictionary of New Testament background (electronic ed.), n.p.
7 Wallace, D. H., “Nazarene,” ISBE, 3:499-500.
8 Easton, “Nazarene,” Easton's Bible dictionary, n.p.; Ermete Pierotti, Judee et Galilee (Jerusalem: The Jewish National & University Library, David and Fela Shapell Family Digitization Project, Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the Hebrew University,1888). [Cited: 15 May 2009]. Online:http://www.jnul.huji.ac.il/dl/maps/pal/html/eng/pal002368872.htm.
9 du Toit, New Testament Milieu, .8.2.
10 Pat Southern, The Roman Army, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 230-31.
11 I.e. words chosen because of their particular relevance to the topic at hand.
12 Isaiah 42:7 portrays the healing of the blind by God’s Servant. God appointed His Servant David to save His people (2 Sam 3:18), hence a similar expectation might be extended to his heirs. In the parallel healing in Mark’s Gospel the beggar is told to take courage and his healing is portrayed as salvation. Both evoke the predictions of Isaiah 35:4-5.
13 Good figs acknowledged their nation’s acts were shameful, rotten ones denied that truth.
14 “καλέω,” TDNT,3:487-90.
15 I.e. the cultic sanctuary represented by Herod’s temple.