25 Oct 2014 by Dr Yeo Teck Thiam –
I think many of us have some ideas of places where our parents and elders spoke nostalgically of their origins, particularly for many who had left China or some distant land. Some of them would speak with some pride of being from Foshan or Tongguan in Guangdong, or Swatow in Teochew, or Chingkung or Engchoon in Fukien, and so forth.
These places may not have much meaning for locals, but their name places emphasize their clan relationships and birth. The details provide us with information about their histories and our ties.
To this end, I think the names of many people in the Bible likewise give us much knowledge.
Most people know that Jesus lived in Nazareth for most of His years on earth, until He began His public ministry. So Matthew said in the Gospels, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Matthew 2:23.
Matthew also said that this was to fulfill what was said through the prophets. So, like many Christians, I am sure most would look for this prophecy. Thus I looked through the Old Testament to find this. Yet I found that this is easier said than done. There are no direct references to Nazareth in the Old Testament for this purpose.
Nazareth was a fairly new settlement, and did not exist in Joshua’s or David’s time. It was not built until the Israelites had long returned from the Babylonian exile. So, we have a puzzle.
From which text in Scripture was Matthew referring? Would the Jews accept what he said? Why should the Jews consider this claim important?
One may ask also the question when Nathanael was told about Jesus. He said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” John 1:46.
Nazareth seemed to be held in lowly esteem, even though this was close to Nathanael’s home in Cana. John 2:1,2
Quite evidently, the countrymen of Nazareth had little impact for Jews in Jesus’ time. So, why would Matthew bother to state this as prophecy? Thus, I suppose I must sort out the significance of Nazareth, as a first step.
The Royal Lineage
Nazareth lies on the southern hills of Galilee, before the drop into the plains of Megiddo, as the countryside rolls towards Jerusalem. It sits amongst these lower hills, and it had a warm wet Mediterranean climate which encouraged flowers, and trees, to sprout shoots readily in ancient times.
The rains came from the Mediterranean Sea from the west and likely as well, from the Sea of Galilee to the northerly east, as moist air lifted upwards on the hills. Hence the Hebrew word, ‘netzer’, referring to the green shoots of branches from trees, seemed a meaningful word origin for Nazareth.
However, there is a second important sense which is the meaning of the prophecy of the Nazarene. It is about the shoot from the tree stump, the ‘Branch’ that will bear fruit.
What we also have is Isaiah 11:1 about ‘The Branch’, the shoot from the stump from Jesse where the Hebrew word for branch is ‘netzer’.
The early church fathers gave the meaning of Nazareth as netzer, the ‘branch’. This is disputed by some modern day scholars, of course. Nevertheless, whatever the disagreements and opinions, there are two important aspects for Nazareth from the word ‘netzer’.
The royal Davidic line had lost its great importance after the Babylonian Exile because the Hebrews looked to the Temple for its role as the nation of God. The royal descendants became ordinary countrymen when they returned to Palestine.
Moreover, they chose not to resettle in Bethlehem. It makes good sense, because the king of the nation was no longer from David’s lineage. Herod was king in Jesus’ time and he was not a descendant of David. It was unwise and dangerous to live so close to the palace if David’s descendants resettled in Bethlehem. Herod would not want any rivals to his throne!
Tradition has it that a clan or line of David re-settled in Galilee, in the city of Nazareth. It was a relatively new city, built sometime after the Babylonian exile. This makes much sense, if we remember that both Mary and Joseph came from Nazareth, and this was their home town as the Gospel says in Luke 2:39.
We remember also that when the Lord was twelve years old, Joseph and his family went to Jerusalem for the Passover, and they brought Jesus for this trip.
After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. Luke 2:42-45.
This account is intriguing in connection with Nazareth. Joseph and Mary did not seem to be concerned that Jesus was missing for a day!
This is a puzzling lack of care on Joseph and Mary’s part — unless there were close adult relatives returning to Nazareth with them. So there were descendants of David living in Nazareth, besides Joseph and Mary.
It also makes sense that there was the need to continue the royal lineage through the right marriage, as given as given in Numbers 36:7, in the law for inheritance. Mary was betrothed to Joseph. Both of Jesus’ parents were from David’s line in the Gospels. This makes Nazareth, a town with many people from David’s line.
It also makes sense when we noted earlier that Nathanael thought lowly of the countrymen of Nazareth. This is because the Jews were waiting for the Messiah who must come from David’s line to lead them to set up a kingdom. But the royal Davidic line in Nazareth did not give the Jews such hopes. None of the Davidic lineage in Nazareth challenged Herod for the right of kingship.
Nathanael therefore wondered what good could come from Jesus of Nazareth for this purpose when Philip said that he had found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, who is the Messiah. Jn 1:45.
Nathanael’s hopes for Israel were truly in his heart but he did not expect anything from Nazareth. In this context, we can understand better Jesus’ words to Nathanael, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” Jn 1:47.
The Pharisees and Sadducees also did not seem to dispute the heritage of the Nazarenes as no one questioned Jesus’ lineage in the Gospels. Thus, on the night our Lord was betrayed, Peter followed the soldiers and was in the courtyard of the high priest. While Peter was in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said… Mark 14:67.
The remark was telling. The servants of the high priest in all the Gospels unanimously accused Peter as a fellow Galilean of Jesus, but did not describe Peter as a Nazarene. Evidently there was a specific status and lineage attached to one who was a Nazarene.
We have even the blind man crying out to Jesus, “Thou Son of David” when he was told that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by in Jericho. Lk 18:37,38. It must be obvious to the blind man — a man who could not see — that Jesus was from David’s line because Jesus was from Nazareth!
Thus also in Paul’s trial before Felix, the chief priests used Tertullus to present their case, and he stressed this point. Tertullus said in Acts 24:5, “We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect.”
There is a point that Tertullus made about the Nazarenes. The town had a group of people, a sect to which Jesus was also accused of belonging by birth — and now Paul also before the Roman court, because Paul was a ringleader of that sect. Paul was accused of promoting and leading the cause of the Nazarenes, even though he was not a Nazarene.
It had to be of serious concern to Felix, as the Roman procurator. This is about stirring up trouble against Rome — and nothing could be more serious for Felix than to have an anti-Roman who has something to do with the royal lineage of David.
So, we find curious references to Nazareth in these accusations. It is about the lineage of David. Many people in that town were descendents of David.
In the time of Domitian, the Roman emperor, this issue was also raised. Eusebius, the church historian recorded that the grandsons of Jude from Nazareth were brought before Domitian. On being questioned, they did not deny they were Christians and descendants of David. However, Domitian saw that their potential threat to Rome was meaningless because they were simple, poor farmers, and had calloused hands from their toiling the ground. The emperor released them, even though he was persecuting Christians.
In the above accounts, we find the lineage of Jesus from David was never in question, and Nazareth had a history that was important for David’s descendants. Jer 33:15, Zech 3:8.
Hence also the Nazarene has a meaning besides being from Nazareth, if we understand what Matthew said of this prophecy. Jesus the Nazarene is the ‘Branch’ from David, living in Nazareth.
Nezter and Nazareth declare to us the prophecy of the Branch in the Old Testament. Hence the hope and promise that Matthew quoted from Jeremiah’s prophecy was concealed in the prophecies about the Branch called the Nazarene.
The thread that runs through the Nativity in Matthew’s Gospel ties many Old Testament promises together, but it remains hidden unless God reveals.
Note: Mr Yeo Teck Thiam is a retireer who used to work as a chemical engineer, specializing in food and perfume chemistry for an international food company and perfumer. His other main interest is astronomy and other mathematical matters, relating to the Biblical passages.
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