Nazarene Savior Prophecy

Joseph Francis Alward
January 4, 1998

"And he came and dwelt in a city called
Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which
was spoken by the prophets, He shall be
called a Nazarene."

Matthew 2:23

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Matthew's Story

Matthew says that it was foretold that the savior would be from Nazareth and that he would be called a Nazarene. This is disputed by skeptics: there are no verses in the Old Testament having anything to do with Nazareth or Nazarenes, and no prophet ever said that a savior would be called a nazarene. Skeptics are quick to point to this omission as evidence that Matthew was just imagining that such a prophecy existed. Joseph Wheless, writing in "Is It God's Word" (page 246), is one of the better-known of these skeptics:  "Jesus was, indeed, called a nazarene, which is the hellenized form of the Hebrew 'notsri', which means 'offshoot', or 'branch', referring to an offshoot of Judaism. He may also have been called a nazarene because the name "Nazareth" is arguably derived from the Hebrew word 'neser', which means 'sprout or descendant.' " [1]  We will show below, however, that there is weak evidence to support Matthew's contention. We begin by showing why Matthew thought that the prophets foretold that Jesus would be called a nazarene, branch, or offshoot.

What Did the Word Nazarene Mean?

Yariv Eyal [2] says that Nazarene was the Hellenized form of the word meaning branch, or offshoot, referring to a branch of Judaism:

Jesus was widely known to the Israelites as Yeshu haNotsri in their language, which means Jesus the Notsri. He is called this to this day, and his followers are called Notsrim after him and his movement. The word nazarene is the Hellenized [3] form of notsri. Most of Yeshu's followers, either uneducated Jews or non-Jews, didn't know why he was called Notsri or what it meant. The word notsri, which is an adjective, comes from netser, which means sprout or branch or offshoot. (See also, Romans 11:20-23) [4] Since Jesus was a member, or perhaps the former member, of an offshoot group which sprouted off of mainstream Judaism, he was called Jesus the Notsri. The Hebrew word for Christian to this day is Notsri.

Luke, who allegedly wrote the book of Acts, confirms the assertions, above, by Eyal. Luke tells us that a nazarene was a member of a sect of outcast Jews:  "For we have found this man a pestilent fellow, and a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes." (Acts 24:5)

Nothing in Old Testament About Nazarenes

Nazarene and Nazareth are not mentioned in the Old Testament, which makes sense, since there was no city called Nazareth in the days of the prophets. There is, however, a reference to a class of people called nazarites (Hebrew: nazer, crown, referring a crown , the hair of a nazir), who made themselves separate from ordinary human beings and devoted themselves to the spiritual life [5]. Samson, whose long hair set him apart from others, was the earliest known Nazarite. The reference in question appears in Judges: "For, lo, thou shalt...bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb: and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines." (Judges 13:5)

Lest there be any doubt that the verses in Judges refer to the legendary Samson, we hear the voice of a man with a special vulnerability: "There hath not come a razor upon mine head; for I have been a Nazarite unto God from my mother's womb: if I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man."  (Judges 16:17) Thus, we see that these nazarites had nothing to do with the town of Nazareth or the name Nazarene.

Did Matthew Believe Judges Referred to Nazarenes?

Did Matthew believe that the Judges verse was a prophecy about the savior nazarene? If so, this is how his mind might have worked: Jesus was God, therefore his life is foretold in the Old Testament. Jesus was from Nazareth (or so people believed), therefore his Nazareth residency must somewhere be mentioned in the Old Testament. Matthew scours the old scriptures for anything that looks like Nazareth, and finds the nazarite passage in Judges. That must be it, he thinks. Thus, according to this hypothetical scenario, a poorly-inspired Matthew believed that the prophets foresaw that the son of god would be a called Nazarene, which he thought meant "a resident of Nazareth". We know, of course, that the Judges verses speak of an angel who is telling a women she will bear a savior son, which turns out to be Samson the Nazarite, not Jesus the Nazarene.

If Matthew wasn't referring to the nazarite verses in Judges, perhaps he was thinking of the following verses in Isaiah, which specifically refer to a person as a branch:

The Old Testament Nazarene Prophecy

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD; And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins. .....for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-11)

It is hard to believe that Isaiah above was referring to Jesus Christ, since he never "[smote] the earth" or "[slew] the wicked". But, Isaiah had something which mitigates to Matthew's benefit. In the verse below, Isaiah speaks of a root:

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as root out of a dry ground: he hath no form no comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief....he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows....he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities...the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all...he was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth...."(Isaiah 53:2-10)

This sound a lot more like Jesus.


The author concludes that the Isaiah branch verses (Isaiah 11:1-11, 53:2-10) were somewhat more likely to have been the nazarene verses to which Matthew was referring than Judges' nazarite verses. The Isaiah verses seemed flawed because they refer to deeds by the savior which were not realized by Jesus, and the nazarite verses are clearly flawed in that they refer to Samson and a class of people who were more like latter-day hippies than saviors.

We therefore believe that there is no good evidence to suggest that Matthew was clearly wrong when he said that the prophets foretold that the savior would be called a nazarene. It is by no means clear that the prophets had Jesus in mind, but until skeptics find convincing evidence against Isaiah and Matthew, they should give them the benefit of the doubt, in the author's opinion.

[1] Eerdman's Bible Dictionary, (1987), page 751.

[2] Yariv Eyal is a US born Israeli citizen. Beside receiving a secular education, he was educated in orthodox Jewish yeshivas in the US and Israel, and is fluent in Hebrew and English and has taught Hebrew to new immigrants and Christian missionaries in Israel.

[3] Greek word for Greece was "Hellas". The Age of Hellenism was inaugurated during the reign of Alexander the Great; a period of time during which the Greek language was spread. A hellenized Hebrew word is a Hebrew word with a Greek-influenced new spelling.

[4]   "Do not be arrogant," he warned, "but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches (the Jewish people), he will not spare you either...And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again." (Romans 11:20-21,23)

[5] The Nazarite in ancient Israel has some of the flavor of the monk in Christendom.  (Asimov's Guide to the Bible, vol. I, pp. 248-249).