(Mt. 2:23) Why does Matthew say this is from the Old Testament, when the Old Testament NEVER mentions “Nazareth” or “being a Nazarene?”

CLAIM: Matthew 2:23 reads, “[He] came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Critics contend that this is a case of Matthew twisting the Scriptures.

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made.

First, Matthew is citing the “prophets,” rather than a single “prophet.” Since he is citing plural prophets, we shouldn’t expect a direct quotation of the Old Testament.

Second, the Greek language did not have quotation marks. Therefore, our modern translations are misleading, when they show quotes in the text. Matthew may not have had a direct quotation in mind.[1]

Third, Matthew was probably referring to the OT symbol of the “Branch” in Isaiah 11. For instance, in Isaiah 11:1 we read, “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch [Hebrew netser; pronounced NATE-zare] from his roots will bear fruit.” The Hebrew word netser is the word from which we get the modern name “Nazareth.” Moreover, Isaiah 11 comes in the context of future messianic fulfillment in Matthew’s mind. He quoted Isaiah 7:14 (Mt. 1:23), Isaiah 9:1-2 (Mt. 4:12-16), and Isaiah 11:1 (Mt. 2:23). Matthew shows us that he had this section of Scripture on his mind.

Fourth, the symbol of the Branch is stressed by multiple prophets (plural) in the rest of the OT. While the Hebrew word was not always netser (as in Is. 11:1), the other prophets referred to the Messiah as the Branch (Hebrew tsemach; pronounced sem-MACK). Jeremiah writes,

Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; And He will reign as king and act wisely And do justice and righteousness in the land… 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth (Jer. 23:5; 33:15).

Of course, David was a type of the Messiah that the Jews were expecting to come and sit eternally on his messianic throne (2 Sam. 7:11-16). Zechariah writes,

Now listen, Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who are sitting in front of you—indeed they are men who are a symbol, for behold, I am going to bring in My servant the Branch12 Then say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Behold, a man whose name is Branch, for He will branch out from where He is; and He will build the temple of the LORD (Zech. 3:8; 6:12).

Here, the priesthood and the kingly line is intertwined. The priesthood under Joshua (Y’shua) was a symbol of the Messiah, who was to come. Jesus (Y’shua) was both a king and a priest (cf. Is. 4:2). Isaiah 11:1 “received a messianic interpretation in the Targums, rabbinic literature, and DSS.”[2]

Fifth, this is not special pleading. OT prophets cited one another in this way. For instance, Ezra “cites” the Old Testament; however, his citation is not found anywhere directly in the OT canon.[3] Ezra writes,

For we have forsaken Your commandments, 11 which You have commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from end to end and with their impurity. 12 So now do not give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters to your sons, and never seek their peace or their prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it as an inheritance to your sons forever (Ezra 9:10-12).

Finally, by saying that Jesus would come from Nazareth, Matthew could also mean that the OT taught that the Servant would come from lowly origins (Is. 53:1-3; Jn. 1:46).[4]

[1] Carson writes, “Only here does he omit the Greek equivalent of ‘saying’ and replace it with the conjunction hoti, which can introduce a direct quotation (NIVE), but more probably should be rendered ‘that,’ making the quotation indirect… This suggests that Matthew had no specific OT quotation in mind.” Carson, D.A. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New Internation Version. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984. 97.

[2] Carson, D.A. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New Internation Version. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984. 97.

[3] For other examples of this, see Deuteronomy 11:8-9; Isaiah 1:19; Ezekiel 37:25.

[4] Carson writes, “He is not saying that a particular OT prophet foretold that the Messiah would live in Nazareth; he is saying that the OT prophets foretold that the Messiah would be despised (cf. Pss 22:6-8, 13; 69:8, 20-21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2-3, 8; Dan. 9:26)… In other words Matthew gives us the substance of several OT passages, not a direct quotation.” Carson, D.A. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New Internation Version. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984. 97.