Since this is a difficult passage, I will make several extended comments that I hope will be helpful.
- This is a much-disputed verse. One commentator (Broadus) gives six historical interpretations and then slightly favors a couple of them without coming to any real conclusion.
The prophecy concerns Jesus being called a Nazarene, not a Nazarite. The two are different. A Nazarene is one who comes from the town of Nazareth--the obvious meaning of the text. A Nazarite is one who has taken the Nazarite vow. Jesus was clearly not a Nazarite. The
restrictions of the Nazarite as seen in Numbers 6:1-8 do not match the life of Christ. He ate and drank with the Jews (Matthew 11:19) and touched dead bodies.
- One way to understand the verse is to consider the statement "which was spoken by the prophets." Certainly the prophets "spoke" prophecies that were not recorded in the written word of God. However, in an effort to give full disclosure, I find 12 other times in Matthew where this formula (something spoken by a prophets or prophets) is mentioned (see Matthew 1:22; 2:15, 17; 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 24:15; 27:9, 35). It seems that all 12 of these quotes that were spoken by prophets are also a part of written scripture. Though this might be a technical way to explain the problem, it does not match the pattern of scripture.
- However, the plain statement, "He shall be called a Nazarene," is not found in the Old Testament. In fact, the city of Nazareth is not mentioned by name in the Old Testament. Josephus does not even mention it. It was a mean, little village not thought worthy of mention. And, when prophecy does associate a place with the Christ, it is Bethlehem of Judah and not Nazareth in Galilee (Micah 5:2). The Jews of the time of Christ understood the connection of Christ with Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-6; John 7:42).
However, it seems that no one expected there to be any connection of the Messiah with the town of Nazareth. Nathanael asked, "Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46). When the identity of Christ was in question, the Jews asked, "Shall Christ come out of Galilee?" (John 7:41). The Pharisees, who knew that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, declared, "for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet" (John 7:52). It does not matter whether the prophets only spoke it or also wrote it in scripture, if they were known to declare this prophecy, why did no one know anything about it? Why was Matthew the only one to ever mention it? Notice also, it was not just the declaration of one prophet. This prophecy had been made by "prophets." At least two and perhaps more of the prophets had spoken this. Yet, it seems that no one knew of their prophecy. What is the answer?
This brings me to my conclusion. I believe that the prophecy was a written one and that it was to be found in several of the prophets. However, because it came from a play on words, it would have been missed both by the multitudes and by the scribes and Pharisees. Some prophecies are written to tell us to expect a certain event. However, some prophecies cannot be seen until after the event occurs. They are placed there in order to show us that God knew what He was doing all along. It is only by looking back after the fulfillment that we can see the
prophecy. But, in seeing the prophecy and its fulfillment, we see more clearly the plan and providence of God.
The root for Nazareth is the Hebrew word that is translated "stem" in (Isaiah 11:1,) which states, "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots." The stem here (the only place the English word occurs in scripture) is the cut off stump of a tree or a stub. The rod growing from the stem is parallel to the Branch growing out of the roots. The rod and the Branch are a
prophecy referring to Jesus Christ. The rod grows out of the stem--the cut-off portion of the tree--just as Jesus grew up in the town of Nazareth. The picture is of a tree that has been cut down and is considered dead. However, out of that stump comes new life in the form of a rod or branch. This points to the kingly line of David that had been cut down so that no one of his line sat on the throne of Israel. It also
points to the spiritually lifeless town of Nazareth.
But Isaiah is only one prophet. Where do the "prophets" come in? I think the connection comes in the identity of the Messiah as the Branch. Every time the Messiah is called the Branch in the Old Testament, God is pointing out that He grows up out of a dead stem and out of the remaining
roots of a felled tree. In the New Testament, we find that this dead stump is also a picture of the village of Nazareth. So, how many prophets use the picture of Christ as the Branch. At least three of them do: (Isaiah 4:2; 11:1, Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15, and Zechariah 3:8; 6:12.) This solves the problem of the plural "prophets."
So, how does the connection of Christ with Nazareth fit into the gospel story? It is very important. He becomes known as "Jesus of Nazareth" and is called by this name 17 times in the gospels and Acts--even by the unclean spirits (Mark 1:23-24; Luke 4:33-35.) This title was placed on the cross by Pilate (John 19:19). It is the title Jesus used to introduce
Himself to Saul who became the Apostle Paul (Acts 22:8). The early Christians were even known by their enemies as "the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5).
Nazareth was a little, dirty town. It was treated with contempt by the exalted Pharisees and the common people alike. Yet, it was the soil, perhaps we should say the stem, out of which Christ grew. His enemies associated Him with this city as a slur. He wore the title as an honorable badge. Truly, the prophets did say, "He shall be called a