Advent Reflection: He Shall Be Called A Nazarene

The season of Advent is in part a celebration of the birth of Christ. The prophet Micah foretold that Christ would be born in Bethlehem, so that is a good prophecy to think about this time of year. It is also worth noting that Christ would be called a Nazarene, not a Bethlehemite, according to the gospel of Matthew:

Then after being warned by God in a dream, he (Joseph) left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2: 22 – 23)

God divinely directed Joseph and Mary to the town of Nazareth in the region of Galilee. Matthew said this was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets. Yet the town of Nazareth is never mentioned in the Old Testament, and therefore none of the prophets explicitly stated that Christ would be a Nazarene.

How are we to understand what Matthew said?

Since he did not explicitly tell us what he meant, we can only speculate. One of the best theories is that Matthew was making a pun and alluding to the prophetic image of the Messiah as the Branch. Consider this quote from Isaiah:

Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding. (Isaiah 11: 1 – 2)

Here Isaiah used the Hebrew word “netzer” for branch. Since the Hebrew rendering of Nazareth is “Netzeret”, there is a legitimate reason to think Matthew was making a pun. Other prophets called the Messiah Branch, reinforcing this theme from Isaiah, although they used a different Hebrew word.

“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…” (Jeremiah 23: 5)

“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.” (Zechariah 6: 12)

If we accept that Matthew is making a pun on the Hebrew netzer, we can replace Nazarene with Branch, and the passage in Matthew can be read as:

Then after being warned by God in a dream, he (Joseph) left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Branch.”

There is no doubt that the prophets called Messiah a Branch. If Matthew was alluding to that image, replacing Nazarene with Branch would be an accurate way in English to convey the point. Although we cannot be certain this was his intent, the idea is nevertheless good to think about. In a season where Christmas trees and decorating branches with ornaments is a dominant tradition, it is good to remember that the season is really about The Branch, whose coming was foretold by the prophets hundreds of years in advance.

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