By Joe Bartling
We’ve all heard from Biblical teachings that Jesus was raised in a town called Nazareth; he’s specifically called “Jesus of Nazareth” in the KJV version of the New Testament 17 times, 12 times in the Gospels and 5 times in the Book of Acts.
So, lets take a look at where the word “Nazareth” and its vocabulary cousins, “Nazarene” and “Nazirite”, come from and why it is important. First off, there is a very important verse in Matthew, that suggests that Jesus must be “from Nazareth” to fulfill a specific messianic prophecy. The verse is Matthew 2:23:
And he [referring to Jesus’ father Joseph] 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”.
There is a lot of wordplay going on here in the Greek. The first thing to notice is that the first “he” is referring to Joseph, the “father” of Jesus, as Joseph is following the instructions that an “angel of the Lord” gave him in Matthew 2:19-20. The second “He” in the same verse is said to be relating the Jesus, and capitalized in most of our translations. Also, the first word “Nazareth” in this verse is the Greek Nazaret (Ναζαρὲτ, G3478) that the translators arbitrarily apply to both Ναζαρὲτ and a similar word Ναζαρά, transliterated Nazara. Strongs Concordance says this word means “the guarded one”, but says the word is of “unknown” derivation. But in Hebrew, there is a common Hebrew root נָצַר, transliterated “natsar” which means “to guard, keep, or preserve”. The word is used 62 times in the Hebrew Bible and is translated into English as “preserve”, “guard”, “keep”, “keeper”, “keeping”, and “watchmen”. The verse is used 7 times in Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible dedicated to “keeping” and “preserving” God’s law, precepts, commandments, and instructions.
Psalm 119:2 “Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart.”
Psalm 119:22 “Remove from me reproach and contempt; for I have kept thy testimonies.”
Psalm 119:33 ” Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end.”
Psalm 119:34 “Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart.”
Psalm 119:56 “This I had, because I kept thy precepts.”
Psalm 119:69 “The proud have forged a lie against me: but I will keep thy precepts with my whole heart.”
Psalm 119:100 “I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts.”
A derivation of this root is the Hebrew word נֵצֶר, transliterated “netzer”, which is used figuratively as the English word “branch” four times in the Hebrew Bible. The word means “branch, shoot, or offspring”, but essentially refers to the burst of green color, the new life that comes to an old tree with the sprout of new life. The word is used in the words of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 11:1:
“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.”
The word “Branch” in this verse is usually capitalized in Christian versions of the Bible, as it is this verse that many Bible teachers teach that this is the verse that Matthew 2:23 refers to in the “prophetic fulfillment” above, “He shall be called a Nazarene”. The word “Nazarene” in this verse is the English translation of the Greek word Ναζωραῖος, transliterated “Nazoratos” (G3480). Strongs defines this word as a “Nazarite – one who is separated” and is used in Acts 24:6 to describe a sect called “Nazarenes” (Greek: Nazoratos). This seems to imply a different Hebrew word נָזִיר, (H5139) transliterated “nazir” and translated to “Nazarite”, from the Hebrew root נָזַר, (H5144) and transliterated “nazar”. This word means “separated, consecrated, and dedicated” to keep “sacredly separate”.
These “Nazoratos/Nazarenes” are commonly thought to be “Christians”, but it is interesting that the distinct characteristic of this group is that they are sectarian, and keep themselves “sacredly separate”, hence the moniker, “Nazoratos”. This group of “sectarians” seems to be the same group described in Acts 21:20, believers who were “zealous for the law” or those who were keeping, guarding, and preserving God’s law, commandments, precepts, and instructions. It is also to interesting to observe that these “Nazoratos/Nazarenes” are NOT from the “town of Nazareth”.
So the two different Greek words used in the same sentence in Matthew 2:23, to equate “Nazareth” with “Nazarene”, have two different meanings and come from two distinctly separate Hebrew concepts. One being one who “keeps, guards, and preserves” and as a “green shoot” comes out of a root bringing new life to the root. The other being one who consecrates himself to keep “sacredly separate”. The verse is Acts 24:6 describes these “Nazoratos” as a “sect”, indicating they are distinct and “separated” from the general population and from other Jews.
So, what seems to be clear in all of this, is that the concept of a “town called Nazareth” was possibly misinterpreted or misunderstood from the original concepts. No town of “Nazareth” is mentioned in the prophecy of Isaiah 11:1, or in any other verse in the Hebrew Bible. That would have been impossible, because Nazareth didn’t exist as a city or town while any of the Hebrew prophets were alive. The first reference to a town called Nazareth in any non-Biblical sources is in the 2nd century CE.
The prophecy itself seems to correlate to the “first” concept of the “branch” indicating that the “messiah” would be a descendant of Jesse, and confirming a Davidic biological descent, a “netzer”, and/or a “nazir”, but not specifically a resident of the “town of Nazareth”. We’ve discussed the possible mistranslation or misinterpretation of the Hebrew name for Jesus, “Yeshua Ha Notzri” in the article “Jesus’ Boyhood Hometown: Rediscovered after 2,000 Years?“.
John the Baptist was thought to be a Nazirite, one who separated from the world to follow God, and teaching and preaching a “baptism” or mikvah of repentence and consecration, by separating to “make straight one’s path in the wilderness”. Jesus followed in this practice, as did many followers in the Galilee, as recorded in Mark 1:3, Matthew 3:3, and John 1:23, and identifying with the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3.
The common bond to all of these disciples was the commitment of consecration, and sacred separation, to follow the Almighty, his laws, precepts, and instructions because “the kingdom of God is at hand”. This is similar and overlaps to the outward practices of the Essenes and also the “zealots”, Hebrew: kana’im, who come out of what Josephus called, the “Fourth Sect of Judaism: the Zealots”. founded by Judas of Gamla.
This distinct choice of separation and consecration by Galilean Jews, was evident in their home lives in the 1st century CE archaeological remains found in Jewish Galilean towns such as Gamla, Bethsaida, and Yodefat, as evidenced by their choice of rejecting imported “Red-slipped bowls” and other symbols of Hellenistic life, Roman imposition, and pagan/mixed culture.