Topic: Old Testament

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

“He shall be called a Nazarene”

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Mosaic of NazarethIn the Gospel of Matthew, we read about Joseph taking Mary and Jesus and fleeing Judea for Egypt because of Herod’s plan to kill all infant boys in the area. On their return after Herod’s death, Joseph is warned in a dream about Herod’s successor, and so they flee to Nazareth – where Jesus subsequently grows up. Matthew then writes that this happened “in order to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘For he shall be called a Nazarene’” (Matt. 2:23).

What Old Testament passage(s) did Matthew have in mind when he wrote this? This question has puzzled biblical commentators for centuries, because the apparent quotation does not precisely match any known text of the Old Testament.1  One possible explanation is that offered by the research of Maarten J. J. Menken, who argues that Matthew has in mind the Greek translations of Judges 13:5,7, and 16:7.2

Judges 13-16 describes the life of Samson, a “Nazirite” known for his rather supernatural strength. His mother was originally “barren,” a rather shameful state for a woman, but was told by an angel, “You shall conceive and bear a son, whose head no razor shall touch. For he shall be a Nazirite of God, from his infancy and from his mother’s womb. And he shall begin to free Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judg 13:5).  The Hebrew term “Nazirite” is נָזִר or נָזִיר (pronounced “Naw-ZEER”), and meant “consecrated” or “holy.” It relates to those consecrated by a vow as prescribed in Numbers 6, in which those so consecrated must not shave their heads nor consume anything from the vine.

Interestingly, in some versions of a Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (LXX), the Hebrew term נָזִיר (naziyr, or Nazirite in English) in Judges 13:5, 7 was transliterated into Greek as ναζιραῖος (naziraios). The same Hebrew word was treated similarly in Lam 4:7 LXX.  In various other Greek translations of the Old Testament, including those done by Jewish scholars of the early Christian era, in several places in the Scriptures this same Hebrew word was variously translated as ναζιρ, ναζαραιος, ναζηραιος, or ναζιραιος (nazir, nazaraios, nazeraios, and naziraios; notice that the only difference between these last few is that of one vowel).3 Matthew’s Ναζωραῖος also differs only by one vowel – the same vowel position (he uses the Greek ω where others used ι, α, or η). If we keep in mind that the Hebrew text originally did not have any vowels – these were only marked by later scribes for the sake of pronunciation –, there may be enough "wiggle room" to allow Matthew to see a linguistic connection between "Nazarene" (Ναζωραῖος) and "Nazirite" (Ναζιραῖος). It may be that Matthew was familiar with such Greek renderings of the Judges 13 passages, and he made precisely such a connection.

If Menken is right—and there is more to his argument than that briefly mentioned above4—, then it means that Matthew sees in the story of Samson a “type” of Christ. If we compare these two figures, we notice many parallels: Samson’s mother was promised by an angel that she would conceive and bear a son, that he would be a Nazirite (i.e., “holy”); her son was given a supernatural strength so as to bring (brief) respite for the Israelites from the Philistines. Similarly, in Matthew Jesus’ birth was announced by an angel who said that he will be conceived by the Holy Spirit and who promised that Jesus would save God’s people from their sins (Mt. 2:20-21).  Jesus himself is the “strong man,” overcoming the strength of Satan (cf. Mt. 21:29).

SamsonIf we continue with the comparison, we notice that, like all Old Testament foreshadowings of Christ, there are differences among the similarities: Samson falls for the ploys of the Philistines via the woman he loves, and as a result loses his strength, his freedom, his sight, and – eventually – his life. Jesus is confronted with the deceptions of Satan, but does not succumb. But Jesus’ ultimate act of triumph over his “enemies” – Satan, sin, and Bronzino's "Christ on the Cross" (1545)death – also involves the giving of his own life, on the cross. After Samson was captured, he stretched out his hands to dislodge the pillars of the Philistine house in which he was imprisoned, taking down numerous Philistines with him. Jesus, in turn, stretched out his own hands on the cross, and destroyed the powers of sin and death that reigned over the human race: a victorious strength exercised in weakness.

If Menken is correct, then, Matthew has drawn a typological comparison between Jesus and Samson, and we can see in Jesus the one who is truly “consecrated” to God (ναζιραῖος), the “strong” one who overcomes the enemies of God and brings freedom to His people.


  1. There are two common solutions to this problem, both of which St. Jerome noticed in his day, although he ended up favoring the one posited in this article: it could be referring to the Hebrew word for "shoot" in passages such as Isaiah 11:1; or to the Hebrew word for "Nazirite" in Judges 13:5. [Back to reading]
  2. Maarten J. J. Menken, “The Sources of the Old Testament Quotation in Matthew 2:23,” Journal of Biblical Literature 120, no. 3 (Autumn, 2001): 451-468. For those with full-text access to JSTOR, the article can be accessed here. Menken also sees the language of Isaiah 7:14 -- which Matthew has already invoked in chapter 1 -- being mixed in with the quotation, specifically, the use of the verb καλέω, "to call." [Back to reading]
  3. Additionally, the Greek text of Maccabees 3:49, which is believed to have been originally written in Hebrew, uses ναζιραῖος as the equivalent of “Nazirite.” [Back to reading]
  4. Menken also argues that Matthew's use of the Greek word ότι in Matt. 2:23 is intended to be part of the OT quotation itself, not as part of the quotation formula which precedes it (a purpose this word sometimes filfulls). In which case, the OT citation is, "For[ότι] he shall be called a Nazarene." And as it turns out, the relevant phrases in Judges 13 and 16 (in the LXX) all began with this same Greek word: ότι. Menken also notices that Matthew refers to "the prophets" (in the plural) when prefacing the quotation. He does not do this in any of his other formula citations of the OT, even when he forms a quotation by mixing two different prophets into one quote (e.g., Mt. 21:5 = Is 62:11 + Zech 9:9); in every other case, he speaks of "the prophet" (in the singular, and he often names the prophet). But if we consider that the book of Judges belonged to the so-called "former prophets," and that these books were not yet enumerated by individual authors by the 1st century like the other prophets (such a enumeration and naming was done later), this would account for Matthew's phrase, "what was spoken through the prophets" (Matt. 2:23), i.e., "through that unenumerated collection by the former prophets." These two points give further reason to suppose that Matthew is refering to Judges 13. [Back to reading]
Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

On the Apparent Arbitrariness of Christian Morality

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Dan Savage, the founder of the "It Gets Better" Project, recently made some very pointed comments about Christianity and the Bible. I wish not to comment on his tone or strategy, nor on the very real problem of bullying which his talk was supposed to be about, but on one of his arguments. This particular argument is a very common one raised in the public sphere, often by well-known figures (once by our current president himself): very frequently it is claimed that Christians are arbitrarily selective in picking and choosing moral teachings from Scripture. In debates about the moral status of homosexual acts, for example, proponents of the behavior will sometimes argue that it is inconsistent, or at least arbitrary, to pick moral prohibitions about sexual matters from Leviticus, while not holding to others such as those about ritual purity, dietary laws, or slavery. Is there anything to this argument? Is Christian morality, at bottom, nothing but one rather arbitrary set of very peculiar, antiquarian, rules? Why does, for example, traditional Christian morality uphold the Old Testament’s moral prohibitions against homosexuality, but not eating pork? Why do Christians today allow intermarriage, which the Torah forbids, while opposing slavery, which the bible – so the argument goes – supports?

This is not simply about specific moral norms, but about the underlying theological and epistemological principles behind them: what is the basis of right and wrong in the Christian tradition, and what determines which Old Testament precepts are binding, and which are not? Among other things, this is a hermeneutical question at two different levels: How did the New Testament writers interpret the Hebrew Scriptures? And how are Christians, today, to interpret them, and how are we to interpret the New Testament itself in relation to morality?

All of these are rather large questions, but I wish to propose one fairly simplified version of an answer to them as it relates to sexual morality, an answer loosely inspired by my introductory knowledge of Thomistic thought and moral theology, and on Scripture: authentic Christian morality, both in the New Testament and in the Church, is rooted in the "telos" – the goal, the purpose – of the human being. That is, what determines whether or not some action is right or wrong is not that the Bible says so; rather, the determining factor is the ultimate answer to the question: “does this lead to the fulfillment of the human being?” Or, more personally, “does it lead me to, or away from, the supernatural destiny for which God created me?” Christianity, in turn, makes a remarkable claim about this supernatural destiny: we were created for eternal life. And what is eternal life? “To know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3).

And so Christian morality, by its very nature – even if this is not always made explicit in either Scripture or in the formulas of Tradition – has this supernatural goal – knowing the Triune God – as its foundation, its source, and its summit. And those behaviors which the New Testament and the Christian tradition condemn, are wrong precisely in virtue of their being incompatible with this supernatural destiny: they prevent us from knowing God.

For example, merely eating pork, in itself, does nothing to take one away from God; that this was prohibited for the Israelites, and modern Orthodox Jews, is not because human bodies which have incorporated swine flesh into themselves are unfit for resurrection or heaven, but such laws were made for some temporary instructive purpose (precisely what this lesson is is another discussion). In the Christian perspective, this was a limited law (not intended for all people, nor for all time), and one which is not absolutely binding because the act itself (eating pork) is not opposed to eternal life (the gospels describe Jesus teaching that food cannot make someone unclean – see Mark 7:19). Certain sexual acts, however, are in a different situation, not simply because of where we find them in Scripture, but precisely because of their intrinsic relation to our supernatural human fulfillment. Let me, very briefly, unpack that...

God created us as sexual beings, and therefore, sex is good. But sex is also purposeful, and rich with meaning as seen in Scripture itself. To deliberately distort the act of sex in such a way that its purpose or meaning is intrinsically thwarted, amounts to turning towards our creator and saying, “Thanks for making us sexual beings, but we don’t like the purpose you gave to it; so we’ll do it our own way.” The result is not that this makes God angry, and that since he’s so insecure and cannot take criticism he decides to punish us in his rage; rather, it is that this ends up hurting us, because we are not cooperating with our own sexuality’s purpose. If we deliberately frustrate our purpose in the arena of sexuality, we begin removing ourselves from the purpose of our whole life.  We cannot neatly separate one aspect of our life from another, nor can we separate one individual act from the whole.  Each individual sexual act is a microcosm of our entire sexuality, which – in turn – is a microcosm of our whole life. We can thus divert ourselves from the path of eternal life by misguided sexual activity. Since grace builds on nature, the purpose of our sexuality is of a piece with our supernatural purpose: to love another deeply, faithfully, and permanently in a way that opens up the two of us to the life of yet another.

This is worth reiterating, for this often gets lost in the whole discussion of sexual morality: we are, indeed, as human beings, and as sexual beings, created to love deeply, faithfully, and permanently in a way that opens us up to yet another person – “The greatest commandment is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. … And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt. 22:36-37). Sexual love is supposed to mirror, and be a lesson in, this supernatural calling, in the finite context of human relations: unceasingly loving the Other, and allowing that love to flow into the life of another. Thus, it is the purposefulness and integrity of our sexuality that forms the basis of Christian sexual morality, not the fact that sexual rules are included in a book with all sorts of ancient laws of ritual purity that seem strange to us. Thus, the discussion needs to be about the purposefulness and integrity of human sexuality – and the human being as a whole – rather than simply about commands listed in the Bible. Otherwise, both sides miss the real significance of the debate.

May God grant us all a greater realization of our great supernatural purpose, and enable us to live out and embody this in every aspect of our lives, especially in our sexuality.