Topic: Prophecy

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]