Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 2 (Lk 4:16-30)

In the previous note I looked at the tradition of Jesus’ visit to his hometown (Nazareth) in Mark 6:1-6a. Matthew’s version (13:53-58) differs only slightly from that of Mark. Luke’s account, as I have already mentioned, has a number of details unique to his version, though it almost certainly is describing the same (historical) event and tradition. These differences I will be discussing today. Before proceeding, it is worth pointing out that neither Mark nor Matthew actually mentioned the name of the town, simply referring to it as Jesus’ patri/$ (patrís), “father(‘s) land”, i.e. the territory of his home town. We may assume that the Gospel writers both understood it to be Nazareth, based on earlier data they recorded (Mk 1:9; Matt 2:13; 4:13), but, in all likelihood, the original tradition as passed down did not include the name of the town. Luke specifically refers to it by name (4:16), and he has good reasons for doing so, as we shall see.

Luke 4:16-30

(See also my earlier study on this passage)

Let us first note the elements and details which are unique to Luke’s version of the episode, and which he most likely has added to the core Synoptic narrative. We may take these to be (authentic) historical traditions, and, if so, they would be considered part of the so-called “L” material (traditions found only in Luke). The significant additions are as follows:

    • A different narrative introduction (v. 16)
    • The detail of Jesus standing up to read a passage from the Prophets (v. 17)
    • The quotation of Isaiah 61:1, with Jesus’ explanation (vv. 18-21)
    • The proverb cited by Jesus in v. 23
    • The Scriptural examples involving the Prophets Elijah and Elisha (vv. 25-27)
    • The violent reaction by the people, with intent to do harm to Jesus (vv. 28-29f)

The core Synoptic tradition, as found in Mk 6:1-6a (cf. the previous note), can still be glimpsed by combining together vv. 14-15 (with 16), 22, 24, and (very loosely) 28, 30. Beyond the added details listed above, consider how the author has (apparently) modified the core tradition:

    • The details emphasized in verse 16 (cp. Mk 6:1-2a par):
      (a) The name of the town (Nazareth)
      (b) That it was the place where Jesus was nourished (i.e. raised, brought up)
      (c) That he was used to attending local Synagogues on the Sabbath (and teaching there)
    • A different formulation of the people’s reaction—that is, the summary of their words/thoughts (v. 22 / Mk 6:2-3 par)
    • A different version of Jesus’ saying (v. 24 / Mk 6:4)
    • The episode apparently ends with a rather different (more violent) result to Jesus’ visit (vv. 28-30)

Each of these will be examined briefly, going verse by verse.

Verse 16—The Lukan details mentioned above all relate to the distinctive purpose of the episode within the context of the Gospel narrative. Two major literary and thematic elements are clearly at work:

    • The reference to Nazareth as the place where Jesus was brought up (as a child) points back to the Infancy Narrative of chapters 1-2, especially 2:40-52, which share certain motifs and language with 4:16ff. I have discussed these in an earlier note on this passage.
    • This episode illustrates the summary of Jesus’ (Galilean) ministry in verses 14-15—in particular, that of his teaching in the synagogues. The Synoptic tradition introduces the ministry of Jesus with a different episode (cf. Mark 1:21-28 par [this follows in Lk 4:31-37]). Note the way that both the initial Markan and Lukan episodes illustrate the two aspects of Jesus’ ministry:
      (1) Teaching/preaching (with a synagogue setting)—Mk 1:21-22, 27; Lk 4:14-16, 22
      (2) Working miracles—Mk 1:23-27; Lk 4:14a, 23-27

Verses 17-21—The quotation of Isaiah 61:1 is a tradition unique to Luke’s account. In verse 21, Jesus states that this prophecy has been fulfilled at the moment of his reading it. In other words, Jesus identifies himself with the Anointed herald/prophet figure of Isa 61:1ff, just as he does elsewhere, in the traditional “Q” material (Lk 7:22 / Matt 11:5). Luke’s inclusion of this reference probably offers the best explanation for his location of the Nazareth episode, set at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This can be explained on three levels:

    • A connection with the Baptism scene, with the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus (3:22). This is to be understood as the moment when the Spirit came upon him and he was anointed by God (Isa 61:1 / 4:18).
    • A connection with the preceding Temptation scene (4:1-13) which is framed by important references to the presence/activity of the Spirit (vv. 1, 14). In other words, this also shows how Jesus has been ‘anointed’ by the Spirit of God.
    • Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Messiah), which serves as a principal theme of the Lukan account of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (4:19:20). However, in this period he is not identified as the royal Messiah from the line of David, but as the Anointed herald/prophet of Isaiah 61. Matthew (4:12-17) introduces Jesus’ Galilean ministry with a different Messianic prophecy (Isa 9:1-2), one more in keeping with the Davidic figure-type.

Verse 22—Here it is worth comparing Luke’s account of the crowds reaction with that of Mark. Consider first the initial description of their reaction:

“and many hearing (him) were laid out (flat) [i.e. amazed], saying ‘From where (did) these things (come) to this (man), and what (is) th(is) wisdom…’?” (Mk 6:2)

“and all witnessed (about) him and wondered upon [i.e. at] the words of favor traveling out of his mouth” (Lk 4:22a)

The idea is roughly the same, but with a different emphasis. In Mark, the people recognize the two aspects of Jesus’ ministry—the wisdom (of his teaching) and his powerful deeds (miracles). In Luke’s account, it seems that they are responding to his gifts as a speaker, fulfilling a traditional religious role—that of reading the Scripture and offering a (pleasant) word of exhortation. It would seem that, while they may have recognized the Messianic significance of Isa 61:1ff, they certainly did not understand the implication of Jesus’ declaration in v. 21—that he was the Anointed One of the prophecy. Mark’s version may contain something of this idea as well, in the statement that the people of Nazareth were “tripped up” (the vb. skandali/zw) by Jesus (v. 3, cf. Lk 7:23 par)

The second part of the people’s reaction is even more significant. In Mark (6:3) the people find it hard to explain Jesus’ words and deeds, since they know all of his family—his mother, brothers, and sisters—as ‘ordinary’ people in the area. Luke has simplified this statement greatly, highlighting just one family member of Jesus:

“Is this not the son of Yoseph {Joseph}?”

This is reasonably close to the words in Matt 13:55: “Is this not the son of the craftsman [i.e. carpenter]?”, as well as being virtually identical to those in Jn 6:42. However, for Luke the reference to Joseph (as Jesus’ human father) has special importance, as can be seen clearly from two earlier passages:

    • The episode of the child Jesus in the Temple, in which Joseph as Jesus’ (human/legal) father is contrasted with God as his (true) Father (2:48-49)
    • The genealogy of Jesus (3:23-38), which begins “the son, as it was thought, of Joseph…” (v. 23), and ends “…the (son) of God” (v. 38). The implication, again, is that God is Jesus’ true Father (1:32, 35; 3:22b).

With these allusions in mind, it becomes apparent what the author is emphasizing here in this scene. The people of Nazareth are still thinking of Jesus as the ordinary, human/legal son of Joseph, and do not at all recognize him as the Anointed One and Son of God.

Verses 23-24—In Luke’s version, the Synoptic saying is preceded by an additional proverb (in v. 23). It functions as a provocative challenge to the townspeople. At this point, Luke does not mention the people taking offense at Jesus (cp. Mark 6:3); rather, Jesus seems to be taking the initiative in provoking them. The proverb brings to light the miracles performed by Jesus and plays upon the Synoptic tradition in Mk 6:5 par—that he was unable to perform many miracles in his home town (because of the people’s lack of faith). The proverb itself is relatively common, with parallels known from the Greco-Roman and Near Eastern world. However, in Luke, joined as it is with the saying of v. 24, it effectively creates a dual contrasting statement (physician/prophet). This, in fact, is how the saying has been preserved in at least one line of tradition, as recorded in the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1 and the Gospel of Thomas (§31)—i.e. “a prophet is not… and a physician does not…”. The Lukan form of the saying in v. 24 also differs from the version in Mark/Matthew:

“A foreteller [i.e. prophet] is not without honor, if not [i.e. except] in his father(‘s) land and among his relatives and in his (own) house” (Mk 6:4)

“Not one foreteller [i.e. prophet] is accepted in his father(‘s) land” (Lk 4:24)

Most likely, Luke’s version represents an abridgment and/or simplification of the Synoptic tradition. Again, it serves a distinct purpose in the Lukan context—it makes more direct the identification of Jesus as a prophet.

Verses 25-27—The prophetic association becomes even clearer with the references to Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:8-16; 2 Kings 5:1-19) and the miracles they worked. Jesus effectively is identifying himself with a prophet like Elijah/Elisha, a connection which appears a number of times in the Gospel tradition. For more on this, see parts 2 and 3 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Verses 28-30—Luke, quite in contrast with the narrative in Mark/Matthew, records an openly hostile, violent reaction to Jesus, provoked, it would seem, by Jesus’ own words in vv. 23-27. There is nothing quite like this in the core synoptic narrative, which ends rather uneventfully, with a laconic statement that Jesus was unable to perform many miracles in his home town, and that he marveled at the people’s lack of faith (Mk 6:5-6a). This is the only point at which the Lukan account really does not fit the Synoptic outline of the episode in Mark/Matthew. It does, however, fulfill two important themes within the narrative context of Luke’s Gospel:

    • It prefigures the opposition/violence that Jesus, as the Anointed One and Son of God, would face from the people, and serves as a parallel to the close of the Galilean period, and the Passion references which follow (9:21-22, 31, 43b-45, 51).
    • It also looks back to the Infancy Narrative, and the oracle by Simeon in 2:34-35, illustrating the opposition predicted by him most vividly.

Quite possibly, the original (historical) tradition contained more of this element of opposition to Jesus, but that it was not preserved in the Synoptic account of Mark/Matthew, retained (if at all) only in the statement at the end of Mk 6:3. If so, then Luke has developed and enhanced this aspect of the tradition.

John 6:42

Finally, it is worth noting, that, although the Gospel of John does not have anything corresponding to the Nazareth episode of the Synoptics, it does include at least one similar tradition—Jn 6:42, forming part of the great Bread of Life discourse in 6:22-59. As in the Synoptic episode under discussion, verse 42 reflects the people’s reaction to statements by Jesus regarding his identity. In Luke 4:16-30, he identifies himself with the Anointed (Messianic) herald/prophet of Isaiah 61:1ff (v. 21), and, by implication, as also being the Son of God (vv. 22ff, cf. above). In the discourse of John 6:22-59, Jesus draws upon different Scriptures—the Exodus traditions, especially that of the manna (as “bread from heaven”)—and identifies himself as the true Bread that comes down from heaven. This is expressed in verse 42 by one of the famous “I Am” declarations in John—”I am the bread th(at is) coming down [lit. stepping down] out of Heaven” (cf. also vv. 32-33, 35, 38, 48, 50-51, 58). In the Johannine context, this certainly refers to Jesus as the eternal (pre-existent) Son of God who has come (down) into the world to bring Life to those who would believe. Here Jesus’ sonship (in relation to God the Father) is understood at a much deeper level than in the Gospel of Luke. However, the basic contrast expressed is the same. The people recognize Jesus only at the ordinary, human level, and are troubled/offended by his words:

Is this not Yeshua, the son of Yoseph, of whom we have seen [i.e. known] his father and (his) mother? (So) now how (can) he say that ‘I have stepped down out of heaven?'”

The italicized portion is quite similar to the words of the people of Nazareth in Mark 6:3 par; indeed, the first phrase—”is this not…the son of Joseph?”—is virtually identical with Luke 4:22b. And, to be sure, John expresses the same aspect of opposition and misunderstanding among the people as Luke does. They view Jesus merely as the son of Joseph, when, in fact, his true identity is as the (eternal) Son of God the Father (Jn 6:27, 32, 37, 40, 44, 46, 57, etc).

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 2 (Mk 6:1-6)

The second primary tradition in the Gospels related to Jesus’ family and relatives is the episode at Nazareth, recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels—Mark 6:1-6a, Matthew 13:53-58, and Luke 4:16-30. There are a number of unique elements in Luke’s account, and it occurs in a different location—at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. These differences have led some traditional-conservative commentators to posit two separate events—that is, two visits to Nazareth, harmonizing the chronology of Luke with Mark/Matthew. However, there is no real basis in the text for such a harmonization; the Gospel writers each know of only one such visit by Jesus to his home town. The basic similarity of the episode makes it all but certain that the Synoptic accounts derive from a single historical tradition. Even though, at the historical level, Jesus conceivably could have made any number of trips back to Nazareth, the Synoptic Gospels record just one visit. I begin by looking at the core (Synoptic) narrative regarding this episode, as found in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 6:1-6a

The episode recorded in Mk 6:1-6a is rather straightforward:

  • V. 1—Narrative introduction, with two important details:
    (a) “he comes into his father(‘s) land” (i.e. his home territory and village)
    (b) “his learners [i.e. disciples] (are) follow(ing) him”
  • V. 2a—Jesus begins to teach in the Synagogue, and the people who hear him are amazed (lit. “laid out [flat]”)
  • Vv. 2b-3—A summary of the people’s reaction(s), presented as their words, in two parts:
    (1) “From where (did) these things (come) to this (man)?”—”these things” are clarified:
    —”What (is) th(is) wisdom given to this (man)?”
    —”(How is it) these (kind)s of powerful deeds come to be through his hands?”
    (2) “Isn’t this the craftsman [i.e. carpenter], the son of Maryam…?”
    With the concluding narrative statement, “And they were tripped up in [i.e. by] him”
  • V. 4—Saying by Jesus: “A foreteller [i.e. prophet] is not without honor, if not [i.e. except] in his father(‘s) land…”
  • Vv. 5-6a—Narrative conclusion emphasizing two points:
    (a) Jesus was only able to perform a few healing miracles there, and
    (b) “and he wondered through [i.e. at, because of] their lack of trust”

We see referenced here the two main components of Jesus’ ministry—teaching/preaching and performing healing miracles—which are described and narrated throughout the Galilean period in the Synoptic Tradition. This was depicted, in seminal form, in the early episode of Mk 1:21-28 par, which also happens to take place at a local Synagogue (sunagwgh/, lit. a place where people “are brought [or come] together”). These same two aspects are also central to the townspeople’s initial reaction of amazement—the wisdom (i.e. of his teaching, v. 2a) and his powerful deeds (miracles).

The second part of the people’s reaction is significant as it mentions the names of Jesus’ family:

    • his mother Maryam (i.e. Mary)—”is this not the son of Maryam?”
    • four of his brothers—”the brother of…”—listed by name:
      (1) Ya’aqob (Jacob/James), (2) Yoseph (Joseph/Joses), (3) Yehuda (Juda[s]), and (4) Shim’on (Simon)
    • his sisters, mentioned generally—”are not his sisters here toward [i.e. with] us?”

Apart from Mary and Jacob/James (to be discussed in an upcoming note), very little is known of Jesus’ family. There has been much (rather idle) speculation and debate regarding whether Jesus’ “brothers” (and sisters) were full blood brothers, half-brothers, or perhaps even cousins. Much of this has been due to traditional doctrine(s) related to the veneration of Mary and a belief in her perpetual virginity (virginitas post partum, after giving birth [to Jesus]). Most Protestants have little problem with the idea that Joseph and Mary had other children together. Joseph himself is not mentioned here, but Jesus is referred to as “the craftsman/carpenter” (some witnesses read “the son of the craftsman/carpenter”, as in Matt 13:55), and, according to early Christian tradition, Joseph was a carpenter. In the Lukan version of this scene (4:22, cf. the next note), Jesus is called son of Joseph, as also in Jn 6:42. Here, Mk 6:3 (with the Matthean parallel) is the only mention of Mary by name in the Synoptic Gospels outside of the Infancy narratives. It is the people of Nazareth in general, rather than Jesus’ relatives specifically, who exhibit lack of belief/trust in him. We do not know the attitude of his family toward him from this particular account (cp. Mark 3:20-35 par, discussed in an earlier note).

What of the significance of this episode within the narrative context of the Markan Gospel? Its proximity to the subsequent mission of the Twelve (vv. 6b-13) is surely important. The two scenes are juxtaposed with one another, just as the episode(s) in 3:20-35 are with the calling of the Twelve in 3:13-19. The lack of faith/trust exhibited by Jesus’ relatives and hometown acquaintances is contrasted with that of his chosen (and close/faithful) followers. Consider the structure:

  • Calling of the Twelve—with authority to proclaim (the coming Kingdom) and work healing (exorcism) miracles (3:13-19)
    • The response of his relatives/acquaintances to his miracles, etc (3:20-35)
      Jesus’ Galilean ministry: teaching (4:1-34) and miracles (4:35-5:43)
    • The response of his hometown to his miracles, etc (6:1-6a)
  • Mission of the Twelve—authority to preach and work healing (exorcism) miracles (6:6b-13)

When we turn to the (proverbial) saying of Jesus in verse 4

“A foreteller [i.e. prophet] is not without honor, if not [i.e. except] in his father(‘s) land and among his relatives [lit. those b(orn) together with (him)] and in his (own) house!”

a significant point to note is that he refers to himself as a prophet. This association, in the context of his ministry activity—as one who proclaims the Kingdom and works miracles—will be developed further in Luke’s version of this scene. Jesus as a prophet, in connection with his identity the Anointed One (Messiah) of God, will feature prominently in two of the scenes (the first and last) which make up the remainder of the Galilean ministry period in Mark’s narrative—Mk 6:14-15ff and 8:27-30.

Matthew 13:53-58

Matthew’s account follows that of Mark very closely. The differences are slight, and there is no evidence of any “Q” material being included—i.e. no sayings or details shared by Luke but not found in Mark. Overall the narrative is a bit simpler and smoother compared with Mark’s version. Here, then, we have a dual presentation of what I would call the core Synoptic tradition. Luke’s version of the scene, on the other hand, differs considerably at several points, which I will be discussing in the next note.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Matthew 2:23

On the day after Epiphany, I will be looking at the Scripture citation which concludes the Infancy Narrative in Matthew (Matt 2:23). Of the five citations in chapters 1-2, this is perhaps the most difficult to analyze, since it is not entirely clear just what passage the author is quoting. Verses 22-23 serve as an additional climactic notice to the return from Egypt:

22but having heard that “‘Chief-of-the-People’ {Archelaus} is king against [i.e. in place of] Herod his father”, he [i.e. Joseph] was afraid to go from (where he was and return) there; but being advised (in the matter) by a dream, he made space again [i.e. turned away/aside] into the parts of Galîl {Galilee}, 23and having come (there) he put down house [i.e. dwelt] in a city counted as [i.e. called/named] Nazaret, so that the (word) uttered by the foretellers might be fulfilled that “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'”.

The quotation “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'” (Nazwrai=o$ klhqh/setai) does not correspond precisely to any specific verse in the Prophets (or the rest of the Old Testament for that matter). This being the case, there are several possibilities:

  • The author (or his source) is citing from a book or passage otherwise unknown to us today. While this is conceivable, it is not especially likely, and should be considered only as a last resort.
  • He is citing a specific (canonical) passage, but in a form quite different from any surviving (Hebrew or Greek) version. Certainly there are a number of quotations in the New Testament (even in Matthew, see Micah 5:2/Matt 2:6) where the wording departs significantly from any known version.
  • It is a free citation, combining more than one passage. Again, this is fairly common in the New Testament, and could be suggested by use of the plural “foretellers [i.e. prophets]”. The references need not be limited to the Prophetic books as we understand them, for conventionally the Psalms and Historical books could come under the general label “Prophets”.
  • The citation is taken from a compendium of ‘Messianic’ prophetic passages (drawn up by early Christians), which the author accepted, but which does not correspond to any specific Scripture. Again, this ought to be considered only as a last resort.

The third option is, I think, fairly close to the mark. The Gospel writer (or an earlier source) has taken a particular verse (probably Isaiah 4:3) and, it would seem, adapted it by means of some subtle and clever wordplay. The argument would run as follows:

1. Isaiah 4:3—an oracle of hope and restoration begins with verses 2-3:

2In that day, the sprout [jm^x#] of YHWH (springing up) will be for beauty and for weight [i.e. glory], and the fruit of the earth will be for exaltation and for splendor, for the escapees of Yi´ra°el {Israel}. 3And it will be (that of) the (one) remaining in ‚iyyôn {Zion} and the one left over in Yerûšalaim {Jerusalem} it will be said “set-apart [vodq* i.e. holy]” for him, every (one) th(at) has been inscribed for (the) “living” (ones) in Yerûšalaim.
[In that day, the sprout of YHWH will be for beauty and glory, and the fruit of the land will be for pride and splendor for the survivors of Israel. And it will be that he who remains in Zion and he who is left in Jerusalem will be called holy, every one who has been inscribed for life in Jerusalem]

2. “Holy” (vodq* and a%gio$)—The key phrase is ol rm#a*y@ vodq* (“‘Holy’ it will be said for him”). In Greek, vodq* would normally be translated by a%gio$; the Septuagint (LXX) of Isa 4:3b uses the plural a%gioi klhqh/sontai (“they will be called ‘holy'”), but a literal rendering of the Hebrew (MT) might be a%gio$ klhqh/setai (“he will be called ‘holy’). Compare this with the citation in Matthew Nazwrai=o$ klhqh/setai (“he will be called a ‘Nazarean'”).

3. ryz]n` (n¹zîr)—The Greek a%gio$ is also used to translate Hebrew ryz]n` (n¹zîr “[one] dedicated/set-apart”). The Hebrew word is often transliterated in English (as a technical term) “Nazirite”—that is, one dedicated or set apart [rzn] to God by a vow [related word rdn]. The legal prescription and details of the Nazirite vow are recorded in Numbers 6:1-21; it could be temporary or a lifetime vow, and most notably involves abstinence from drinking and shaving. The most famous Nazirites in the Old Testament are Samuel (1 Sam 1:11) and Samson (Judg 13:4-14), so dedicated from birth; according the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:15), John the Baptist also seems to have been a Nazirite (from birth). The Greek phrase a%gio$ klhqh/setai could be given an interpretive translation back into Hebrew as “he will be called a holy (one) [n¹zîr]”.

4. ryz]n` and Naziraio$ (Naziraios)—Hebrew ryz]n` (n¹zîr) could also be transliterated in Greek, as in English, by Naziraio$ (Naziraios) or Nazir (Nazir). For instances of the former, especially, in LXX see Judges 13:5, 7; 16:17 (A); Lam 4:7;  also 1 Macc 3:49. The example from Judg 13:5, 7 is particularly noteworthy, as it is part of an angelic announcement related to the birth of Samson; the LXX (A) reads in part: o%ti h(giasme/non nazirai=on e&stai tw=| qew=| to paida/rion e)k th=$ gastro/$ (“for the child will be considered holy [i.e. set apart] as a Nazirite to God out of the womb”). In the context of Matt 2:23, “he will be called a holy (one) [n¹zîr]” could have been rendered into Greek as Nazirai=o$ klhqh/setai (“he will be called a Nazirite”).

5. Naziraio$ and Nazwraio$ (Nazœraios)—The Greek Nazirai=o$ is quite close to Nazwrai=o$ (difference of a single vowel), and the latter is attested as a variant reading of the former. Nazwrai=o$ occurs elsewhere a dozen times in the New Testament: eleven times (Matt 26:71; Luke 18:37; John 18:5, 7, etc) as a designation for Jesus (“the Nazorean”), and once (Acts 4:5) referring to Christians as the ‘sect’ of the “Nazoreans”. It is generally assumed that this designation ultimately refers to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth (and as such is equivalent to Nazarhno/$ cf. Mark 1:24; 10:47, etc). However, this remains a disputed question among scholars and experts in Semitics, related to the technical issue of the original or ‘correct’ form of “Nazareth”. In any case, it is clear that the Gospel writer draws the connection between Nazwrai=o$ and Nazareth.

The wordplay suggested above would require that the author be familiar with the Scriptures in both Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic, and be capable of moving freely between the two. However, to some extent this seems to have been the case in Palestine-Syria at the time of the New Testament. Early (Jewish) Christians such as Paul clearly had this facility; the same may be said of a Palestinian Christian such as James the Just (particularly if the epistle [of James] and the interpretive citation in Acts 15:15ff come from him verbatim).

Scholars have also drawn a connection between Nazwrai=o$ and the Hebrew rx#n@ (n¢ƒer) “[new] shoot, sprout” (also rendered “root”, “branch”), a word partly synonymous with jm^x# (see in Isa 4:3 above). Now rx#n@ came to be a designation for the Messiah, largely due to Isaiah 11:1ff, which begins: “and a (small) branch will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a (new) shoot [rx#n@] will grow [lit. bear fruit] from his roots; and the spirit of YHWH will rest upon him…”. Isaiah 11:1ff was one of several key Messianic passages current in Jewish literature at the time the New Testament was written—see especially the Qumran texts 4QpIsaa, 4Q252, 4Q285, 1QSb 5; cf. also Psalms of Solomon 17-18, Testament of Levi 18, and 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 13. The shoot/branch of Isa 11:1 was closely identified with the expression “branch [jm^x#] of David” (see esp. Jer 23:5-6; Zech 3:8), a key Messianic designation. It is an intriguing parallel, but it is hard to say whether (or to what extent) the Gospel writer may have had this in mind.

For a good discussion related to many of the points above, along with additional critical detail, see R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library (1977, 1993), pp. 207-213, 223-225.

There are number of famous (and fanciful) traditions regarding the flight of the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and the child Jesus) into Egypt, which are recorded in ‘apocryphal’ Gospels such as the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy and the Gospel of ‘Pseudo-Matthew’. Two stories are particularly striking:
(1) On the journey through the desert, the family was tired and had run out of water. Mary, exhausted from the heat and travel, took shade under a palm tree. The infant Jesus commanded the palm tree to bend itself down and allow Mary to reach its fruit and take refreshment (Pseudo-Matthew §20).
(2) As they passed through a major city (in the region of Hermopolis), the many idols standing in the great temple there all fell to the ground and were shattered (Pseudo-Matthew §22-24, Arabic Infancy Gospel §10).
Pilgrimage sites associated with the journey of the Holy Family can be found along a stretch of some 200+ miles, from Cairo (Abu Serga) down to el-Qusiya (Deir el-Muharraq).
 

“And you shall call His Name…”: Matthew 2:23

Matthew 2:23

Today’s article in this series will explore the third episode of section 2:13-23 (vv. 19-23), the second of two Angelic dream-appearances to Joseph (vv. 13-15, cf. also 1:18-25). On the pattern of Israel’s entry into Egypt and the Exodus (cf. the earlier article on verse 15), this episode corresponds with the Exodus. This reflects the overall theme of the Moses/Jesus parallel and the Moses Infancy narrative. Indeed, the Angel’s words in verse 20 match closely those in Exod 4:19—the death of Herod corresponding to the death of the Pharaoh. Just as Moses returned to lead his people out of Egypt, so Jesus (with his parents) returns from out of Egypt to “save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). The parallel between the two Angelic appearances is nearly exact, giving great literary (and dramatic) symmetry to the section.

The purpose of the added detail in vv. 22-23 would seem to be to explain how it was that Jesus came to live in Nazareth, a well-established Gospel tradition. Contrary to the scenario in the Lukan Infancy narrative, there is no indication in the Matthean account itself that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth prior to the birth of Jesus. Whether or not this is the understanding of the Gospel writer (trad. Matthew), he is not giving us simple geographical information here; rather, the introduction of this detail, with the Scripture citation, serves another purpose as well—as a foreshadowing of the Messianic associations with which the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is narrated (3:11-12, 17, and, especially, 4:15-16). The next reference to Nazareth is in 4:13, just prior to the quotation from Isa 9:1-2, a (Messianic) passage also interpreted by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth (vv. 6-7 [Heb vv. 5-6]). It is most improbable that the Scripture (in v. 23) is cited merely as a prophecy that Jesus would live in Nazareth. In all likelihood, there is a play on words involved here, though it is difficult to determine this with precision, as there is considerable uncertainty regarding which Scripture is being quoted. Verse 23b reads:

“…how that [i.e. so that] the (thing) uttered through the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] might be fulfilled, that ‘he will be called a Nazoraean’.”

This declaration does not correspond with anything in the Prophets, nor elsewhere in the Old Testament Scripture. In light of this, there are four main possibilities which need to be considered, and which scholars have addressed in various ways:

  • The author is quoting from a book (or section) which is not part of the Old Testament as it has come down to us
  • He is using a form or version of an existing Scripture which is otherwise unknown to us
  • He is adapting, combining, or otherwise interpreting an existing Scripture (or Scriptures) in light of the context and his purpose
  • It is not a direct quotation; rather, the author is referring indirectly to one or more Scripture passages which would support the interpretation of events which he gives

In my view, only the last two can seriously be considered as viable options. Which Scripture, or Scriptures, is the author quoting (directly) or alluding to (indirectly)? I would highlight four passages which are legitimate candidates (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 211-13). I will discuss them each in turn.

Isaiah 4:3 (and Judges 16:17)

R. E. Brown (Birth, pp. 223-25) makes a strong case for a combination of two verses—Isaiah 4:3 and Judges 16:17. The Hebrew of Isa 4:3a reads (in translation):

“And it will be (that for) the (one) remaining in ‚iyyôn {Zion} and the (one) left over in Yerushalaim it will be said of him ‘(He is) holy [vodq* q¹dôš]'”

In the Greek LXX it is rendered:

“And it will be (that) the (one) left under [i.e. back] in ‚iyyôn and the (one) left down [i.e. behind] in Yerushalaim (they) will be called holy [a%gioi klhqh/setai]”

Judges 16:17 record the words of Samson:

“I (have been one) consecrated [ryz!n` n¹zîr] of [i.e. by/to] God from the belly of my mother”

There are two variations in the Greek LXX (MSS A and B):

“I am a Nazîr [nazirai=o$] of God (from) out of my mother’s belly” (A)
“I am a holy (one) [a%gio$] of God (from) out of my mother’s belly” (B)

There is thus known at least one instance where the Hebrew word for a Nazirite (n¹zîr) is both transliterated as Naziraíos and translated as “Holy (One)”. A similar substitution may have been made in Isa 4:3, whereby “he will be called (a) holy (one)” is modified to read “he will be called a Nazir”. In Greek Nazirai=o$ (Naziraíos) is close enough to Nazwrai=o$ (Nazœraíos) to make the wordplay possible.

Isaiah 11:1

The Hebrew of this verse is rendered as follows:

“And a (fresh) twig [rf#j) µœ‰er] will come up from the stump of Yishay {Jesse},
a (green) branch [rx#n@ n¢ƒer] from his roots will (grow and) bear fruit”

The wordplay would be between the noun n¢ƒer and the proper name Naƒra¾ or N¹ƒr¹y¹, etc (i.e. “Nazareth”). Isaiah 11:1-9 was an influential Messianic passage at the time of Jesus, though it is not used directly in early Christian tradition as recorded in the New Testament (cf. Rom 15:12 [citing Isa 11:10]); note Rev 22:16, and somewhat later, Justin’s Dialogue 126:1. Tree imagery, and the use of words such as µœ‰er, n¢ƒer, and ƒemaµ—all of which refer to a new/fresh growth (i.e. branch, shoot, bud, etc)—were often applied in a royal context, to a new or coming ruler (cf. Collins, Scepter, pp. 25-6). The word ƒemaµ (jm^x#) had clearer Messianic associations, due mainly to the prophecies in Jer 23:5-6; 33:14-16—the Qumran community, for example, refers to the Messiah-figure of the Davidic ruler type as the “Branch of David”.

There was definite use of Isa 11:1-4ff in a Messianic sense, by the mid-1st century B.C., as evidenced by quotations or allusions to it in the Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25ff; 18:6-8, and the Qumran texts 4QpIsa[Commentary on Isaiah]a frag. 7; 4Q285 frag. 5; 1QSb 5:21; from the 1st century B.C., cf. also 1 Enoch 49:3-4; 62:2-3; and 2/4 Esdras 13:10. At Qumran, the word n¢ƒer was used, not only of a Messiah figure, but for the Community itself, the “holy ones” (1QH xiv.15; xv.19; xvi.6, 8, 10; cf. Isa 60:21). In a similar way, perhaps, Christians came to be known as Nôƒ®rîm (“Nazoreans”)—cf. Acts 24:5; b. Sanh 43a.

Isaiah 42:6 / 49:6

A different root nƒr is found in Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, both passages being among the so-called “Servant Songs”, oracles which lend themselves well for interpretation as Messianic prophecies. The verb n¹ƒar has the meaning “keep, protect, preserve, watch”. Compare the two verses in translation:

“I YHWH have called you…and I will keep you, and I will give you to (be) a covenant for the people, a light for the nations” (42:6)
“…for you to be (called) my Servant, to cause the staffs [i.e. tribes] of Jacob to stand (again), and to make the (one)s kept/preserved [n§ƒûrê] of Israel to (re)turn, and I will give you to (be) a light for the nations” (49:6)

From the standpoint of Israelites and Jews in the post-exilic period, this would be interpreted in many circles as a prophecy of the Messianic Age and the restoration of Israel. The ones who are kept/preserved are the “holy ones” (cf. above), the faithful remnant, as in Isa 4:3. The expression “light to/for the nations” occurs in the Lukan Infancy narrative, in the Song of Simeon (Lk 2:32), where there is an allusion to one or both of these passages.

Jeremiah 31:6-7

The verb nƒr also is found in Jer 31:6, where the remnant motif is even clearer:

“For there (is indeed) a day (when the one)s keeping (watch) [nœƒ®rîm] will call (out) in the mount(ains) of Ephraim, ‘Stand (up)! and let us go up Zion to YHWH our God!'”

The remnant of Israel is introduced in vv. 7b and following. Note the interesting parallel with Matt 1:21:

“and (you shall) say, “YHWH save your people, the (ones) left behind [i.e. the remnant] in Israel!'” (Jer 31:7)
“and you shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people…” (Matt 1:21)

Summary

The problem with the last three options above is that the wordplay involves the underlying Hebrew text, and would have been lost on many, if not most, of the readers of the Greek Gospel. The first option is the only one which is at all feasible as a wordplay in Greek. On the other hand, Isa 11:1 would be much more appropriate as a Messianic prophecy applied to Jesus. Jerome, at least, was a Christian who had no difficulty making the connection between Hebrew n¢ƒer and “Nazorean” in the verse, and claims that it is the Scripture cited in Matt 2:23, “from his root will grow a Nazorean” (Letter 57.7, to Pammachius). Isaiah 11:1 also has the advantage of the overall context in the book, the parallels with 7:14; 9:1-7, which were interpreted as (Messianic) prophecies applied to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. If any, or all, of the passages suggested above are in the mind of the Gospel writer, it is possible to recognize two primary aspects which are likely at work:

  • Salvation for the remnant of God’s people, the holy ones, which the Messiah will bring
  • The Messiah (Christ) as the Holy One of God, chosen to bring about the salvation of his people

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993). Those marked “Collins, Scepter” are to John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1995).