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…”: Luke 2:23

Luke 2:23

Verses 22-24 follow v. 21 (cf. the previous note), continuing the theme of fulfilling the requirements, etc, of the Law. Verse 22 begins with the same opening formula, marking the particular time—”when the days of their cleansing were (ful)filled”. Here, the “days” being referenced are the forty days after childbirth (for a male child) when the mother is in a state of impurity (Lev 12:2-8). The plural pronoun “their” (au)tw=n) probably anticipates the verbal phrase which follows—”they [i.e. Jesus’ parents] brought him up into Jerusalem”. It is unlikely that the Gospel writer thought that both Joseph and Mary required cleansing in connection with childbirth. The period of time completes the “days” of verse 21—7 days before circumcision, 33 before purification. This detail also serves the narrative purpose of explaining why Joseph and Mary would be in Jerusalem at the Temple. Indeed, mention of the purification ritual frames the episode (vv. 22 and 24); in between, in verse 23, the focus is on the reason/purpose of Jesus’ presence in the Temple. This verse almost has the appearance of a secondary insertion; note how vv. 22 and 24 would otherwise join together:

“And when the days of their cleansing were (ful)filled, they brought him [i.e. Jesus] up into Yerushalem, to stand (him) alongside the Lord…
…and to give a (ritual) slaughtering [i.e. sacrifice] according to the (regulation) stated (by God) in the Law of the Lord…”

This literary device creates the impression that the author has confused or conflated two different Torah laws—(1) those related to the mother’s purification after childbirth (the sacrifice is part of this regulation), and (2) the redemption of the firstborn male child (Num 3:44-51; 18:15-16). Yet it is never stated that the latter command was fulfilled at the Temple. Some commentators believe that the author had the mistaken idea that the firstborn male needed to be presented in Jerusalem (at the Temple). But, if this were the case, there would be little reason for him to confuse matters by introducing the detail of the purification ritual for Mary. In my view, it is much more likely that the author used the occasion of the purification ritual to introduce the motif of the consecration of the firstborn within that setting and context. The result is somewhat awkward, and certainly open to misunderstanding, but it very much suits the author’s creative purpose—of blending together several different fulfillment themes: (a) fulfillment of the Law, (b) fulfillment of Scripture, and (c) Jesus as the fulfillment of the types and patterns of the Old Testament.

The specific Scripture quoted in v. 23 is a adaptation of Exod 13:2 (cf. also v. 15b, Num 18:15). The centrality of this quotation puts the emphasis of the scene, not on the purification ritual, but rather the tradition of the consecration of the firstborn male child—as one dedicated to (religious/priestly) service to God. In Israelite religion and society, this role was taken over by the tribe of Levi (as a kind of priestly caste or class), with the 5-shekel payment (redemption) made to them in exchange. The passages in the Torah dealing with this issue (and its underlying theological principle) are Exod 13:1-2, 11-16; 22:29b-30; Lev 27:26-27; Num 3:11-13, 44-51; 8:14-18; 18:15-16ff.

This consecration motif is expressed by the author in the narrative as a presentation of the child before God (at the Temple), in a manner similar to that of Samuel in 1 Sam 1:22-24ff. The priority of this is indicated by the syntax in Lk 2:22-24, the two purpose infinitives:

  • parasth=sai tw=| qew=| “to stand (him) alongside God”
  • dou=nai qusi/an “to give sacrifice”

Both verbal phrases reflect religious offerings to God. The second (“give sacrifice”) refers to the sacrificial (burnt) offering of two doves/pigeons which completes the purification process for the mother (Mary) following childbirth (cf. above). The second is a separate (voluntary) offering of the child, dedicating it to the service of God. There is almost certainly an allusion to the Samuel Infancy narrative here, as already noted. In 1 Sam 1:22, Hannah declares her intention to bring the child to the Temple in Jerusalem, so that “he may be seen (before) the face of YHWH, and sit down [i.e. dwell/remain] there until (the most) distant (time) [i.e. for ever]”. This she fulfills at the appropriate time, according to vv. 24-28. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find a similar use of the verb pari/sthmi (“stand/place alongside”) in the sacrificial sense of believers presenting themselves before God as holy offerings (cf. Rom 6:13-19; 12:1; 2 Cor 11:2; Col 1:22, 28; Eph 5:27).

Looking at the central verse 23 a bit more closely, one finds three key elements which make up its structure, and which I would arrange as a chiastic outline:

  • “written in the Law of the Lord”—Scripture/Law (cp. “Law of Moses”, v. 22)
    —”every male child opening…”—the (physical) birth of the firstborn male child
  • “will be called holy to the Lord”—dedication/consecration of the child (naming)

The expression “will be called holy” (a%gion klhqh/setai) points back to the words of the Angel to Mary in 1:35: “the (child) coming to be (born) will be called Holy [a%gion klhqh/setai], (the) Son of God”. It is essentially a title of Jesus, as we see in the Gospel and early Christian tradition (Acts 2:27; 13:35 [both citing Ps 16:10]; Luke 4:34 par; John 6:69; 1 Jn 2:20; Rev 3:7; 16:5). It reflects an ancient Divine name or title—i.e. “Holy (One)” (vodq*, Q¹dôš)—that is, of Yahweh/El as the “Holy One (of Israel)”, cf. 2 Kings 19:22; Job 6:10; Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Isa 1:4; 5:19, etc. There is an echo of this in the Magnificat (Lk 1:49, cf. Psalm 99:3). I would also mention again the theory, discussed in a recent note, that the Scripture cited in Matt 2:23 essentially is Isa 4:3 (“he will be called [a] holy one”), with wordplay involving the substitution Nazîr—”he will be called a Nazîr” (Nazirite–Nazorean). The Nazirite association may seen unusual at first, until one realizes that it is an element of both the Samuel and Samson birth narratives (1 Sam 1:9-15; Judg 13:4-7; 16:17), which find an echo in the Lukan narrative (e.g. Lk 1:13-15). Parallels with the Samuel story have already been mentioned here (above), and will be discussed again in the remaining notes.

The fundamental meaning of the root verb rz~n` (n¹zar) is to separate or “keep apart (from)”, often in a religious or ritual context. It is thus synonymous, to some extent, with the verb vd^q* (q¹daš), and a n¹zîr, a separated/consecrated person, can also be called q¹dôš (“holy one”). John the Baptist was set apart and consecrated to God (“filled by the holy Spirit”) from the womb (1:15), using language from the birth of Samson. Similarly, Jesus could be called “the Holy One” from even before the moment of his conception (1:32, 35), and was dedicated to God in the Temple, following the pattern of Samuel.