Jesus of Nazareth

Why is Jesus Christ associated with Nazareth?

Nazareth, a small village in Upper Galilee, was the boyhood home of Jesus. Joseph and Mary, according to the New Testament, returned there sometime after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, a small town in Judea in the south (Matthew 2:23). From Jesus’ youth until he was thirty years of age, Nazareth was his home.

During this period it was not uncommon for a person to be identified with the town where he or she was born or lived (see for example Luke 8:2 where Mary of Magdala is mentioned). As a result, Jesus Christ is identified with Nazareth some seventeen times in the New Testament as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Even in His death, though He had left Nazareth nearly three years earlier, Jesus was identified with the small village off the main road in the hills of Galilee: “And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews” (John 19:19).

A few years later, following the Resurrection, Peter began to reach out beyond his Jewish people when he visited the Roman centurion, Cornelius, in Caesarea Maritima to share the “good news.” In this momentous meeting, Peter began his famous sermon with the geographical identification of Jesus’ boyhood home: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38). As the missionary work of the disciples spread across the Mediterranean basin and the Near East, people well beyond the Holy Land learned about Jesus of Nazareth.

In addition to the traditional name connection to a place, Matthew believed that Jesus’ identification with Nazareth was already known by early Hebrew prophets, “He 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” (Matthew 2:23).

Nazareth as it may have appeared during the first century A.D. Used by permission, Balage Balogh.

Nazareth‘s Place in the New Testament Story

The Return of the King, [Matthew] 2:19-23

This third passage in Matthew 2 begins with the same structure as we find in the previous one about the flight into Egypt—the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and gives a command to get up and take the child and His mother and go back to the land of Israel, to which command Joseph arises and does exactly as he is told (noting the parallel language in vv. 14 and 21).

Going to Judea again was truly not a good idea, since Herod’s son Archelaeus was ruling there, and so having been warned of this in a dream, he withdrew to the “district” of Galilee, going to live in the small town of Nazareth. This, too, is seen as a fulfillment of Scripture, but notice that here prophets (plural) are referred to for the quotation “he shall be called a Nazarene.”

It has been difficult to find a Scripture or even a combination of Scriptures that match these words. One ingenious suggestion is that Isaiah 11:1 in the Hebrew lies in the background, which speaks of the NZR “branch” from the stump of Jesse, a reference to the messianic figure also referred to as Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14. In favor of this association is the fact that at Qumran, the “branch” in this passage was also interpreted messianically (1QH 6.15: 7.6-19).

Though a different Hebrew word is used for branch, this same way of speaking of a messianic figure is found in Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12. What we are seeing here is indeed midrashic use of the Old Testament, and the combination of such scriptural material with stories of Jesus, creatively woven together, has been called a midrashic haggadah, but it would be better called midrash and haggadah (narrative), for we have no reason to think the story itself is being embroidered except by the creative addition and handling of the Old Testament.

Another suggestion is that Matthew has in mind the notion of being a Nazarite, which is the term substituted for “one set apart” or a “holy one unto the Lord” in the LXX (cf. Isa 4:3; Judges 13:5-7; 16:17). Jesus Christ then is seen as one holy unto God, a conclusion that might find support in Matthew 19:10-12 if Jesus is referring to Himself.

However, the usual characterization of Jesus as one who ate and drank with sinners and at weddings (cf. John 2 to Mark 1-3) does not comport with the notion that He took a Nazaritic vow. This suggestion then seems less likely than the connection with the branch oracle.

On the surface of things, the impression left by this account is that Joseph and his family are moving to Nazareth for the first time. What is odd about this story is that of course, another son of Herod, Herod Antipas, was ruling in Galilee, so why would Galilee be better than Judea for the family?

But then one must also ask why would Joseph move to such an out-of-the-way town unless there were already family connections there. Or was it chosen precisely because in a town of 500-1,500 at the most, they would be able to disappear or become inconspicuous? It is a town nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament or in earlier Jewish sources, which may explain why the exegetical gymnastics were necessary to relate this move to Nazareth to the Old Testament.

Though many scholars think it is difficult to reconcile this account with what Luke 2:39-40 says, which suggests that Jesus’ family was originally from Nazareth, both accounts agree on this key point-that Jesus grew up in Nazareth and came to be called Jesus of Nazareth. It is interesting that one of the castes of priests settled there after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, which suggests that it was seen as a ritually pure place.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, (Macon: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2006), 71-2.

Ben Witherington III is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Ashbury Theological in Wilmore, Kentucky.