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Nazareth and The Branch
Matthew 2:23 and Interpretation of the Old Testament

Dennis Bratcher

I often hear the comment that as Christians we should interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. Along with this perspective usually goes the affirmation that Paul, or the Gospel writers, must have understood the Old Testament better than we do, so we should automatically take the New Testament as the final authority on interpretation of the Old Testament.

Of course, there is some sense in which the first comment is true. That is, we as Christians will never be able to hear the Old Testament apart from the Incarnation and God’s self-revelation in Christ. We will always be looking at the Old Testament texts as Christians.

However, there is also a dimension in which it is not true. That is, the Old Testament is not inherently a Christian book, and if we impose categories onto the Old Testament which are alien to it, we may risk not really hearing the Old Testament for what it says, on its own terms. It is more likely that we will simply impose onto the Old Testament biblical texts our more modern and Christian perspectives. And we may even distort or not fully understand the rich confession about God if we do not let the Old Testament speak from its own categories and in its own way.

As to the second comment, that the New Testament writers must have understood the Old Testament better than we do, there is an interesting assumption at work that we don’t usually acknowledge. We assume that Paul or the Gospel writers are trying to understand the Old Testament on the same level that we are trying to understand it. I would say strongly that no, they are not. They are not doing Old Testament exegesis; they are trying to communicate a truth about the Incarnation of Jesus the Christ and its results in the world. They are interpreting current revelatory historical events (the Incarnation) for their own day. And they are using a vast array of literary techniques to do so, including the Old Testament in direct quotes, in indirect allusions, in thematic references, in allegorical applications, in secondary references that only make sense from the Greek or Targumic (Aramaic) translations, sometimes incorrect citations from memory, vague references, connections of single words or even sounds of words, word plays, etc.

Some of those ways of using the Old Testament, or trying to understand it, we would not use today. Does that mean they were wrong in how they used the Old Testament? Of course not, unless we impose the narrow criteria that they were intending to give us the "correct" meaning of a particular Old Testament passage. I don’t think they were trying to interpret the Old Testament. Rather, they were trying to tell people about Jesus in any and all ways that they thought people would understand. They did not feel bound to a particular method of interpretation, because they were not interpreting the text of the Old Testament; they were bearing witness to the revelation of God in Christ. They did that one way to the Jews, and another way to the Greeks. Their testimony is primary, not their interpretive methodology.

That does not mean that they twist or pervert Old Testament scripture to accomplish that goal, nor does it mean we can interpret Scripture today, Old Testament or New Testament, with the same methods. But it does mean that they felt more freedom in using the text than we might allow, especially since we have a far narrower understanding of the "authority" of the written word than they did.

It also means that we even have to do exegesis on the New Testament to understand what they were doing, just like we have to do exegesis on the Old Testament to understand it! So the answer to this issue is not to shift absolute truth from the text of the Old Testament to the New Testament writers’ application of the Old Testament. The answer is to interpret the New Testament in terms of what the New Testament is and says, and to interpret the Old Testament in terms of what it is and says, and then ask questions of how they relate to each other in terms of theology.

Now, let’s look at an example. It is Matthew’s Gospel that most often uses the formula "this happened that it might be fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet, saying . . .." This is usually used with a particular event in the life of Jesus that Matthew connects with the Old Testament, something he is much more concerned to do, it seems, than are the other Gospel writers. The most common assumption here is that the Old Testament was predicting this event, and that event then happened to fulfill that prediction. So the connection is seen as directly historical, working forward. (This is even apart from the implications concerning predestination that this assumption raises!) Sounds good. Well, maybe. But if we don’t make that assumption, what are other possibilities?

There is an interesting verse in Matthew 2:23 that seems rather enigmatic: "And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He shall be called a Nazarene.'" This is the conclusion of the birth narratives in Matthew, immediately preceding the accounts of John the Baptist (ch. 3) and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in (ch. 4). It simply says that Joseph and his family returned to live in Nazareth of Galilee. And on teh surface Matthew seems to make the simple connection that this is "fulfillment" of an Old Testament "prediction" that this would occur.

The problem is that there is no such prediction, or even remotely similar comment, anywhere in the Old Testament. In fact, the city of Nazareth is never mentioned in the Old Testament or Apocrypha, even though it existed as a tiny village from around 900 BC until the Babylonian exile, and was then reestablished during the Maccabbean era around 200 BC. It remained a small, remote, and virtually unknown rural village, although it was not far from the major Roman center of Sepphoris in Jesus’ time.

Now, did Matthew just make a mistake in his use of the Old Testament? If we cast this directly in terms of New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament, it appears he did. Or, we are reduced to scrambling to find some sort of extrabiblical or rational explanation in order to salvage a certain view of prophecy or the authority of Scripture or Matthew’s integrity. But there may be a far simpler explanation that comes directly from Scripture.  It is one that pointedly raises the issue of how Matthew is dealing with the Old Testament, and how our assumptions about the Bible lead us to ask the wrong questions about it.

Several Old Testament prophets express the conviction that God would once again act in the life of the Israelite nation to raise up a righteous king who would lead them to a recovery of their vitality as the people of God.  Zechariah, speaking to the post-exilic community who was without a king (c. 520 BC), talked about God again empowering a restored monarchy and a new high priest (Zech 6:9-15). Jeremiah had little good to say about Israelite kings, especially Jehoiakim. He spoke from the impending collapse of the Israelite nation to the Babylonians (c. 600 BC), yet looked forward to a time when God would raise up a new king who would execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jer 33:14-26, see the Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16). Isaiah of Jerusalem spoke from the Assyrian crisis in which the pitiful king Ahaz was willing to sell out the very soul of Israel to Assyria to retain his power (c. 700 BC).  Isaiah talked about God working though a new king whose reign would be marked by wisdom,  justice, and peace (Isa 11:1-9).

The prophets used various metaphors to refer to this anticipated revival of the ideal monarchy to replace the corrupt kings of the day, including "servant" (Haggai, Isaiah), "signet ring" (Haggai), "shepherd" (Micah, Ezekiel), or simply "David" (Amos). But in all three of the above examples, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah also use the term "branch" as a metaphor to refer to the new king that God would raise up from the line of David (Isa 4:2, 11:1, Jer 23:5, Zech 3:8, 6:12). The metaphor is most clearly expressed in Isaiah 11:1: "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots."

In Hebrew, the word "branch" is netzer, actually only three consonantal letters: NZR. Note that the town NaZaReth contains the same three primary letters (plus an ending often attached to nouns). In the Aramaic form of Nazareth, (Aramaic was the common language spoken by most Israelites after the exile; some have suggested that the entire book of Matthew was originally written in Aramaic rather than Greek), it comes very close in sound to the Hebrew word for "branch."

It seems, then, that Matthew was not at all "mistaken" in this Old Testament reference, although he was certainly not exegeting Isaiah. He was identifying the obscure Galilean town of Nazareth in which Jesus grew up with the Old Testament reference to a netzer (Branch) God would raise up to bring justice and righteousness and peace to His people. In other words, this was the means Matthew used to identify Jesus, even as a child returning to an obscure town in remote Galilee ("can any good thing come from Nazareth?" -John 1:47), as the "King" from the line of David whom God had finally raised up to restore His people.

It is no coincidence that it is Matthew more than the other Gospels in which the idea of the Kingdom of God and the reign of God through His King finds particular prominence. This is Matthew’s way of confessing Jesus to be the Messiah (the Christ)! But he is not doing it historically, or geographically, as we so often assume, nor is he simply connecting predictive prophecy with its later fulfillment. He is doing it theologically, by using the similarity in sound between a word in Hebrew and a word in Aramaic, as he is (probably) writing in Greek! He is not interpreting Isaiah directly. He is bearing witness to Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Branch!

What all of this suggests is that it is very unlikely that Isaiah in 700 BC, or Jeremiah in 600 BC, or Zechariah in 520 BC had in mind the city of Nazareth as they talked about the Branch. They were not predicting anything about the city of Nazareth. They were talking about God's gracious restoration of a future people of God by referring to a new godly leader, a new king, a new anointed one whom God would raise up to renew and revive His people.  Matthew’s application here cannot be used as the key to understand those prophetic books. It must work the other way. That is,  we cannot really understand Matthew’s reference without first understanding the entire concept and set of metaphors, and some cultural history, from the Old Testament prophets. What those prophets affirm in the metaphor of the Branch is that God will not leave His people without a leader to show them how to be His people. It is not a predictive prophecy; it is an affirmation about God’s grace, that He will continue to work in history to enable His people to respond faithfully as His people.

Matthew understood both the significance of the coming of Jesus and the affirmation about God that those prophets of long ago made. And so he links the two in affirming that in Jesus, the Christ, the Branch, God has once again been faithful to His people by entering history and providing a way for them to be His people. Matthew takes the insignificant town in which Jesus grew up and uses it as a metaphor to confess Jesus as the fulfillment of the hopes of a thousand years, and the revelation of the faithfulness of God to His people. To me that is a far more significant affirmation than trying to figure out how to use Matthew to interpret Isaiah, or to use this as an example of predictive prophecy.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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