By Dr. Philip Sumpter
Why is Nazareth significant? The answer seems obvious—it is the village where Jesus was conceived and grew up (though not born), and after which he was named: “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus the Nazarene.” These reasons alone are enough to explain the significance of the city to Christians from all over the world who stream here in their buses.
In the gospel according to Matthew, however, the significance of Nazareth is presented the other way round: it isn’t that we first learn about Jesus and only then come to appreciate the significance of Nazareth as the place where he grew up, rather according to Matthew Nazareth had always been predestined to be the place the Messiah would call “home.” In this divine perspective, Nazareth’s significance lies in the plan of God, which orders history according to a particular goal and logic, and so if we want to understand the significance of the village (which has now become a city!) we need to look at the place in light of God’s plan, and not just as the place where the Messiah accidentally happened to grow up.
Let’s see how Matthew expresses himself:
“And [Joseph] went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene” (2:23).
We learn at least three things from this statement. First of all, we learn that although Joseph’s decision to move to Nazareth appears to be entirely his own, in reality what was happening was the outworking of the plan of God: Jesus’ association with Nazareth is no accident of history. Second, God’s decision to bring this about was communicated beforehand through the words of the prophets (we are not told which ones). Finally, Matthew clarifies how Nazareth plays a role in God’s plan: it was to be the place after which the Messiah would “be called.” In other words, the significance of Nazareth consists in how it would become part of Jesus’ public identity. What matters is the epithet and not the physical space. And we see this worked out in the Gospels and Acts: Jesus is indeed called “the Nazarene” by just about everyone: friends and enemies alike; demons address him as such (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34); in John the sign above his head on the cross mentions his Nazarene roots (John 19:19); even after his resurrection, the glorified Jesus identified himself as such when he confronted Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:8).
So why does God want his Son and Messiah to be called a “Nazarene”? What do the prophets have to teach us on this subject?
Here we face a challenge: neither the word “Nazareth” nor the word “Nazarene” actually occur in the Old Testament. The place has no significance whatsoever. It occurs in no story and not a single prophet literally says “the Messiah will be called ‘a Nazarene’.” It is off the map as far as the Old Testament is concerned. It is thus not surprising that Judaism never attached any significance to the place, and we can understand Nathaniel’s shock when told that the Messiah had now been found … and that he was from Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). The problem is compounded by the fact that the Messiah was actually expected to come from somewhere else, namely Bethlehem, the hometown of David, the Messianic progenitor. Bethlehem does have prophetic promises associated with it (Micah 5:2), and the Jews knew about those promises. And so Jesus’ Nazarene heritage could be used against him by those who knew their Bibles. As those Biblical scholars called Pharisees put it: “Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was? … no prophet comes from Galilee [which is associated with Gentiles; cf. Matthew 4:15]” (John 7:42; 52). How embarrassing.
The irony is that Jesus’ ancestors were from Bethlehem, and he was born there (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4), a fact that Matthew himself also associates with the fulfilment of divine prophecy (2:6)! In Matthew the following picture emerges: we have his physical-yet-secret birth in Bethlehem as the fulfilment of prophecy (Matthew 2:6) and a public association with Nazareth, also part of prophecy (Matthew 2:23). And the two places relate in a special way: Jesus’ association with Nazareth hides his lineage in Bethlehem and actually obscures his claims to Messiahood. Does this reveal something of why God chose to order events as he did, and does it explain how Israel’s prophets never mention the name itself, though perhaps the substance?
First the question of why: The interplay between the hiddenness and revelation of Jesus’ true identity is a central element in the story of the gospels: elsewhere we read that he was born near the holy city of Jerusalem, but was only recognized by wise men from a distant land (Matthew 2); his birth was announced by “a multitude of the heavenly host,” but only lowly shepherds saw it (Luke 2:13); he was born in an stable (Luke 2:7), but he was brought royal gifts by the Magi (Matthew 2:10). Throughout his career, the response to Jesus’ teaching—by disciples and outsiders—was usually one of shock and incomprehension—a response encouraged by Jesus, who spoke in parables and forbade the revelation of his true identity before its time, unveiling it slowly throughout his career (see Mark 1:24—25; Luke 4:34—35). Could it be that “Jesus the Nazarene” refers to Jesus in his aspect as the hidden Messiah—the one who fulfils the substance of God’s promises though not so obviously the letter, a Messiah whose identity had to be—and today still is—discovered through a process of searching, being drawn by a mystery, one necessitating wisdom but also the gift of faith? If so, the son of David had to be associated with Nazareth in order to both veil and thus truly create the framework for revealing his identity and mission. This brings me to the second question:
How is the Messiah’s Nazarene identity part of Old Testament prophecy? When we read the plain sense of much Old Testament expectation, we find a gloriously victorious Davidic king ruling from Zion over a redeemed humanity and creation (e.g. Isaiah 9; 11). But there is another strand alongside this more salient strand that paints a different picture, so mute it is hard to notice but present none-the-less. It is an image of a different kind of Messiah, one “humble” and “riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9); one who grows up unobtrusively from nowhere, isolated, and without a known lineage (Isaiah 53, especially v. 2). The prophets provide two aspects—one glorious, one ignominious—juxtaposed and without any explicit coordination. Is Jesus’ Nazarene identity the articulation of the substance of this latter aspect—the place-name which is really no-place? If so, it makes sense that Jesus should be so intimately identified with it. These two strands—the glorious and the ignominious—also appear in the New Testament where they intersect in Christ, yet here the weighting is the opposite. The path to glory is through ignominy, and hence his abiding association with Nazareth until his return as lord of another city, the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21:9ff.; cf. Revelation 3:12).
A final thought: has this situation changed as we wait for the return of the Messiah in glory, living in the present with his hiddenness? And to what degree ought we to share in his ignominy and thus his hidden power? According to Acts, the early Christians were held to belong to the “sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Are we all, in fact, citizens of this earthly city—a qualitative space associated with insignificance, misbelief, and “otherness” yet in reality containing a hidden glory?