January 18, 2010

Is Matthew 2:23 An OT/NT Contradiction?

"...and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: 'He will be called a Nazarene'" (Matt. 2:23, NIV)

Skeptics argue there is no such prophecy in the Old Testament. This is true. Is it therefore a contradiction between the Old and the New Testaments?

Here is how St. John Chrysostom answers:

"And what manner of prophet said this? Be not curious, nor over busy. For many of the prophetic writings have been lost; and this one may see from the history of the Chronicles. For being negligent, and continually falling into ungodliness, some they suffered to perish, others they themselves burnt up and cut to pieces. The latter fact Jeremiah relates (Jer. 36:23); the former, he who composed the fourth book of Kings, saying, that after a long time the book of Deuteronomy was hardly found, buried somewhere and lost. But if, when there was no barbarian there, they so betrayed their books, much more when the barbarians had overrun them. For as to the fact, that the prophet had foretold it, the apostles themselves in many places call Him a Nazarene."

This is definitely a possible answer to this alleged contradiction. But could there be another solution?

Upon closer examination it becomes evident that the passage does not say what the skeptic wants us to think it says. The “quote” actually was only the latter half of the verse. In context (which begins earlier in verse 22), here is what the passage actually says:

"But when he [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither; and being warned of God in a dream, he withdrew into the parts of Galilee, and came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, for he should be called a Nazarene."

An examination of the actual facts that come to bear on this passage reveals the following information. It is true, as various Bible commentators have noted, that nowhere in the Old Testament did any of the prophets say: “He shall be called a Nazarene”. However, while at first glance the verse might be construed to suggest that some “prophets” (the plural in the Greek text is significant) suggested that Christ “should be called a Nazarene,” further study shows that this is not the actual intent of the passage at all. In discussing the grammatical construction of the passage in the original Greek, R.C.W. Lenski (a highly-respected Greek scholar in his own right) stated:

"But the plural 'through the prophets' is important. It cannot refer to one prophet speaking for all. This plural evidently refers either to the prophetic books in general or to the entire Old Testament. It also shows that no quotation is to follow which will introduce some word that was uttered by several prophets" (1943, p. 87, emp. in orig.).

With great care, Lenski then went on to show that the structure of the Greek involved in the passage under consideration “is not...like our quotation marks, pointing to a direct quotation.” Then, after remarking on the original words, the form in which they occur, and their careful use by Matthew within the passage under consideration, Lenski noted that such construction in the Greek “shuts out not only a direct quotation but also an indirect prophetic utterance” (1943, p. 87).

What, then, is Matthew’s meaning? The text is saying simply this: Jesus lived in Nazareth not because the prophets had said that He would live in that specific city, but in order to fulfill additional specific things that the prophets had said about Him. Lenski has done an excellent job of explaining this point:

"Jesus lived in Nazareth in order to fulfill the prophets; and the evidential reason by which we ourselves can see that his living in Nazareth fulfilled the prophets, is that afterward, due to his having lived there, he was called 'the Nazarene.' We may add that even his followers were called 'Nazarenes.' Matthew writes nothing occult or difficult. A Nazarene is one who hails from Nazareth. Matthew counts on the ordinary intelligence of his readers, who will certainly know that the enemies of Jesus branded him the 'Nazarene,' that this was the name that marked his Jewish rejection and would continue to do so among the Jews. They put into it all the hate and odium possible, extending it, as stated, to his followers. And this is 'what was spoken through the prophets.' One and all told how the Jews would despise the Messiah, Ps. 22:6; Isa. 49:7; 53:3; Dan. 9:26; every prophecy of the suffering Messiah, and every reference to those who would not hear him, like Deut. 18:18. The Talmud calls Jesus Yeshu Hannotzri (the Nazarene); Jerome reports the synagogue prayer in which the Christians are cursed as Nazarenes.... Compare Acts 24:5, “sect of the Nazarene,” and Paul’s characterization. If Jesus had been reared in Jerusalem, he could not have been vilified as the Nazarene. It was God who let him grow up in Nazareth and thus furnished the title of reproach to the Jews in fulfillment of all the reproach God had prophesied for the Messiah through the prophets" (1943, pp. 88-89).

Albert Barnes made the same assessment of this passage in his commentary on Matthew when he wrote:

"Some have supposed that he refers to some prophecy which was not recorded, but handed down by tradition. But these suppositions are not satisfactory. It is much more probable that Matthew refers not to any particular place, but to the leading characteristics of the prophecies respecting him.... When Matthew says, therefore, that the prophecies were 'fulfilled,' his meaning is that the predictions of the prophets that he would be of a low and despised condition, and would be rejected, were fully accomplished in his being an inhabitant of Nazareth, and despised as such" (1972b, p. 21, emp. in orig.).


Barnes, Albert (1972b reprint), Barnes’ Notes on the Old and New Testaments: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Lenski, R.C.H. (1943), The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).