Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Did Matthew make a mistake in writing about Jesus?

Matthew records circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ:
“But when he (Joseph) heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.’” (Matt. 2:22-23, NASB)
But, there is no such quotation in the Old Testament which predicts that “He shall be called a Nazarene”. So, did Matthew make a mistake?

Some scholars suggest that Matthew quoted a prophecy that was known in the ancient Hebrew tradition, but was not ultimately recorded in the Bible. While that may be true, a more likely possibility is that the original Greek text does not indicate a direct quotation of a previous verse as we may expect in modern English. Noted New Testament Greek scholar R.C.H. Lenski analyzed the grammatical construction and concluded that this portion of Matthew 2:23 was not intended to be a quotation of a particular verse or even an indirect quote. It may be intended to refer to the prophets in general or even the entirety of the Old Testament. So, the English translation with quotation marks does not accurately reveal the original intent of the writer.

More than one prophet?
It is very important to note a small detail – Matthew does not mention one particular prophet; rather, “prophets” plural. It appears he never intended this to be understood as a direct quotation from one specific Old Testament prophet. As Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe note, we “should not expect to find any given verse, but simply a general truth found in many prophets to correspond to his Nazarene-like character.” [1] And, Lenski wrote: “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’ … 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’”. [2]

Another possibility is that Matthew is making a play on words – not unheard of in the Bible – by indicating that Jesus, as the “branch” of Jesse prophesied in Isaiah 11:1, which states: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” Isaiah 11 is a clear reference to the Messiah. Matthew may be comparing this passage with the town of Nazareth which is derived from the Hebrew word for branch, netzer, or NZR since the Hebrews did not write vowels. This would translate to: NaZaReth. [3] So, Matthew could have been using this reference to connect Jesus of Nazareth with the branch or shoot from Isaiah’s prophesy.

It is probably not appropriate to confuse this passage in Matthew 2 with a “Nazarite”, even though the words appear similar. Requirements of the Nazarite vow are described in Numbers 6: (1) shall not drink any alcohol or anything made from grapes, (2) shall not cut hair on his head, and (3) shall not defile himself by touching a dead person. Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist are considered to have been Nazarites. There is nothing in the New Testament which indicates Jesus took this vow or was considered to be a Nazarite.

It is very unlikely that Matthew, who was so careful and precise in all of the historical details of his gospel account, would make an obvious error that any Bible scholar could easily detect. There are several possible explanations for the misunderstanding of verse 2:23. It may be due to the differences in the grammatical construction of ancient Greek and modern English. It may also be due to the Nazarene-like characteristics of the Messiah’s life, rather than a direct word-for-word quotation.

1. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1992), p. 328.
2. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1943), p. 88.
3. Matt Slick, “Did the OT prophesy Jesus coming from Nazareth?” Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, accessed 28 Dec 2014.
4. Bert Thompson, PhD, “Jesus would be called a Nazarene – N.T./O.T. contradiction?”, Apologetics Press, accessed 28 Dec 2014.