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Note of the Day – January 7

On the day after Epiphany, I will be looking at the Scripture citation which concludes the Infancy Narrative in Matthew (Matt 2:23). Of the five citations in chapters 1-2, this is perhaps the most difficult to analyze, since it is not entirely clear just what passage the author is quoting. Verses 22-23 serve as an additional climactic notice to the return from Egypt:

22but having heard that “‘Chief-of-the-People’ {Archelaus} is king against [i.e. in place of] Herod his father”, he [i.e. Joseph] was afraid to go from (where he was and return) there; but being advised (in the matter) by a dream, he made space again [i.e. turned away/aside] into the parts of Galîl {Galilee}, 23and having come (there) he put down house [i.e. dwelt] in a city counted as [i.e. called/named] Nazaret, so that the (word) uttered by the foretellers might be fulfilled that “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'”.

The quotation “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'” (Nazwrai=o$ klhqh/setai) does not correspond precisely to any specific verse in the Prophets (or the rest of the Old Testament for that matter). This being the case, there are several possibilities:

  • The author (or his source) is citing from a book or passage otherwise unknown to us today. While this is conceivable, it is not especially likely, and should be considered only as a last resort.
  • He is citing a specific (canonical) passage, but in a form quite different from any surviving (Hebrew or Greek) version. Certainly there are a number of quotations in the New Testament (even in Matthew, see Micah 5:2/Matt 2:6) where the wording departs significantly from any known version.
  • It is a free citation, combining more than one passage. Again, this is fairly common in the New Testament, and could be suggested by use of the plural “foretellers [i.e. prophets]”. The references need not be limited to the Prophetic books as we understand them, for conventionally the Psalms and Historical books could come under the general label “Prophets”.
  • The citation is taken from a compendium of ‘Messianic’ prophetic passages (drawn up by early Christians), which the author accepted, but which does not correspond to any specific Scripture. Again, this ought to be considered only as a last resort.

The third option is, I think, fairly close to the mark. The Gospel writer (or an earlier source) has taken a particular verse (probably Isaiah 4:3) and, it would seem, adapted it by means of some subtle and clever wordplay. The argument would run as follows:

1. Isaiah 4:3—an oracle of hope and restoration begins with verses 2-3:

2In that day, the sprout [jm^x#] of YHWH (springing up) will be for beauty and for weight [i.e. glory], and the fruit of the earth will be for exaltation and for splendor, for the escapees of Yi´ra°el {Israel}. 3And it will be (that of) the (one) remaining in ‚iyyôn {Zion} and the one left over in Yerûšalaim {Jerusalem} it will be said “set-apart [vodq* i.e. holy]” for him, every (one) th(at) has been inscribed for (the) “living” (ones) in Yerûšalaim.
[In that day, the sprout of YHWH will be for beauty and glory, and the fruit of the land will be for pride and splendor for the survivors of Israel. And it will be that he who remains in Zion and he who is left in Jerusalem will be called holy, every one who has been inscribed for life in Jerusalem]

2. “Holy” (vodq* and a%gio$)—The key phrase is ol rm#a*y@ vodq* (“‘Holy’ it will be said for him”). In Greek, vodq* would normally be translated by a%gio$; the Septuagint (LXX) of Isa 4:3b uses the plural a%gioi klhqh/sontai (“they will be called ‘holy'”), but a literal rendering of the Hebrew (MT) might be a%gio$ klhqh/setai (“he will be called ‘holy’). Compare this with the citation in Matthew Nazwrai=o$ klhqh/setai (“he will be called a ‘Nazarean'”).

3. ryz]n` (n¹zîr)—The Greek a%gio$ is also used to translate Hebrew ryz]n` (n¹zîr “[one] dedicated/set-apart”). The Hebrew word is often transliterated in English (as a technical term) “Nazirite”—that is, one dedicated or set apart [rzn] to God by a vow [related word rdn]. The legal prescription and details of the Nazirite vow are recorded in Numbers 6:1-21; it could be temporary or a lifetime vow, and most notably involves abstinence from drinking and shaving. The most famous Nazirites in the Old Testament are Samuel (1 Sam 1:11) and Samson (Judg 13:4-14), so dedicated from birth; according the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:15), John the Baptist also seems to have been a Nazirite (from birth). The Greek phrase a%gio$ klhqh/setai could be given an interpretive translation back into Hebrew as “he will be called a holy (one) [n¹zîr]”.

4. ryz]n` and Naziraio$ (Naziraios)—Hebrew ryz]n` (n¹zîr) could also be transliterated in Greek, as in English, by Naziraio$ (Naziraios) or Nazir (Nazir). For instances of the former, especially, in LXX see Judges 13:5, 7; 16:17 (A); Lam 4:7;  also 1 Macc 3:49. The example from Judg 13:5, 7 is particularly noteworthy, as it is part of an angelic announcement related to the birth of Samson; the LXX (A) reads in part: o%ti h(giasme/non nazirai=on e&stai tw=| qew=| to paida/rion e)k th=$ gastro/$ (“for the child will be considered holy [i.e. set apart] as a Nazirite to God out of the womb”). In the context of Matt 2:23, “he will be called a holy (one) [n¹zîr]” could have been rendered into Greek as Nazirai=o$ klhqh/setai (“he will be called a Nazirite”).

5. Naziraio$ and Nazwraio$ (Nazœraios)—The Greek Nazirai=o$ is quite close to Nazwrai=o$ (difference of a single vowel), and the latter is attested as a variant reading of the former. Nazwrai=o$ occurs elsewhere a dozen times in the New Testament: eleven times (Matt 26:71; Luke 18:37; John 18:5, 7, etc) as a designation for Jesus (“the Nazorean”), and once (Acts 4:5) referring to Christians as the ‘sect’ of the “Nazoreans”. It is generally assumed that this designation ultimately refers to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth (and as such is equivalent to Nazarhno/$ cf. Mark 1:24; 10:47, etc). However, this remains a disputed question among scholars and experts in Semitics, related to the technical issue of the original or ‘correct’ form of “Nazareth”. In any case, it is clear that the Gospel writer draws the connection between Nazwrai=o$ and Nazareth.

The wordplay suggested above would require that the author be familiar with the Scriptures in both Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic, and be capable of moving freely between the two. However, to some extent this seems to have been the case in Palestine-Syria at the time of the New Testament. Early (Jewish) Christians such as Paul clearly had this facility; the same may be said of a Palestinian Christian such as James the Just (particularly if the epistle [of James] and the interpretive citation in Acts 15:15ff come from him verbatim).

Scholars have also drawn a connection between Nazwrai=o$ and the Hebrew rx#n@ (n¢ƒer) “[new] shoot, sprout” (also rendered “root”, “branch”), a word partly synonymous with jm^x# (see in Isa 4:3 above). Now rx#n@ came to be a designation for the Messiah, largely due to Isaiah 11:1ff, which begins: “and a (small) branch will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a (new) shoot [rx#n@] will grow [lit. bear fruit] from his roots; and the spirit of YHWH will rest upon him…”. Isaiah 11:1ff was one of several key Messianic passages current in Jewish literature at the time the New Testament was written—see especially the Qumran texts 4QpIsaa, 4Q252, 4Q285, 1QSb 5; cf. also Psalms of Solomon 17-18, Testament of Levi 18, and 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 13. The shoot/branch of Isa 11:1 was closely identified with the expression “branch [jm^x#] of David” (see esp. Jer 23:5-6; Zech 3:8), a key Messianic designation. It is an intriguing parallel, but it is hard to say whether (or to what extent) the Gospel writer may have had this in mind.

For a good discussion related to many of the points above, along with additional critical detail, see R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library (1977, 1993), pp. 207-213, 223-225.

There are number of famous (and fanciful) traditions regarding the flight of the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and the child Jesus) into Egypt, which are recorded in ‘apocryphal’ Gospels such as the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy and the Gospel of ‘Pseudo-Matthew’. Two stories are particularly striking:
(1) On the journey through the desert, the family was tired and had run out of water. Mary, exhausted from the heat and travel, took shade under a palm tree. The infant Jesus commanded the palm tree to bend itself down and allow Mary to reach its fruit and take refreshment (Pseudo-Matthew §20).
(2) As they passed through a major city (in the region of Hermopolis), the many idols standing in the great temple there all fell to the ground and were shattered (Pseudo-Matthew §22-24, Arabic Infancy Gospel §10).
Pilgrimage sites associated with the journey of the Holy Family can be found along a stretch of some 200+ miles, from Cairo (Abu Serga) down to el-Qusiya (Deir el-Muharraq).

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