Prophecy in the NT, 4th Principle: Puns and Place Names


The name of a place in Scripture is often vital to understanding a prophecy.

But when he [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:22-23)

You’d think that the name of Yeshua’s hometown would be one of those non-confrontational subjects, but the mythicists–the tiny, tiny minority of people who want to prove that not only was Yeshua not the Son of God, but that he never existed at all!–have proven that nothing is off the table for attack. As recently as 2008, mythicist Rene Salm wrote a book titled The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus claiming that no such village ever existed. Amusingly, almost exactly a year later, the Israeli Antiques Authority (IAA) announced that

they had discovered the remains of a stone house in Nazareth, just steps from the Basilica of the Annunciation, dating back to the time of Jesus. . . as amazing as it sounds, the cluster of ecclesiastical buildings in downtown Nazareth–the basilica, Saint Gabriel’s Church, Mary’s Well–almost certainly were built directly over where the village of Nazareth lay in Jesus’ day. (Robert J. Hutchinson, Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth–and How They Confirm the Gospel Accounts (Thomas Nelson, 2015), pp. 120, 121)

Not that there wasn’t already evidence for Nazareth, despite the mythicist’s stubborn refusal to admit the facts:

The first non-Christian reference to Nazareth was discovered in 1962 on a grey marble fragment in an ancient synagogue in Caesarea Maritima on Israel’s coast. It was dated by Israeli archaeologists to around AD 300. The writing on the fragment (and another like it) mentions various towns and villages in Galilee, including Nazareth (which allowed scholars to know, for the time, how Nazareth was spelled in Hebrew, with the Hebrew letter tzadik, נצרת) (ibid., p. 119)

It’s because of this discovery that we at long last understand Matthew’s prophecy. In older commentaries, it was common to assume that Matthew’s statement that Yeshua “would be called a Nazarene” had something to do with a Nazrite vow. However, the Hebrew nazir is spelled with a zayin, not a tzadik (נזיר), so that can’t be. Rather the name Nazareth, or Netzeret, comes from netzer (נצר), meaning “branch.”

300px-full_book_of_isaiah_2006-06-06This term for “branch” appears in Isaiah 11:1, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (נצר) from his roots shall bear fruit.” A few verses later, we read that this same “root of Jesse . . . shall stand as a signal for the peoples–of him shall the nations inquire (or “seek”), and his resting place shall be glorious” (v 10).

The whole cluster of prophecies in Isaiah 7-12 is central to Matthew: He cites Isaiah 7:14 (Mat. 1:23), 9:1-2 (Mat. 4:15), and 11:2 (Mat. 3:16) and alludes to 8:15 (Mat. 21:44), 9:4 (Mat. 11:29) in addition to the allusion from Isaiah 11:1. (Other NT authors, particularly Peter and Paul, likewise repeatedly return to this section, but for now, let’s stick with Matthew.) When Matthew, reading Isaiah in the original Hebrew, comes across the prophecy of the branch from the root of Jesse, there would be an obvious connection in his mind: “The Messiah is called a netzer (branch), and here he comes from Netzeret (Branch-town)!”

The name of Yeshua’s hometown may not have been mere coincidence or Providence, as it turns out. Hutcherson notes that

There is a theory, common in some messianic Jewish circles, that both Mary and her betrothed, Joseph, were members of a Jewish sect that saw itself as descended from a “branch” of the House of David, a line that was not subject to the famous curse by the prophet Jeremiah. . . Supposedly another branch of the royal Davidic family had emerged through one of King David’s other sons, Nathan brother of King Solomon. This branch of the family, the theory goes, closely guarded its royal heritage for hundreds of years, through exile in Babylon and eventual resettlement in the land of Israel when the Judeans were permitted to return. . . The tiny, isolated community they founded, near a natural underground spring at the foot of rocky, pine-covered hills just south of the Beit Netofah Valley, was called Nazareth. (pp. 116, 117)

If it existed and Matthew was aware of it, his allusion to the connection between Yeshua’s home-town and the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah becomes even more intriguing. After all, it would make sense that this line of David would have carefully preserved the evidence of their lineage in such a way that it could be probed. However, to avoid bringing the Romans down on a potentially subversive and rebellious sect (as Rome would have seen it), he would have been careful to encode his message in a way that only those already somewhat “in the know” would have followed up on it.

Perhaps such a sect never existed, at least not in the sense of a self-organizing body, and Matthew simply saw the name of the town as Divine Providence in action. If so, the real takeaway here is that which we already alluded to in the previous post in this series: That the Holy One uses place-names as clues in prophecy, and that whenever we come to a place-name in prophecy, we would be wise to look up it’s original meaning.


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