Born in Bethlehem, Called a Nazarene?

One of the most secure facts about Jesus from New Testament is that he was “from Nazareth in Galilee.”  If he was  the Messiah, son of David, why was he not “from Bethlehem?”  As the readers of Matthew and Luke, we know he was born in Bethlehem and some of the reasons why he did not stay there.  But as with everything in the story of Jesus’ birth, there is more to the story.

Mary and Joseph with Jesus in BethlehemPolitical and economic issues in first century Palestine are the main reasons that Joseph moves from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Just like laborers today, You go where there is work!  Sepphoris and Tiberias, two large cities near Nazareth, had need for stone cutters and other craftsmen.  Joseph went to Nazareth there because there was work in the area. Bethlehem was a minor town which probably supplied sheep for the Temple.  Perhaps after the census there was simply no way for Joseph to support his growing family so he planned to return to Nazareth where there was family and work.

Matthew has a more theological explanation.  He quotes the prophet Hosea: out of Egypt I called my son, he is a Nazarene. Only in Matthew we are told that Herod intended to kill baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem in an attempt to stop the Messiah from taking his throne.  This “slaughter of the innocent” is analogous to killing newborns in Egypt in the book of Exodus.  This leads to the “flight to Egypt,” although we are not told how long they remain in Egypt before returning to Galilee.

This fulfills the word of the Lord through Hosea, according to Matthew 2:14-15. While this does not seem like an appropriate use of the verse, the idea in Hosea is that Israel is God’s child who has taken refuge in Egypt, and after a period of time in Egypt he would be recalled back into the land of promise.  Hosea is looking back at the story of the Exodus, where Israel was in Egypt for their protection and are called out of Egypt in order to enter the land.

Jesus is, in a very real sense, the Son of God. In another sense, Jesus is re-enacting the experience of Israel by fleeing from the land to Egypt and returning again at the direction of God. There are a number of parallels to the experience of Israel in the gospels, for example, he too will be tempted in the wilderness; on the cross Jesus takes the curse of the law on himself and pays for the nations rebellion himself.

That the family should settle in Nazareth fulfills another scripture for Matthew (2:21-23). This is a bit more problematic since there is no specific text which says that the messiah should be called a Nazarite, or as the NIV translates, a Nazorean.  Nazareth was another extremely small, insignificant village, so it is unlikely that a Hebrew prophet would have predicted that he would come from this town, especially since the messiah was to come from the town of David. It is possible that the phrase does not mean that he would come from the town of Nazareth, but rather that he would be a Nazarite, someone who has taken a Nazarite vow. But again, no scripture really says that the messiah would have taken a Nazarite vow.

Another possibility is that the line in Matthew refers to Isaiah 11:1, which says that the messiah will be a “root from the stump of Jesse,” or a branch. The Hebrew word for root / branch is nezer, and Matthew is making a play-on-words with the name of the town (although these are two different words).

Another possibility is that Nazarene was slang for a person from a remote place (Blomberg, Matthew, NAC, 69 suggests this).  Perhaps it is like saying that someone is from “Hickville.”  Most regions have an “other side of the tracks,” Nazareth was proverbially on the wrong side.

Whatever the reason he was called a Nazarene, the title points to humble origins.  As with his birth in Bethlehem, Jesus’ time in Nazareth is an indication that God will do great things through the Messiah who is hidden, who is small and insignificant at first (Matt 13:31-33).

8 thoughts on “Born in Bethlehem, Called a Nazarene?

  1. I first had encountered the idea of the killing of infants in the Birth narrative being “analogous to killing newborns in Egypt in the book of Exodus” this morning when I was watching a Documentary on how Christianity is false. This thought was used to defend the position that the story of Jesus of Nazareth in Mark (and the following Gospel accounts) was entirely a story of analogy and metaphor.

    This post simply reminded me of that moment, sitting in my living room, when I thought about the great schism in thought between the ‘Christian’ and the those that find the Bible to be poor in regard to historicity. The same truths that cause me to worship our sovereign Lord Jesus are often the same ideas that cause others to reject the Bible because it works too well as a single narrative. The great ideological divide is not as black and white as it always appears. It is, likely more often than I realize, a matter of perspective more so than interpretation.

    I appreciate the great amount of work that you put into these posts, Dr. Long. Or perhaps you are so good at this point that you can push these out before your first pot of coffee.

  2. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that is true. However, Jesus is commonly referred to as a Nazarene. As stated in Luke 2:39, Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned to Nazareth. Jesus was not born there, making him not a Nazarene. They simply returned to Nazareth looking for work. Just like today, there was always bills to pay. Being in Nazareth, many had said that prophecy had been fulfilled, (Strauss, 264). What these prophecies fail to mention is that he was actually born in Bethlehem and merely grew up in Nazareth. These prophecy fulfillments try to justify the false claims that Jesus is a Nazarene when in reality he was born in Bethlehem.

  3. In the gospel stories, it is evident that Jesus was in fact born in Bethlehem, but he was also raised in Nazareth. In this post, you mentioned that a Nazarite is someone who takes a vow (para. 6), even though there is no Scripture mentioning that the Messiah ever took the Nazarite vow. While being born in Bethlehem was significant, Jesus was in fact raised in Nazareth (Luke 2:4-7), giving him the inherited title as a Nazarene. In the world today, citizenship is inherited by birth or earned through assessments. While during this time, the Nazarite vow could have been compared to citizenship tests today, I don’t think that it was necessary during the time of Christ. I think that Jesus was accurately both a citizen of Bethlehem and Nazareth until proven otherwise.

  4. One thought I have about Jesus being born in Bethlehem but being called a Nazarene comes from my own life. I was born at Covenant Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan, but I in no shape or form claim to be from Saginaw. I grew up, lived, and still do in Millington, Michigan, about 30 minutes south. So even though I was born in Saginaw and spent a part of my life there, I claim to be from Millington. Like it was stated, Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy (Strauss, 350), but that does not mean that Jesus will feel more then sort of attached to the town compared to Nazareth.

  5. Today, in a literal context we would interpret “From Nazareth” to imply that’s where Jesus spent his formative years, and most his life. We know however, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem though and moved to Nazareth quickly after his birth. In this case I would think that Jesus was in fact from Nazareth, and not from Bethlehem, as Jesus did not spend any important years of his life there, Bethlehem did nothing to influence who Jesus was or would become. However, outside of our modern bias, people were known only by where they were originally from, where we were they born, it was much more important than it is today. So as stated in this post, the phrase “from Nazareth to Galilee” likely is indicative of more than just the moving of Jesus from one place to another in a literal sense. The reputation of Jesus hailing from Nazareth likely comes with cultural baggage and is saying something more about Jesus than simply where he came from. I think that Jesus being called Nazarene is intended with outside meanings or comes with meanings lost in the years. It’s also just possible I think that Jessu just claimed Nazareth to be his home, and meant nothing more by it, and people just in turn referred to him as hailing from Nazareth. I think there are many explanations for Jesus to be called a Nazarene.

  6. I really like this blog post because there are a lot of instances where people claim they are from somewhere just because they are born there, when in most cases a person is from where they were raised and brought up in life. In this case it is important to understand that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, however had to move for certain political and biblical reasons. “Jesus’ time in Nazareth is an indication that God will do great things through the Messiah who is hidden, who is small and insignificant at first” (Matt 13:31-33). I really like this verse because it shows that God knows the answers to literally everything and He is always prepared. He knows that Herod is insecure about his position and fears being overthrown, thus he goes to murder all children under two years of age. Joseph catches wind of this and flees the city, which God already knew was going to happen, hence the reason Jesus is the “Messiah that is hidden”. On a more economic level Joseph moves to Nazareth in search of work, finding a job as a carpenter to feed the mouths of his growing family. This is important because it is a very humble change for Joseph and his family; however, Jesus will be molded into a humble servant of God that is hidden away from corrupt authority. The humble side of this blog post is what resonated with me the most for P.Long mentions “He too will be tempted in the wilderness; on the cross Jesus takes the curse of the law on himself and pays for the nation’s rebellion himself” (P.Long). This is in regard to why Jesus died for all of mankind’s sins which fulfills the prophecy that Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah that will cleanse mankind’s sins forever.

  7. When reading chapter 14 we read that Jesus was born in Bethlehem but was then brought out to be raised in Nazareth. In Long’s blog post he states the fact from the New Testament which is that Jesus was “From Nazareth in Galilee.” I agree though as readers and followers of Christ we know that from Matthew and Luke, he was born in Bethlehem. There are also reasons and facts as to why he didn’t stay there. Just like now, a lot of people are born somewhere that isn’t so good for them, so they move. Where is that issue coming from? There are so many political and economical issues that go around, so it makes an argument somewhat irritating. Matthew does go on to state theological points. In Bethlehem, Herod wanted to kill baby boys under the age of two. This was an attempt to stop the Messiah from taking his throne. I love how Long ended his blog post by saying no matter what the reason he is called a Nazarene, the title points to humble origins. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and time in Nazareth indicates that God will do great things through the hidden Messiah. He starts off as a small insignificance but in all reality his purpose was given to him at birth.

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