The Return to Nazareth
But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise and take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” And he arose and took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he departed for the regions of Galilee, and came and resided in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (2:19–23)
The fourth and final prophecy that Matthew mentions in chapter 2 pertains to the journey of Jesus’ family from Egypt to Nazareth.
When Herod was dead, the greatest immediate danger to Jesus was over. In his Antiquities Josephus reports that Herod “died of this, ulcerated entrails, putrified and maggot-filled organs, constant convulsions, foul breath, and neither physicians nor warm baths led to recovery.” A rather fitting end, it seems, for such a man. Not nearly so fitting was the elaborate and costly funeral that his eldest son and successor, Archelaus, prepared in his honor—especially in light of the fact that just five days before he died, Herod, by permission from Rome, had executed another son, Antipater, because of his plots against his father.
The angel of the Lord had told Joseph to stay in Egypt “until I tell you” (2:13). Now the angel reappeared to Joseph as promised, telling him, Arise and take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead. The fact that the angel spoke of those who sought the Child’s life indicates that Herod was not alone in his plans to destroy his supposed rival. But like Herod, the other conspirators seeking the death of the Child were themselves now dead.
Joseph was not instructed to return to any particular city or region but simply to take the Child and His mother back into the land of Israel. When he arrived in southern Israel, however, and heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. The ones who had previously sought to kill the infant Jesus were dead, but Archelaus posed another, more general, threat. In one of his numerous acts of brutality shortly before he died, Herod had executed two popular Jewish rabbis, Judas and Matthias, who had stirred up their disciples and other faithful Jews in Jerusalem to tear down the offensive Roman eagle that the king had arrogantly erected over the Temple gate. The following Passover an insurrection broke out, and Archelaus, reflecting his father’s senseless cruelty, executed three thousand Jews, many of whom were Passover pilgrims who had no part in the revolt.
Any Jew, therefore, who lived in the territory of Archelaus was in danger. Consequently Joseph was again warned by God in a dream, [and] he departed for the regions of Galilee. That they came and resided in a city called Nazareth was not only because Joseph and Mary were originally from there (Luke 2:4–5) by divine providence, but that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled. Matthew focuses on two features through all of this narrative: (1) divine revelation as indicated by angelic instruction for every move, and (2) the fulfillment of a divine plan revealed in the Old Testament.
The specific statement that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene does not appear in the Old Testament. Some interpreters have tried to connect Nazarene with the Hebrew nēser (branch) spoken of in Isaiah 11:1, but that idea is without etymological or other support, as is the idea of trying to tie the prophecy to the “shoot” of Isaiah 53:2. Because Matthew speaks of the prophets, plural, it seems that several prophets had made this prediction, though it is not specifically recorded in the Old Testament.
Other sayings and events unrecorded in the Old Testament are nevertheless quoted or referred to in the New. Jude tells us that “Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way’ ” (Jude 14–15). Yet no such prophecy is mentioned in Genesis or in any other part of the Old Testament. In a similar way we know of Jesus’ teaching that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” only because of Paul’s later reference to it (Acts 20:35). The saying is not mentioned by any of the gospel writers, including Luke, who reported the account in Acts. John tells us that he did not even attempt to record everything that Jesus said and did during His earthly ministry (John 21:25).
Matthew does not tell us which prophets predicted that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene, but only that more than one of them did so. The prophecy is said to be fulfilled when Jesus was taken to live in Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary had formerly lived. Matthew’s original readers were largely Jewish, and it was probably common knowledge among them who the specific prophets were that had made the prediction. For later readers, the Holy Spirit obviously felt it was enough that we simply know that the prediction was made and that it was fulfilled as Matthew explains.
Nazareth was about 55 miles north of Jerusalem, in the regions of Galilee, where the Lord had directed Joseph to go. The town was in an elevated basin, about one and a half miles across, and was inhabited largely by people noted for their crude and violent ways. The term Nazarene had long been a term of derision, used to describe any person who was rough and rude. That is why Nathanael, who was from Cana, a few miles to the south, asked Philip, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). The question is especially significant coming from Nathanael, who by Jesus’ own word was “an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (v. 47). Nathanael was not given to maligning his neighbors, but he was shocked that the one “of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote” (v. 45) actually could come from such a disreputable place as Nazareth.
The early Jewish persecutors of the church apparently considered Jesus’ being from Nazareth as evidence that He could not be the Messiah, rather than, as Matthew tells us, a sign that He was. Tertullus, acting as attorney for the high priest Ananias and other Jewish leaders, spoke derisively of Paul before the Roman governor Felix as “a real pest and a fellow who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). The church Father Jerome wrote that in synagogue prayers Christians were often cursed as Nazarenes, with the petition that they would be blotted out of the Book of Life (see Ps. 69:28). Jesus’ living in Nazareth not only fulfilled the unnamed prophets’ prediction, but gave Him a name, Jesus the Nazarene, that would be used as a title of reproach, thus fulfilling many other prophecies that depict the Messiah as “despised and forsaken of men” (Isa. 53:3; cf. 49:7; Ps. 22:6–8; 69:20–21). The gospel writers make clear the fact that He was scorned and hated (see Matt. 12:24; 27:21–23, 63; Luke 23:4; John 5:18; 6:66; 9:22, 29).
It was therefore at lowly and despised Nazareth that the royal Son of God, along with the righteous Joseph and Mary, made His home for some thirty years.
23 The town Joseph chose was Nazareth, which, according to Luke 1:26–27; 2:39, was his former home and that of Mary (cf. 13:53–58). This final quotation formula, like that of v. 15, should probably be construed as telic: this took place “in order to fulfill.” But the formula is unique in two respects: only here does Matthew use the plural “prophets,” and only here does he omit the Greek equivalent of “saying” and replace it with the conjunction hoti, which can introduce a direct quotation (NIV) but more probably should be rendered “that,” making the quotation indirect: “in order to fulfill what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene” (cf. W. Barnes Tatum Jr., “Matthew 2:23,” BT 27 : 135–37). This suggests that Matthew had no specific OT quotation in mind; indeed, these words are found nowhere in the OT.
The interpretation of this verse has such a long history (for older works, cf. Broadus; for recent studies, cf. Gundry, Use of the Old Testament, 97–104; Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 207–13) that it is not possible to list here all the major options. We may exclude those that see some wordplay connection with an OT Hebrew word but have no obvious connection with Nazareth. This eliminates the popular interpretation that makes Jesus a Nazirite or second Samson (cf. esp. Jdg 13:5, 7; 16:17, where LXX has Naziraios as opposed to Matthew’s Nazōraios; cf. Lk 1:15). Defenders include Calvin, Loisy, Schweizer, and Ernst Zuckschwerdt (“Nazōraios in Matth. 2:23,” TZ 31 : 65–77). Also to be eliminated are interpretations that try to find in Matthew’s term a reference to some kind of pre-Christian sect. The evidence for this is feeble (cf. Soares-Prabhu, Formula Quotations, 197–201) and the connection with Nazareth merely verbal. E. Earle Ellis (“How the New Testament Uses the Old,” in New Testament Interpretation [ed. Marshall], 202) sees a pun here as an “implicit midrash,” but significantly he then has to put the word “fulfillment” in quotation marks.
Matthew certainly used Nazōraios as an adjectival form of apo Nazaret (“from Nazareth” or “Nazarene”), even though the more acceptable adjective is Nazarēnos (cf. Bonnard; Albright and Mann; Soares-Prabhu). Possibly Nazōraios derives from a Galilean Aramaic form. Nazareth was a despised place (Jn 7:42, 52), even to other Galileans (cf. Jn 1:46). Here Jesus grew up, not as “Jesus the Bethlehemite,” with its Davidic overtones, but as “Jesus the Nazarene,” with all the opprobrium of the sneer. When Christians were referred to in Acts as the “Nazarene sect” (24:5), the expression was meant to hurt. First-century Christian readers of Matthew, who had tasted their share of scorn, would have quickly caught Matthew’s point. He is not saying that a particular OT prophet foretold that the Messiah would live in Nazareth; he is saying that the OT prophets foretold that the Messiah would be despised (cf. Pss 22:6–8, 13; 69:8, 20–21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2–3, 8; Da 9:26). The theme is repeatedly picked up by Matthew (e.g., 8:20; 11:16–19; 15:7–8; see Turner). In other words Matthew gives us the substance of several OT passages, not a direct quotation (so also Ezr 9:10–12; cf. Str-B, 1:92–93).
It is possible that at the same time there is a discreet allusion to the nēṣer (“branch”) of Isaiah 11:1, which received a messianic interpretation in the Targums, rabbinic literature, and Dead Sea Scrolls (cf. Gundry, Use of the Old Testament, 104), for here, too, it is affirmed that David’s son would emerge from humble obscurity and low state. Jesus is King Messiah, Son of God, Son of David; but he was a branch from a royal line hacked down to a stump and reared in surroundings guaranteed to win him scorn. Jesus the Messiah, Matthew is telling us, did not introduce his kingdom with outward show or present himself with the pomp of an earthly monarch. In accord with prophecy, he came as the despised Servant of the Lord.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 46–48). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 124–126). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.