NEW TESTAMENT CRITICAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Part V (con’t)
Verses 21-23: “So Joseph took the child and His mother and went to Israel. But he heard that Archelaus was now king in Judea. Archelaus became king when his father Herod the Great died. So Joseph was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he returned to the area of Galilee. He went to the town of Nazareth and lived there. This helped people better understand what God was saying through the prophets. God said the Messiah would be called a Nazarene.”
This is one clue as to the dating of the current calendar, in that Herod Archelaus assumed the throne in 4 BC and lasted until 6 AD. Since he was the one who orchestrated the murder of the innocent in Bethlehem, that would make Jesus six years old, based on the Gregorian calendar. Since Jesus was approximately two when He was taken into Egypt, it’s hard to believe He lived there for four years. In any case, it gives us a clue as to the true age of Jesus. Since it was often normal procedure for any new king to take a census in order to determine his bases for taxation, and it was just such an ordered census that caused Joseph to go to Bethlehem, then our Lord may have been born closer to 4 BC than 1 AD.
This would also mean that instead of our Master being crucified on the cross at age thirty-three, it may have been closer to thirty-seven. But since He is from everlasting to everlasting, that counts for very little. Hearing that Herod Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, was dead may have brought a sense of relief to Joseph down in Egypt, but finding out that his son Herod Antipas had taken over, did not bring him much joy. Josephus tells us that Archelaus was not much better than his father. But it was not an easy ride for Antipas because a revolt broke out shortly after he took the throne.
Matthew leaves no doubt that Joseph left Egypt and went to Galilee. So returning to Bethlehem in Judea was out of the question. Since we are told in Luke that Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth when the angel Gabriel visited her, it would seem only natural that this would be Joseph’s choice. No doubt his house was still there as well as his carpentry business. Again, Matthew was a stickler for finding prophecies that pointed out specific aspects of the Messiah’s life and destiny. But there is much speculation as to which prophet Matthew was referring to who, that made any statement which could be construed as pertaining to Jesus being likened to a Nazarene. Some scholars believe that it is a play on words taken from Isaiah where the Hebrew word is ne’tser (branch), from which the word Nazarene comes, is found.1
Another theory is that it is based on a messianic reference that states: “he grew up before him like a tender shoot.”2 The Hebrew word for “shoot” is nasir, more similar to the word nazarene than nazirite. However, a Jewish translator believes that it is simply the wording that is misleading. It should read, “and settled in a town called Natzeret, so that what had been spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he will be called a Natzrati.”3 Therefore, the idea that Jesus would fulfill the vow of a Nazarene was unlikely.4
After all, Matthew used the plural “prophets” in identifying the source of the quote. This would allow for taking a little here and a little there and putting it together. It is important to notice that Matthew did not say, “This is what God said,” but rather, “this is what God was saying” through the prophets. In other words, it was not a concrete statement but a general concept that he found throughout the writings of the prophets.
Another theory suggests that being called a “Nazarene” was intended as an insult. In other words, it was a derogatory reference to anyone born or raised in that small hamlet. The word is used precisely that way in the Gospel of John.5 With that being said, Jesus was certainly known and referred to often as Jesus of Nazareth. When Joseph arrived in Nazareth of Galilee, Herod Antipas, another of Herod’s sons, was tetrarch or governor. He was a milder person, and not so cruel and tyrannical as his brother Archelaus: besides, Galilee was an obscure place, where, Joseph might reasonably think, he should live with Mary and Jesus unobserved, and free from danger. While Joseph was certainly part of the action that led to them winding up in Nazareth, there is no doubt that it was all orchestrated by God to accomplish what had been foretold by the prophets, of which Matthew quoted Isaiah.6
In one Jewish Targum, the verse reads this way: “And a King will come out from the sons of Jesse, and from his children’s children the Messiah will be anointed.”7 Another Targum from the Aramaic text renders it: “And the staff merges from the trunk of Isaac,8 and the nugget branches out from its root; and there shall rest and settle upon him the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Wisdom and Knowledge, the Spirit of Providence and Greatness, the Spirit of Understanding and Submission to YaHWeH.9”10 Another rendering reads: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.”11 In Jonathan ben Uzziel’s Targum it reads: “And a King will rise from the sons of Jesse, and from his children’s children the Messiah shall be anointed.12 So there was no doubt in the Jewish scholar’s mind that this prophecy pertained to the coming Messiah.
As far as Matthew was concerned, this prophecy was now fulfilled in Yeshua; since He was descended from Jesse’s family. Furthermore, by Him living in Nazareth, he would appear to be, and would be “called a Nazarene, or Netzer, the branch”; being an inhabitant of Natzareth, or Netzer, so called from the multitude of plants and trees that grew there. To better understand the term “Nazarene,” we turn to a Rabbi from a celebrated family which traced their origin to those Jews who were led into captivity after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus and Vespasian. He received his first instruction from his father, who was a very eminent and literary man, and who initiated him in all the cycle of Biblical and Talmudic lore. He offers the etymology and definition of Nazareth. This book is hard to find, so I’ve included his whole article at the end of this chapter.
Also, we find an interesting dialogue between two rabbis that apply “Nazareth” to Jesus. This was not lost on the Jewish Rabbis at the time. In their Talmud we have a narration that gives us some insight. It seems that Rabbi Eliezer was arrested because he was under suspicion of having converted to Christianity. It was at a time in the year 109 AD when Trajan was emperor, and another Rabbi named Eliezer ben Hyrcanus had also been arrested under suspicion of becoming a follower of Yeshua. When he appeared before the tribunal, the judge said to him, “How can a wise man like you occupy himself with those meaningless tales?’ He replied, ‘I acknowledge the Judge as right.’ The governor thought that he referred to him — though he really referred to his Father in Heaven — and said, ‘Because you have acknowledged that I am right, I pardon you; you are acquitted.’ When he came home, his disciples visited him to console him, but he would accept no consolation.”13 His disciples believed this was due to the fact that he was grieved over being suspected of apostasy. Then one Rabbi said to him, “Master, will you permit me to say one thing of what you have taught me?” He replied, “Say it.” “Master,” said he, “perhaps some of the teaching of this deceiver that has been transmitted to you and you approved of it and because of that you were arrested?” He exclaimed: “You have reminded me.” I was once walking in the upper-market of Sepphoris when I came across one of the disciples of Yeshua the Nazarene, his name was Jacob of Kefar-Sekanaiah [Scholars believe this was James the son of Alphaeus,14 or James the Little,15 who said to me: It is written in your Torah, You will not hire and bring a harlot . . . into the house of the Lord your God.16 Can such money be applied to building a place of rest for the High Priest? [Who spent the whole night preceding the Day of Atonement in the precincts of the Temple, where due provision had to provide for all his conveniences]. To which I made no reply. Said he to me: That is what I was taught by Yeshua the Nazarene. For of the hire of a harlot she has gathered them and to the hire of a harlot they will return. They came from a place of filth, let them go to a place of filth. Those words pleased me very much, and that is why I was arrested for apostasy; in so doing I transgressed the scripture that says: Distance yourself far from her – which refers to the deceiver – and do not come near to the door of her house, – which refers to the ruling power.”17
Whether or not this quote is actually from Jesus, or it is a paraphrase of what this disciple heard, it does provide evidence that the Rabbis in Galilee knew of Him and His followers. Also, the key to understanding this saying is in the last line, where it mentions that the term “harlot” is a metaphor for the Jewish Sanhedrin and leading priests and Rabbis. Also, often when Jewish Rabbis wrote their opinions that were then included in the Talmuds, they often used code words so that only those with inside information could understand who they were referring to. In the Talmud we read this paragraph: “There is no separating: that means, may our group not be like that of David from which resulted in the rise of Ahithophel. And no separation: that means, may our group not be like that of Saul from which Doeg the Edomite rose to prominence. And no outcry: may our group not be like that of Elisha, from which Gehazi disconnected. Where our membership is the highest: may we produce no son or pupil who disgraces himself in public.”18 Here is the key to understanding this. Ahithophel became a byword for someone who causes a division among the supporters of the King. And when someone was referred to as a Doeg, it meant they were up to no good. Of course Gehazi became an outcast as a leper and was supposed to cry “unclean, unclean” to anyone who approached him. Likewise, the son or pupil who disgraces himself was a metaphor for someone who accepted heretical teachings, and should identify themselves as such. And finally, “in public” meant such a person should not be recognized as a valid member belonging to the Rabbi or priestly class, making a public spectacle of themselves. We are told that in the Munich Codex of one Talmud it reads: “like the Nazarene.” This of course could only mean Yeshua of Nazareth.
Also, a well-known traveler during the Middle Ages made this note about a visit to Rome: “Rome is about twenty-four miles in circumference. In the middle there are eighty palaces belonging to eighty kings who lived there, each called Emperor, commencing with King Tarquinius down to Nero and Tiberius, who lived at the time of Yeshua the Nazarene, ending with Pepin, who freed the people of Sepharad19 from Islam, and was the father of Charlemagne.”20 For all the parsing of words and twisting of meanings done by the Jews to discredit Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, a Dutch Christian scholar of Hebrew, stated that these Jewish scholars used their own fill-in-the-blanks, when they assert that the words of Moses, and the prophets, should not be taken verbatim, but by what they meant to say. Unfortunately, we find some Christian scholars are doing the same thing today with the words of Christ.21 Here is the article on Nazareth I mentioned earlier:
NAZARETH, a town of Galilee, about an hour’s walk to the southeast from Sepphoris, chiefly celebrated as the residence of our Lord’s parents, and the home of his youth.22 It is a singular fact that the first mention of this town is in connection with the advent of the Messiah. The name occurs nowhere in the O.T., nor in documents before the birth of Christ, nor is it found used by any classic author. The name Nazareth demands the attention of the Biblical scholar on account of the statement of the evangelist Matthew, ‘And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.’23 This passage is confessedly difficult, and has formed the basis of determined attacks upon the inspiration of Scripture from the earliest ages. Various interpretations have been given. The words here cited are not found in any part of the sacred Scriptures. Some say that by the ‘prophets’ are meant, not the authors of the O.T., but a lower grade of prophetic interpreters, who deduced this meaning from their words. Others affirm that Matthew refers to some traditional saying, and not to any written text. Others, again, state that some portions of the canonical Scriptures have perished, and this passage among them. These explanations will not satisfy the critical scholar. The phrase used here and else where in the gospels, as a proper name, to denote one of the three great sections into which the Jews divided the O.T.;24 but the very generality of the reference is enough to show that this is no citation from any one of the sacred writers, but a summary of the symbolic or spiritual meaning of several. It ought to be remembered that the allusions to the Messiah in the O.T. are of three kinds, directly prophetical, typical, and symbolical. We are justified, therefore, as Bishop Ellicott says, in assigning to the word Messiah all the meanings legitimately belonging to it, by derivation or otherwise, which are concurrent with the declarations of the prophets in reference to our Lord. We may therefore trace this prophetic declaration, (a) principally and primarily, in all the passages which refer to the Messiah under the title of the Branch (Netser), of the root of Jesse;25 (b) in the references to the circumstances of lowliness and obscurity under which that growth was to take place;26 and perhaps further (c) in the prophetic notices of a contempt and rejection such as seems to have been the common and, as it would seem in many respects, deserved portion of the inhabitant of rude and ill-reputed Nazareth. The whole history of Nazareth clusters round one event, known throughout the Christian world as the “Annunciation.” Before that event its name was unknown ; but since, it has become a household word throughout Christendom, linked in holy alliance with Bethlehem and Jerusalem. From this event comes all its traditional glory. Splendid structures have been built to commemorate it. Thousands of pilgrimages have been made in honor of it. But to the thoughtful Christian, Nazareth – the home of Christ’s boyhood, the scene of his domestic relations, his private life, his mental development, his prayers and communion with the Father, his early labors – possesses a far greater charm, a far more intense interest, than the miraculous event of the Annunciation could ever of itself have conferred. Yet there is little said about Nazareth in the gospels ; and the references to its site and features are only incidental. They are worthy of note, however. ‘The angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin . . . and the virgin’s name was Mary.’27 From Galilee, out of Nazareth,’ Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be taxed.28 After the return of the holy family from Egypt, they returned into Galilee, to their own city29 Nazareth.’ After the visit to the temple at the age of twelve, Jesus went down with his parents to Nazareth, and was subject unto them.’30 When entering on his public life, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.’31 Nazareth was now no longer his home. Yet he returned to it. He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.’32 The reception he encountered, clearly shows the general character of the Nazarenes, and that there was some foundation for Nathanael’s question, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ His fellow-townsmen not only rejected him, they sought to murder him; then he left Nazareth, and took up his residence in Capernaum, which was henceforth called his own city.’33 Again he visited his native town, and taught in the synagogue with such clearness and power that all were astonished. Still they said in derision, Is not this the carpenter’s son? . . . how then, can this man be all these things? And they were offended by him.’34 We hear no more of Nazareth in sacred history, and its traditional history is not worth recording. It attracted no notice till the establishment of Christianity in the time of Constantine; nor does it seem to have been visited by a single pilgrim till about the 6th century. In the 7th century it contained two churches—one built over the fountain; the other over the house of Mary, now occupied by the Latin convent. During the Crusades, its great church was rebuilt and richly endowed, and the town was made the seat of a bishop.35
As far as the text of Matthew’s Gospel is concerned, Jesus and His parents are now in the village where He will grow up as He prepares Himself for the ministry to come. Some have often wondered why the Gospel writers did not spend more time sharing His childhood with us. Perhaps we are curious as to what Jesus was like as a boy. Did Joseph teach him the skills of a carpenter? Did our Lord play with the other children, and what was His behavior. Some have tried like the Russian doctor Nicolas Notovitch, a Crimean Jewish adventurer and journalist, who in 1894 claiming that during the years of Jesus between 12 and 30, our Lord went to India and studied with Buddhists and Hindus before returning to Judea to start his ministry..36
This reminds me of a story told about Aeneas Sylvius, afterwards Pope Pius the Second (1458-64), when on a visit to England, was anxious to see with his own eyes something called “barnacle geese” that were reported to grow on trees, and, since they were thought to be vegetable rather than animal, were allowed to be eaten during Lent. He traveled as far as Scotland to see them, but when arrived there he was told that he must go further, to a place called the Orchades near Kirkwall, if he wished to see these miraculous geese. He seemed rather upset by this, and, complaining that miracles always seem to lie beyond reach, he gave up chasing the barnacle geese. This is where we get our famous line, “a wild goose chase.” Such has been the effort to recover the lost years of Jesus.
We must understand that those who wrote about the life of Jesus were not writing a novel, nor were they keeping a diary. They were sharing the story of the Messiah and focused on what He came to do in order to fulfill the prophecies made about Him. Furthermore, since most of their writings came 30 to 40 years after our Lord ascended, the Holy Spirit inspired them to remember only the critical parts of the story in order to establish a firm foundation for the Gospel that was to be preached into all the world.
1 Isaiah 11:1
2 Ibid. 53:2
3 Complete Jewish Bible, loc. cit.
4 See Numbers, Ch. 6
5 John 1:46
6 Isaiah 11:1
7 The Chaldee Paraphrase on the Prophet Isaiah, Translated by Rev. C. W. H. Pauli, London: London Society’s House, 1871, loc. cit., p. 89
8 Aramaic for the English “Jesse”
9 Aramaic for YaHWeH
10 Aramaic New Testament, Translated by Victor Alexander, loc. cit.
11 Peshitta Version, Translated by Paul D. Younan, loc. cit.
12 Chaldee paraphrase by Rabbi Jonahan ben Uzziel, p. 39
13 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit., Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Abodah Zarah, folio 16b
14 Mark 3:18
15 Ibid. 15:40
16 Deuteronomy 23:19
17 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit., Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Avoda Zarah, folios 16b-17a
18 Ibid., Masekhet Berakoth, folio 17b
19 Sepharad refers to the area of Iberia, which includes parts of Spain and Portugal
20 The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, Critical Text, Translations and Commentary, Marcus Nathan Adler, Introduction,
21 Willem Surenhuis (c. 1664-1729), Latin Translation of the Mishnah (1698-1703)
22 Matthew. 2:23; Luke 1:26; 2:39, 51
23 Matthew 2:23
24 Cf. Matthew 5:17, 18; Luke 16:29; 24:44
25 Isaiah 4:2; 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; Zechariah 6:12
26 Cf. Isaiah 53:2
27 Luke 1:26, 27
28 Ibid. 2:4
29 Luke 2:39; Matthew 2:23
30 Ibid. 2:51)
31 Mark 1:9; Matthew 3:13
32 Luke 4:16
33 Luke 4:26 35; Matthew 4:13-16; 9:1
34 Matthew 8:54-58; Mark 6:1-6.
35 David de Pomis, born 1525 in Spoleto, an ancient city in the Italian province of Perugia in east central Umbria on a foothill of the Apennines mountain range: Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature by John Kitto, Edited by William Lindsay Alexander, 3 vols., Published by Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh, 1876, p.290-292
36 The Unknown Life of Christ – later became known as “The Lost Years of Jesus: The Life of Saint Issa”