Against the backdrop of looming danger Joseph is warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intentions (Matt 2:13-15). Only when Herod was dead would it be safe to return home. When the Judean king died in his winter palace in Jericho (4 BC), Herod’s will divided his kingdom between his surviving sons (A. J. 17:188-190; J. W. 1:664-669). Contrary to Herod’s final wishes, Augustus did not award Archelaus his father’s throne. He was instead appointed ethnarch of Judea, Idumea and Samaria (J. W. 2:93; A. J. 17:317). Herod Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea in the Transjordan, while Philip was appointed tetrarch over an amalgam of districts in the north (Gaulanitis, Trachonitis, Batanaea, Panias) on the frontier with Syria.
Archelaus exceeded his father’s tyranny. The situation became so intolerable that after ten years of Archelaus’ rule a delegation of Samaritan and Jewish leaders traveled to Rome to appeal to Caesar Augustus to remove Herod’s son (A. J. 17:342-344; J. W. 2:111-113;Geog. 16.2.46; Dio 55.27.6). Augustus investigated the charges, deposed Archelaus to Gaul and appointed a Roman governor to administrate Judea from Caesarea.
At the time we encounter Joseph and his family in Egypt, Judea was still in the throes of Archelaus’ cruel grip. According to Matthew, Joseph was warned in another dream not to return to the environs of Jerusalem, which fell under the shadow of the ethnarch’s rule (Matt 2:19-22). Instead, Joseph settled in Nazareth, a small, nondescript village perched on a chalky ridge overlooking the Jezreel Valley. Little attention is given to Joseph’s likely geopolitical reason for choosing Nazareth. The remote village lay within the boundary of Galilee, under the jurisdiction of Antipas, and beyond the murderous reach of Archelaus.
The story of the heavenly warning and the relocation to Galilee reminded Matthew of the words of the Hebrew prophets.
Matthew 2:23 καὶ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς πόλιν λεγομένην Ναζαρέτ· ὅπως πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν ὅτι Ναζωραῖος κληθήσεται.
There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean” (NIV Matt 2:23)
Centuries of Christian readers have pondered the meaning of the Greek term Ναζωραῖος, usually rendered Nazarene, and which Old Testament passages Matthew had in mind when he interpreted the relocation to Nazareth as a fulfillment of Scripture. Where in the Hebrew Scriptures does it expect that the Redeemer will be called a Nazarene or come from Nazareth?
Most modern readers assume that the enigmatic epithet is somehow related to the name of the Galilean village because of the similarities in their spelling, i.e. Ναζωραῖος and Ναζαρέθ. So, when the Greek term recurs elsewhere in the New Testament beside Jesus’ name, English translations routinely render it as a gentilic adjective, i.e. Jesus of Nazareth (Matt 26:71; Luke 18:37; John 18:5, 7; Acts 2:22; 3:6; 4:10 et passim). However, Nazareth never occurs again in conjunction with Ναζωραῖος.
Is their appearance together in Matthew 2:23 intentional or coincidental? Or stated another way, can it be that the meaning of Ναζωραῖος relates to the heavenly warning and Joseph’s care to keep Jesus out of harm’s way in the remote reaches of Galilee, rather than a play on the name of the village in which Jesus grew up?
Various suggestions have been put forward to identify the Semitic term represented by Ναζωραῖος. If we assume that the Greek word accurately characterizes a Hebrew term, then it is important to recognize that the “o” vowel in the second syllable (naZORaios) eliminates the popular Hebrew suggestions, נֵצֶר (branch) or נָזִיר (nazarite). Instead, we should expect a term resembling the Hebrew passive participle נָּצוּר (one who is protected, kept) with an attached personal pronoun to convey the sense, “One whom I have kept, protected, preserved.”
A ready solution to the riddle of ναζωραῖος has been further obscured by the reading of Matthew’s verb in our verse, “he shall be called.” Most read it to convey the sense “he shall be named.” Yet, Matthew’s style elsewhere in the infancy narratives to name or entitle is different. He uses the fuller Greek expression “to call by the name” (Matt 1:21, 23). Our verse, on the other hand, matches the style of Matthew 2:15, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” In both these passages from the second chapter of Matthew, the verb “to call” means God has chosen Jesus and charged him with a divinely appointed task. In our verse, God is assumed to be the subject of the action. Matthew’s elliptical allusion is thus to a prophetic passage that describes one whom the Lord has kept, protected and called.
The key to identifying which verses Matthew had in mind is to find a passage in which the two verbs “to call” and “ to keep” coincide. This style of signaling specific Old Testament verses through the collocation of key words is a peculiar style of ancient Jewish exegesis. The Evangelist’s plural “the prophets” (cp. Matt 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17) suggests that Matthew had more than one prophetic verse in mind. In the Old Testament there are only two verses found among the Hebrew prophets in which the Hebrew verbs to call (קרא) and to keep (נצר) coincide: Isaiah 42:6 and Jeremiah 31:6.
A cruel son of Herod remained in power in Jerusalem, and it was not yet safe to return. At the angelic warning, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Nazareth to keep his son safe. Their relocation to the security of this remote Galilean village, where Jesus could grow to adulthood reminded Matthew of the divine care reflected in the words concerning the Isaianic Servant of the Lord: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the nations” (Isa 42:6).
The scriptural pair from Jeremiah 31:6 forms a literary complex that may be a vestige of a lost homily, “There will be a day when watchmen (נוֹצְרִים) call out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’” We have little information how the Hebrew epithet evolved and changed in the first century, but the verse in Jeremiah may have contributed to the use of the plural form of ναζωραῖος to identify Jewish adherents to Jesus’ movement. At the end of Acts, Paul is accused of being an instigator, “He is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5b). Eventually, the term Christian (Acts 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16) replaced Nazarene to designate the followers of Jesus. However, among Jews, including those who believed in Jesus, the term notzri continued to designate Jesus and his followers. It likely came to mean one who keeps the commandments. Eusebius (AD 305) attests to a shift in terminology, “Previously we who are now called Christians were also called Nazrenes” (Onom. 138:24).