NAZARENE (năz'a-rēn, Gr. Nazarēnos, Nazōraios)

NAZARENE năz’ ə rēne (Ναζαρηνός, G3716, and Ναζωραι̂ος, G3717, prob. meant one from Nazareth). A NT term exclusively, which identified Jesus both by self-designation and by the remarks of others, acknowledging His long residence at Nazareth.

Matthew wrote (2:23) “that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” What was meant by this is far from certain, since Nazareth was not mentioned in the OT, and there is no specific prophecy that says this in so many words. Several lines of interpretation have been followed. It has been suggested that Matthew knew a prophecy unrecorded in the OT which has been lost. Calvin said that this was a reference to the law of the Nazirites (Num 6:1-21), but it seems that “Nazirite” and “Nazarene” came from different Heb. roots. Most interpreters have thought that he had in mind Isaiah 11:1 in which the Messiah was referred to as a “branch” or a “shoot” out of the roots of Jesse (Heb netser, “branch” or “shoot”). Others have said that Matthew meant only that the Messiah would be a despised person (Isa 53) and not a prominent or accepted individual. Nazarenes apparently were despised by their neighbors in the 1st cent. (John 1:46). Others have understood this only as a positive statement which pointed to a negative truth, namely that the Messiah would not be called a Bethlehemite, the place of His nativity, in order to avoid hostility. He, therefore, would be called something else, in fact, a Nazarene.

The opprobrium which attached to Nazareth prob. came because of the processes which mixed its population, which in turn brought about a rough dialect by the people who were outsiders. It seems also from history that its people were given to sedition and rebellion, which may further have brought them under censure.

This name, given to Jesus in the beginning as a simple designation of His residence, was attached to Him through all His ministry, and in the end came to bear something of the reproach associated with the locality. Among the people it was said that “Jesus of Nazareth” passes by (Mark 10:47; Luke 24:19). The gospels record also that the unclean spirits identified Jesus with this term (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). The angels announced the Resurrection by referring to Him with it (Mark 16:6).

In the last days of Jesus’ ministry the term was applied to Him in scorn and derision. It became for the Jews a means of expressing their hostility toward Jesus and their increasing bitterness over Him. The watchmen at the high priest’s house revealed that quality of rejection (Matt 26:71; Mark 14:67). The hatred of Jesus’ enemies caused this term to accompany Him to the grave, having caused it to be written by Pilate and nailed to the cross (John 19:19).

The term continued beyond the days of Jesus’ earthly life as a designation for His followers. An entire Christian community was called “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). Likewise the followers of Jesus continued after His ascension to refer to Him as “Jesus of Nazareth” (2:22; 3:6; 10:38).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

naz-a-ren; naz’-a-ren Nazarenos; Nazaraios in Matthew, John, Ac and Luke): A derivative of Nazareth, the birthplace of Christ. In the New Testament it has a double meaning: it may be friendly and it may be inimical.

1. An Honourable Title:

On the lips of Christ’s friends and followers, it is an honorable name. Thus Matthew sees in it a fulfillment of the old Isaiah prophecy (Isa 11:1 (Hebrew)): "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene (Mt 2:23). According to an overwhelming array of testimony (see Meyer, Commentary, in loc.), the name Nazareth is derived from the same natsar, found in the text quoted from Isa. We have here undoubtedly to do with a permissible accommodation.

It is not quite certain that Matthew did not intend, by the use of this word, to refer to the picture of the Messiah, as drawn in Isa 53, on account of the low estimate in which this place was held (Joh 1:46). Nor is permissible, as has been done by Tertullian and Jerome, to substitute the word "Nazarite" for "Nazarene," which in every view of the case is contrary to the patent facts of the life of the Saviour.

2. A Title of Scorn:

If His friends knew Him by this name, much more His enemies, and to them it was a title of scorn and derision. Their whole attitude was compressed in that one word of Nathanael, by which he voiced his doubt, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (Joh 1:46). In the name "Nazarene," the Jews, who opposed and rejected Christ, poured out all the vials of their antagonism, and the word became a Jewish heritage of bitterness. It is hard to tell whether the appellation, on the lips of evil spirits, signifies dread or hatred (Mr 1:24; Lu 4:34). With the gatekeepers of the house of the high priest the case is clear. There it signifies unadulterated scorn (Mt 26:71; Mr 14:67). Even in His death the bitter hatred of the priests caused this name to accompany Jesus, for it was at their dictation written above His cross by Pilate (Joh 19:19). The entire Christian community was called by the leaders of the Jewish people at Jerusalem, "the sect of the Nazarenes" (Ac 24:5). If, on the one hand, therefore, the name stands for devotion and love, it is equally certain that on the other side it represented the bitter and undying hatred of His enemies.

Henry E. Dosker